For Sylvia Plath’s 90th birthday, audio production company Almost Tangible worked with the BBC to create an immersive sonic journey through poems from ‘Ariel’ and ‘Winter Trees.’ The programme’s director Saskia Black will be at #PlathFest discussing the project, and here shares with us her motivations behind creating it.
During research for the programme, I was asked by someone who knew Sylvia Plath, ‘why are you drawn to Plath’s poems and what does that reveal about yourself?’. I can’t remember what answer I gave at the time. I was nervous and was speaking from my head rather than my heart. Because I wasn’t satisfied with the answer I gave, it was a question I kept asking myself during the production process… It wasn’t until I listened to the final version of the programme that I realised that I had always known the answer – and it’s what drew me to adapting Plath’s poetry (with the brilliant Almost Tangible) into a sonic experience in the first place.
The first text by Sylvia Plath I read was ‘The Bell Jar’. This was in the late 00s, when I was eighteen or nineteen. Never before had I met a female protagonist like Esther. A character who simultaneously rebelled against and yearned for patriarchal approval, who was unashamed and yet full of shame, who was arrogant and also self-hating. And at a time when representations of women were still very much controlled by the male gaze, Esther, with all her extreme contradictions, was so refreshing to me and so real. After finishing the Bell Jar, I wanted more… so I turned to Plath’s poetry.
Ariel was the first of Plath’s collections I read, and I was bowled over by the poetic voice – a voice that taunts, provokes, teases, comforts, rages. A voice that mourns. A voice that loves.
After experiencing her poetry – and I say experiencing, because ‘reading’ somehow doesn’t quite capture the visceral journey Plath’s words took me on – I have stored a deep admiration for and connection to Plath… and that’s because she is writer that leaves an imprint on people, on their hearts, minds and guts. An imprint that never really seems to fade away – like a burnt image on an old-school plasma TV. But what I have found so interesting (and frustrating) these ten years or so after first reading her is: how little appreciation there is for the range and depths of the human emotion Plath covered and how much knowledge there is about her death in comparison to the existence of her poems.
And so, as an audio producer, when I realised it would have been Plath’s 90th birthday this October, it felt like perfect timing to pitch a drama to BBC Radio 3 that would honour the emotional complexities of her poems and Plath’s legacy.
With Frieda Hughes’ foreword to the Restored Edition of Ariel ringing in our ears, myself and Charlotte from Almost Tangible (the production company that was the powerhouse behind this project) knew that the best way to do this would be to run a selection of Plath’s poems from Ariel and Winter Trees – including Three Women – in full, supported by sound-design and punctuated by interviews. I also wanted to divide the selection of poems into three separate but parallel worlds – to heighten the sense that there are different emotional tones, to better integrate Three Women and to help hold the listeners’ attention. This idea got commissioned and thankfully we received approval from Plath’s estate.
Our journey to creating this programme was a magical exercise. But it also wrestled with our intellect, our integrity and our creativity. And it’s this creative journey of adapting Plath for radio, with its breakthroughs and pitfalls, that I want to share at PlathFest, along with excerpts of the final programme. A programme that I hope both moves you and leaves you feeling that we have honoured the layered emotional landscape within the poems.
It’s these colliding emotional forces that is the key to my answer to the question I raised at the start of this blog (‘why are you drawn to her and what does that reveal about yourself?’) … I am drawn to Plath’s poems because they convey so many different feelings all at the same time. Feelings that sometimes feel unearthly, fearsome and so intense that they threaten to shatter the world of the poem itself. I’m not sure if being pulled towards this aspect of Plath’s work reveals anything unique about me – more it holds a mirror up to what it’s like to be human… and that is to feel and often deeply, in ways that sometimes lift us up and sometimes pull us down.
‘Drama on 3: Ariel and Winter Trees’ marks what would have been Sylvia Plath’s 90th birthday with a brand new radio drama adaption of her work. Here, the explorations of womanhood in Plath’s collections of poems Ariel and Winter Trees are woven together in readings by Eva Feiler, Indira Varma, and Dame Siân Phillips, with all three voices uniting to recite this new BBC radio adaptation of Plath’s rarely performed poem Three Women. The readings are punctuated with authentic testimony from people who have been inspired by the American poet, with interviewees including author Sarah Corbett, playwright and novelist Lucy Caldwell, and writer and poet Michèle Roberts. It will be aired on BBC Radio 3 at 7:30pm on 23rd October and will be available on BBC Sounds via this link shortly after broadcast. Learn more via this link.
Learn more about the programme and hear excerpts from it at Saskia Black’s talk at #PlathFest. 1pm on Sunday 23rd Oct at Heptonstall Museum. Suggested donation £3 (goes to the Museum Restoration Fund).