Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Workflow

Working retail is weird sometimes. 

For example: I'm employed by a company that sometimes has to destroy merchandise. Legally, I understand the rationale, and so I'm not opposed to it. Morally, however, it's more complicated than that.

And the sheer amount of money flowing through stores can be astounding, especially during a time when there has been massive flooding in both North America and Asia, civil rights abuses, and actual Nazis marching in the streets. Sometimes it feels frivolous to me, given the awful things happening here and abroad. This will only increase as we approach the holidays.

But there are other, much better things, as well. You can bond with complete strangers over a sale when you realize you both love a certain product, and I often tell bad jokes at the register with impunity; customers may roll their eyes, but they also sometimes chuckle, and that's good enough for me.

And I love the people-watching aspect of the whole retail enterprise. It's great for a writer, because you can lift tiny aspects from interesting clients and insert them into your own characters, or even use ridiculous excerpts overheard in the store for dialogue later on. This is the part about selling that I enjoy most (considering that I'm such a hardcore introvert, it's difficult for me to enjoy the enterprise at all.)

Yes, retail sucks sometimes. But as with everything else, you have to find that silver lining and run with it if you want to survive. Just some advice from an unwilling shopgirl.

-Cate-

PS YA GIRL IS (not even remotely) FAMOUS (in a strictly local sense).

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Pleased to Meet Me?

"Who am I? Where am I? Why am I?"

These questions were often rhetorically posed to me by one of my former supervisors, who asked them with a dazed look on his face meant to mock the undergraduate students who were seemingly unable to comprehend their coursework or lives. On the one hand, he was onto something, as we didn't always encounter the brightest minds of our times. On the other, "Who am I" is a question as old as humanity, one we often struggle to answer for ourselves, let alone for other people.

Walt Whitman declared that "I am large, I contain multitudes." Here, then, is a man who acknowledges that he is not a single thing but is comprised of many personae, from a patriot ("O Captain! My Captain!") to the ghost of his childhood self ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking") to a lover  ("We Two Boys Together Clinging") to an unabashed voyeur ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"). Being Whitman, though, he was completely willing to expose all of his inner selves to the world, because he loved us and wanted to share everything.

For the rest of us, it's not always that easy. Sharing our authentic feelings and showing our true colors can be intimidating, especially for introverts. When it comes to writing, though, I find it easier to be open and honest. Yet a dilemma remains: how best to present myself? Or, put another way, what voice am I meant to use here?

Dinty W. Moore puts it best:

Although the personal essay is a form of nonfiction, and thus the self you bring to your essay should be an honest representation of who you are, we are in fact made of many selves: our happy self, our sad self, our indignant self, our skeptical self, our optimistic self, our worried self, our demanding self, our rascally self and on and on and on. But in truth, if we attempt to bring all of these selves to every essay that we write, we run the risk of seeming so uncertain, so indecisive, that we merely confuse the reader.

Here, he's specifically discussing personal essays and memoirs, but I think it can apply to any form of writing, particularly poetry, and even fiction: if you simply take this advice and apply it to a first-person narrator, you will be able to construct a character with a consistent voice throughout your novel or story. 

For my part, I've never spent much time thinking about my blogging persona. Perhaps I have a  singular attitude that comes naturally to me depending on the topic I'm discussing: passionate, skeptical, excited, literary, and so on. When it comes to writing essays, however, things are different. I struggle to make myself coherent. The form somehow affects me, puts more pressure on me, whether it should or not.

So I'm going to take the advice Moore lays out elsewhere in his piece and examine my motivations and the things I'm trying to convey when writing essays so I can share myself more effectively with the reader. After all, a writer is nothing without an audience, and garbling your message can drive readers away.

-Cate-

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Summer Book Report

Last year, I wrote a post about how I spent my summer vacation. While I'm taking a slightly different approach this year, I'd still like to report back to everyone on my literary-centric activities.

