Our festival blogger, Katie Ailes, introduces herself through her relationship with Sylvia Plath.
I am sweltering on the deck of my parents’ house in suburban Philadelphia, sweat dripping from my back onto the wooden slats beneath me. Heavy roses nod against the white picket fence. I’ve traveled home for the summer, resting from the buzz of the UK literary scene, and—perfectly, ironically—I’m re-reading The Bell Jar.
My copy is half a century old, bought for a dollar at a library sale and barely held together with silver duct tape. The pages are more fabric than paper, thumbed, blunted, and softened by jostling around in rucksacks for years. The edges are flecked with Post-its. There isn’t a page I haven’t scribbled on.
My marginalia are a time capsule to 2010 when I first read The Bell Jar, feverishly, at age 17. In a high school English class the previous year we’d studied one of Plath’s poems and it sparked in me an instant, compulsive passion. I lobbied my school for permission to do an independent study on her work, which remarkably was granted: they allowed me to sit in the library each day ferociously reading and annotating.
I consumed every word of Sylvia’s work that hasn’t been burned: poems, novels, stories, journals, letters. Looking back, I think I was trying to use this textual constellation of her life as a map: here is how to become a successful writer. And on a deeper level, I believe I wanted some sort of literary transubstantiation: that by reading her I might become her.
Whether through cosmic influence or simply my will to follow in her footsteps, in many ways our lives have run parallel. Like Sylvia, I grew up in suburban east-coast America and attended public school, where I developed a deep love of poetry. We both attended small liberal arts colleges in the north-east where our identities interwove tightly with academic achievement and biting perfectionism. Upon graduation, like Sylvia I traveled to the UK on a Fulbright Award to study literature. Like Sylvia, I settled there afterwards, building a career as a poet. And like Sylvia, I’ll soon be marrying a British poet (although mine is Scottish, ginger, and, to my relief, not interested in crows).
But more than the factual similarities, since my teenage years I’ve felt a profound kinship with Sylvia: an unnerving sense of recognition. Like her, I am sensitive to the immensity of life, thrilled by its joys and despairing at its darkness. Especially as a teenager, I shared her cynical yet desperate perspective on relationships: doubtful of the Disney-branded happily-ever-after yet craving love and clueless in how to obtain it. The trademark American drive to be exceptional left me, like Sylvia, clawing at benchmarks, defining myself through achievement, and determining myself a failure when not immediately considered a genius. We both felt a tug towards the UK, Europe, away from America’s newness, its white picket fences and star-spangled pomp. This mirroring even occurred on a physical level: I recognised my tall, gangly body in hers, our blonde bobs and braids, our enormous appetites and appreciation of a good tan.
Ironically, perhaps, this singular sense of intimacy I felt with Sylvia is rather common. In The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath, Gail Crowther studies readers’ intense associations with Plath, exploring why she perhaps more than any other writer has attracted such a devoted following. Many of us feel we ‘double’ with Sylvia, using her writing, her life as a mirror—or worse, a still lake in which we risk losing ourselves.
At the Plath Fest programme launch in Hebden Bridge this July, poet Gaia Holmes described her experience of encountering Sylvia’s work as a young woman as powerful and ‘intoxicating.’ She spoke of devouring her work in a heady rush, then needing to step away and gain some clarifying distance. The same is true for me: for the past decade I’ve explored other writers, deepening my awareness of poetry, though always returning to strong female voices: Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Sharon Olds, Joelle Taylor. Sylvia’s work has rested quietly on my bookshelves, patiently waiting.
This March, while working at StAnza Poetry Festival in St. Andrews, I walked with Sarah Corbett from a reading she’d just given. We got to talking about my publicity role at StAnza, and she mentioned her plans for the Sylvia Plath Literary Festival and that she was looking for a publicist: Katie, do you like Plath? I nearly tripped over my tongue in my eagerness: Yes, yes!
I’m so grateful that this festival has given me the opportunity to re-engage with Plath: a little older, wiser (perhaps), and more capable of seeing Plath less as a mirror or lake and more as a kaleidoscope transforming our perspectives through her brilliant writing. Because that is the point: her writing. More than she taught me to live (and far more importantly), Sylvia taught me–taught all of us–how to write.
Her use of language was unparalleled: her startling, vivid imagery; her keenly observed characters; her expert manipulation of form. She demonstrated that the visceral, the macabre is as worthy of focus as the beautiful—and that the two are not mutually exclusive. And for women writers, her aesthetic engagement with ‘domestic,’ ‘female’ matters provided much-needed permission for generations of women to make art about our experiences.
I am excited for October and its rich offerings of poetry, ideas, creativity, and community. So many of us have privately nursed our passion for Sylvia’s work for decades, particularly given the (often sexist) scorn unjustly meted out to her admirers. Here is the opportunity to gather in fellowship, recognition, and lively discussion. We’ll hear insights on Plath from the world’s foremost scholars, enjoy new musical arrangements of her poetry, toast our martini glasses to her relationship with Anne Sexton, and even revive her spirit at a late night seance.
And while the festival celebrates Plath, of course (on her 90th birthday!), it is more fundamentally a celebration of how her work has inspired and continues to inspire countless writers. Sylvia’s legacy is very much alive, pulsing in the pages of new writing worldwide. At the festival we’ll launch After Sylvia, a ground-breaking anthology of poems and essays inspired by and engaging with Plath’s work. We’ll enjoy (and be challenged by) readings from many of the UK’s best writers, including Victoria Kennefick, Shivanee Ramlochan, Clare Pollard, Mona Arshi, Natalie Linh Bolderson, and many more. And, importantly, we’ll pen our own work: there are several in-person and digital workshops throughout the festival designed to spark the flint of Plath’s legacy into new flame.
On the first page of my battered copy of The Bell Jar is scribbled ‘great first line.’ That opening, set in the ‘queer, sultry summer’ still moves me: immediately I’m back in the muggy heat of Esther Greenwood’s New York City, in the humid haze of my mid-Atlantic teenage years, in the overlapping pools of fiction and fantasy, memory and mirror. Over half a century on, Plath’s legacy still beckons to our imaginations. This October, let’s gather to answer that call. We’ll see you in Hebden Bridge!
Dr. Katie Ailes is a poet, producer, and researcher based in Edinburgh. Learn more via her website.