24 September 2017

Guest Post: Gesa Matthies on her Sylvia Plath Film

The following is a guest post by Gesa Matthies...

The lady in the book – Sylvia Plath, portrait(s)

Peter K. Steinberg generously proposed that I write this guest post. I met Peter when I started doing research for what was then a vague project: "a film on Sylvia Plath in the places where she lived and with people who live there today". Peter took me on a tour to some Plath places around Boston and Winthrop. We stopped in front of Plath's old house close to the waterfront on Johnson Avenue, at Yirell Beach where he showed me the house where Plath's grandparents lived and at Winthrop cemetery to see her father's grave. The tour went on to Mclean Hospital where Peter pointed out the network of subterranean passageways that connect the different houses. That was in 2012. The film is now finished and is called The lady in the book – Sylvia Plath, portrait(s).

I filmed this at places where Plath had lived or stayed and I filmed women who live there today. They perpetuate her presence and above all her writings. It is a film about how Plath's voice continues to echo with contemporary women's lives.

At the beginning of this documentary film project, like at the beginning of many projects, there was a coincidence: In 2008, Rachel, an old friend of mine whom I had met when I was a student in California and who in the meantime had moved to the East coast, was about to get married. The address on the invitation card sounded somewhat familiar: 24 Prince Street, Jamaica Plain, Boston. The house where Sylvia Plath first lived.

© drawing by Lawrence Fane
When Rachel confirmed that she and her husband Dimitri had in fact bought the downstairs apartment where Plath had lived until the age of three I realized I had found the pretext and starting point for a film about my favorite author. I went to Boston that same year and spent three weeks in the house of Rachel/Sylvia. The Jamaica Plain house with its wooden floors, its spacious rooms and my friend's decoration was a beautiful place for me that summer, but I didn't feel any closer to Plath by being there. I decided to leave it at what it was in the first place: a pretext to make a film inspired by Sylvia Plath.

Two years later, with the kind help of Richard Larschan, I had the occasion to visit the house on 26 Elmwood Road in Wellesley where Plath had lived from the age of nine until she left for Smith College. When owner and resident Linda Gallo invited me to see the upstairs bedroom that Sylvia had shared with her mother, I felt I was leaving the sphere of fiction in which until then my connection with the author had developed. I was now entering the "real world" of Sylvia and I could feel "the warm feminine atmosphere of the house enveloping me in its thick, feathery smothering embrace." (Journals, p. 16)

The non-fictional experience with Sylvia Plath continued for me when I spent a week in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College in front of the original manuscripts of her journals. I think everyone who has had the chance to read these hand-written pages, must have had this sensation of closeness and authenticity. I also found that her writings took on a physical dimension. Photographs of Sylvia Plath represent her physical characteristics and her surroundings, but the pages and pages of hand- and typewritten documents are a very concrete by-product of her thoughts and the act of creating. That's why I loved filming these pages. In my documentary you see the hands of Karen V. Kukil, Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College, turning the pages.

At Smith College, I also met Kyle Kaplan, a student and young writer who that year was living in a room in Haven House. Someone had told her it used to be one of Plath's rooms. For me, it was not so much the room that made the connection with Plath as this young woman who had decided to become a poet and who was living in this room and writing at its desk in 2014.

That same year, I met Emmett and Jennifer, two students and residents of Lawrence House where Plath had her room during her junior and senior years. We had a long conversation about the pressure they feel to choose from the variety of career opportunities they theoretically enjoy today as Smith students. At the time Plath graduated, women were expected to get married shortly after college. They became mothers and caretakers and as Plath put it might only "pick up Bergson, or Kafka, or Joyce" while "I am stumbling up to cook eggs and feed milk to the baby and prepare dinner for my husband's friends". (Journals, p. 225)

Today, women who are studying at prestigious colleges are educated to pursue leadership positions. Yet, it seems that a lot of these young women see themselves also as future mothers. Whereas "wanting everything" is not considered inappropriate any more for women as it used to be when Plath graduated, "a life of conflict, of balancing children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes" (Journals, p. 225) is still an important issue for women today even if traditional gender roles have shifted and gender itself has become an option to choose in progressive environments like Smith College, as Emmett Wald points out, sitting in the Lawrence House study room in 2014.

