First Reads: Like A Fat Gold Watch

I have a confession to make: I have not read much of Sylvia Plath. I remember reading The Bell Jar in high school, but as a poet, I have not spent much time with her work other than the “famous” poems. Not because I don’t  like what I do know – on the contrary. I have taught and treasured “The Mirror” for years, and the sounds in “Mushrooms” have been a textbook on sonics for me.

But in reading the new anthology Like a Fat Gold Watch: Meditations On Sylvia Plath and Living, I realized how much of Plath’s work and life I do NOT know. This new anthology, edited by Christine Hamm, is a digest of response to and literary conversation about Plath’s poems that both introduced me to Plath in a new way and also to new writers. As I did in my initial First Reads post, I will not seek here to intellectually dissect the anthology but to give my impressions upon first read: what jumped out at me, what I enjoyed, what I will want to return to again.

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The Big Picture: In her introduction editor Hamm writes, “Plath’s work is a rebellion against the rigid prison of femininity identity–she writes about ugly, impossible, unpleasant, threatening things. The ugly female body, its scars, its blood, its hunger.” This sets up the scope of the anthology as well as pushes against the vision of Plath as “the saint of emo teenage girls and self-harming woman,” preparing the reader for multiple contexts in which the contributors have experienced and responded to Plath’s work.

Structure: The anthology has each author’s bio and a brief statement about their included work as a preface to the work itself. I enjoyed this structure as it allowed me to know a little about the writers and how they had engaged with Plath before I read. I had never seen this before–author notes and bios usually are placed at the end of an anthology –but this structure was interesting to me, especially since I didn’t know some of the Plath references. Many of the contributors are Plath scholars, and this intense scrutiny of her work has inspired me to be a better student of poetry in general.

The Variety of Responses: I had imagined that the anthology would be all poems, but it is not. Poems are here, yes, and good ones (I’ll mention some favorites later), but there are also essays, short stories, visual art, & explications of Plath poems. The poems themselves take several different forms from free verse to a sonnet crown to complicated collage work. The variety made the anthology well-paced and engaging.

 

The Quality of the Work:  There is much to love here, and I cannot quote every piece, but I will highlight a few pieces to which I know I will return. Tasha R. Cotter’s essay “Explication of Three Ariel Poems” was both intelligent and interesting, something hard to find in critical essay. I will now attend to these three poems with Cotter’s essay as a guide and a touchstone for my own opinions. Lisa Cole’s poem “The Truth Pulled From Her Mouth” is lovely, ominous and hopeful all at once, ending with “To become that which hurts us/is to thrive, to conquer.”  J. Hope Stein’s poem “Ted & Sylvia” offers a glimpse both into the relationship between Plath and Hughes and into the speaker’s relationship and desire to be Sylvia: “When we first met,/you asked me to be Ted./& I said to myself, come on,/what would Sylvia do?/When I say SPRING I mean SPRING.” Angela Veronica Wong’s “In Spring” provides masterful line breaks and stunning lines like “My crabheart scuttles like a nightmare.” And Sarah Busse’s “Four Letters to Sylvia” are both homages to the poet and their own universes of words: “Dear genius, dead girl, what can I tell you of sea/or moon, more than you know?”

A good anthology not only draws a thread thematically but allows each individual piece its own space to create a world. Like a Fat Gold Watch does this quite well, giving each piece the opportunity to shine on its own merits as well as enter a larger conversation with a poet who most people know of, but now will want to know more deeply.  I recommend this anthology not only to anyone who already has a relationship with Plath’s work, but also to Plath “novices” like myself. I guarantee that you will enjoy this collection either way.

 

 

 

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The Ear as Portal

When the pen is stuck, my first inclination is always to read. To crack open a book or journal and roll around in someone else’s words and syntax for a while, let my vision guide me to a key that will unlock something new inside my own lexicon. Being a reader is an important practice for every writer, but I often forget how important it is to use the ear, to listen to the work of others to concentrate the mind and the ear on words that are NOT in front of me, to process them in a purer, more challenging way.  I have been doing this electronically through the wonderful Commonplace Podcast with Rachel Zucker, but I always learn something from hearing poets read live.

I was reminded of this last night at a wonderful reading sponsored by The Poetry Center of Chicago. Their Six Points reading series, at which I have had the pleasure of reading myself, hosted Tarfia Faizullah and Kaveh Akbar sharing their poems and then a conversation about Tarfia’s upcoming book and poetics in general. Having been enraptured by Seam when it debuted four years ago, I was not surprised to be enamored with every poem Tarfia Faizullah shared from her upcoming Graywolf Press book Registers of Illuminated Villages. 

Even in the small number of poems she shared, I could hear the multiple meanings of the word “register” – an official list or record, part of a range of voices or instruments, and the action of detection or recognition. These were poems of witness, of generations, the great melodies of all the small things that register in the heart. Faizullah’s reading style was engaging and strong with no hint of artifice or “poet voice.”  My reaction to Kaveh Akbar’s reading was similar – I was familiar with many of the poems from his chapbook Portrait of An Alcoholichaving reviewed it earlier this year, and those poems were lovely to hear in the air, along with newer poems. All were image-rich and full of turns, his reading style all sway and angle. Both poets held the audience with their voices, registers finely tuned to the instruments of their words.

I had a notebook with me, as I always do, but I took no notes. I was present in that moment, listening, as was the rest of the audience packed into the tiny art gallery, an audience that included many other celebrated young voices in the poetry world. During the conversation portion of the evening, I did write down one thing Tarfia said that I wanted to remember:

“We all write with a particular combination of vision & blindness.”

It is this dichotomy that draws me to poetry, the push/pull of initiating & then following the poem’s path, even if I’m not sure where it came from or where it is going. Tuning into the registers of language that are singing somewhere in the hollows of my brain.

it’s an art thing

Spent a lovely evening listening to poets Stevie Edwards, Josh Gaines, and Ben Clark on an early stop of their Little Bones tour. Hosted in an apartment brimming with original art by owner Debra Kayes, creativity and inspiration seemed to leak from every corner. The poets read framed in a backlit doorway. The audience sat elbow to elbow on couches and the floor, and even the cat (named Apple Juice) was a rapt member of the audience. And, yes, the poets sold their books, but the reading was so much more than a sales opportunity. It was more like a party, like the gathering of a tribe. 

If you live somewhere in the Midwest between Chicago and Texas, see if they will be reading in a place near you. You will leave feeling like you’ve made at least three new friends.