01 July 2015

Guest Post: An Interview with Peter K. Steinberg

The following is a guest blog post by Annette Stevens, who recently interviewed me (!) for her blog, Mademoiselle. You'll remember that two previous interviews, of Elizabeth Winder and Andrew Wilson also appeared on both her blog (Elizabeth, Andrew) and mine (Elizabeth, Andrew). Tune in next week for a fourth interview with Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath (aka The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath) and a forthcoming edition of Sylvia Plath's letters.

Peter K. Steinberg is a Sylvia Plath scholar, who runs two online resources, and is currently co-writing a Plath letters collection with Karen Kukil. Here, you can read what he has to say about Sylvia Plath:

Hello Peter, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Hello Annette, it’s my pleasure! Thank you for asking me to participate.

What initially sparked your interest in the work of Sylvia Plath?
It started as a junior in college last century. I was in an introduction to poetry course and when we got to Plath I was captivated by ‘Lady Lazarus’. When I asked my professor for more information about her he was not encouraging at all. So, at the suggestion of a friend I went to the library and checked a few of books out (Collected Poems, The Bell Jar, and Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic, because I liked the title better than any other biography available at that time). Hooked.

Out of all her poems and prose pieces, do you have any particular favorites?
The Bell Jar is my favourite prose by Plath. Love that book so so much. There are a number of poems I could not live without including ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree'; ‘The Night Dances'; and ‘Sheep in Fog’.

You also have two websites, dedicated to Plath. What inspired you to create them both?
The website ‘A celebration, this is’ [Click here to view] I started because when I was first introduced to the web there was really nothing about Plath online. I was interested in seeing the places in which she lived and about which she wrote. But there was nothing. So I started traveling to these places, taking photographs, getting the films developed, scanning the images and putting them online. It was a sort of niche-thing. But I quickly realized I was not the only one interested in this and so developed the website more fully. I remember back in 2002, a Chinese Plath scholar was effusively grateful for the photographs and that really struck a chord that the website and its content was reaching people.
There are a number of poems I could not live without including ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree'; ‘The Night Dances'; and ‘Sheep in Fog’.
That sounds like a great occupation. How did you go about creating your Sylvia blog?
Like with the website, there wasn’t really a ‘blog’ dedicated solely to Plath so I just kind of made it up without really knowing the direction it would go: both content-wise, but also successful or not. The ‘Sylvia Plath Info Blog’ [Click here to view] grew out of an inability, for boring reasons, to update my Plath website. I had tons of new information but no way to get it online. And it developed from there into the beast that it is today.

In future, would you ever consider creating a Plath app?
No. And that stems from a lack of technological skill, but also a lack of time. I’m surprised my wife hasn’t left me yet. I think for the most part all the content I have online is accessible via 3G, 4G, wifi, etc. and that should suffice any users, I hope!

Yes, it probably does. Are you currently working on any other Plath projects?
Yes. I’m working on an edition of Plath’s letters with Karen V. Kukil of Smith College. After that, there are two books that I would like to do but this is kind of so new I shouldn’t discuss it. What I can say is that they’ll both be about Sylvia Plath.

Would you ever consider writing a Sylvia biography?
I did! But you might mean a full-length? Full-length: no. The more biographies of Plath there are ad the more independent research I do in the archives, the more I realize the best way to know the life of Sylvia Plath is to visit the archives and read Plath for one’s self; to reconstruct her life that way. It mightn’t be an exact chronological biographical portrait, but it would allow the person to discover Plath in phases as they are ready. Each biographer – most of whom I like, have tremendous respect for, and have benefited from their work – has a bias and an agenda, so it’s Plath’s life filtered through that distorted lens. I’m guilty of this to a degree in my 2004 biography, but I tried very hard to write it sans bias. It might make for drier reading, but I’m interested in the facts.
I’m working on an edition of Plath’s letters with Karen V. Kukil of Smith College.
Yes, I did mean full length..Do you think that Sylvia could be classed as ‘a victim of her time’?
That’s tough to say, but I think probably yes, she could be. I’m wary of taking Plath out of the context of her own time by applying modern or recently modern theories or definitions upon her. She’s isolated in the period of time covering the years 1932 to 1963. Certainly in that time period she was living a more, ahem, advanced lifestyle than some of her contemporaries, illustrated I think in Andrew Wilson’s wonderful Mad Girls Love Song.

What do you think was the main effect on Plath’s writing by Hughes and vice versa?
There was a mutual influence there, explored successfully by Diane Middlebrook (Her Husband) and Heather Clark (The Grief of Influence). Both of these books should be required reading. I’m not sure either would have been as successful without the other, but that’s getting into hypothetical s which are a dangerous game to play.

Do you think that we will see another poet like Sylvia again?
I’d like believe that we will not see another poet like Plath again. I feel like Plath and her life and story and her writings are so unique as to be unrepeatable.

