Sunday, 4 January 2015

Letter in January

Writing this on the 4th day of the new year I feel filled with hope about 2015 - that it will be a kinder year to those who need it and on a personal note, that this will be the year I finish my Plath dissertation. Everything has been much the same since my last blog update. My word count is slowly creeping up, I re-read parts of my thesis and feel excited about it. I will complete this task.

Another 'will'. I will turn 30 in 2015. As I am now around the age Plath was when she wrote many of her most famous poems, it feels right that my dissertation should be finished in the same stretch of time that proved to be so fruitful for her. Indeed, like Plath, the closer I get to my new decade, the more confident I have become. I am deeply passionate about the people and things I care about but I find as I'm getting older I no longer care as much about what people think of me and certainly from reading old entries on this blog, my attitude towards my PhD has changed dramatically - for the better. I feel that this PhD project captures my life up until this point: my thoughts on literature, women's writing and language. So much of it is reflective of me as a person and I can think of no better way to immerse yourself in writing/poetry/academic criticism than to do so in the protective womb of Sylvia Plath who is the strongest, bravest, best literary foremother I could ever ask for.

My best friend and I have been talking a lot about literary foremothers, looking at poets such as Eavan Boland who approvingly cites Plath as a chief influence on her own work. It has to be said that many female poets conversely make an effort to distance themselves from Plath too - as not to appear 'hysterical' or be read as 'juvenile' (obviously a reflection of poor readings because the work of Plath is neither). Whatever position women writers take, I do believe that every creative woman who wants to write thinks about where her work lies in regards to the work of Plath. It makes me so glad and proud to be writing a dissertation about Plath because I feel I am being taught by the master. I think back to how I was at 26, embarking on this PhD with no idea of the person I was, just an enthusiastic person interested in books. Now I feel strong. I am not afraid of words or silences. and although this is a dry academic project and not a creative writing piece, I am not afraid to write. Just after she turned 30, Plath wrote 'Letter in November' and this poem keeps coming back to me as I grow in confidence as a researcher and as a person:

I am flushed and warm.
I think I may be enormous,
I am so stupidly happy,
My Wellingtons
Squelching and squelching through the beautiful red.

This is my property.
Two times a day
I pace it, sniffing
The barbarous holly with its viridian
Scallops, pure iron,

And the wall of the odd corpses.
I love them.

Everything about these verses speak to me as a woman getting older, squelching about in my body, in my rural home that I have made my peace with and am glad to live in. The speaker's animalistic ownership of her self is overwhelming to me. The repetition of 'I' so stark and empowering. Plath is so confident here, her effortless descriptions, the openness of her speaker's declarations. I feel like I could be the speaker of this poem, the desire to be this strong in self resonates in my soul. 

Throughout 2014, I've read some really brilliant essays and pieces that have resonated with me and helped my thought-processes grow and evolve. Dr. Sara Ahmed's blog post on White Men is a piece I keep going back to because it is a call to revolution for feminist academics! Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde by the wonderful Cathy Park Hong obliterates the suggestion that avant-garde writing is any different than the mainstream literary tradition when it comes to exclusion of writers of colour. "Black Girls Don't Read Sylvia Plath" by Vanessa Willoughby offers a vital and necessary reading of Plath, where she writes beautifully about what Plath's work means to her, as a woman of colour. Katherine Angel's Gender, blah, blah, blah rounded the year off in fiery passion with Angel's decimation of the literary world's blatant gender imbalance. These essays and pieces have meant much to me and left an imprint on my brain that informs both my dissertation and how I look at the world. 

It is so important for women to work, to write, publish and speak. I think we women, as a community, have an obligation to encourage each other. I know that when my best friend and I sit and intellectualise our lives over our respective coffee and teas, I feel energised, switched on and unafraid. Despite having a very quiet year with minimal academic networking or indeed socialising of any kind, one of the most fruitful experiences of my year was the Sibéal Network conference, which brought researchers from all around the world to Ireland for a two-day conference that specifically focused on Gender and Feminist studies. The inspirational boost I felt in the days and weeks after this conference is difficult to quantify. Women must keep listening, educating ourselves, thinking, practising active silence and writing in the hope that the world will continue to 'turn colour' as we walk 'the waist high wet' like Plath did.

To 2015! A year of will's.

Friday, 22 August 2014

'I carpenter a space for the thing I am given.'

It's August and still I continue to trundle along, writing up. I've thought about blogging many times in the space between March and now, but what else can I really say except I'm trying to write, thinking about writing and sometimes actually doing a bit of writing. 2014 has been a year of loss and it feels like I haven't had time to process significant events in my own life, like my beloved, complicated grandmother dying and uncle passing away. Seeing deeply-loved friends suffer grief and loss has also been an immeasurably painful experience this year and I am a changed person. I set so much faith in the bonds that tie human beings together in love and friendship. But I have learned that nothing can fill cavernous loss. All we can try to do is be human together, failing and falling together. Things like a PhD pale in the comparison with loss and realising the fragility of life. For a time I did despair of 'thinking' and 'research' - what do education and learning matter, really? The truth is that learning, reading, thinking, writing does matter very much. Learning and thinking may not have tangible value, but it has meaning and is important. I think of my grandmother, a woman who was widowed with five children in 1950s Ireland. A deeply intelligent woman who did not have the opportunity to receive an education. I also know how unused intellect can be transformed into something negative. Being unable to express what you think and feel often leads to crippling psychological issues, alcoholism, other frustrations. Having this time to write and think is a privilege and in honour of the people I care about, who did not have this opportunity, I am being honest and hardworking to the best of my character.

I have been living back in my rural family home for almost a year now and I feel that this was the right decision to make. Throughout the whole PhD process I have always felt like I was running behind everyone else, playing catchup. This has been my own fault. My fears and nervousness that I really didn't deserve to be here or to do this. Imposing restrictions on myself geographically has enhanced my ability to think and create, away from distraction. In an essay about silence in women's writing Jeanne Kammer writes that creative women often develop their poetic tactics in 'relative isolation and independence, making choices stubbornly in response to a personal, private aesthetic'. I feel that sentence could be applicable to me at this present moment in time. In my own isolated privacy, I can independently work to create my own ideas, develop them at my own pace and learn. In 'Thalidomide', Plath writes 'I carpenter a space for the thing I am given'. I think this is one of her most beautiful sentences. These past months have seen me carpenter my space, to coax out words and claim ownership of this thesis as my own.

Recently, I watched a documentary programme called 7UP. It looks at the lives of children every seven years, so you get to see how these children grow up, mature, and what they do as adults. It is a brilliant programme and really shows how life can change irrevocably in such a short space of time. So much of academic life is about looking to the future. What are you going to do next? How long is this taking you? While, of course, it is really important not to let a PhD drag on into decades, I can't help but think constantly looking to the future is a bad way to be. It is important to stop thinking about the next 'episode' in life. I am trying to concentrate on writing, forcing confidence on myself and reminding myself that this is an opportunity too wonderful to be squandered by the hopes of 'what's next'.

I thought this Guardian article about finding your voice in your PhD was a great article - very much in same vein of the point I've been trying to make here. Hopefully the next blog post here will be a beautifully instagrammed picture of my full thesis... but that would be me looking to the future so perhaps I've already jinxed myself! :-)