In spring 2016 I met Janelle Tan, English major in her senior year who had come to Smith because of Plath. She said that Plath has been "a big part of what she is as a person" and reading the Journals while living at Smith had helped her to cope with everyday life. Janelle had also started writing poetry when she had discovered Plath. Some images as well as the violent and unapologetic tone of her poem "Motherland" which she reads in my film, remind me of Plath's "Medusa".

For a long time, Plath's readers have been stereotyped as unstable and frustrated young women in need for a silent idol. As a matter of fact, young women like Janelle Tan and the other people in my film as well as older women like me and countless other readers (women and men) of Plath identify with her. However, we identify with her writings not with her person and we identify with her because she is all but silent. She has never stopped speaking to us or, in other words, her words have the capacity to "put our feelings into words" as Janelle Tan puts it in one of my interviews with her.

My first English copy of The Bell Jar (I had already read a German one at 14) I bought at a yard sale in San Francisco in the late 1980s when I was a foreign exchange student in California. Inside the cover a former reader had left the following note:
"I often felt like the lady in the book, but it is good reading.
Cheers, love, Laurie"

In the very elaborate Voices & Visions documentary film Sylvia Plath from 1988 (to watch on YouTube) we can see a long and very moving interview with Aurelia Plath and many other interviews with people who had known Plath and/or who had written about her. Besides this film in which we also get to hear a great number of her poems, there seems to be no other documentary on Plath.

I did not want to make a film about her life. I think there are enough well researched and detailed biographies out there to be read. Films are not for people who don't want to read. Films are about images and sounds and I wanted to show my searching for images and sounds of Sylvia Plath in places where she had lived and that had influenced her. In my film it's the people who I met at these places who carry something of Plath within themselves as if they were figures in her stories. Like the unknown Laurie who wrote in my copy of The Bell Jar, the women in my film, without saying it explicitly, have already felt like "the lady in the book".

The lady in the book – Sylvia Plath, portrait(s) has been produced in France by a French production company and a small local TV station. I live in France and so I had proposed it to French film funding institutions who found it an interesting project. Their funding allowed me to do several research trips to Massachusetts. Plath is not very known in France. Feminists know her or people who are into poetry or English-language literature. In 2011, Gallimard issued Ĺ’uvres with her essential works: the poems, The Bell Jar, several stories and the abridged journals all translated into French, for some of it for the first time and for some of it newly translated. Plath also appears in a few recent publications on women poets. I hope with this film a French audience will find the way into her books. I also hope an American audience will enjoy the film and recognize one of their culture's most important writers.

The lady in the book – Sylvia Plath, portrait(s)
60 min, France 2016,
A film by Gesa Matthies

There will be a screening at Smith College October 21, 2017 for the 20th anniversary of the Poetry Center at 2.30 pm (screening time to be verified shortly before the event) in the Weinstein Auditorium.

All links accessed 12 and 20 September 2017.


Anonymous said...

Ive liked this post so much and i found so unique and interesting what Gesa did with her project and i wish her alllll the best and all the success that it (and she)deserves. It's so nice -and im happy for her- to read that she had the opportunities to visit and to stay at places and houses Sylvia herself visited and stayed/lived. It must have been magical, a deep and exciting and inspirational experience, no hiding it i felt a bit jelous while reading it �� So happy that Sylvia and her work and life inspired so many people, many women mostly, to find their own vocation/path in their lives ..to write poetry or novels themselves or other, as in Gesa's case, making films about her. Which im hoping so badly to be able to watch although i dont want to have many expectations about that because i live in Italy and i already know it will be a tough thing to have the chance, and the luck, to see. Also what would i give to be a Smith on Oct.21 at the first screening! Sob.. my only hope is to be able one day to find it online and finally watch it. Ending this comment of mine i want to congratulate with Gesa for this amazing project and again wish all my best and success with it.
Best regards, Alina.

Anonymous said...

P.s. I notice now that after the sentence "hiding it i felt a bit jelous while reading it" there are 2 question marks, not put by me but codified by internet and doesnt let get the sense in which i wrote the sentence, since i posted 2 winking faces emoticons, to make better understand that i was joking/smiling when writing "jealous".
Again my dear greetings to Gesa and Peter, have a great day xx


Annika J Lindskog said...

How fascinating - how can I watch this documentary? I'd really like to see it!

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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.
  • 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.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (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, Volume 1, 1940-1956. 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. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • 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. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.