Do you have any tips for anyone who wishes to follow in your footsteps?
I’m a little surprised there aren’t more Plath websites out there. There are plenty of hosting options these days that won’t cost money (or cost too much money). If someone is passionate enough about Plath they should consider making a website or doing a Thesis or just simply writing articles. I do not speak a foreign language (unless as an English woman you find my American language strange), but I feel like this is an area that appears completely untapped: Plath in German, Italian, Spanish, etc.
I feel like Plath and her life and story and her writings are so unique as to be unrepeatable.
I didn’t even know that she wrote like that. Where do you carry out your Plath research?
I’ve spent years collecting information (notes, photocopies, etc.) from the archives and buying or receiving as gifts books, getting copies of articles from journals, newspapers, etc. So, most of my work can be done from home. There is no place like the archive. Plath’s papers are quite dispersed so it takes effort, and a little money, but it’s something worth being poor for. But there is something to be said for email, too, because it’s really easy to write an archive or a friend for something that I might be missing or something on which I am less well versed. But the archive is my favorite place to be. Every single trip – first time or a return visit – is illuminating. One can look at the same document over and over and get something new from it based on the perspective of having seen it before, having kept it in mind, and having learned more about Plath since the previous excursion.

For any Plath fan, the archives sound amazing. Are there any manuscripts that Sylvia left unpublished?
Bunches and bunches and bunches. Not even considering papers written for courses, there are dozens if not hundreds of poems, and dozens of stories and other prose pieces. Plath did publish more prose (both creative writing and non-fiction, journalistic writings) than was collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and it would be for me a dream come true to help bring out a fuller edition of her prose works.

What was it like when you were first quoted as a Plath expert?
Well, that’s difficult. It’s humbling and reassuring; and I hope certainly something I have earned. I have dedicated more than half of my life (!) to learning about Plath and it’s always been my motivation and guiding principle to give of myself completely to anyone that asks a question. I haven’t been able to please everyone (sometimes you simply don’t take a shine to someone), but even still I have always tried to do what my college professor mentioned above could not: encourage and answer and to try to be resourceful. I can think of no better way to honor Sylvia Plath.

And one random question-as you may get bored, asked constantly about Plath:

Do you prefer books or television?
Books. But I prefer chocolate to all.

I think the majority of us do.

Thank you Peter for answering our questions!

16 June 2015

Sylvia Plath's Two Lovers and a Beachcomber

Last December, a fellow Sylvia Plath reader Peter Fydler asked me a question about Sylvia Plath's English tripos book "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber" submitted as part of her Fulbright fulfillment at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, in May-June 1957. Specifically the contents list of the volume. I did not know the answer. Turns out we took a convoluted route in trying to piece it together.

First looking at the Cambridge Review from 7 February 1969, which focused on the recent find of the manuscript of the book in the English faculty library at Cambridge and featured both some essays on Plath and printed several poems by her that were included in the manuscripts.

The manuscript contained 43 poems. Though initially Plath envisioned it being slightly larger. On 21 November 1956, Plath wrote to her mother, "My own book of poems (now titled "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber") grows well, and I should have 50 good poems by the time I submit it to the Yale Series of Younger Poets in February" (Letters Home, 287; please note this is the text from the book, but the original letter varies slightly). Plath submitted the book to the Yale Series on 16 February 1957. Anyway, back to the Cambridge manuscript. Smith College has most of the originals, holding 31 poems that probably came from the manuscript. From the finding aid, the manuscript of "'Two Lovers and a Beachcomber' (book) by Sylvia Plath Hughes" includes typescripts of the following poems: "Wreath for a Bridal", "Monologue at 3 a.m.", "Street Song", "Strumpet Song", "Two Sisters of Persephone", "Spinster", "Ella Mason and Her Eleven Cats", "Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper", "To Eva Descending the Stair", "Tinker Jack and the Tidy Wives", "The Snowman on the Moor", "Apotheosis" ["To a Jilted Lover"], "Mad Girl’s Love Song", "Recantation", "Mad Maudlin" ["Maudlin"], "Epitaph for Fire and Flower", "Metamorphosis", "Go Get the Goodly Squab", "Sow”, "On the Plethora of Dryads", "Soliloquy of the Solipsist”, "On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad", "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea", "Natural History", "Aerialist", "Dream with Clam-Diggers", "Black Rook in Rainy Weather", "November Graveyard", "Temper of Time", "All the Dead Dears", "Doomsday". For those savvy enough in math, there are 12 poems missing.

Three of the poems for which typescripts are not present in the collection at Smith College, but are mentioned in the Cambridge Review essays, are: "Complaint of the Crazed Queen", "resolve"; and "Shrike". But at first glance we are not sure where they fit.

After some time, Peter Fydler found the full table of contents of the book in Gary Lane and Maria Stevens' Sylvia Plath: A Bibliography (1978), on pages 56-57. Which for me is embarrassing as I have a copy of that book. Based on a comparison of what is in the Plath papers at Smith College and what is listed in Lane's bibliography, the pagination of "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber" looked like the below (please keep in mind that those poems enclosed in brackets are the poems for which the original typescripts are missing).

Wreath for a Bridal, page 1
Monologue at 3 a.m., page 2
Street Song, page 3
Strumpet Song, page 4
[Letter to a Purist, page 5]
[The Glutton, page 6]
[The Shrike, page 7]
Two Sisters of Persephone, page 8
Spinster, page 9
Ella Mason and her Eleven Cats, pages 10-11
Miss Drake Proceeds, to Supper page 12
[Vanity Fair pages, 13-14]
To Eva Descending the Stair, page 15
Tinker Jack and the Tidy Wives, pages 16-17
The Snowman on the Moor, pages 18-19
Apotheosis, page 20 (variant title: To a Jilted Lover)
[Complaint of the Crazed Queen, page 21]
Mad Girl's Love Song page, 22
[Pursuit, page 23-24]
Recantation, page 25
Mad Maudlin, page 26 (variant title: Maudlin)
Epitaph for Fire and Flower, pages 27-28