- Several months ago, I joined the Book of the Month Club, even though I don't need more books or even anyone suggesting titles to me. But on the other hand, their curated selections allow you to take a step back from the bookstore, which is a crazy thing for me to say, since I adore bookstores, but I recognize the value of this for people who maybe don't have time for shopping but still want to get at least one novel in from time to time. Definitely check out any deals they have, because sometimes you'll be able to get an extra book (or a tote!) for free.

- In July, I visited both locations of The Island Bookstore: Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, MI. Both have good selections of Michigan titles, and the island location is surprisingly well-stocked with both books and gifts, considering their small retail space and the fact that the rest of the street is lined mainly with souvenir shops and fudge makers. 

- Also in July, I made return trips to both McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, MI, and Schuler Books in Lansing, MI.

- And once more in July: the first annual Detroit Festival of Books was held in the Eastern Market. The event featured local authors and booksellers, and the turnout seemed to be good. While there, I picked up a title from The Porcupine's Quill, whose cover stock was absolutely gorgeous.

- In August, Dad and I went to Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI to see a panel discussion about  the new anthology And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017, which was a good time. Sue Harrison, M.L. Liebler, Phillip Sterling, and Keith Taylor were on the panel, and I appreciate their answers to a question I posed after the reading! (For an interview with Keith Taylor, check out the Brilliant Books website!)

- As a side note, Bookriot has released a list of the best bookstores in every state, and--whaddaya know--Brilliant Books, Literati, and McLean & Eakin are all represented in the Michigan section!

- Through my mother's generosity, I was able to enroll in an online course offered through GrubStreet, the popular Boston writing center. Six Weeks, Six Essays was taught by Grace Talusan, whose prompts, resources, and feedback were great. Although their summer courses are almost over, the center's online offerings for the fall are already listed on the site, so check that out if you'd like to brush up on your creative writing skills but don't want to go back to school.

- As you may have noticed, I actually took some time to blog this summer! Wow, what a concept: keeping up with my own project for once? Never saw that coming, tbh.

- If you haven't seen it yet: I wrote a(n almost) 2,500-word essay here on the blog about Sylvia Plath that is messy and ridiculous and fraught, but it felt good to write something approaching critical territory again. It's rare for me to engage in (nearly) academic composition, but it seemed like the thing to do at that particular moment, so there you have it.

- And to wrap things up, here's a cautionary tale: when I first moved home, the majority of my books were still packed up, so I ran over to the local Barnes & Noble to grab a couple of titles to tide me over. While browsing, I decided I needed more Chuck Klosterman in my life (which is perpetually true), and I bought a copy of I Wear the Black Hat to satisfy myself. I read it, and it was good, and I set it aside to be shelved later. Two or three days after that, I was looking for something in a box and found the book, but I couldn't remember having left it there. Lo and behold, I later saw the book on the bookshelf in my room. 

Yes, kids, I made the mistake all serious readers have made at least once in their lives: I bought a copy of this particular tome sometime in the past (I suspect it was last summer), forgot I had it, and then bought a new copy later. This is, I think, the second time I've faced such a dilemma, and I fully expect it to happen again in the future. #failcatefail

-Cate-

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

FOMO

When I was an adolescent, I was desperately uncool. (I like how I'm saying this as though I've become super-hip and popular in the intervening years. EL OH EL NOPE.) As a result, I always came to fads late. My Tamagotchi was probably one of the last ever sold. I skipped the Furby altogether, and I'm glad I did, because those things are scary. One particularly bitchy classmate made fun of me in the third grade because I still played with Barbies. This is how it went back then.


Today, I'm no better at keeping up with trends, but in a different, more adult way. Gone are the times when I was late to the party; instead, I'm skeptical of the party itself. The hyper-manicured eyebrow? I don't get it at all and refuse to participate. "Festival style" baffles me, both because of its appropriative aspects and because I don't see the appeal of things like Bonnaroo and Burning Man. Reality television in the vein of the Real Housewives franchise holds no interest for me.

This might sound surprising coming from someone who claims to be a devotée of popular culture, and in a way, it is. When it comes to pop culture, I lean more nerdy, more literature-centric, more critical (in the evaluative sense), so I walk a different path, ignoring the things that don't speak to me in favor of topics that spark my curiosity.

