Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Kate Moses

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In her recent book, Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, Kate Moses explores the last months of Sylvia Plath's life -- the creation of the legendary Ariel poems, Plath's marriage, motherhood, and art. The book has been translated into 13 languages. Moses lives in San Francisco with her family, Executive Editor Gary Kamiya, son Zachary, and daughter Celeste. She was an editor and literary director before teaming up with journalist Camille Peri in 1997 to found Salon's popular department Mothers Who Think (now re-named "Life"). She is the co-editor of the anthology Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood. Along with co-editing what she calls "the daughter of Mothers Who Think," Moses is working on her second novel, which will focus on the upheavals and connections of several events in 1989: the Loma Prieta earthquake, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dramatic events in China, Romania, Panama, Czechoslovakia and South Africa. It may not come as a surprise that one of the main characters in the book is a mother. Rachel Iverson, Literary Mama's Poetry Editor, discusses poetry, mothering, writing, and Sylvia Plath with the author.

Rachel Iverson: You were an editor of the "Mothers Who Think" section of Salon and an anthology of the same title. Will you tell us about that experience?

Kate Moses: My friend and colleague, Camille Peri, and I founded "Mothers Who Think" at in 1987 with some reluctance: we had what we thought was a great idea for a website that would connect women to topics that had vital interest for them, but our best offer for sponsorship was coming from the website founded by our journalist husbands. The last thing we wanted to do was work for our husbands! However, they made us a great offer of job-sharing (so we would each be able to spend half the week with our small children) with the promise that they would never give us a hard time about having to leave work to pick up a vomiting child at preschool, and the daily, online "Mothers Who Think" was born.

To our pleasure but also dismay, the site became hugely popular immediately, and the fantasy of working half time evaporated. Within a year of starting the site it was one of the most popular departments on Salon and we'd been approached to publish an anthology. I have few concrete memories of those first couple of years as I'd given birth to Celeste a few months before we launched, and mostly what I remember are days when my milk would let down during an all-staff meeting, or when Camille and I had to share my nanny for a summer because her babysitter broke her driving ankle, or trying to interview some famous mother/personality on the phone while trying to prevent toddlers from eating staples out of the carpet, or being interviewed on television with pink eye I'd contracted from my son. "Frantic" would be a good catch-all term for the flavor of those years, especially when we were on an endless national book tour with the Mothers Who Think anthology, talking to women around the country about motherhood while our own children couldn't remember what we looked like.

RI: I loved your description of Plath's young son as "an inconsolable tyrant, catastrophic in his terry cloth bib, his soft crew cut of neutral toned baby hair standing upright in indignant outrage." As I read that, I thought, "Only a mother could have written this book!" How did your own experience of being a mother and writer influence this novel? Do you feel any kinship with Plath in that arena?

KM: I'm sure it's no coincidence that as a writer and a mother I felt compelled to imagine the life of a woman balancing the needs of her children and the needs of her art - which is exactly what I was doing while I was writing Wintering. If I didn't know it before, writing Wintering drove home the knowledge that children and art require the same intensity of focus, the same undivided loyalty.

My youngest grew from age three to age six while I was writing Wintering, and I sometimes heard her mumble to herself from outside my study, "Mommy's behind the door." I was "behind the door" in many ways, and my children and their needs saved me from being completely consumed by the devastating emotions dredged up while I wrote. At 3 every afternoon, I had to come out from behind the door and be their mommy again.

My daughter expressed that rivalry between art and herself on the day after I shipped my finished manuscript off to the publisher. It was the last day of kindergarten, and at sharing time she stood up and told the class, "I want to share that my mommy has finished her book, and I'm pleased to announce that Sylvia Plath is finally dead."

RI: What do you think Plath's poetry says about her experience as a mother?

KM: Plath was terrified that motherhood would stifle her creativity, and yet marriage and children and home life were things she wanted as much as she wanted to be a writer. It was not lost on her that once she finally committed to motherhood, it gave her a new and profound understanding of herself that she couldn't have gotten to otherwise. Motherhood ushered in her artistic and personal maturity; she wrote as much to her mother after the birth of her second child, saying she felt her real life -- personal and artistic -- had finally arrived. Motherhood gave Plath a unique capacity for balancing objectivity and subjectivity at once; she took the ordinary experiences of her life -- a hungry newborn, a kitchen accident, sewing baby clothes -- and exploded them, finding their archetypal and metaphoric echoes, and transformed them into something universal and knowable.

RI: What inspired you to begin your extensive research and writing of this novel?