Metamorphosis, page 30 (variant title: "Faun")
"Go Get the Goodly Squab", page 31
Sow, pages 32-33
[Touch and Go, page 34]
On the Plethora of Dryads, pages 35-36
Soliloquy of the Solipsist, pages 37-38
On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad, pages 39-40
Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea, page 41
[resolve, page 42]
Natural History, page 43
[Dream of the Hearse-Driver, pages 44-45 (variant title: "The Dream")]
Aerialist, pages 46-47
Dream with Clam-Diggers, page 48
[Pigeon Post, page 49]
Black Rook in Rainy Weather, pages 50-51
[Lament, page 52]
November Graveyard, page 53
Temper of Time, page 54
[The Lady and the Earthenware Head, pages 55-56]
All the Dead Dears, pages 57-58
Doomsday, page 59

I wonder where those missing pages are! Of those missing twelve, the Lilly Library has paginated typescripts for "Lament" and "Pursuit", but the page numbers on those are not from the manuscript of "Two Lovers", but from another assembled book.

When comparing the contents of "Two Lovers and a Beachcomber" (May 1957) to Plath's first book The Colossus (1960), it is stated in the Cambridge Review that "[o]nly six were included in The Colossus (Heinemann, 1960) and this number was reduced to four in the American edition (Knopf, 1962)" (244). However, there were eight poems carried over from the 1957 book to the Heinemann edition. As well, there were five carried through to the Knopf edition in 1962. The eight poems brought through the years were: "All the Dead Dears"*; "Black Rook in Rainy Weather"; "Mad Maudlin" ("Maudlin"), "Metamorphosis" ("Faun")* , "Sow" *, "Spinster"*, "Strumpet Song"*, and "Two Sisters of Persephone". The * indicates that the poems appeared in both the English edition and the American edition of The Colossus.

Lastly, to make a long story short, Fydler recently found that a complete manuscript copy of the book is held in the Alvarez papers at the British Library.

Thanks must go to Peter Fydler for inspiring this blog post.

01 June 2015

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Benidorm: A Study Week

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Benidorm:
A Study Week

a residential course with Terry Gifford and Lorraine Kerslake
At Almàssera Vella: October 3rd – 10th 2015

Where I felt at home. The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything." --Ted Hughes

"...but I am, in my deep soul, happiest on the moors – my deepest soul-scape, in the hills by the Spanish Mediterranean." --Sylvia Plath

A RESIDENTIAL STUDY WEEK. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes wrote some 35,000 words about their experiences in Benidorm whilst on honeymoon there in 1956. During this week we will be visiting the house they shared in 1956 and the quay at Alicante where Ted Hughes described his new wife as:

"… in moonlight, / Walking the empty wharf at Alicante / Like a soul waiting for the ferry,"

We will be discussing aspects of their work, including poetry, prose essays, fiction and letters. The course is designed to suit interested readers of Plath and Hughes, postgraduate students, teachers and poets at all levels.

TERRY GIFFORD is the author of Ted Hughes (2009), Reconnecting With John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice (2006), Pastoral (1999) and Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry (1995; 2nd edn. 2011), together with six chapters in books on Ted Hughes. He recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes (2011). His seventh collection of poems (with Christopher North) is Al Otro Lado del Aguilar (Oversteps Books, 2011). Terry Gifford is Visiting Scholar at Bath Spa University’s Centre for Writing and Environment, UK, and Senior Research Fellow and Profesor Honorifico at the University of Alicante, Spain.

LORRAINE KERSLAKE holds a BA in English and French studies and an MA in Translation and Interpreting from Alicante University, Spain, where she teaches English Language and Literature. She has worked as a translator of literary criticism, poetry and art and published articles and reviews on children’s literature and ecocriticism. Her current research interests include children’s literature, the representation of animals and nature in literature and art, ecocriticism and ecofeminism.

ALMASSERA VELLA is Relleu’s original olive press opened in 2002 by Christopher and Marisa North as a Literature and Arts Centre. Comfortable bedrooms, private bathrooms, day-room, loggia, 3000 book library, Free wi/fi, a refectory and a meeting place with log fire. Extensive rear terrace, pool and almond orchard and nearby olive and citrus groves. Relleu is an ancient mountain village with modern pharmacy, general store and bars. Alicante airport is 50 minutes away.

Cost of the week ₤750 all inclusive (7 nights) save flight/travel and insurance.

Christopher and Marisa North | web | Facebook | Twitter @oldolivepress

19 May 2015

For Sylvia Plath, 1963 – An elegy by Gilbert Foster

The following guest blog post was written by Dr Gail Crowther, co-author with Elizabeth Sigmund of Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning (2014).

Gilbert Foster (1920-2000) was an academic and a poet. He was born in Dublin, Ireland and throughout his life lived in England, Australia and Canada.

However, in 1961 when Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes moved to Court Green in North Tawton, Devon, Gilbert and his wife Marian along with their three (soon to be four) children lived in a bungalow across the road near to Dr Hugh Webb's surgery.

The Fosters feature frequently on Plath's Letts wall calendar from 1962. They all had tea together on Sunday 30 September, Sunday 25 November, and Sunday 2 December. On Monday 10 December when Plath finally left Court Green to return to London for the winter, she trusted the Fosters to look after her two kittens, Tiger-Pieker and Skunky- Bunks. Gilbert would walk across to Court Green, in the snow, every day, often with his eldest son, to feed the cats and he continued to do this for months.