As a child, I wanted to fit in badly enough that even something as inane as pogs seemed essential to my life; unfortunately, by the time I arrived at the station, the train had departed and I was left trying to catch the caboose. Now, I'm less susceptible to that impulse, although I do still occasionally seek opportunities to be accepted into the so-called "cool kids" group. That's only human, I think.


Perhaps as I continue to age, I'll worry less and less about that cutting edge. It usually turns out to be ineffectual, anyway, or lacks historical or philosophical resonance. The exception to this may prove to be something like the Kardashian family; if that turns out to be the case, I'll eat my words. For now, though, I'll continue to wonder what I might be missing when I don't consume a given type of media. 

Here's hoping I'm not missing anything at all.

-Cate-

Images via here and here.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Way I Resist

As you might imagine, I've been thinking about politics a great deal lately. 

20 January was an interesting day, for America and for the world. Since that time, the word that's come to mind the most since then is shitshow. I won't even bother listing off the offenses committed by the executive and legislative branches of the government, because it's too depressing and many others have already offered their commentary.

But I will tell you a story about how these past seven months have affected me.

When I broke my book ban, I broke it hard, because my method of helping the world is through reading. Stick with me on this: educating myself about the past, present, and future seem to be the best way I can arm myself to fight the good fight.

During the week after Election Day, I was surrounded by people who were honestly, gut-wrenchingly terrified of what the future might hold for them and their loved ones. And I won't lie: I was scared, too. I remain trepidatious. My focus at that time, though, was on those others, most of whom weren't in a position to put up their dukes, as it were.

One night, I found myself at a bookstore. Though my aim was to find something my brother might like to read--I was in Christmas-shopping mode--I got angrier and angrier the more I saw headlines and magazine covers dissecting anything they could about the election. This was not the America I had been promised. At that moment, it wasn't even one I recognized.

So I marched myself to the history section, and that's where the rampage started.

By the time I was done, my pile of tomes was six high, and I practically dared the cashier to fight me when I rolled up to her register with a scowl on my face and flint in my gaze. She didn't make any comments, however; she simply did her job, and I rolled back into my apartment that night well over a hundred dollars poorer but--I hoped--soon to be richer for my pains.

Due to time constraints and my tendency to slack, I haven't made it through this cavalcade of books, and of course I've made more purchases since that night. Yet I haven't abandoned my self-set task. As often as possible, I make attempts to bring myself up-to-date with the latest disaster reports, and there have been many. And I spread my knowledge when and where I'm able.

Maybe I'm affecting people when I tell them some anecdote or other, or maybe I'm not. But at least I'm trying, and I will continue to resist.

-Cate-

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What We Talk About When We Talk About Plath

When we talk about Sylvia Plath, we talk about Ted Hughes, the poet-husband who nurtured and tormented her. We talk about the way she died, and occasionally the downstairs neighbor she nearly killed in the process. We talk about her overbearing mother and monolithic father. We talk about her confessional style and how this relates to Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. We talk about her infamous mental health issues.

What we discuss less often, outside of criticism and academia, is how formidable she was as a writer. The personal struggles she faced have eclipsed this fact in popular discourse, and as a result, the public keeps Plath pigeonholed. Hers is the domain of madwomen in the attic (or, in her case, the basement), mothers needing their little helpers, females who act out when they are spurned. While she was certainly aware of her own issues--she was often medicated and had a close relationship with her therapist--she was far more than a depressive girl crying huddled in her room. 

Just after they met, Plath wrote a poem about Hughes called "Pursuit," in which he is a panther. She knew then that Hughes was dangerous. What she neglects to mention is that she was a God-damned tigress.

*

Tracy Brain, in her essay "Unstable Manuscripts: The Indeterminacy of the Plath Canon," featured in Anita Helle's anthology The Unraveling Archive, makes a compelling case that the reader and/or scholar cannot fully rely on Plath's published works--particularly Ariel (including the Restored Edition) and The Collected Poems--because Plath's archives reveal typographical discrepancies between manuscripts and "finished" products as well as Plath's own working manuscripts and notes, and those notes especially reveal contradictions and changes we can't fully understand, as Plath was dead by the time the bulk of her work fell onto editors' desks.