KM: Motherhood had made me a reader of Plath, and the struggle to find a rich and honest inner life as a mother and an artist drew me back to her. I discovered her in a meaningful way when I was eight months pregnant with my first child. I thought her poems about motherhood were so much more insightful and emotionally complex than anything else I'd read, certainly more meaningful to me than What to Expect When You're Expecting. But I never imagined I would write about Plath. So many other writers had, and still she remained an enigma, a woman who seemed to have found the key to herself, and yet she'd committed suicide. As much as I was drawn to her as a reader, she was a question mark to me, too.

But after publishing the Mothers Who Think anthology, I was having a terrible bout of writer's block and turned again to reading Plath -- mostly to avoid writing myself! It was then that I read the Ariel poems in the order Plath had intended them to be read, and realized that she had been using those poems as a kind of lifeline. Not just the writing of them, but putting them together as a narrative, a fictional story of how she could make a new life out of the wreckage of the old one when she and Ted Hughes split up. Just as she had used her life to write the poems, now she was using the poems to write a new life. I couldn't believe it -- reading the poems as Plath had intended them completely changed my understanding of her. Plath has so consistently been portrayed as defiantly self-destructive, and yet if you read the story she was telling herself you can't help but see how frightened and alone and courageous she was, desperately trying to put her life back together, looking honestly at herself and her all-too-human mistakes. Once I understood what she had tried to accomplish with Ariel, I couldn't turn my back on her. I had to tell the story.

RI: What made you decide to write historical fiction instead of writing a biography of Plath?

KM: For about five minutes I considered writing the story of Sylvia Plath and her Ariel as nonfiction. All the factual details were available, but they'd been so hashed over they no longer made sense. Some of the facts that I thought most valuable to consider were lost in the glut of information already published. To me, the facts ended up dehumanizing Plath rather than doing the opposite. She'd become an icon rather than a woman who was simultaneously suffering and making art. After reading Ariel as she'd intended it to be read, she was so vividly a person to me -- a young mother, scared, lonely, trying to process her husband's defection and the arrival of her artistic gifts, how they related to each other, and really struggling to understand herself and what had happened to her life, to make sense of it all. I wanted Sylvia Plath to make sense again, to give her back her humanity, and the only way possible, I thought, was to follow her lead and to tell her story through the story she'd told herself. That fiction -- heavily informed by and respectful of the facts -- was the only way I saw possible.

RI: Do you consider yourself a poet? Did you find yourself thinking about poetry in a different way after spending so much time immersed in a poet's life?

KM: Oh, I wish I could claim to be a poet, but I'm not. I've joked for years that poetry is my religion, and I tend to believe that it is the highest form of literary expression. But that doesn't mean that fiction can't be poetic. I started my career in literature as an editor of poetry and fiction, and for 20 years I've consistently sought the territory between storytelling and the specific gravity of words, poetry's echolocation of what really matters. I'm sure some people would argue that Sylvia Plath's poetry "failed" her, that it didn't bring her the redemption or inner strength she needed to survive. I have to disagree: I think that Plath matured enormously as a human being as well as an artist through the creation of the Ariel poems in particular, and what failed her was her biochemistry, not poetry.

RI: Do you have any thoughts about what makes a "poet" versus a "writer"? How much of the label do you think is internally imposed versus externally imposed?

KM: I'm as guilty as anyone of making the assumption that a poet is someone who uses particular structural strategies unknown in other kinds of writing, but in fact many of the prose writers I love are "poets" in terms of their understanding of the music of words, of timing, of visual expansiveness. As a fiction writer, that's what I'm after as well -- my impulses tend to be toward image and sound: I "listen" for how words fit together and how they will sound when spoken as well as how they relate on the page.

RI: Much of the book is focused on Plath's creation of the Ariel poems as she tried to survive the hubbub of her daily life as a newly single mother. What do you think we can learn from her experience?

KM: What's amazing about Plath's writing of the Ariel poems is that she accomplished this personal artistic breakthrough not just while fully consumed with the daily commerce of mothering tiny children with almost no backup, but that she was able to incorporate her mothering into her poetry and transform it into something beyond the personal -- into art that has moved and resonated for millions of readers. Motherhood was Plath's true subject, the raw material of her artistry. I think motherhood has allowed many of us, like Sylvia Plath, to discover how much stronger and more resourceful we are than we ever thought ourselves to be. But motherhood also drives home the understanding of how desperately we need support systems -- family and friends and other mothers who can help you in practical ways but also validate how taxing it is, as Plath wrote:

   It is a terrible thing
   To be so open: it is as if my heart
   Put on a face and walked into the world.

RI: As I read the novel, I was struck by your specifically non-chronological arrangement of scenes, and I wondered whether your choice was connected to Plath's original non-chronological intention for Ariel?

