Saturday, 16 May 2015

Still here, still writing..

Writing up a PhD is tough. I'm in the final throes of it these days. Waves of exhaustion, feeling like I'm physically pulling the words from my chest sometimes. Hoping that I'm putting across my points as best I can. I had a 'lightbulb' moment a few weeks ago that has really helped centre my whole argument. For all these years I've been reading the silences in Plath's work and writing about what 'emerges' from these silences. But what I didn't realise until now really is that an equally important aspect of all this is that Plath made the decision to locate aspects of her writing in silence. And so with that clarity, I know that the backbone/tentative title of this dissertation is something along the lines of 'decisions of silence in the work of Sylvia Plath'. It is the perfect umbrella to bring all my chapters in under. I like the thought of having a title that very much says: Plath was the master of her own words. She was not hauled into an abyss because she lost control - no 'murderous art' here, thanks. Every word she wrote (and didn't write) was a decision based on years of hard work and dedication to her craft.

I've worked on my introduction chapter for so long, trying to figure out the place of silence in women's writing, in American literature, in literature and art in general in the post-World War Two years. I hope maybe my findings could be used as a template to scrutinise other poets of this era because it seems to me that silence made up a significant element of the American postwar, pre-second wave feminist bubble. I do believe that a wide spectrum of poets, writers and artists chose silence and reconfigured it from a space of oppression to liberation during this time. The appeal of forging a new type of language unencumbered by the old ways and traditions of the past perhaps? 

The Plath chapters that I have written are interesting, I think. As long as I can get my points across without losing the run of myself, I hope my arguments stand up academically. It is very difficult to get my ideas from my mind onto my page though. Funnily enough, because I've been so reclusive for the past few months, I'm finding it difficult to take ideas from my mind and speak to other people in general. The majority of my thoughts are typed out these days: be it through Twitter or on a Word document. I sometimes feel like my mouth doesn't have the capacity to speak the words I want to! Once I get the dissertation drafted I really must force myself to speak at some conferences even though my confidence is a bit bruised.

Personally speaking, my life has been winding down into a routine of writing, sleeping, working. I saw Judith Butler give a talk down in Dublin earlier in the year which was fantastic. Hearing her speak and watching her hand gestures as she explained her ideas really made her work come alive for me in a way it never has before. I make one small reference to Butler in my thesis so she's not integral to my current work. But I think as a human being trying to make sense of the world, her books and theories are essential. Closer to now, I did have a rough week last week and asked Plath to help get me through this summer. Silly I know. But I did feel her spirit with me when I went for my funding interview back in 2010. I was the best version of myself that day. And I have felt more driven and motivated and more able to accept the personal problems we all face that interrupt us from our own goals and being the best version of ourselves that we want to be. Life, eh? If it isn't one thing, it's another.

My current soundtracks for writing, thinking and the brief reprieve of evening walks are Cat Stevens - Tea for the Tillerman, the new Sufjan Stevens album (his best), Jackson Browne 'The Pretender', Sandy Denny's 'Best of..'. Very folk-filled :-) Nice moments of the last while consist of spending time with my beautiful best friend, beach walks and emails from good friends. I don't know what I would do without such good people who haven't forgotten about me even though I've been horrendously anti-social for so long!

Had the Giant's Causeway all to myself a few evenings ago. So beautiful!

Turned 30 in March. Was suitably spoiled by good friends :-)

Recent walks on the beach.
My best friend on Jake, her horse. Have to say I love this photograph!
Supportive card from dear Zoe: 'Men of Destiny', Jack B. Yeats.

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.