While this issue shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, we are, thanks to Ted Hughes, largely left to rely upon printed material as "definitive." Even if we can never know whether "Edge" was truly the last poem Plath wrote (Hughes seemed to think so, based on his sequencing in The Collected Poems, but the argument for "Balloons" is equally valid), we must work with what we have been given and rely on Hughes' judgments.

"Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like," he tells us, and "if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy." This is not the idle speculation of a husband who took walks as his wife scratched away with her Shaeffer pen. It's the keen observation of someone who often wrote by her side and who trusted her with his own words, both as typist and workshopper. He knew her prowess with words, and her capacity to wound with them: he was the subject of many of Plath's more powerful poems ("Daddy," "Burning the Letters," "Words heard, by accident, over the phone," and more), and though he was in a position to suppress their publication, he chose to go ahead with them and make sure that the world knew her name.

*

No one has ever written a truly "authoritative" biography about Plath, because her legacy is complicated. 

Ted Hughes, by his own admission, destroyed her final diaries after her death, eliminating the possibility of scholars gaining personal insights into her final, powerful poems. 

Aurelia Plath, Sylvia's mother, worked diligently to expunge certain unfavorable communiqués from the record when she published Plath's collected Letters Home. (Not coincidentally, this is the same reason Plath delayed the publication of The Bell Jar so long: to spare feelings.) However, the originals remain largely intact, mainly in the Lilly Library at Indiana University but also elsewhere; the first volume of Plath's wider collected correspondence is set to be published this fall. 

Olwyn Hughes, Ted's sister and the executor of both estates until her death in 2016, was notorious for refusing to cooperate with anyone who might criticize her brother too much. Plath herself was not a fan of Olwyn, but Hughes trusted her implicitly.

The net result of this is that most biographies of Plath lean heavily in favor of either her or Hughes, depending on who the author cozied up to during the research process. Aurelia died in 1994, but not before she assisted Paul Alexander while he collected information for Rough Magic. The biography is problematic in some ways for the reasons listed above, yet it remains the best available overview of the poet's life.

Fans of Plath almost uniformly come down on her side, and her grave was repeatedly vandalized; rather than gravediggers, she was disturbed by headstone editors, who would rip the "Hughes" off the marker so it read Sylvia Plath rather than Sylvia Plath Hughes. They would rather Ted Hughes be punished in perpetuity, Plath be rid of him in death.

For my part, I think Hughes made some mistakes. Undoubtedly, a few of them were even cruel and contemptible. And he had no right to do what he did to Ariel prior to its publication, though he was, in general, a capable advocate for Plath's work. And as a poet, he is unassailable; his work is not my style, but he knew what the Hell he was doing.

Further tangling the matter of biographical scholarship are two obvious figures, one innocent toddler, and a much-maligned woman: the Hughes children, Frieda and Nicholas; their half-sister Alexandra, called Shura; and Assia Wevill, the most widely recognized of Ted Hughes' affair partners. Frieda Hughes has gone on record, sometimes in verse form, to criticize those who are obsessed with her mother and who have fired shots at her father. Nicholas Hughes committed suicide in 2009 after pursuing his love of nature and ecology, no doubt following his father's example (Ted Hughes' fascination with the outdoors is one of his trademarks); the younger Hughes was always reluctant to discuss his mother publicly. 

Shura died at the age of four in her mother's murder-suicide. As for Wevill, it's no secret that she was married to a poet (David Wevill, a respected Canadian writer) before meeting Plath and Hughes and later chose gas as her weapon of choice when she killed herself and her daughter. These are not mere echoes of Plath, and Wevill is often a reviled figure in the Plath mythos.

But again: these are things people always discuss when Plath comes up in conversation. Except for the most casual readers, everyone knows at least that the Plath-Hughes marriage was torn asunder and that Hughes' actions after Plath's death--all the way up to his own demise in 1998--led to controversy. What they might better discuss is how each of these people appeared in print. (Shura, born two years after Plath's death, is exempted.)

