AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIA GORDON-BRAMER
Julia Gordon-Bramer is an American author who has spent the last ten years decoding Sylvia Plath’s poetry, using a completely new and extraordinary perspective through mysticism. A professional tarot reader and poet herself, she was called “St. Louis’ Best Local Poet” in 2013 by The Riverfront Times. In this in-depth interview, we managed to discover more about her ‘decoding’ books and her upcoming projects.
Your books about Sylvia Plath are unique in their genre. While being complex and informative, they are also accessible to neophytes. What are the main challenges of combining the decoding of her poems, mysticism, and tarot symbolism?
My greatest challenge has been to take an intimidating, uncommon subject (the occult) and try to explain it in everyday language. People have a lot of baggage and resistance around weird spiritual things, especially if they’ve had traditional religious upbringings. The other struggle for me is getting the reader to think about a poem in multiple dimensions. We say, “OK, so this poem means that.” We want that to be the end of it, and most think Plath’s poems mean depression and suicide because that was her end. But Plath’s poetry is more complicated than that. She was doing things on other levels, turning mythology into a metaphor for her current events, working that same mythological connection with star constellations, alchemy and the tarot, and great works of literature. It’s stunning what this woman was capable of, yet most read her only as autobiographical. I guess that’s my other great challenge: to teach the world to think of Plath beyond her drama.
Why do you think Plath’s interest in the occult hasn’t been as thoroughly examined as that of her poet husband, Ted Hughes?
I think that Sylvia Plath probably hid her interest in the occult from the world intentionally. It makes sense why she would: witchcraft had been a crime in England, where she and Ted Hughes lived, until just a few years earlier. There was a lot of stigma against occult activities, and Ted Hughes was even forced to stop creating astrological charts for money during his time dating Plath. Sylvia Plath already had a history of mental instability, with a first unsuccessful suicide attempt and ECT treatments at twenty years old. The last thing she needed was to be called crazy. And then there was her academic reputation and her children to consider. Another interesting fact is that as I read through the books Plath owned on mysticism, there is a constant refrain on how intensely secret practitioners of Kabbalah (the occult systems) must be. I think she did a good job keeping it quiet.
You have already published two new detailed analyses of the poems Lady Lazarus and Daddy using the Fixed Stars Govern a Life system. What were the most outstanding discoveries you made whilst writing them?
Each Plath poem is so magical, and honestly, in the ten years I have been decoding them, I cannot say that there is one singular discovery. In Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” I show how this is essentially a poem of feminism. The reader gets that–but understanding why and what is said is something again. In Lady Lazarus, for example, Plath walks us, step-by-step, through the story of the Statue of Liberty, the representation of freedom in America, depicting the goddess Isis holding a fiery torch. At the time of her unveiling, suffragettes seeking the right to vote in America circled, protesting over megaphones that they were not even allowed to attend the male-only ceremony. Can you imagine? They must have been like, “Um, it’s a goddess, gentlemen! Times are changing!” At the bottom of our Lady Liberty is a poem by Jewish abolitionist and advocate for immigrants, Emma Lazarus. Yes, Lazarus. This poem that Emma Lazarus wrote is to the goddess Isis, who also goes by the names Venus and Lucifer. Lucifer is considered to be the morning star (the planet Venus), not the Devil. Plath craftily also worked in many aspects of the planet Venus (what they knew in 1962), the only planet in our Solar System named after a woman and turning a different direction from the others. It’s mind-blowing.
In Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” she essentially did the same thing, drawing connecting lines between British colonialism and Africa, Britain’s King Brutus, the paternalistic Sigmund Freud, and Joseph Conrad’s great novel, Heart of Darkness. It’s all there–as well as proof that Plath knew all of this history, myth, and literature.
As you are a poet and tarot reader yourself, you have managed to find extraordinary parallels that allow us to enjoy the richness of information with which you explain your thesis. How long has it taken to achieve such a goal, and what sources do you perceive as the most revealing?
