The Interview with Julia Gordon Bramer Page Two
by S. Ye Laird
S. Ye: How did you come to know and study Sylvia Plath? Do you remember your first impression of her? as a poet? as a mother of two young kids and suicide-r? What mystery still embodies Sylvia Plath in your research?
JB: I first found Sylvia Plath when I was around sixteen and picked up a copy of The Bell Jar which belonged to one of my parents. It stayed with me, and I became somewhat obsessed with her poem, “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” included in a biographical note at the end of my edition. There was something about that repeating line, “I think I made you up inside my head” that would not leave mine! My serious study of Plath didn’t come until much later, in graduate school in 2007, when I was working toward my MFA in poetry and fiction. I realized that there was a lot of tarot card imagery in Plath’s poetry collection Ariel, and I brought this to the attention of my professor. He was not familiar enough with tarot to link the two, and he asked me to make this my semester-end project. What started as a school project then became my life’s work. I realized that Plath had aligned all her poems in order with the tarot, and this vastly expands each poem’s meaning. I came to learn that Plath’s Ariel poems have at least six different levels of meaning.
I’ve spent more than a decade in this work and hate how the label “confessional poet” is slapped on Plath. It bothers me that people know her mainly for her depression and suicide. Even you call her a “suicide-r” but we are not our actions or the things that happen to us. One isn’t a cancer-er if they have cancer, are they? Depression is a disease, not her identity. Suicide is an action, a verb. Know what I mean? Lots of people are mothers, and lots of people are not, and I’m not sure why that has to go into the final judgment of her. I guess what I want to say ultimately is that Plath’s poetry is so much deeper than her drama.
S. Ye: I am amazed by your analysis of "Daddy'". It seems to bring back Sylvia Plath's time into this interesting juncture of ours — America’s place in the world as we perceive it — both fearful and hopeful. Can you give us a run-down of your book’s main points of view?
JB: Yes, as part of my Decoding Sylvia Plath series with Magi Press, I have recently published Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (2017). What I try to show the reader is that aligning this poem with the tarot, “Daddy” reflects the cards of the Queens. Surprised? I was. They’re the Queens in reverse, however, which means that they’re mad as hell. Through a complicated process too involved to discuss here, one of the great themes of “Daddy” is Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Plath’s first line, "You do not do, you do not do" is Freud’s superego chastising the self. The poem tours through Freud’s life in Vienna and the Tyrol, his trouble with the Nazis, and of course, takes us to the analyst’s couch (“You can lie back now, Daddy”) and Freud’s famous “talking cure” (“Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak”) Additionally, Plath’s got a tribute going on to the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which, if you’ve read that book, is all there in the poem too. There is so much, and the book will show you how I found these connections and others. It seems a waste to read Plath only as autobiography when her words did sextuple-work in meaning. Plath read several books a week since she was a young teen, saw plays and movies, and loved art. She incorporated all of these influences. Plath was seriously into mysticism, had her own tarot cards, regularly used the Ouija board, crystal ball, astrology, meditative trances, and more. I believe Plath knew exactly what she was doing in layering these poems; she was giving them resonance in the readers’ subconscious. She was putting a spell on us all.
S.Ye: She certainly still does. As a tarot card professional or psychic researcher, can you tell what's real and what's imaginary from Sylvia Plath's only fiction, The Bell Jar? It wasn't deemed a great creative work by her contemporary critics, but only after her death, when people came to realize 'life’ as lived in the minds of Sylvia Plath could be more real in the past and for the future. Any comment on that?
JB: I am a professional tarot card reader, yes. I am not a psychic researcher, although everyone who is on a spiritual path is an eternal student of mysticism, and I see where that might get confusing. I consider myself to be a literary scholar. Regarding what’s real and imagined in The Bell Jar, I think that this work is very close to autobiography, although Plath may have exaggerated certain scenes for poetic license. But her journals, letters, and memoirs of friends back up most of The Bell Jar as fact. That said, I have found the same tarot ordering in her words, beginning with that infamous first line that fits the meaning of the first tarot card, The Fool: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
It is true that The Bell Jar was not fully appreciated in Plath’s time. We know that she hid the fact that this was her personal experience, disguising names and using a pseudonym (Victoria Lucas). There were other popular books out about mental breakdowns and institutionalization at the time: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, and The Ha-Ha by Jennifer Dawson. We know that Plath read The Ha-Ha close to the time of her death. She likely felt that The Bell Jar wouldn’t have a chance against these other books with similar themes.
S.Ye: Do you think her death was inevitable? Do you think her death, strangely enough, made Ted Hughes a great poet, both in America and in England?
JB: Hmmm. I don’t know if I think Plath’s death was inevitable or not. She had a lot of terrible things happening to her at once: a philandering husband who had just left her and her children for another woman, the flu, frozen pipes and the coldest winter in London in 100 years, and a severe reaction to a new antidepressant. If just one of those factors hadn’t happened, she might be alive today.
Sylvia Plath’s life made Ted Hughes a great poet, not her death. She typed and mailed out his best poems to publications and contests all through their marriage. She acted as his secretary and his agent. And she did a heck of a good job. Plath advanced Hughes’ career, and Hughes said at her funeral, “She made me respectable,” or something like that. Although, he said it in a way that sort of blamed her as if success sullied the purity of his work.
After Plath’s death, her work made Hughes rich. It did not make him a great poet; he was already quite a fine poet on his own. But maybe with all the post-suicide drama and hype, the masses bought work by the both of them, with all proceeds going to Hughes and their children.
S.Ye: Well, Ted’s sister Olwyn Hughes would disagree with you on the ‘abandonment'’claim. For quite a while, actually, none of her and his London friends knew she died of suicide. You mentioned their children — one of the most unflinching black civil right poets, Audre Lorde (1934 - 1992), wrote: “The difference between poetry and rhetoric . . . is being ready to kill yourself [poetry] . . . instead of your children [rhetoric?] . . .”
How do we judge poets’ private acts? as adoring or defecting from their arts?
JB: I do not believe a poet should be judged by his or her life. They should be judged by the work, as a dancer is judged by a dance or a painter is judged by a painting. Writers are maybe the only other artists who carry so much personal baggage. Plath’s circumstances contributed to the mood of her work, to be sure. But they are not the sum total of her work. I think of Plath somewhat as I think of Vincent van Gogh: they had a beautiful gift that they used prolifically all at once, early in their lives. They spent it all young and then checked out. It is like Kerouac’s “roman candle”.
S.Ye.: Thank you so much for giving us the Decoding Sylvia Plath Series, and I look forward spending more close-reading quality time with many of your books!
“It's interesting to note that Plath called herself thirty years old in three other poems ‘The Colossus’ (1959), ‘Tulips’ (1961), and ‘Lady Lazarus,’ (1962). The number thirty obviously takes on a larger meaning for Plath, more than merely her physical lifespan.”
Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”
“Aside from Sylvia Plath being thirty herself at the time she wrote ‘Daddy’, thirty is the age at which Jesus Christ was baptized and received the Holy Spirit, and thirty might also refer to the Trinity” . . . “In Qabalah, scripture says that one must be over the age of forty, and male, to practice this mysticism. The consequences for breaking these rules is madness. Plath’s mention of her age and sex seem to flaunt the fact that she is disobeying God, as well as to reinforce the feminist undertones of ‘Daddy’. . .”
Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”