Writing Home

I first came to the Appalachian Writers Workshop in 2010, and my first workshop was Poetry with George Ella Lyon. My housing assignment was in the dormitory, lovingly nicknamed the “rabbit warren,” a space that now holds the newly built administrative offices. As I found my bunk and unpacked, I realized how unsure I felt about myself and whether or not I could even call myself an Appalachian writer. I knew very little amount coal mining or the historical struggles the region has had with industrialization and exploitation. Beyond that, my feelings about the region were mixed at best. I loved many aspects of my Appalachian culture, but I was unable to cope with the isolation of living in the mountains. How could I call myself Appalachian if all I wanted to do was flee? 

That week at Hindman changed so much for me. First, I met the three people who would become my foundation when I decided to come out as a lesbian. Second, I built friendships with writers who saw my value and who, from that summer forward, championed my writing. George Ella’s workshop cut me to the core. George Ella has an uncanny ability to grab onto small details and find the truth hidden beneath them, and she pushes her students to practice that kind of close examination. At the end of the week, she did a writing exercise where we chose a rock from a bag. We examined our rocks, got to know them, and wrote some sensory details. Then we filled in the backstory of our rocks, how they came to be and where they’d been before we’d found them. Eventually, we were asked to use what we’d written about our rocks to inform a poem about our own personal history. The assignment left several of us in tears. What I remember from my poem is that I said I wanted to throw my rock through the front window of my family home. George Ella, in her soft, wise voice said, “Well. There’s a story there.”

After that summer, I started writing poems that became a manuscript of persona poems. Persona poems are poems in which the speaker is definitively not the writer. Usually it’s someone known or famous, with a public story. I started writing poems in the voices of people from an imagined Appalachian town, heavily influenced by Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.A creative idea, but really I was asking those poems to serve as my barrier. They were a closet protecting me from coming out, from more honestly considering my relationship to the region.

I kept coming back to Hindman. A few years later I studied poetry there with Rebecca Gayle Howell. She read the manuscript and said, “You have a book here, but you need to write from your voice. You’re trying to tell your story with the voices of other people, and it’s not working.” So I rewrote the book. And I came out. I was thirty-one, and it took a whole lot of sweat and tears, but I did it. WWJD and Other Poems,my first book, was published in March 2019 by Sibling Rivalry Press.

My book is, in some ways, a coming-out story, but it’s also much more than that. It’s both a love letter and break-up note to the region. It examines the ways we can, at the same time, both love and not love the places that make us. A lot of us refer to the Appalachian Writers Workshop as a family reunion. Maybe that’s because the workshop is often one of the first places we feel community with other writers. It was one of the first places I felt truly at peace withinAppalachia—because it was the only place in the mountains where I felt all parts of me could exist. May Stone and Katherine Pettit founded the Hindman Settlement School to offer progressive education for those isolated by the mountains, and the school has been instrumental in honoring and nourishing the arts native to the mountains: traditional music, crafts like woodworking and textiles, and storytelling. Albert Stewart, a scholar of Appalachian studies who was as a child raised at the Settlement, began the Appalachian Writers Workshop in 1977. Like Stewart, the Workshop found its home at the Settlement, where lions of the tradition like Harriette Arnow and James Still supported its growth with their generous and rigorous teaching. Writing itself is a solitary practice, and the solitude is exacerbated by the physical isolation created by the mountains. Hindman Settlement School has become a homeplace for so many who find themselves isolated from others and, like me, from parts of themselves. 

My book is a month old, and every day I work to schedule readings, talks, and classroom visits so that I can reach those who might benefit from hearing my story. This week, a student asked me how I found the courage to be so honest in my writing, and part of my answer was that I’ve had a lot of folks lifting me up and loving me as my whole self. I met most of those folks at the Appalachian Writers Workshop.

Registration for the 2019 Appalachian Writers Workshop is now open! Faculty include George Ella Lyon, Robert Gipe, and Jacinda Townsend, and our keynote is Dorothy Allison. Scholarships are available for first-time attendees and for emerging writers of color. The deadline for applications is the first of May.

Savannah Sipple is a writer from east Kentucky. Her debut poetry collection is WWJD and Other Poems(Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), and. her writing can be found in Appalachian Heritage, Waxwing, and The Offing. She is also the recipient of grants from the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. A writer, editor, and teacher, Savannah resides in Lexington, Kentucky with her fiancée, Ashley. Find her at https://www.savannahsipple.com.