As I mentioned earlier, I have been working on this for ten years, and while it’s mostly complete, I do continue to find new surprises. Some of the resources that have helped me know I am on track are reading Plath’s journals and letters. Another gold mine has been to read her book annotations; Plath was big on margin notes and underlining passages meaningful to her. This is all held at the Sylvia Plath archives, in the Lilly Library at Indiana University-Bloomington. There are other Plath archives at Smith College and Emory University, but Indiana is where I have spent most of my time. I also read the same books Plath read. It’s an excellent way to know the classics and to identify references and influences on her work. I want to know what she knew. Her letters and journals tell us much about what she was reading and when.
A recent post on your blog caught my attention. It involved Nicholas Petricca, the popular and talented multi-instrumentalist and unique lyricist in the band Walk The Moon. Furthermore, he has also unveiled interest in spirituality and in-depth knowledge of classic literature. As I assume you get different opinions from people approaching your books, depending on their background (i.e., students, teachers, scholars, etc.), may we know more about Petricca’s reaction to it?
I have known Nicholas Petricca and his family since Nick was five years old. He was great friends with my oldest son. I remember calling his mother and hearing him practice piano in the background. It has been wonderful to watch him grow into such a huge and famous talent. I remember reading his tarot cards when Walk the Moon was just a bunch of young men in a van back in 2008 or so. For Nicholas, I saw the Star card. “You will be a celebrity,” I told him. He loved that and bought a t-shirt with that card on the front of it soon after. And now, of course, he’s world-famous! I could not be more proud.
I don’t think I am betraying any confidences to say that Nicholas is a very bright, spiritual guy who hung on every word when I told him the story of all the magical “coincidences” (we mystics say there are no coincidences) around how I found the Plath work, and how it seemed that the Plath work remade my life in order for me to be able to complete it. I was not a professional tarot card reader until then; while I had been reading since I was a teen, I never imagined that for myself. I used to have a corporate desk job! But everything fell into place, and at the same time, time and freedom opened up to allow me the space to make these trips to the archives and so on. Nicholas is no dummy; he went to Kenyon College with a major in music composition and a minor in the Russian language (Plath loved the Russians, by the way). It was exciting for Nick to see all of these spiritual factors in play which are essentially busting apart the old literary paradigm for Sylvia Plath. I feel like we are cheering each other on our different missions to be lights in a dark world. Sometimes I’ll get a text from him on tour in Australia, or Africa, or Italy, saying, “Hey Aunt Jules!” and spurring me onward, always encouraging. He is one of the most joyful, talented, positive, and naturally magical people you could ever meet.
According to your website, there will be more Sylvia Plath books in the future. Could tell us more about them? Which new aspects about Sylvia Plath are you focusing your attention on?
I have been doing a lot of writing over the past several years, but not a lot of publishing. I had a bad experience with my first publisher, and the whole thing left me feeling so disheartened about the industry in general. Meanwhile, the Plath scholars are too focused on their narrow, overly specific view to see the bigger picture. And, of course, traditionally atheistic academics are uncomfortable with that whole occult thing. Even though Plath was seriously into it, many of her letters, journals, and books back this up. Anyway, I wrote a biography on the mysticism of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, called The Magician’s Girl. I am undecided as to whether to seek a publisher or self-publish. I chose to wait for Heather Clark’s 2020 Plath biography, Red Comet, to be released, to be sure that my work was not redundant, and also to see if Clark found any information to support my work. Which she did. I think Red Comet is an excellent book overall, and I view it as a stepping stone to expanding the mind of academics as they learn to see Plath’s work in broader terms of what Sylvia Plath did in her poetry. Of course, Clark still clings to Plath’s “atheist” label, not understanding enough about the occult to know how the two ideas of atheism and spirituality can work together. It’s a common joke among scholars that Plath was the most spiritual atheist ever. Haha. I’m clear now that when I started publishing on this subject a decade ago, no one was ready. It was too great of a leap for the uninitiated.
I’ll eventually publish more Decoding books on the Magi Press imprint. There are forty poems in Plath’s Ariel collection, so I’ve got more than forty books to put out. It will take me a while. I’ve also done a lot of work on her early poems. Off the Plath topic, this year of Covid19 set me behind in my writing, but I have never been busier or more successful as a tarot card reader. I am also deliberating over where to publish Night Times, my memoir on running a rock and roll magazine as a single mom in the 1990s.
Emanuela Borgatta Dunnett