Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Sylvia Plath Symposium Retrospective.

What with the Christmas season, winter illness and my attempts to do nothing but write my dissertation, I have neglected this blog! So, in the spirit of getting my house in order at the start of the New Year, I aim to be a more organised blogger! It's hard to believe we are in January 2013. When I started my Ph.D. journey in 2010, I never could have believed that I would have attended a Plath conference, viewed the archives at Smith and in Indiana at Bloomington. Through this incredible educational experience, I have met fascinating, insightful, brilliant and passionate people - as well as deepening my knowledge about Plath; what she means to me, and the important themes, commentaries and philosophies her work still reveals today.

What I learned the most from the whole Sylvia Plath Symposium experience was that there is so much we still have to uncover about Sylvia Plath and her work. I really believe that now is an exciting time for Plath studies because we are starting to move beyond the biography and analyse her work in fascinating new ways. The Indiana conference was a real eye-opener and I think it's important to share the exciting work being carried out with fellow Plath fans - the wonders of the internet!

If I'm being honest, the first real highlight of the conference for me was Linda Gates giving a talk on her memories of meeting Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. I know this goes against my general tirade of "let's leave the biography alone now!" but at the same time, it was utterly fascinating to hear Gates talk about Observer poetry critic and early champion of Plath and Hughes, Al Alvarez (with whom she had a relationship) and her experiences with Hughes and Wevill in the 1960s. It was interesting to hear about the London Literary Scene at this time too, and Gates painted a very romantic scene of intellectual gatherings, people cosying up to heaters amid the cold London temperatures, the presence of Ted Hughes and Wevill's beauty and magnetism. I asked Gates a question about Hughes and Alvarez's friendship after the publication of The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, where Alvarez talked of his relationship with Plath and her death. Hughes was deeply angered that Alvarez had aired such private matters in a very public way, but according to Gates, by the late 1980s, the two men had patched up their friendship. Some choice quotes included Assia Wevill being described as "poisonous," which raised a few eyebrows in the auditorium!

Onto the more academic side of things... A talk I very much enjoyed was Janet Badia's (author of the brilliant study, Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers) presentation on Ms. Magazine's contribution to Plath fame. Badia is developing this talk further, so hopefully we will be able to read more about this in future, but she discussed how the placing of Plath's work in Ms. Magazine impacted on her posthumous career. For example, the first issue of this feminist-centred publication included 'Three Women', and further issues included articles aimed at "demystifying Sylvia Plath," among others. Badia pointed out that in the 1970s, Ms. Magazine included excerpts from The Bell Jar, Winter Trees, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and Crossing the Water and asks us to consider how the support of this magazine may have influenced Plath readership and her status as "feminist icon." I felt Badia was very astute by including a section about feminist criticism against Plath - where her status as a feminist figure becomes contested because of "unsisterly" concepts littered throughout her poetry. Indeed, in the questions that followed Badia's talk, Karen Kukil (Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College) noted that in a conversation she had with Gloria Steinem (co-founder of Ms.), Steinem remarked that she suggested moving away from Plath in the late 1980s - and adding that she did not remember selecting 'Three Women' for the opening issue of the publication. What Badia's talk expertly demonstrated was Plath's uneasy positioning within feminism, as well as perhaps suggesting that while Ms. Magazine did encourage inclusion of Plath's work, they did so up until a certain point - and it is important for us as readers to ask why this was - maybe because greater study of Plath's body of work reveals her to not be the "feminist icon" that many assume she is?

Peter Steinberg (of Sylvia Plath Info fame) gave many interesting and detailed talks over the course of the Symposium. The one I enjoyed the most was his discussion about Plath and The New Yorker, where he revealed how Plath interacted with editors who suggested changes to her material. What I found surprising was Plath's friendly willingness to change many small bits and pieces of her poems, in order to fit the bill at The New Yorker. Plath was very responsive to constructive criticisms, and although was not happy to accept all corrections, she did consider each proposed amendment very carefully. Steinberg's talk also brought a fascinating fact to the fore - that Plath received her contract for The New Yorker as a result of W.S. Merwin suggesting that either she or Hughes should be awarded it!