Like most people outside of London in 1963, the Fosters read about Plath's death in a piece written by Al Alvarez called 'A Poet's Epitaph' published in The Observer on 17 February. The article simply stated that Plath had 'died suddenly' and like many others, it was at a later date that the Fosters discovered that Plath's death was due to suicide. The article included a photograph of Plath with her daughter Frieda and four poems, all written in the last months of Plath's life; 'Edge', 'The Fearful', 'Kindness', and 'Contusion'.

During Plath's time in Devon, she told very few people that she was a poet. The Fosters did not know that she wrote her own poetry, but were aware of Hughes' increasing profile as a literary figure. In the months of September and October when Plath was writing the bulk of her Ariel poems, she would meet her Devon friends and neighbours for afternoon tea or dinner, and many had no idea what she was doing in those early, blue hours. For example, on 30 September when Plath invited the Fosters for tea at 3.30 pm, she had that morning written and completed 'A Birthday Present'. On 2 December, when they met for tea again at 3.30 pm, she had started the first draft of 'Sheep in Fog' (although this would not be completed until 28 January, 1963 in London).

Soon after learning of Plath's death in 1963, Gilbert Foster, while at Court Green, wrote his own elegy to Plath. Short, but beautifully haunting and melancholic, I find this one of the most moving pieces written in remembrance. Capturing the emptiness of her once-full house and the green now standing vacant, the echoes of the childrens' play seems quite spectral and poignant. A house which awaited reopening in spring, now stands without purpose. The overwhelming mood of this poem is silence – the empty house, the shabby green, the abandoned motte, and the curious door bell of Court Green that 'giggled' and jangled, now standing quiet. The Big Freeze of 1962-63 brought many parts of Devon to a halt and reflecting back on Plath's death, Foster opens his poem with the stark words, 'this is a season for dying.' It was, and as Alvarez ended his epitaph, the loss to literature was inestimable.

For Sylvia Plath, 1963

this is a season for dying:
now your one-eyed house regards no more children
Valletort's motte, just, and the shabby Green
No point in waiting here for summer's Court
Silence: the bell-pull and the giggling bell

Gilbert Foster (1920-2000)

Acknowledgements: with kind thanks to Marian Foster for permission to reproduce this poem and the image of Gilbert Foster taken in Galway, Ireland in 1956.

Click here for more information about Gilbert Foster's life and poetry.

All links accessed 1 May 2015

08 May 2015

From Smith to Indiana: Continuing My Journey with Sylvia Plath

The following is a guest blog post by the bright, talented, young Sylvia Plath scholar Amanda Ferrara, who has been fortunate enough to attend both Smith College and Indiana University and work closely with the two richest Sylvia Plath archives in the world.

My path to becoming a Plath scholar has been one of twists and turns. I've been lucky to work with Sylvia Plath's materials in both proprietary repositories, Smith College's Mortimer Rare Book Room and Indiana University's Lilly Library. A native of Western Massachusetts, I aspired to being a "Smithie" from a young age, frequently heading to Northampton with friends as a reprieve from our less exciting towns in the Valley. I was accepted to, and began attending, the all women's college in 2009, and quickly picked up on the legacy of famous graduates discussed by other students. I already knew of Julia Child, but of the other popular alumnae, it took some time for me to learn their stories. Sylvia Plath was just another name in the bucket, a poet and a writer, yes, but at that stage in my life, she was another amorphous representation of the College's tangle in history. My age attributed to this, but struggling with my academic direction was also the cause; my major and future were unclear to me and left me in an uneasy state. I liked reading, organizing, and libraries, but what jobs could be tailored to this? Where would a degree get me with these skills? Little did I know, the archives would soon be my answer.

Judith Glazer-Raymo (Smith ’53)
 and Amanda Ferrara (Smith ’13)
 17 January 2012 at The Grolier Club
I got to know Smith's Plath collection in an archives based class I took with Karen Kukil my sophomore year. The College offered a concentration in the archives and on a whim one January I decided to enroll. Learning about the field and having hands on experience in the Five College repositories gave me a great feeling of relief and satisfaction. Though my job would involve instruction and "medical" intervention of materials, it wasn't a professor or doctor I aspired to be, it was an archivist. Karen tasked us students with transcribing a letter for an upcoming project, however in my excitement of finding the place I loved to be, I asked, instead, for three. Sylvia Plath's story, mostly her work and contributions, impressed me. During the next few years I immersed myself in special collections and archives, securing myself a position at the Mortimer Rare Book Room assisting the professional staff in anyway I could. My enthusiasm paid off: I was recommended to alumna, Judith Glazer-Raymo ('53), to present Plath's poetry at The Grolier Club's annual poetry event. I returned to Plath's work and history on many occasions throughout the rest of my time at Smith College, individually, as well as with other scholars in the Northeast in various presentations and exhibitions.

The Lilly Library (source)
As my time at Smith came to a close in 2013, I knew I wanted to continue my studies in the archives. I was accepted to the Master of Library Science graduate program at Indiana University, Bloomington to earn my MLS with a specialization in Archives and Records Management. Being accepted to a graduate school was a thrilling in and of itself, but it came with it's own promising situation: more Plath. While Smith has much of her later works (poems, correspondence, photographs), IU possesses materials from the duration of her life, the bulk of which are from 1932-1955. Before arriving on the IU campus, I made a point to get in touch with Lilly Library Director, Joel Silver, and Manuscripts Curator, Cherry Williams. Admittedly, I was more excited about the prospect of my coming than they were! But thankfully after my first (second, and third) trips to the Lilly, they got to know me beyond the typical researcher.

