01 May 2008

The Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium at Smith College

The Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium at Smith College, held on 25-26 April, brought together a wide variety of Plath's readers. Nearly all the papers and presentations given were first heard at the Oxford Symposium in October 2007. Additional content included a fascinating paper by Susan van Dyne ("'The endless gladitorial event': Who was Hughes as Plath's editor?"), author of Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems, and a panel of friends of Sylvia Plath, which included Judith Kroll, who read letters they received from either Sylvia Plath or, in the case of Kroll, from Aurelia Plath. Attendance consisted mainly of people from the Northampton area, but some drove in from all over New England, or flew in from places as far as Texas and Japan.

The events kicked off on Friday with a community reading of Ariel: The Restored Edition. Plath fans, scholars, poets, and other distinguished guests read the poems one by one. Phil McCurdy began the reading with a brief story and a reading of "Mad Girl's Love Song", which Plath wrote circa 1953. A fan then read Plath's "Mirror", before the first poem "Morning Song" really got things going. This was a wonderful way to start the Symposium, and Plath herself joined us as she read "Daddy" from the famous 1962 BBC recording. Her voice joined a chorus of others from the first line, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch" to the last, "The bees are flying. They taste the spring". The Mortimer Rare Book Room, converted for the occasion, was full with standing room only available around the sides and to the back. It was great to see so many Plath fans.

Saturday's schedule was full, ambitious, and ran very smoothly from all outward appearances. A tremendous thank you must go to Aubrey Menard and Karen Kukil, and the rest of the Smith College helper-elves, for coordinating the events. The papers, many of which I heard at Oxford, were new all over again. And, particularly nice to hear were the papers I missed at Oxford due to the concurrent session format, which cannot be avoided at such large events. Throughout the day there were breaks, in which we could socialize and idolize.

Papers/presentations I missed at Oxford were given by Heather Clark ("Plath and Hughes Redivivus: 'Venus in the Seventh'"), Annie Finch ("Libretto and Imagination: On writing "Sylvia and the Moon"), Diane Hunter ("The Dead Mother Complex between Plath and Hughes"), Patrick O'Connor ("Plath and Global Politics"), Cornelia Pearsall ("'Wars, wars, wars': Plath's Martial Arts"), and Dorothy Wang ("Sylvia Plath, Race, and White Womanhood").

The highlight of the day, however, was the Plath's friends panel at the end of the evening. Stern, Klein, and McCurdy read letters sent to them by Plath, and they each also discussed the Plath that they knew. The stories were warm, funny, and fond, and at the risk of redundancy from my previous post, excerpts can be seen and heard through the Smith multimedia webpage. Judith Kroll recounted stories of her undergraduate times at Smith under the tutelage of Plath's former professor and mentor Alfred Young Fisher, as well as her work with Ted Hughes, Olwyn Hughes, and Plath's Collected Poems, from the mid 1970s. She read a bit from a letter she received from Aurelia Plath, after she met her in 1976 following the publication of her own Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.

Actress Julia Stiles and actress/screenwriter Tristine Skyler were present, pleasant, attentive, and approachable throughout the Symposium. They are conducting research for their forthcoming film adaptation of The Bell Jar. This is bound to be an emotional project for all, and it was very welcome to see them so involved with the librarians and archivists at Smith, and the Plath scholars and fans present for the event. I was fortunate enough to have their attention from time to time on both Friday and Saturday and really enjoyed the opportunity to talk Plath with such respectable figures.

Everyone behaved, and as with Oxford there were no fistfights, brawls, excessive name-calling, etc. I guess the brawls and such will have to wait for the joint Plath/Hughes conference.


Sorlil said...

Absolutely fascinating, thanks for that!

Kristina Zimbakova said...

Thanks so much for all this exhaustive information on the event,Peter. And also a big cudo for Smith for putting up the small video on the web. I feel as if I had been there :-)

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