Biographer Stephanie Hemphill Digs Deep for Sylvia Plath’s Emotional Truths

August 30, 2007
Written by

Your Own Sylvia
Your Own Sylvia
(Random House)

by Stephanie Hemphill
Buy this book
via Amazon.com

 

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Stephanie Hemphill
Author of Your Own Sylvia

by Ellen Birkett Morris

September 2007

 

For poet Stephanie Hemphill the work of Sylvia Plath was more than a minor obsession. Plath’s work both spoke to her personally and aided her artistically.

 

“Plath’s work is transcendent. It shows you how to be a writer, how to dig and get underneath an emotional truth.”
—HEMPHILL

“Plath’s work is transcendent. It shows you how to be a writer, how to dig and get underneath an emotional truth. Sometimes writers, myself included, are afraid to go there,” said Hemphill.

Hemphill “went there” in her verse portrait of Plath, YOUR OWN SYLVIA. The book pairs evocative poems and biographical notes to tell the story of Plath’s complicated, difficult life. The poems span her birth to the discovery of her body after Plath commits suicide.

“Plath has a soap opera story but the point for me was her work,” said Hemphill.

Hemphill started writing at an early age and was the beneficiary of the Illinois Young Authors Program, an after-school program she participated in while growing up in Chicago.

She imagined that she would write novels or picture books. After successfully publishing poems for adults, she attended a class at UCLA on writing poetry for children. The experience sparked the creation of THINGS LEFT UNSAID, a novel in verse that won the 2006 Myra Cohn Livingston Award.

“YOUR OWN SYLVIA was challenging. How do you write poetry about a really amazing poet?”
—HEMPHILL

She participated in a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators consultation and ended up getting a call from her current agent, Steve Malk of Writer’s House, who was interested in selling the story.

Hemphill noted that she usually writes three poems for each poem that appears in a book.

Knopf editor Cecile Goyette read Hemphill’s first book and invited her to submit a proposal for a book of poems about the life of Sylvia Plath.

“YOUR OWN SYLVIA was challenging. How do you write poetry about a really amazing poet? How do you get over that you won’t do anything as amazing as she does? I thought of the teens who didn’t know Sylvia Plath and how much I wanted to bring Sylvia’s life and work to them,” she said.

Hemphill’s proposal included poems told from the perspective of various people in Sylvia’s life and included a section called “imagining Sylvia” in which Hemphill wrote poems in the style of Plath.

The person whose voice is being used in each poem is identified under the title of each poem. Brief biographical addendums are at the bottom of each page. This novel approach allows for a full and varied portrait of the poet’s life.

"Understanding her biography opens the work up and exposes the metaphors."
—HEMPHILL

 

 

 

“It is designed for the poem and addendum to be read together. Understanding her biography opens the work up and exposes the metaphors. I hope it offers a good entry point to her work for both teens and adults,” remarked Hemphill

“Her imagery is lovely. Her vocabulary is amazing. She uses all the tools.”
—HEMPHILL

She finds Plath’s own work equally accessible. “Her imagery is lovely. Her vocabulary is amazing. She uses all the tools. Her poems are meant to be understood,” said Hemphill.

She pointed out that many people are unaware Plath was a prolific writer. “She wrote novels, journals, letters and poems and everything she wrote had an artistry and genius to it,” noted Hemphill.

The book’s form, the verse portrait, is modeled after Marilyn Nelson’s book CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS about George Washington Carver. “It is a blending of fiction and nonfiction, a heavily researched imagining of conversations and images that yields an author’s interpretation of what happened,” explained Hemphill.

Her preparation for writing the book was prodigious research coupled with a poetic exploration in the form of letters to her mother (following a habit Plath cultivated) and journaling poetry using Plath’s work as a prompt.

Hemphill read as many biographies of Plath that she could get her hands on (around 30) and read all of Plath’s work.

“This book has a very personal element
for me. I related to Plath
on a number of levels . . .”

—HEMPHILL

 

Hemphill did not use any of her journal poems in the book. “They were designed to put me in (Plath’s) head and made me feel closer to her,” said Hemphill.

“This book has a very personal element for me. I related to Plath on a number of levels – her sadness, what it is like to lose someone you loved and her closeness to her mother,” said Hemphill.

In order to complete the work, she set a goal to produce a certain number of poems a day. She also fills her days with occasional freelance accounting jobs to make money.

Her editor, Goyette, “pushed everything to be better.” “I am a real believer in rewriting to get to the heart of what you want to write,” said Hemphill.

“I know I’ve gotten to a good place with a poem when I push the metaphor . . . ”
—HEMPHILL

“I know I’ve gotten to a good place with a poem when I push the metaphor, feeling or image a little further than I feel comfortable with,” said Hemphill.

While writing poetry can be a solitary endeavor, she said there are many ways to be part of a community of writers including joining a critique group and professional organizations including Author’s Guild, Women’s Poetry Project, and Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

She recommends that poets read literary journals and submit poetry. Once a poet has developed enough poems for a book they should begin to explore publishing houses and submit their manuscript.

Hemphill hopes YOUR OWN SYLVIA will lead teenagers to Sylvia Plath’s own work. Now that she has finished that book, she is hard at work on a book of verse about the Salem Witch Trials from the perspective of the girls who accused people of being witches. That book will be released in 2008 by Hyperion.

 

Stephanie Hemphill won the 2006 Myra Cohn Livingston Award for her novel in poems, Things Left Unsaid. Her poems have been published in California Quarterly, Into the Teeth of the Wind, LUNGFULL! Magazine, Rhino, and The Mid-America Poetry Review. Hemphill currently lives in California.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris