The first thing to say is a massive THANK YOU to all the wonderful people who bought tickets for the festival and came with their passion, love and enthusiasm for Sylvia Plath and poetry, writing and ideas. Without you, there would have been no festival to speak of. The next big THANK YOU goes to all our fabulous contributors, from headliners to hosts, both online and in person, who brought their wisdom, vision, brilliance and commitment to writing and thinking, and of course to Sylvia Plath, to thrill, inform and delight us.
My official ‘thank you’ list took about twenty minutes to read out at the final event with Victoria Kennefick and Shivanee Ramlochan, hosted by John McAuliffe (dream team!) on the Sunday evening, so I won’t repeat it here, but there were many unsung heroes too – Christina Hooley who missed out on the live festival to take care of our poets and speakers staying at Lumb Bank, THANK YOU Christina, you were my first friend when I moved to Hebden Bridge in 2001, and I bow down to you! To Michael Crowley and Mary Ellen who helped to organise and run the Heptonstall events, and who stepped up to the plate with great courage. To Kate and Django Claughan of The Book Case, Hebden Bridge, who stocked and sold books for all our authors and at the events; to Ash Caton, of Ear Read This literary blog, who worked tirelessly (for no pay!) during the whole weekend, recording everything! If you purchase a £10 ticket for the digital and recorded events, some of the proceeds will go towards covering Ash’s expenses.
To Linsey Parkinson, without whom the digital programme wouldn’t have happened, and who also sorted out all the ticketing and the final digital programme, for no extra fee; to Hannah Lavery and Debbie Parker-Kinch of The Open University, who generously filmed some of our events and provided us with the recordings (included in the post-festival digital ticket). To Aqil of Hebden Taxis who, with divine patience and grace, got all of our authors where they needed to be, on time, and at all hours of the day. To the writer Claire Hughes, who came up for the weekend and pitched in and was utterly wonderful, as I know her to be; Amy Coaten who made the most beautiful pair of golden slippers and did so much else besides (running us around in her brave little car!), and to my son Lugh Corbett-Martin who stepped in when it all felt impossible and took over half of the admin, and then ran four stunning events for Pop-up Pamphlets with his usual elan, despite never having done anything like this before!
The festival began with a conversation with Steven May of Arts Council England back in 2019, when fellow Hebden Bridge poet Ian Humphreys and I set up the initial outline for the festival. Of course, 2020 happened and all that, and our plans were halted; Ian decided to take the lead on our sister project, After Sylvia, an anthology of new essays and poems in celebration of Sylvia Plath on her 90th Birthday anniversary, which was published by Nine Arches Press and launched at the festival. After Sylvia is available to order from Nine Arches Press, and all good bookshops, and includes new essays from Heather Clark and Gail Crowther, Dorka Tamas, Degna Stone and Devinah Shah, alongside 60 new poems from leading and emerging poets. There will be more events featuring the anthology next year, so look out for those.
I took the decision to revive the festival at the start of 2022, and worked non-stop from January, alongside two semesters of teaching, in the wake of a covid infection, with a second covid infection in August, and only four days off (a rather wobbly-legged and exhausted stay in a tepee in the Lake District). I’m amazed I got through it all, but always felt the angels were on my side! Many people might imagine that festivals are run with teams of paid staff (or indeed, pay), but this is not the case. Most festivals are run by one or two dedicated people, working a whole year for no or very little pay (if they’re lucky), little or no guaranteed funding, and dependent on many willing and devoted volunteers. Plath Fest was funded by Arts Council England (with small but essential grants from Lancaster University and The Rebecca Swift Foundation), and a great deal of support in kind.
If you were there, you know what an extraordinary weekend it was (despite the rain!), and I’m sure you will remember it for years to come – but do take time to look at the photos! You can see our full festival photo album here. I won’t be doing this again – the cost to my health and my own creative work was simply too high, and yes, I got less than a month’s pay for a year’s work – but there are plans underway with Friends of Heptonstall Museum, The Elmet Trust, and the Arvon Foundation, for a lasting legacy to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in the Calder Valley, and for centenary celebrations in 2030 (Hughes) and 2032 (Plath), so keep your eyes and ears out for more news on this as things develop.
My enduring memories will be of getting tipsy on rose-scented martinis at Nelson’s Wine Bar for Gail Crowther’s Friday afternoon book event, Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz; sliding down the buttress on a carpet of newly fallen autumn leaves on the Sunday afternoon (the very steep cobbled path that links Hebden Bridge to Heptonstall), Chase, my border collie and festival dog, trying very hard not to pull me down, after Saskia Black’s talk on her dramatization of Ariel and Winter Trees for BBC Radio 3 at the museum, with a vegetarian sausage sandwich in one hand and on my phone, trying to sort out about three different taxis at once and get to an event in time. Of the wonderful Victoria Kennefick and the extraordinary Shivanee Ramlochan literally making my body vibrate with the passion and glory of their poetry; and of the great poet and friend of Sylvia Plath, Ruth Fainlight, her conversation with Heather Clark at the Town Hall on Saturday night and the reading of her own poems. This night felt like we were making literary history, and the entire room (packed to the rafters), was mesmerized, and deeply moved.
The final THANK YOU must go, of course, to SYLVIA PLATH. I will ever see her most vividly in that photograph, sitting on the wall of the Ted Hughes’ parent’s house, the Beacon in Heptonstall, the moors stretching out behind her, head bent over her typewriter on her knee. Her poems, as we know, will last as long as there are readers to read them (and endlessly re-read them) and I firmly believe that it is to her readers that her poems belong. They have travelled far indeed.
Director of the Sylvia Plath Literary Festival,
Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall, October 2022