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!

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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.