*

Aurelia  Plath became the focus of a few of her daughter's works, as any parent of a serious writer might expect. Yet she attempted to be even-keeled about the matter, at least publicly. "One observation I can make," Aurelia wrote in 1983, for a piece in Paul Alexander's anthology Ariel Ascending, "[...] involves Sylvia's tendency to fuse characters and manipulate events to achieve her own artistic ends." In truth, this statement might apply to every writer who ever lived, and I believe it is both a fair assumption on Aurelia's part as well as her fervent wish as a parent that it be completely true.

Plath could be cutting when she directed her words at specific individuals, however obliquely. And Aurelia did feel that sting: "[...O]ther poems [...] involve the mother figure as the whipping boy, so characteristic of the Fifties." She also mentions that in The Bell Jar, Plath "transformed personalities into cruel and false caricatures." However, as one might expect of a mother, she asserts that "I had faith in [her] genius."

No amount of faith, though, can change the fact that the title of "Electra on Azalea Path" contains a name that sounds awfully like Aurelia Plath, nor the fact that Mrs. Greenwood in The Bell Jar is, in the main, a character who hews closely to Aurelia as Plath experienced her during that electroshock summer.

*

Ronald Hayman speculated in The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath that Plath intended to kill her children when she took her own life in 1963, but this is based on a reading of some of her final poems, including "Edge," and not supported by the documented facts of the incident. And anyway, the opposite argument can be made using different pieces; Plath often wrote about her children, in pieces like "Nick and the Candlestick" and "Morning Song." It's likely that she did this for the same reason another writer might: they were readily available subjects, like their father and grandmother.

If you subscribe to the notion that turnabout is fair play, it's worth keeping in mind that three out of those four had their own say in various works published later, as we see above. Call it a literary circle of life.

*

In the main, Assia Wevill has been unfairly castigated. Yes, her final act--killing Shura--is unforgivable and must have been the source of much anguish for Ted Hughes (who later dedicated Crow, his 1970 collection of poetry, to the memory of both Assia and Shura). But in life, Wevill was no different from a million other women: a little bit wild, prone to making mistakes, desperately in love.

Of course, one can also understand why Plath despised Wevill. She was a woman who committed the highest form of girl-on-girl violence: man-stealing. But Plath wasn't utterly unreasonable; she also laid the blame at Hughes' doorstep, where it belonged. (Ultimately, neither Wevill nor Hughes can be held more culpable than the other, but Hughes' betrayal was worse, as he broke the vows he made to his wife.) 

As in other cases, though, Plath was vicious in her descriptions of Wevill, particularly in "The Fearful." And Wevill was not unaware of Plath's ire. She--like many others--ended up haunted by the specter of her (ostensible) rival. But like Plath, she was also haunted by her own past and by the invisible scourge of mental illness.

*

I know what you're thinking: "Cate, please. You've only given us examples of poems about Plath's family. So why SHOULDN'T we snoop around and learn things about her personal life?"

And that's totally fair, if you didn't listen to the thing Aurelia Plath said about situations and characters transforming in Plath's--or any writer's--imagination. And again, it's totally fair, if you're willing to ignore Plath's craftsmanship and Hughes' statement about it. And sure: it's totally fair, if you're willing to ignore the criticism Frieda Hughes levels at everyone she feels has co-opted her mother's legacy.

And once more: it's totally fair, if you're willing to forsake all other possible critical responses to Plath's work, or the multiple angles the biographical method could use: an American woman living abroad, a scholarship girl coming up in a privileged environment, a pre-feminist powerhouse, a deeply academic personality, a poet living with and surrounded by other poets. 

This is about so much more than just mental illness and interpersonal drama, and we must acknowledge that, or we are doing Plath, and ourselves as readers and critics, an enormous disservice.

