Northern Soul’s Poetry Correspondent, Wendy Pratt, talks to singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams about Hypoxia, an album written to mark the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Williams will be performing at the Manchester Literature Festival this weekend.
Sylvia Plath was one of the writers who opened up poetry for me. I first read her work many years ago when I was in the midst of a horrific bout of depression. It was like someone cracking into the tomb in which I was only half alive and shining a light on me. It was the first time I’d been able to identify with anyone suffering from mental illness. Ever since, I have swallowed up everything about her.
With National Poetry Day just gone, interest in Plath has been brought back to the surface, along with the inevitable back story of her relationship with Ted Hughes, her suicide and the feminist outcry that followed her death. But there was always more to Plath than that.
Plath was a woman with a drive and ambition that frightened people, but she was also joyous and child-like in her enthusiasm. Her personality and the sheer craft of her work have been absorbed, to a certain extent, by her life story and she has become a myth, a totem for teenage angst and the poster girl for the ‘creative temperament’. But there are still people who wish to be inspired by her work and want to go deeper than the grappling for nuggets about her sex life, marriage and death.
The recent BBC documentary, Ted Hughes – Stronger Than Death, featured Frieda Hughes, the older of Ted and Sylvia’s children, talking about her father for the first time, and also about the impact of the media on her mother’s image as well as the harm that bad press had caused her family. It was incredibly moving to see this talented, eloquent, warm and funny woman talking about the pain she felt having witnessed her father’s tears. I can’t imagine the granite poet crying, and I simply can’t imagine what that must have been like for his daughter. It is testament to her courage and love of life that she is able to talk so warmly about her dad and the small details of their life together, such as him teaching her to skin a badger on the kitchen table (just an everyday occurrence in the Hughes household).
Not so long ago, on one of my jaunts across to West Yorkshire to read at an event, I visited Plath’s grave. I’m not sure why I wanted to go – to pay my respects or to gawp? What I found was not a gothic tribute to a god-like poet, but a small, plain grave with votives of pens and candles strewn across it. She became more of a person to me at that point. I’d already read her diaries and journals several times, as well as Hughes’s letters, and had found something touching in the small details. Not the obsessive lists and perfect descriptions, but the shouting up the stairs at Hughes to come and hold the baby while she did the washing up, that sort of thing; those small events that no one remembers except the people inside a marriage.
It was a beautiful experience to come across the singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams and her New Writing North/ Arts Council-commissioned album, Hypoxia, inspired by Plath’s The Bell Jar. Like a lot of people, Williams had previously read Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, which tells the story of Esther Greenwood’s decent into depression and her subsequent suicide. She’d also read Ariel. She found the poems in it “muscular and visceral” but it was only when Williams was commissioned to write the album that she revisited The Bell Jar. Re-reading it she was struck by Plath’s writing and its modernity. The vomiting scene, in particular, in which Esther and her friends contract food poisoning is a particularly graphic part of the book and reminded Williams of the film Bridesmaids. She felt that Plath was writing before her time and that her writing was as relevant today as it had been in 1963.
As part of the project, Williams amassed a number of documents: journals, letters, paintings, biographies, everything you could imagine, in order to find inspiration. But she felt that the way into the music was through the novel, which in turn led back to Plath.
“I didn’t want to put Sylvia Plath’s words to music,” says Williams. “Poetry is already very condensed in the same way that a song is. And I didn’t want to write about Sylvia’s life because that would have become too political. I found that getting into the mind of Sylvia the writer, working with the characters in the book, was a back door into talking about Sylvia’s writing.”
Does Williams think that writing lyrics is similar to writing poetry?
“They’re really different. In poetry you are condensing and conveying a whole meal into something you can put in your mouth and taste. With song-writing it’s similar but the big difference is the shape of words in your mouth, how they match the melody. The right shape of the words is the big difference.”
Hypoxia is sublime, sad, touching, gentle and beautiful. Williams has caught the vulnerability of Esther and the isolation of depression perfectly, and brought Plath back to life. She worked for two years on the album and, not surprisingly, felt she had become close to Plath, calling it “a collaboration with someone who isn’t there”. She wanted to do her best by her but writing about death, suicide, depression and being so entwined in Plath’s life and the life of Esther was arduous, painful even.
“The connection I felt to Plath’s work was a difficult thing, a dangerous thing. But I came across tapes, documentaries and recordings of her, not just reading, but talking, just talking about ordinary things and I wanted to reflect that rounded, more normal version of her. Her persona as an artist has been swallowed up, and after a time all that seems to remain of Plath is the story of her.”
Williams has created a human story in Hypoxia. It’s obviously very important to her that mental illness is talked about too. She told me how she felt it was a taboo, and how she was careful not to glamorise it. Williams wants to make people aware of mental illness: “People are dying because of the taboo in society, people are dying every day because they feel they can’t talk about it, and about the implication of mental illness.”
I wondered if Williams found it difficult to immerse herself in the life of someone who was so close to the edge, particularly when it came to taking the material on the road. “The touring is hard and intense. You have to bring yourself and a truth to it, so when performing you do the same thing. It’s very tiring, it brings with it the more personal side of the subject matter. But I would rather find something difficult and mean it and believe it.”
Working on Hypoxia has changed the way she writes, has changed her as a person, says Williams. She learned a lot about herself during the process. Perhaps Plath has become more than just subject matter to her? “I was very aware that I didn’t want people to think I was riding on the back of her success. I wanted it to be a homage. It’s important for me to bring a new idea of who she was.”
William has achieved exactly that. I am rarely moved to tears listening to music, but Hypoxia did move me, and has moved me every time I’ve listened to it.
To listen to Kathryn Williams on The Northern Soul Podcast, click here.