Working with Words: Jacinta Le Plastrier
Jacinta Le Plastrier is a Melbourne-based writer, poet and editor. She is blog editor at Cordite Poetry Review, publisher at John Leonard Press, curator of the Gilgamesh Modern Salon, and recently completed a Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre. Her new book of poems, The Book of Skins, will be published early 2014.
We spoke to her about dealing with writerly doubt, remaining open to helpful advice about your writing (and immune to praise or criticism), and why writers are like athletes.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
My first pieces of journalism were on music when I was 17 at the Melbourne Herald where I was a cadet – it was Melbourne’s former evening broadsheet, later subsumed into the Herald Sun under Murdoch. My first published poems (paid) were in Meanjin in the early 1990s.
What’s the best part of your job?
Being able to say what I want to say, through writing. I consider it a privilege. I also write across genres - essays, poetry, feature articles, and on activist issues – so I feel, nearly always, personally, diversely and mentally engaged with what interests me, and usually, passionately.
What’s the worst part of your job?
At times I have suffered a terrific, disabling, inner experience of doubt about being a writer, especially of poetry. Now I am steely with myself about this. I’ve developed – as I think most writers and artists need to - what I call a psychic toughness towards this nervous energy. Doubt is useful, it keeps you open to always attempting new ways of using language. I also think you can approach the writing act like a dedicated athlete trains for competing or a dancer trains for performing. You train, psychically, to be ready to write, and then do it, no matter what, little by little – or sometimes via an unexpected leap - to new levels.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and publishing career so far?
It would be a series of moments – a particular publication, getting a fellowship, writing a new kind of piece - a growing clarification about what I want to do with writing. As part of this, I have become intent with myself in making writing (alongside caring for the ones and issues close to me, obviously) the priority in all that I choose to do.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
‘Bum on seat’ – William Burrough’s advice on writing. To ‘turn up’ at the desk (or where it is you write) – and write. Balancing that, you also develop a sense of a piece’s energy flow; if it ebbs, it’s good to turn away for some time, even a few hours. I often go to bed then. The painter Renoir was very attuned to this creative energetic flow. He said you also have to ‘loaf around’ a bit. But stamina, being able to sustain and remain with the flow of a piece of work when it is present, is also very important.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I have never really been surprised by anything. I think it’s optimal to remain open to helpful advice or editing about a piece of writing, to accept what might assist it – while also being aware that people’s ‘advice’ can sometimes be masking an unconscious rivalry or intention to undermine your writing. So I try to be immune to praise or criticism, while remaining open, as I said, to what others do genuinely offer as positive assistance.
If you weren’t working in writing and publishing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Writing is my passion, it’s a life-force for me. So I don’t think about an alternative.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Writing, in my view, is a co-creation between the writer and the force and energy of language. Writers love words, tenderly, I believe. For me, this relationship approaches an intimacy, with patterns of change, maturation and challenges, which mirror the relationship with your human beloved. The act of writing, like an intimate relationship, is a co-creation. Can this be taught? Absolutely – but the seed of that kind of passion for language has to be present in both the student and the teacher.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Find your own way, find your words to express what you want to say. That way you have the opportunity to write uniquely. Above all, become crystal clear – I would say, even, ruthless – that you will do nothing else, no matter what the challenges are.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I am terribly old-school in my support for physical bookshops; I know the wonders of e-technology and online ordering, but I still am able to make do with ordering books into favorite bookshops, precious to me, such as Melbourne’s Collected Works. I also read books at the State Library of Victoria; for example, you can source multiple translations for the same book, if that interests you.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
I’m not very good with the fictional. I read poetry and non-fiction almost exclusively. To be honest, I am blessed by relationships with some extraordinary ‘real’ people. I would always prefer to have dinner with them – and we would talk, as usual, about writing, art, love, things that matter, I believe. Oh, and AFL, athletics, and sport too. I am passionate about sport – and see many parallels between elite athletes and writers. You can have the gift to write, but you also have to have guts – and do the long hard yards of training.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
There’s not a particular one. I think we are constantly choosing to read books that are apt for a particular time - that we are being significantly impacted all the time, hopefully. I tend to have a handful of books that sit near my bed, or which I cart around, that infuse what I am trying to learn at that time. They are like talismans, too.
This year, that would have included Albert Camus’ book on Algeria (The Algerian Chronicles), Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Leishman translation), Francis Webb’s Collected Poems, Tolkien’s Return of the King, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel collection. The through-line would be an interrogation about how humans have the potential to reach into and integrate higher principles of character, endeavour and love.