Sylvia Plath Literary Festival
The Sylvia Plath Literary Festival will bring together a community of writers and scholars to celebrate the 90th birthday of one the twentieth century’s most important writers. The festival sets out to redress Sylvia Plath’s legacy and will focus on the extraordinary power of her artistic achievement. As festival director, and a writer of poetry and fiction deeply indebted to Plath’s writings, I hope this festival will celebrate Sylvia Plath’s life and art, and delight and inspire readers and writers alike through readings, workshops, talks and a glittery festival fringe.
In 2018 I held a Birthday Party for Sylvia Plath at Hebden Bridge’s independent bookshop, The Book Case, inviting Plath scholars Heather Clark, Gail Crowther and Tracy Brain to give a talk, and local poets Ian Humphreys and Laura Potts to write new poems addressed to Sylvia. The event was a huge success and has led to other ‘Birthday Parties’ worldwide. The festival continues in the spirit of paying tribute to this extraordinary writer.
Why hold this celebration here, a long way from Plath’s home in Devon and her beloved London, and where Plath herself did not want to live? Sylvia Plath is buried in Heptonstall, and the setting, as many pilgrims to her grave have felt, echoes the poet’s own inner wildness. Plath wrote a number of poems responding to the beauty and ambivalence of the landscape of the Upper Calder Valley, and has become irrevocably associated with the area, drawing many creative people. A larger than life-size portrait of Sylvia is graffitied onto the side of the Shoulder of Mutton pub in the centre of the town. I have lived here for over twenty years, raising my son and writing my books in the cusp of the hills, between the birthplace of Ted Hughes, and the burial place of Sylvia Plath.
I first visited Hebden Bridge in the summer of nineteen ninety-six, to attend a writing course at Arvon’s Lumb Bank in Heptonstall, with poets Susan Wicks and Moniza Alvi. I had been writing poetry for some years, starting to publish in magazines and beginning to get a sense of my vocation. It was during this week that Susan Wicks, who was to remain my mentor for many years, pointed me in the direction that was to lead to an Eric Gregory Award and my first collection. The Red Wardrobe was published by Seren books in 1998, and went on to be shortlisted for the 1998 T.S. Eliot and Forward Poetry Prizes.
To reflect the significance of Sylvia Plath’s legacy on women writers in particular, the festival will focus on female voices, and speakers include Heather Clark, Amanda Golden, Ruth Fainlight, Victoria Kennefick, Mona Arshi, Amanda Dalton, Claire Pollard, Alycia Pirmohamed, Hannah Hodgson and many more. Susan Wicks is very clear about the importance and influence of Sylvia Plath on her own career as a female poet; she writes on first reading Plath:
‘I think I somehow heard her work in some inner space that until then had been occupied only by Baudelaire and Apollinaire… It was itself, it wasn’t afraid of ugliness, it took risks, it dared. It made me want to write poetry.’
– Susan Wicks
We’re also delighted to feature Peter K Steinberg, co-editor of The Letters of Sylvia Plath; DJ and writer Dave Haslam, whose monograph My Second Home: Sylvia Plath in Paris, 1956, looks at this key moment in Plath’s life, and Kevin Duffy of Bluemoose Books, Hebden Bridge’s ground breaking independent publisher. The festival will also launch After Sylvia, (Nine Arches Press, 2022) an anthology of new poems and essays celebrating Sylvia Plath’s legacy on her 90th birthday, co-edited by myself and Hebden Bridge poet Ian Humphreys
A team of volunteers from the local area and from the Plath community have been working alongside a small professional team to make the festival happen. We come together to bring you what I hope will be a memorable celebration full of passion and ‘glitter’, an expression of love for this most unique of writers.