Friday, 3 January 2014

Hello to the New Year!

2013 has been such a busy year for me, and for Sylvia Plath studies in general. Over at Sylvia Plath Info, Peter Steinberg has compiled an extensive list of just how many articles, reviews and Plath events were published/occurred this year. My year began with a re-cap of the 2012 Plath Symposium at Indiana University, Bloomington, with the early part of 2013 taken up by the Plath: A 50 Year Retrospective that I hosted in Belfast, on 11th February. Having worked in University admin for a few years before starting my PhD, I'd organised professional away-days and "open days" for the academic school I worked for. But I have to say, it was a whole different kettle of fish taking sole responsibility for the Plath event. The night could not have went off as well without the support from my friends who helped me broadcast the symposium online, helped with branding and marketing the event and gave me a much needed glass of red wine in the hours afterwards!

I was so happy that the Plath event went well, and was especially glad to have Gillian Groszewski (Hughes and Plath: "The Truth Untold"), Philip McGowan (Plath's clear vowels) and Nerys Williams ("I talk to myself, myself only": Sylvia Plath's Radio Broadcasts) as the featured speakers. All three were an inspiration and provided interesting talks which I think illustrate the depth of fantastic poetry scholarship going on in Ireland.

During the time of Plath's 50th Anniversary, I also spoke on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme about Plath, which is probably the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever done. Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster was a much better experience as I wasn't as nervous. I really enjoyed picking a Plath poem out and reading it on the radio as well. I read 'The Moon and the Yew Tree'.

2013 wasn't all about media appearances (the surprisingly glam life of a PhD student!) and I was really glad to have a review of recent Plath biographies and critical essay printed in Plath Profiles as well as writing a review of a really interesting essay on Plath and Mereology for The Journal of Literature and Science (I have the pdf if anyone is interested in reading), which I think transforms understanding of Plath's Bee poems and how she interacts with Otto Plath in her poetry.2013 saw the massive furore over the 50th Anniversary cover of The Bell Jar, which I railed against (not a popular opinion!). But I stand by my comments and reiterated them in a recent radio interview for Dublin City FM.

After the Plath event in February, I settled down to finishing my thesis. I had a really productive month or so and then went over to Exeter Uni in England to present a paper on Plath and silence for the BAAS Annual conference. The conference itself was the biggest I've ever been to - panel upon panel, ranging from American Literature to hip-hop! As Exeter is so close to Court Green, I made my fateful trip up to visit the house Plath and Hughes once lived in and found it a very emotionally draining and upsetting experience. On coming back home from Exeter, I plunged myself into thesis writing again and issued a call for guest-blog posts, and was overwhelmed by the positive response! I've featured blogs on the staging of Plath's Three Women, Plath's archives at Indiana University, Bloomington, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and biofiction in Plath's writings. I have found all of these blog posts so interesting and it has been great to engage with the wider Plath community in this way.

Outside of Plath, I was really happy to have joined the board for Sibéal Feminist Network - Ireland's only Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Feminist organisation. Since starting the PhD, my mind has been opened so much by the things I read and the people I've met along the way. It's hard to believe that a few years ago I was the type of person who would make an inane comment like, "I'm not a feminist, but...". Doing the PhD, and I suppose, living in Northern Ireland, a place where women have no reproductive rights, has really transformed my mindset. I am a proud intersectional feminist and it is a real privilege to be appointed to a board position for an organisation I admire so much.

Writing everything out, it seems like 2013 has been a busy and successful year. It's funny how I have not thought of it in such terms. The first half of my year was so busy and it was great to see the fruits of my labour in 2012 come to shape in 2013. Most significantly I was asked to submit a chapter to an edited collection which really helped my confidence. I think academia is a lot about playing the 'long game' - working on something now and seeing it do well in one or two years, even.

However, personally speaking, 2013 was a difficult year. I think the signs that something was not quite 'right' manifested in my trip to Exeter and my really emotional reaction to seeing Court Green. Usually I would not be the type of person to get overwhelmed by anything. When push comes to shove, I am pretty practical and get on with things. As the spring turned into summer however, I found my grip on things started to loosen. I began having really stagnant days in the library. I mean days. Sitting in front of my laptop for 8/9 hours and coming away with nothing. Disjointed scrap. Perhaps it's because writing a Literature paper is essentially, writing who you are, and at that time, I didn't have anything to say, didn't know myself. It's funny because Plath actually sums up the feeling perfectly in The Bell Jar:

"Lifting the pages of the book, I let them fan slowly by my eyes. Words, dimly familiar, but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain. I squinted at the page. The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese. I decided to junk my thesis."

While, of course, I would never junk my thesis, the summer was hard. And I feel like I can only really write about it now because I am through that dark period and have strength of self again. The whole feelings of impotence and worthlessness came together on holiday with friends. Usually long breaks away with friends are what I live for: great conversation, laughs, a few drinks. But I spent most of the time trying to shut myself away from people, longing to be on my own but to do nothing but sit and mope when alone. I worried myself sick, I couldn't get my brain in gear. Things outside of my control let me down. I started to think I was failing because the three-years were coming to an end and my work rate had slowed and I wasn't going to finish in time.

In case you haven't detected, I'm kind of an organised, intense person ;-) But I do believe in communication and openness, so decided I wasn't going to allow my own negativity to defeat me. My supervisor and I met in late August and had some excellent talks. I am really lucky to have a supervisor who is very much on my wavelength and in the summer, I really needed that connection with her in order to keep going. Slowly, I started back to writing. By Halloween, I was feeling a lot more confident, and by November/December, I realised that my writing has never been better. To actually see the change in my writing style into a confident and informed voice has been my most major achievement of 2013. I ended the year submitting writing that I am proud of and the 2014 mountain does not seem so insurmountable anymore.

I managed to end 2013 on a real high, feeling mentally sound, feeling excited and confident about what the new year will bring. I care too much about my thesis to make a hack job of it... even though I've heard from reliable sources that "two good chapters = a pass". Ha! I'm currently living at home, have good teaching hours this year, a freelance job and a tiny bit of savings that will get me through this limbo period. Doing a PhD is a long road and I think all the emotional challenges have made me a stronger person, definitely a less flimsy person. Who knows what 2014 will bring us all, but I would like to begin the year on a note of hope and optimism. I would end this blog post with a "maybe this time next year...." dream, but I'm trying to live in the moment now and not wish my life away. A year spent reading poetry, meeting interesting people and beginning to contribute to the academic world is a year of serious privilege. Despite its ups and downs I'm thankful for 2013 and hope to continue to grow as a person. Wishing you all the best!


Rehan Qayoom said...

Hi Maeve. Rumi said silence was the language of God. I am intrigued by silences in art and literature, particularly in the work of Plath and Hughes. Is there any way of getting hold of your BAAS Annual Conference paper? It would be a privilege to read.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I have enjoyed the Plath Diaries very much over this last year, and look forward to many more entries.

Go Feminism--it is half of the world, after all--


Gavin Forde said...

You've had an amazing year, and I'm so proud of you! xo

SJ said...

Maeve, I've just had a chance to check in with your blog. I must say - I HEAR you. 2013 had some rough moments for me too, and a lot of long days with no writing and bad feelings. The PhD journey is long, but know you are not alone! Here is to a productive 2014 for the both of us :)