Being from Massachusetts originally, the distance between the two states has not been lost on me. I recognize the privilege I have by being so close to the Lilly's Plath manuscripts, and have made myself available as a proxy researcher to contacts like Judith Glazer-Raymo and Amanda Golden. Paralleling my time at Smith, I took archives/special collections classes at the Lilly, Manuscripts and Processing Manuscript Collections, which lead me to find a position as a Manuscripts Assistant for the Manuscripts Archivist, Craig Simpson. Craig asked me my interests when I was hired, and the work he had planned worked out perfectly with my interests. Many Indiana University repositories follow Greene and Meissner's "More Product, Less Process" (MPLP) (2005) in order to make collections available to researchers in a more timely manner. Though this practice is based in accessibility, the downside is that small details of collections are absent until an archivist can return to them at a later date (well, let's be real: interns and students are typically the ones returning!). This is the case with collections of materials in all repositories that employ MPLP, the Plath manuscript (mss) included. Some of my first projects at the Lilly involved me updating Plath descriptions and inventories for mss III, IV, V, IX, X, and XI (reference Guide to the Plath Materials for more information).

"The Bell Jar Revisited",
curated by Amanda Ferrara, 2013, 
Smith College
Plath mss III allows researchers privy access to the artistic side of the poet we so frequently hear about. Her watercolors, and pastels remind me of the color focused juvenilia "Midsummer Mobile" in hue and style: "With orange scallops tangled in wet hair, / Fresh from the mellow palette of Matisse," while her drawings are more serious. Snapshots of her younger years are in Plath mss 5 and Plath mss 10. Her illustrated manuscripts and contributions to the Alice L. Phillips Junior High School's literary supplement, The Phillipian, show her talent, or maybe determination?, at a young age. Mrs. Aurelia Plath is not forgotten of course, she being the reason the Plath collection is at the Lilly altogether. Plath mss 9 features correspondence between Mrs. Plath and Olive Clifford Eaton (a neighbor in Winthrop, MA), Mary Alice Ericson (Olive Eaton's daughter), and Margery DeLerno (Olive Eaton's daughter), an interesting look into where Plath came from.

There are many more gems for researchers to search for and find, in the now unhidden Plath manuscript collections at the Lilly Library. Personally, I have enjoyed the process of returning to these manuscripts due to my original curiosity of Plath related topics. I think many archivists fear that our work in processing collections will go unnoticed and unused by the public, but my experience with the Plath mss at the Lilly has given me hope that this is not the case. The collections are appreciated at both institutions, and I am thankful my work is a part of that collective. There is still much work to be done, not only with the Plath collections, but with all archival materials, and I hope I can be a part of that in whatever small or large way I am afforded in the future.

If you would like to contact Amanda regarding Plath research at Indiana University's Lilly Library, please contact her via email.

All links accessed 28 April 2015.

01 May 2015

Guest Post: An Interview with Andrew Wilson

The following is a guest post, the second in a series of three, by Annette Stevens.

Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson is a good book about Sylvia Plath, one that I would recommend. My name is Annette Stevens, and I blog over at Mademoisellewomen.wordpress.com. As part of a blog series for this website, I'll be sharing some interviews with Plath-biographers with you. Here, we spoke to Andrew Wilson:

Hello Andrew, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

When growing up, did you ever think you would want to be a writer?

Yes I always wanted to write, since a child. I wrote stories and made little newspapers full of local news.

Do you have any other experience-such as in journalism?

After an English degree at King's, London, I did a year MA in journalism at City University in London. Then I got a job in magazines and then worked on staff for a few years before I went freelance, writing for everything from the Face to the Sunday Times to the Independent to the Mail. My first book was Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith – and since then I've written biographies of Harold Robbins, the survivors of the Titanic, Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted and a novel, The Lying Tongue.

Could you please take us through your average working day?

It depends what kind of day it is – whether it's writing, interviewing, researching or reading. All this depends on which stage I am at and what I am writing. I also still write journalism so I could be interviewing a writer or an actor. If I am writing I like to do about 1,000 words a day – all depending on the deadline.

Did anything specifically give you the idea to write a book about Sylvia Plath, prior to life with Ted Hughes?

Basically very little had been done on this. Most books rushed the early life to get to the meeting of Sylvia and Ted. And I also came across a huge amount of new, unpublished material and tracked down friends and lovers who had never spoken before.

How did you begin to research the fundamental basis of the manuscript?

I spent a couple of months in America at the two big Plath archives – one at Smith College and the other in Bloomington, Indiana. At the same time I started to track down people who had known Plath.

Out of all her poetry, do you have a favourite poem?

"Mad Girl's Love Song" – after which I named the book.

Did you come across any surprising material about her?

A great deal. I like to think I banished the myth of Sylvia as a victim. She was much more knowing and intelligent and, at times, manipulative than that. Also her mental illness started at a young she but went undiagnosed.

At any time, did your impression/initial judgment of Sylvia change?

It changed a lot – often several times during the course of one day. That is the difficult aspect of biography – you have to try and represent a person in all their complexity, with often contradictory impulses and desires.

This week you have a new book out, about Alexander McQueen. Congratulations! What was the inspiration behind the book?

