27 October 2007

Day three of the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium

Day three at the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium is done; it was the biggest day on the schedule in terms of featured and guest speakers in included a very big surprise guest.

The morning started with an informal forum on the Plath archives at Smith College, the Lilly Library (Indiana University) and Emory University. Karen Kukil discussed the holdings at Smith, and discussed the differences in their holdings from that of IU or Emory. She also discussed how the archives each came to hold separate, though obviously complimentary collections.

The first round of featured speakers after this forum was Karen Kukil and Robin Peel. Karen’s talk was "Sylvia Plath’s Women and Poetry"; she discussed Plath’s association through the years with women such as Marianne Moore, Lynn Lawner, Elizabeth Bishop, Judith Jones (her editor at Knopf), Assia Wevill, Frieda Hughes, and Anne Sexton. Her paper drew from the collections at Smith, University of Texas at Austin, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Mount Holyoke, and others. All in all, Karen’s talk was completely thorough and lovable presentation by a true professional and expert. After Karen’s talk, she brought up surprise special guest Marcia Brown Stern, Plath’s friend from Smith. Brown (on the right, pictured above with Kukil) addressed a rapt audience, talked about some of her memories of Plath, and even fielded some questions.

Robin Peel’s paper, “Reading Back: Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and publication” was also a very interesting paper. Peel has moved on slightly from his 2002 book Writing Back, but he hasn’t lost any of his heroic way of mining archives, both Plath’s, Dickinson’s, and others, and presenting new, exciting research findings whilst also filling the audience with further ideas of looking at Plath’s through social, historical, and political contexts.

Lunch was a treat; while the sandwiches left me wanting, Jillian Becker’s conversation with Ben Morgan filled us up. Becker did mention some of the things she discussed in her book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, but it was wonderful to hear her first hand. She talked about reading Plath’s poems in The Colossus, a collection she still owns, and her reaction to it. Additionally, she talked about some of their outings, to movies, the last weekend, and some of the mistreatment of Sylvia, both before and after Plath’s suicide. She even put down the Sylvia film.

The after lunch special was Anne Stevenson, just back from the US where Poetry (Chicago) gave her some kind of award for being the most neglected but important poet. Stevenson’s paper, "Sylvia Plath and Ruth Beuscher: A tale of two women", roused a already attentive crowd, drawing attention to the ‘relationship’ between SP and RB (nee Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse). Much of the talk drew on information from an unpublished, incomplete work by the late Norman Elrod, “Sylvia Plath and Ruth Beuscher: The Tragedy of a Patient’s Blind Love for her Doctor’”. There is some controversial information either known, withheld, or suspected and should prove a rich, contentious subject for further research.

Christina Britzolakis spoke after Stevenson, giving a “keynote” address. Her paper, “Plath’s Dreamwork” brought Freud out of the closet, dusted him off, and applied itself to some of Plath’s bee poems and her short story, “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.” It was interesting but a bit over my head.

After the keynote, we were again faced with decisions about which panel and topics to attend. My choice was “Editing Plath” with Fran McCullough, Jonathan Ellis, and special guest Marcia Brown Stern, who fielded more questions from an eager audience. McCullough discussed her 20 year relationship with Plath’s work and the Hughes family, including her falling out with them after the publication of the edited Journals. It was a nice, first-hand account of one of the more controversial and confounding aspects of Plath’s posthumous life, if you will. She likened Plath’s suicide attempt in 1953 with her successful attempt in 1963 this way: Plath’s rejection from Frank O’Connor’s class at Harvard contributed strongly to the former attempt; and the few, negative reviews of The Bell Jar in 1963 to the latter attempt.

Jonathan Ellis’s paper, “That reader over your shoulder: Editing Plath’s letters” was seriously interrupted by chattering, noisy audience members and I frankly missed the first, crucial bits that may have helped me understand his point of view. Sorry. He did gracefully give up some of the time allotted for his paper to Marcia Brown Stern, thus, he could not finish his paper before time was up.

The last session of the day featured four interesting topics, but I chose to sit in on “Images and Viewer of Plath”. Each of the four panelists, Gail Crowther, Neslihan Ekmekçioğlu, Annika Hagström, Philippa Hawker presented interesting and original research, but I quite preferred Crowther and Hagström because, well, I’ll be frank, they stuck to their time slots. Crowther, like me, visits Plath places and has ventured to scary places, like France. Her discussion of Berck-Plage and Finisterre, as places and Plath poems. Her paper, “The playfulness of time” discusses pilgrimages the few and the strong make to Plath places, suggesting that it allows a reader to participate in Plath’s poetry, creating, in a way, a new work. By making a pilgrimage to text, we act as textual voyeurs. I am a strong believer and supporter of this communication and interaction with Plath’s works, and the research shows much originality and promise. Likewise, Hagström’s paper, “Stasis in darkness: Sylvia Plath as a fictive character” shows ingenuity and imagination. Her angle examines the expression, and definition, of Plath in terms of her cultural representation and reception. As a majority of these biofictive representations have appeared since 2000, it suggests that Plath as a major subject of fictive works has yet to peek.

It was a great birthday for Sylvia Plath, and though no one wore party hats or sang songs, Jillian Becker did raise her glass of water – wishing it was wine – to the memory of her friend.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.