Karen edited the unbridged version of The Sylvia Plath Diaries (click here to buy), and teaches at Smith College. Here, you can read what she has to say:
Hello Karen, thank you for agreeing to this interview. When did you first become interested in Sylvia Plath and why?
Thank you for inviting me. I first became interested in Sylvia Plath when I took an English seminar on ‘Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath’ with Professor Dianne Hunter at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, during the spring 1974 semester. I remember that my final paper was about Sylvia Plath’s influence on the poetry of Ted Hughes, particularly Ariel’s influence on Crow. This particular English course changed my life
Please could you describe your job and duties at Smith College?
For the past twenty-five years, I have curated the papers of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. My official title is Associate Curator of Special Collections, which means that I work in all sections of special collections (Mortimer Rare Book Room, Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History Archives, and the Smith College Archives). There are about 45,000 rare books at Smith and 20,000 linear feet of manuscripts. I teach classes and provide reference service to scholars around the world using all this material. I am also on the faculty for our Archives Concentration Program at Smith College.
Have you ever worked previously in the publishing industry, prior to the publication of the Plath Diaries you edited?
My first job when I graduated from Trinity College in 1975 was as a typesetter and graphic artist for Belle Typesetting Company. I remember that I designed a yoga book as one of my first assignments. From 1976-1986 I worked for Yale University at the Lewis Walpole Library, an estate library focused on the work of British, eighteenth-century writer Horace Walpole. It was my privilege to assist the great collector Wilmarth S. Lewis and the editors of the Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence. I learned many of my editorial practices from Wilmarth S. Lewis who was a superb writer and editor. I also took a useful indexing course when I was in graduate school at Southern Connecticut State University where I received my M.L.S. in 1982. The unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath were published in London by Faber and Faber and Anchor Books in New York in 2000. In 2003, I co-hosted the Thirteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf at Smith College and edited a volume of Selected Papers published by Clemson University Digital Press in 2005. When Stephen Enniss acquired the Ted Hughes Papers for Emory University, we co-curated a joint exhibition in New York at the Grolier Club in 2005 with a catalogue on ‘No Other Appetite’: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Blood Jet of Poetry.
Would you ever consider writing a book about Plath yourself?
I am currently editing Sylvia Plath’s Letters with Peter Steinberg for Frieda Hughes. Plath’s letters will be published in London by Faber and Faber. I am also co-curating an exhibition with Dorothy Moss on Sylvia Plath for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. One Life: Sylvia Plath will open in 2017. I love bringing Plath’s original manuscripts and letters into broader circulation. But as for your question, I have no plans to write a book about Sylvia Plath.
There’s debate online about whether manuscripts not intended for publication-i.e letters and diaries-should or shouldn’t be published. What do you think?
Sylvia Plath’s copyrights are owned by her daughter, Frieda Hughes. It was Frieda Hughes who asked me to edit her mother’s journals and her mother’s letters. Since the family made this decision after careful consideration, I never questioned their choice. I am fascinated by the complexity of daily life that women writers need to navigate in order to succeed. I am grateful that Virginia Woolf’s diaries, for example, have been published in great detail. They were an inspiration to Sylvia Plath and the journals of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf are an inspiration to me and to other writers.
Do you think it would be fair to say that Sylvia was a ‘victim of her era’ ?
I don’t think of Sylvia Plath as a victim. She was resilient and fearless in spite of family traumas and the medical treatment she received, such as poorly administered electroconvulsive therapy, dangerous insulin injections, and Parnate for depression, which has all sorts of side effects. Although her life was short, Sylvia Plath had an incredibly rich experience (Books, Babies, and Beef Stews) and wrote some of the best poetry and prose of the twentieth century that is as fresh and honest today as it was over fifty years ago.
For anyone who wishes to follow in your footsteps, do you have any advice?
Robust education, continual professional development, and constant deep learning are very important to me, but it is also essential to risk and embrace challenge. I certainly don’t see myself as particularly extroverted, but I was able to give my first public lecture about editing Sylvia Plath’s Journals to English PEN in 2000 at the Café Royal in London and my first PowerPoint lecture on ‘Sylvia Plath’s Women and Poetry’ at Oxford in 2007 It is also important to surround yourself with good people. I am particularly lucky to have a supportive husband, Bo, and incredibly knowledgeable colleagues and mentors who have helped me along the way.
Thank you to Karen for answering our questions.