I started work on a year before the announcement of the V&A's show Savage Beauty which opens in March. I had always been intrigued by him as a designer and stager of shows that became art installations. I suspected his story would be a complex one which many layers and secrets, hopefully which I've teased out. Again I hope to have represented him in all his complexity.

Have you ever worn any of his designs?

Only the odd T-shirt – some of his clothes are out of my price range! But that is not to say I don't admire them.

Like Sylvia Plath, would you subscribe to the view that he was possibly a tortured artist?

Definitely. He was driven by a dark vision.

How would describe McQueen in five words?

Vulnerable, insecure, gifted, visionary, honest.

How long did the book take to write?

Two years and this was almost solid work. So I didn't do much other work during this time.

Are there any other books you have planned, to do with designers -such as Chanel?

Not at the moment.

For anyone wishing to follow in your footsteps, do you have any tips?

Follow your instincts, ask questions, work hard. Don't be put off.

And one random question: do you like pizza?


25 April 2015

Guest Post: An Interview with Elizabeth Winder

The following is the first of three guest posts by Annette Stevens.

Author Elizabeth Winder
My name is Annette Stevens, and I blog over at Mademoisellewomen.wordpress.com. (Yes, named after Sylvia Plath's internship!) Sylvia Plath has been a source of fascination to me for a while now; with all her biographers, there seems to be no limit on the amount of Sylvia-esque books. I have been lucky enough to speak to some of them-and as a blog series (thanks to Peter for re-printing all of these!), we'll be posting some interviews. This post is an interview with Elizabeth Winder, author of Pain, Parties, Work:

Hello Elizabeth, thank you for agreeing to this interview. At what age did your 'Kinship' with Sylvia Plath begin?

I was fourteen. One day a girl who sat behind me in geometry was reading Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems before class started. I was struck by the way the book looked—it was the 1981 edition with that interesting brush-stroke font. And the name "Sylvia Plath" sort of bewitched me—I loved the way the letters looked together. Later that year a friend leant me her copy of The Bell Jar—the version with the very gothic cover—the velvet gloved hand holding an upside down rose. I'd never seen words used in such a vivid, visceral way. It was like reading in Technicolor.

Out of all her poetry, do you have a favourite poem?

"Fever 103". The "weak hothouse baby" the hot metal beads flying out—it's a poem you can feel on your skin.

In five words, what is The Bell Jar to you?

Cigarettes, aldehydes, Doreen, nylon, sticky

How did you come to the idea to write a book about Sylvia Plath?

My Sylvia Plath—the one you'll find in the Unabridged Journals—is full of bright red energy and joy takes a real sensual delight in life. You can see that in the poems too. I was sick of seeing her flattened out into the grey image of a depressed woman. Yes, she experienced spells of depression—but those spells made up such a small fraction of her life. People feel some sick compulsion to reduce women to their worst moments. Hemingway suffered from depression and committed suicide. But in our mind's eye he's banging on a typewriter in Paris or buying shots for an entire fishing village in Cuba. We remember him not just for his talent, but for his zest for life. We should do the same for Sylvia Plath.

The Magazine
Why did you focus specifically on Plath's time at Mademoiselle Magazine?

Those four weeks were so dramatic, dazzling, and densely packed. It always surprised me that other biographers seemed to kind of gloss over them. Sylvia loved fashion, she loved New York. And I've always love mid-century fashion and material culture, so it was fun to immerse myself in that.

In writing Pain, Parties, Work, you interviewed guest editors who had an editorship at the same time as Plath. How did you go about doing so?

That was the best part of the process—I was so lucky. The Guest Editors I reached out to were so generous and witty. I loved hearing all their stories—gossip in the hallways, scenes in the elevator, borrowed clothes and very, very late nights!

Whilst writing the book, did you compile any research?

Yes—I went through the Plath archives of the Lily Library. I practically buried myself fin research but it was all such great stuff—shopping lists, clothing budgets, diaries from junior high and stacks and stacks of letters from her numerous boyfriends.

The Book
How long did Pain, Parties, Work, take to write?

Maybe about a year and a half. It was total immersion.

Would you ever consider writing a follow-up to Pain, Parties, Work?

That's interesting—I hadn't thought of that! Actually, in a subtle sort of way I think the book I'm writing now is a follow up, even though it isn't about Sylvia Plath.

Overall, do you think that Plath was a victim of her time-"being an ambitious girl" in 1950's America?

Absolutely. We don't give the women of Plath's generation enough credit. Girls like Sylvia—and all the Guest Editors—were under tremendous pressure. "Get into the best school, keep your scholarship, win prizes and make sure you're invited to the Yale Spring Dance…" But women are always bombarded with mixed messages. That's why Sylvia's struggles are just as relevant today.

Previously, have you worked in the publishing industry?

Oh, not at all. It was completely new to me.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes—I think I was about five when I realized that and I haven't wavered since.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Words and images! Reading Anna Karenina for the 20th time, Anne Carson's amazing poetry, the scent of the shampoo I used when I was twelve, the name of a nail polish shade in the Ulta catalog, a 17th century French cookbook. Anything and everything.

Are there any more Sylvia Plath-inspired projects in the works?

Not at the moment, but I wouldn't rule it out.

For anyone wishing to follow in your footsteps, do you have any tips?

Read! Seek out the writers that resonate with you, and then seek out more. Read and re-read and re-read again and copy the sentences and phrases you like best in notebooks. Study the syntax your favourite writers use, the way they stick words together. Pay attention to what you like and why you like it.