*

Sometimes I wonder if Plath deserves better than us: the avid, trenchant fans who think she is somehow a projection of ourselves and that--as a result--we can claim some ownership of her. I attempt not to be that person, but I admit it: I get defensive of her, and I am often dismissive of those I deem clichés--the sad girls dressed in black trying desperately to be serious--even though I am exactly the same. On the other hand, fame (especially the posthumous kind) comes at a price, and devotees are one item on the bill of sale.

And sometimes I wonder if we deserve better than Plath: a woman who was nearly always on the edge of becoming unhinged, who threw Holocaust metaphors around to describe her own pain, who once destroyed some of Ted Hughes' manuscripts in a vindictive bonfire. On the other hand, if we threw out Plath, we would have to get rid of the Conrads and Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of the world, as well, to avoid committing the double crimes of sexism and hypocrisy.

*

I spend a lot of time thinking about Sylvia Plath.

It's true that I arrived at her doorstep, as most of us do, when I was a moody teenager struggling to fit in. This is a detail I can't help and won't deny. But I think it's worth noting that the bulk of the time I've spent with her was in my early 20s, near the end of my college journey, at a juncture when people were starting to refer to me as a woman rather than a girl. As it happens, I was also about the same age Plath was when she made the suicide attempt later immortalized in The Bell Jar.

It was a time when I loved boys and eyeliner and the idea that my future might actually turn out the way I wanted. But I resembled Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of The Bell Jar, too much for my own comfort, so I chose to focus on Plath's poetry instead.

Years later, I return to her work again and again, and I do so happily. And if I didn't know all the things I know, it never would have occurred to me to write about her now.

I composed this essay, as I compose so many things, in fits and starts between other activities, and it took me about a week and a half to draft. My memory of facts learned over eight years ago was surprisingly solid, which I take to mean that Sylvia Plath has never been far from my mind. I did have to retrieve my collection of books by or about Plath (and Hughes, and Wevill): 18 in all. 

For a complete accounting of my Plath collection, see the list following this post. Some books are either out of print or difficult to locate; many of my volumes came from Better World Books or Thriftbooks, both excellent online sellers for academics searching for titles your average used bookstore doesn't carry. There are many, many more titles out there that I've never seen or read; Plath has her own cottage industry now.

I do encourage readers to seek out resources that will illuminate Plath's craft, as well as those which properly contextualize her in both American and British history as well as in the continuum of literature. There are so many things to explore in her work that lie outside the confines of biography.

And when you talk about her, remember that she was both human and hard-working.

*

Resources

About Plath
Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath (ed. Paul Alexander) 
Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Judith Kroll)
The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (Ronald Hayman)
Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: A Marriage (Diane Middlebrook)
Rough Magic (Paul Alexander)
The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (A. Alvarez)
Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (Linda Wagner-Martin)
The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath (ed. Anita Helle)

By Plath
Ariel: The Restored Edition
The Bell Jar
The Collected Poems (ed. Ted Hughes)
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
Letters Home (ed. Aurelia Schober Plath)
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (ed. Karen V. Kukil)

About Hughes
Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (Elaine Feinstein)

By Hughes
Birthday Letters
Difficulties of a Bridegroom

About Wevill
Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love (Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why Are You Sad?

Well, the day arrived.

I finally looked a little too off, was a little too slow to smile, and my niece asked me the question I've dreaded answering "Why are you sad?"

In this case, I was able to deflect. "I'm just very tired," I told her. It wasn't a lie; I was exhausted. But it wasn't the truth, either. At least, it wasn't the entire truth.

I've always thought that, when the time is right, I'll be open with Niece and Nephew about my mental health struggles, because I'm terrified that either or both of them will turn out to have the same problems I've faced and don't want them to suffer alone. Neither of them, however, is at an age where they can adequately grasp the depth of anxiety and depression. Possibly they won't even understand the concept; for their sake, I hope they don't, because that would be a horrible thing to know when you're so young.

The thing is, they're inquisitive, and Niece has already been labeled gifted, so I expect more moments like these will arise whether I want them to or not. And to date, this is the worst part of depression I've had to face. Everything else seems easy compared to the anguish of knowing I've let the kids see me this way. 

I hope it will all make sense to them in the future. I just don't want it to have to make sense right now.

-Cate-