The highlight of the Symposium for me was seeing Tracy Brain speak on "Medicine in Sylvia Plath's October Poems." Brain's book, The Other Sylvia Plath plus her essays on how we read Plath, Ted Hughes and feminism as well as new book Representing Sylvia Plath (edited with Sally Bayley) are some of the most important Plath texts out there, and are key to how I developed my own thesis methodology. Brain's work breathes new life into Plath. She analyses poems and excerpts in a fresh and relevant way: showing how much has been overlooked in Plath studies. Her wonderful paper - which like Badia, will be made into a longer piece - asks us to look at Plath's continued references to medicine in her work, to consider why she does this, and to ascertain how Plath's medicalized world translates to different spheres within her oeuvre. I found the paper to be truly fascinating, and indeed, find medical history and medicine in literature a real treasure trove of possibility and analysis. One of my best friends, Dr. Laura Kelly has recently begun a Post-Doc at UCD looking at the history of Irish medical students from 1800-1950. From going to History of Medicine conferences with Laura, I have really begun to understand how the "presence" of medicine - from pills administered, to doctors, to apparatus, etc - can be used as a way to determine larger social and domestic trends. I think the same type of theory can be applied to Plath - for example Esther's interactions with Dr. Gordon in The Bell Jar indicate a lot more than simple patient/doctor miscommunication. By focusing on Medicine in Plath's work, Brain is also bringing a new textual construct to the fore, which is so needed in order to keep Sylvia Plath studies alive!

The entire Plath Symposium was truly insightful. I could write for days about each individual talk, because every person impressed and educated me. Karen V. Kukil's talks about Smith, Plath's archives, 'Fever 103' show her to be, quite simply, a foremost Plath expert. Heather Clark's presentation on Otto Plath's FBI Files was wonderful - so great to hear more information about the new information that emerged on Otto earlier this year. The poets, film-makers, artists, people and musicians that I met in Bloomington were just so inspiring and, again show that so many people are still influenced by Plath and are still finding new and exciting things to analyse in her work. Here are some more photographs of dinners, talks and people who were part of the Sylvia Plath Symposium, 2013!

Conference dinner ladies!
Amanda Golden presenting her excellent paper on Transnational Plath: Writing 'Purdah'. One of the highlights of the Symposium!
Meredith Kipp, (IUB Archivist) proudly displays the order of events!
Indiana University at Bloomington is such a great campus. It is a large University, but the people were so friendly and welcoming to this weary and exhausted traveller. My stay would not have been as drama-free as it was without the help of the RPS, who provided me with a lovely apartment for the duration. Everyone at the Lily Library Archives just could not do enough for us Plathies, so thank you! Kathleen Connors (editor of Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual) was so kind and friendly to me from day one, from emails to directions, to friendly encouragement. The warm open fires, comfy sofas and cups of tea had in IMU will not be forgotten quickly - even now in January, I wish I was back in B-town!


Carl Rollyson said...

I really appreciated this roundup of the conference. Just want to quote Michael Holroyd on biography. One of its values, he says, is that it makes us less "bookish."

The Plath Diaries said...

Glad you liked it Carl!

I suppose you are probably getting used to my biography criticism at this point! But bookish I am, and bookish til the day I die - I fear!

I do enjoy reading biographies, please don't take my comments as disparaging. It is an artform in itself, writing a biography. And a good scholar needs to be aware of that.

But I have read many fascinating biographies and will continue to do so! :)

Gale said...

Hi there, love the blog! It's so wonderful to read this kind of commentary on Plath--both emotionally intimate and academically-oriented. I have been meaning to get to Bloomington for quite some time, as I am super interested in her Joyce collection and the marginalia of his books. However, I always seem to be a little short on time and money! Did you get a chance to take a look at her Joyce collection when you were in Bloomington?

Gale (Twitter: @TheGalester)

The Plath Diaries said...

Hi Gale,

Thanks so much for your comment! And I agree, getting the time and money to visit these places is very tricky. I don't know what I'll do when finished with my Ph.D. sadly!

Re: Plath's Joyce collection - One of the most interesting items at Indiana are Plath's teaching notes on Joyce from when she lectured at Smith. I did manage to get a look through this notebook and it basically outlines what Plath taught - the points in Joyce's writing she felt were important, etc. Indiana also holds her (heavily annotated) "The Portable James Joyce" book. Have a look through the catalogue list for more information:

I know for certain that Smith College holds a lot of Plath's Joyce texts, such as "Dubliners" and "Ulysses", so it is worthwhile considering what it is you want to look at re: Plath and Joyce before you start spending pennies!