And finally one random question, just in case you're bored of always being asked about Sylvia Plath:
What is your favourite black and white film, prior to the 1960's?

Great question! The Rules of the Game by Jean Renoir (1939.) There's a hunting party in this French chateau, lots of banter and flirtation and sly looks. At night everyone is darting in and out of their rooms, running around in these silky ruffled robes, sneaking around with their lovers. There's an adorable pouty little French maid named Lisette who will make you want to wear white and black for the rest of your life. There's a count dressed up as a teddy bear, tons of drinking, lots of slinking around in wine cellars and china closets to kiss someone or make a crazed love confession. There's a real darkness there—sad marriages, broken hearts, death—but at the same time there's this dizzy pajama party vibe that always makes me smile.

18 April 2015

The Cradle Sylvia Plath Painted

By mid-October 1961, Sylvia Plath was already thinking about Christmas as she and Ted Hughes were hard at work making Court Green in North Tawton not just their own, but also livable. She mentioned in letter dated 13 October that year of her desire to make her daughter Frieda Hughes a doll's wood cradle. Christmas likely sprung into her mind as she had recently received a from her mother mentioning that she would be sending her granddaughter a doll for Christmas. The subject of the cradle was mentioned in general in subsequent letters to Aurelia and Warren Plath on 18 December 1961 and to her Aunt Dorothy Benotti on 31 January 1962.

In "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England", Plath scholar Gail Crowther discusses this very doll's cradle (see pages 44-47; an image of the cradle appears on page 45). Working with the documents Plath and Hughes created is one thing: particularly those which bear evidence of both the poets such as poetry or fiction manuscripts or their address book. But this cradle is also something to which both Plath and Hughes contributed. Hughes made the cradle and Plath enameled and painted it. In Birthday Letters, Hughes called these items a "Totem", writing: "You painted little hearts on everything . . . Sometimes, off to the side, an eight-year-old's bluebird . . And on the cradle I made for a doll you painted,/Hearts" (163). As Gail stated in our paper, "Such items, we feel, belong in an archive because they are able to bring Plath alive in a unique, multi-dimensional manner. In many ways they do not feel 'of the past,' but rather very much of the present" (46-47).

In a second installment to a letter Plath wrote on 29 December 1961, she discusses a little more about the cradle, and from where the design and inspiration came. The part where Plath writes about the cradle was was edited out of Letters Home and so therefore cannot be quoted. But, the original letter is held by the Lilly Library for anyone who visits to read.

In this 29 December 1961 letter, Plath mentions that Marion Freeman sent her some copies of Woman's Day magazine which left her with a nostalgia for American-market women's magazines. Marion Freeman, sometimes called "Aunt Marion", was the mother of David and Ruth Freeman. Ruth, fondly called Ruthie in Plath's letters and diaries, was Plath's best childhood friend from Winthrop. In one of those issues of Woman's Day, Plath found the ideal design and pattern for a cradle made of wood.

In a letter to Marion Freeman dated 31 January 1962, Plath thanks her for the Woman's Day magazines and mentions how a design in one of the issues was just right for a doll's cradle they made for Frieda for Christmas. She mentioned too that that she got inspiration for the imagery she painted on the cradle -- hearts and flowers (and birds) -- from the quilting section.

This got me thinking: which issue of Woman's Day was it? I found via a search on eBay that the November 1961 issue had a big Christmas section in it, and so started there. By chance (or luck), I had to look no further as the seller of the item confirmed to me that the November 1961 issue had the instructions for building a cradle.

The quilting section Plath referred to was on page 39; a photograph of a cradle on page 44; and the instructions on cutting the wood and assembly on page 105. As you will see in the images below, Plath made her own of the flowers and used the colors and general shapes to inspire the hearts, sun, and decorative flourishes, but the bluebird is just about spot-on.

Page 39, note blue bird and flowers at right
Page 44, see cradle at left-center
Page 105, instructions

Plath also painted hearts and flowers on a chair, a wastebasket, and table. These four household items are held by Smith College; and a color image of them was recently reproduced in Elizabeth Sigmund and Gail Crowther's Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning (2014).

Seeing the cradle in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College and holding it is truly a wonderful experience. For me it ranks up there with seeing a poetry manuscript, her journals, a typescript of The Bell Jar: really anything Plath created. "Realia", can be classified perhaps as a more fetishistic object than a manuscript would be: certainly this kind of thing falls out of the traditional purview of academics. But it is an important product and relic regardless. It is something, like a sketch or drawing Plath made, to which she temporarily devoted all of her mind, creativity, and energy towards completing. Plath said as much in a letter to her husband Ted Hughes on 7 October 1956. On drawing teapots, shoes and chestnuts, she said, "it gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it" (Sylvia Plath: Drawings, 3). And seeing the original issue of Woman's Day that gave Plath her idea's is also fascinating. It felt surprisingly unreal, if you catch my meaning. And stepping back like that into November 1961 was quite interesting for the advertisements and articles. Those are long gone days. You can see how Plath took something she studied and transformed it into a veritable timeless work of art: much the same way you can find nuggets real people and experiences metamorphosed in her poetry and prose.

All links accessed 6 March 2015.

08 April 2015

Sylvia Plath Collections: Sylvia Plath collection, 1952-1989

Emory University recently put a finding aid online for the Sylvia Plath collection, 1952-1989. A small collection, but one certainly with significant materials for the Plath scholar.