KM: Wintering's structure was intended to mirror the arrangement of the Ariel poems, which Plath completed a few weeks before her death. Each chapter in the novel, then, is a response to a specific poem in a specific order, and the chapters build toward the story Plath was telling herself as she arranged the poems. When I made the decision to tell Plath's story of Ariel, the first thing I did was to sit down with the 41 poems and write what I thought Plath had meant each poem to stand for in her manuscript. I was nervous because, though I thought I understood the story Plath was telling, I didn't know whether I could articulate it at all -- her story looped back and forth through her life, through time, through myths and fantasies and different personas. But at the end of two days (collecting my children late from school, ordering pizzas for dinner) I had an outline, a kind of jigsaw puzzle story in 41 chapters. Even I can hardly believe that it never changed -- the finished Wintering mirrors that initial outline exactly. I think that's a testament to the mathematical precision of Plath's imagination. She put the puzzle together, and once I figured it out, it worked.

RI: Artistically speaking, how do you think Plath's original version of Ariel differs from the version Hughes published after her death?

KM: In the simplest terms, the published Ariel edited by Hughes is fairly chronological: the first poems in the book are those written shortly after Plath's first poetry collection, The Colossus, was completed, and the final poems in the published Ariel are those she wrote a few days before her suicide. Hughes deleted some poems that Plath had included, but regardless the published Ariel reads as a sort of inexorable, helpless slide toward self-destruction, ending with the poem "Edge," in which the narrator imagines herself perfected only in death.

Plath's Ariel, however, is decidedly non-chronological. Its structure is a cumulative narrative of survival and redemption, the story of a woman's rebirth after devastating loss and disillusionment. "Wintering" is the final poem in Plath's Ariel, and it ends on a fragile note of optimism, the narrator willing herself to make it to spring alongside her hive of wintering honeybees. So the difference between the two books -- and the two "portraits" of the artist that the books create -- is really obvious. In the published Ariel, Plath seems to be incapable of saving herself. In Plath's Ariel, she has used her furious anger and sorrow to work the alchemy she needs to transform herself and her life.

RI: Your novel ends without any speculation about Plath's actions or mindset immediately before her death. Can you discuss your choice to end the novel before the end of her life?

KM: From a purely technical standpoint, I couldn't follow Plath to her death because Wintering is structured after Ariel, and Ariel ends with Plath still believing she would be okay, that she would make it to the springtime of her life. But I also couldn't stomach the idea of rehashing the facts of Plath's suicide. The details of her death have been reported so many times and with such microscopia that it verges on the indecent. And more importantly, as one writer and mother to another, I wanted to give back to Sylvia Plath that moment when she thought there was still a chance, still hope, for her own survival. I wanted to hold that note for her, fleeting as I knew it to be.

RI: What do you want the readers of Wintering to come away knowing for certain about Sylvia Plath?

KM: I want readers to feel certain of exactly the same things that Wintering taught me about Sylvia Plath: how courageously she fought to live; how much she adored her children; and how utterly, helplessly swamped she was in the end by forces she had no control over.

RI: What are your thoughts about the recent movie, Sylvia -- its accuracy and the way in which it portrays her?

KM: I thought that overall it expressed a pretty traditional, dark view of Sylvia Plath. Her suicide brooded in the wings throughout the whole film. But at the same time, the filmmakers did a marvelous job of visually portraying Plath's imagination. They really understood her wide-open doors of perception, how she seemed to experience everything to the hilt all the time, from the chill of tap water running through her fingers to the melancholy of the changing of seasons embodied in a blowing leaf. I think this is a key element in understanding Plath - it was this inability to censor her perceptions that made her so sensitive an artist, but also what must have also been excruciating to live with day after day.

RI: Why do you think we are still fascinated by Sylvia Plath?

KM: Amazingly, women are still struggling with the same issues that Plath struggled with at mid-century: how to have a rich, satisfying inner life and balance that with ambition, children, marriage, and the expectations of our culture. There is of course an element of voyeuristic fascination with the details of Plath's life and death, the spectacular failure of her dreams and her marriage, but I don't think we would still be talking about her and thinking about her and telling her story if it weren't for her highly articulated, adamantine art. Her poems remain some of the most readable and read documents of womanhood in the 20th century. I don't think we've come anywhere near the half-life of their power.

Rachel Iverson, former poetry editor of Literary Mama, teaches Humanities at a private school in Manhattan. In 2009, she will complete an M.F.A. in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught writing workshops in New York and Los Angeles, and she has studied writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in anthologies, print journals and online magazines, including Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Onthebus, dotmoms, and The Philosophical Mother, among others. She and her husband have a son and a daughter and are looking forward to adding a third child to their family through adoption in the fall of 2009.

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