The items were purchased in 2014 and include:

Folder 1: Compass, Southeastern Massachusetts University, Summer 1987
Folder 2: Mademoiselle, January 1959
Folder 3: The New Yorker, August 3, 1963 [2 copies, one annotated by Aurelia Plath]
Folder 4: Smith Review, Fall 1952
Folder 5: Smith Review, Spring 1953 [annotated by Aurelia Plath]
Folder 6: Thomas, Trevor, Sylvia Plath: Last Encounters, 1989 [inscribed from the author to Richard Larschan and includes a letter from Thomas to Larschan and several clippings about the work]

The material in folder 1, Compass is the the magazine of Southern Massachusetts University (now University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth), and features an article by Maeve Hickock titled "Aurelia Plath and Richard Larschan". The article is about the video production of the Plath program in the Voices and Visions series from 1986. A second article, "A Case of Mistaken Identity" by Charles White, is on the then recent Jane Anderson lawsuit against Ted Hughes and the makers of the 1979 film version of The Bell Jar.

The materials in folders 2 through 5 are original periodicals featuring Plath's work ("The Times are Tidy" in Mademoiselle, January 1959; seven poems ("Two Campers in Cloud Country", "The Elm Speaks" ["Elm"], "Mystic", "Amnesiac", "Mirror", "Among the Narcissi", and "The Moon and the Yew Tree" -- essentially everything the magazine had purchased from Plath since 1960 yet to be printed) in The New Yorker, 3 August 1963; "Sunday at the Mintons'" from Smith Review, Fall 1952; and "Mad Girl's Love Song", "To Eva Descending the Stair"; and "Doomsday" from Smith Review, Spring 1953. Each of these contains annotations in Aurelia Plath's hand. Particularly moving is Aurelia Plath's commenting that she relates to every word in stanza 10 from "Elm": "I am inhabited by a cry. / Nightly it flaps out, / Looking, with its hooks, for something to love."

The Trevor Thomas materials in Folder 6 include a copy of Thomas' limited edition memoir Sylvia Plath: Last Encounters; a letter from Thomas to Larschan dated 30 November 1989; and a photocopy of a newspaper clipping "Poet Laureate Serves Writ on Professor" from Bedfordshire on Sunday 21 January 1990, page 9. The letter concerns Aurelia Plath, Anne Stevenson & Bitter Fame; Clarissa Roche; mentions Elizabeth Sigmund; and the lawsuit against Thomas by Ted Hughes.

Thanks to Amanda Golden for alerting us to the availability of the small collection.

All links accessed 23 & 27 January 2015.  Post modified 3 May 2015.

01 April 2015

An Apology and a Promise from Sylvia Plath Info Blog

The following is a transcription of the public statement offered by Peter K. Steinberg of the Sylvia Plath Info Blog, which aired on Seattle's WC8H10N4O2 (the Starbucks Network) this morning at 4:01 A.M. local time.

For the last eight years, Sylvia Plath Info Blog has been providing posts on Sylvia Plath covering a range of topics including archival materials, to newsworthy events, books and book reviews, and quasi-live blogging from conferences.

Unfortunately, much the content and information presented has been done so under the influence of performance enhancing drugs. Admitting this at this point in time (I was going to hand write it in the attempt to have it come off as more sincere) is a big step for me in conquering the problem.

Continually I had intended to try to break free of the grip these drugs have had on me. But to no avail. I want to apologize deeply and sincerely if I have let any of you down as a result of this admission.

Kindness--in the form of comments, followers, and emails--served only to egg me on in a way I am sure none of the blog's readers intended. But naturally, defensiveness and over-sensitivity has led me to privately blame each of you in the attempt to not accept accountability for my actions.

Youth was passing me by, and I felt desperate to keep up both with the more seasoned and recognized Sylvia Plath scholars, as well as trying not to lag too behind the newer, smarter, and more talented ones.

Only one option seemed right: the cheating option.

Under no circumstances did I ever think I would be caught, but caught I was. Which has led to this statement. Recent history of politicians and professional athletes also being caught doing various nefarious deeds has led me to believe that a full acceptance of responsibility --no matter how disingenuous-- followed by a period of laying low, will provide the opportunity for the masses of us with short-term memory issues (developed from being over-stimulated on media in all its various formats and functions) will allow me to make a full and triumphant comeback.

Just about twenty-four hours from now, I will be entering a program to ween myself off of these drugs in an attempt to get my life back. It is a very rigorous program and will test my strength and will.

Unless this turns out to be a failed recovery, I hope to return to blogging on Sylvia Plath -- and doing so cleanly -- by the end of the month or maybe sometime in May. I hope you understand and forgive any silence from this blog in the meantime. It is imperative that I go through with this.

Let it not go unsaid that I feel as though I have let you all down. Which is weird considering, obviously, you are all in some ways responsible...  I will do everything in my power to crush this demon. To rise from the ashes like "Lady Lazarus" herself.

I make a promise to you to that should I succeed in shocking my system clean and clear of this performance enhancing drug, I will return better, bigger, and stronger. More terrible than ever I was. More ferocious a Plath scholar than can be fathomed, with a heart dedicated to being a clean scholar.

Only time will tell, I suppose, if I can defeat this. My only hope is that you, dear readers, can give me a second chance.

Thank you for reading and for being so understanding.

--Sylvia Plath Info (aka Peter K. Steinberg)
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