How It’s Made: Savannah Sipple’s WWJD & Other Poems
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Savannah Sipple’s WWJD & Other Poems, from Sibling Rivalry Press. With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being—in this interview, we learn of Sipple’s bad-poem-induced breakthrough, WWJD’s many revisions, and the wonderful “Team Sav” that helped usher to book into the world.
What were the most joyful moments of WWJD & Other Poems’ journey to publication?
Sipple: When I was writing the book, there was a moment when I finally gave myself permission to write without reservation. I had recently started the process of a major edit and purge of the manuscript, so I was also writing a lot of new poems, and I was trying to write about my attraction to women. I wrote without filtering myself and the result was an awful poem, but it opened the door in my mind to really be honest and play with language in a way that I hadn’t allowed myself to do yet.
When I started sending the book to presses and contests, there was a joy in having reached the point where it was ready to head out into the world. It felt like the first day of school: excited and ready to show off its new backpack. More work was about to come, though, and I had the most fun editing the book after it had been accepted for publication. I had a big time talking with Seth and Bryan at Sibling Rivalry about how to push the poems and the book to be as strong as they could be. They had some great suggestions, as did their interns. I feel lucky to have worked with folks who truly understand my book and who so strongly support my work.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
First, I needed distance from Appalachia. I feel like we never talk enough about the ways communities can eat their own. I have a deep and abiding love for the region, but I also can’t ignore its struggles and the ways the culture there has caused damage. This isn’t true for everyone, but I knew I couldn’t come out or live the life I wanted there. I moved so I could try to find a way to live honestly, but even then it took me a couple of years to process before I felt like I was removed enough to accept myself and come out. I was writing, yes, but a lot of it was stifled.
It took me a long time to give myself permission to write my truth. I had an entire manuscript and a mentor told me it was missing something vital: me. There was a lot of self-filtering because I was worried what people would think. There was also a lot of shame about my sexuality and my body. I made the decision to come out, and I think once I made that decision, something shifted. I was so tired of denying part of who I am, and there was a real relief at saying it out loud. I started to value myself more in my daily life and that created a shift in my writing voice.
An author never really works alone—without whose support would WWJD not have made it across the finish line?
Really, I could list people for days and I’d still forget folks, but there’s a small group of people that I’ll call Team Sav. Everyone needs a team. If you don’t have one, start to build one.
First, I have two mentors who have championed me and my work since we met. The first is Rebecca Gayle Howell. She agreed to mentor me and her guidance and insight helped me find a way to write the book as it is today. It made me a nervous wreck, but she understood my heart and she knew what I needed to hear. She didn’t coddle me. She pushed me and made me write my ass off. It was the best thing anyone has done.
The other mentor is Kathleen Driskell, who is the chair of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. I studied with her when I was a student there, and she’s supported me ever since. When I thought the book was just about ready to start sending to publishers, she read it and offered advice that really strengthened the book. She also offered a lot of great insight about how to organize the book.
I also had a whole host of folks cheering me on, including editors who published my poems, but beyond that, I had folks in my corner who helped me believe the book would come to fruition. I have a group of friends I met at the Appalachian Writers Workshop, and they’ve become family: Keith Stewart, Jay McCoy, and Avery M. Guess. They’re often my first readers for work or my sounding board when I’m not sure what to do with a poem or piece of writing, but the very best thing is they show up for me. If they can’t physically be there, they’re sending me good luck and something to make me laugh before a reading. Our friendship goes much deeper than that, of course, but it has made such a difference to have three people in my life who have been a witness to my growth as a writer and a person.
I also have to mention my wife. She came into my life after the book had been accepted for publication, so there are parts of that process she didn’t get to see. She’s even admitted to me she hadn’t read much poetry and wasn’t sure she even liked it until we started dating. But she’s a librarian and curious by nature, so once she found out I was a poet, she started reading other poets. Her presence in my life has meant I’ve had someone to share all of my joy with. She’s also seen all of my worries and insecurities, especially in the months leading up to the publication when I was trying to book readings and events and find readers/reviewers (which I have found I will always be doing). I’m proud of my book and I have had such a good time sharing it with readers, but I know that having her there to share in my joy and my pride has made it even sweeter.
What did you learn about writing and poetry over the journey of this book?
A huge part of my learning process was to trust the malleability of language. I worked very hard to weave the argot of Appalachia with that of the LGBTQ community and religion, and I looked for new ways to use the language of those communities in my poetry. One poem that spring to mind specifically is Evangelism BINGO. That poem held many forms, but I kept getting caught up in emotion, so I stripped it down to the most basic words associated with the evangelical church, and I created a BINGO board from those. Then, I started thinking about which of those words could hold dual meaning. I wanted to use some language one might not normally connect with evangelism, so I replaced some words with language associated with being gay and I arranged them so that the duality of other words really rang true. Depending on how you read the board, either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, there’s a different meaning.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
There was a point in my practice where I was reading a collection of poetry each day. That started a few months before I tore the manuscript apart and started writing a lot of new poems that eventually became WWJD and Other Poems. A poet had challenged me to do so because she said it would help develop my ear and I would absorb the ways language can be used, even if I wasn’t trying to do a deep study of each collection. Reading itself is a huge part of my writing life anyway, but this intentional act of reading really helped my creative mind.
I also listened to a lot of music. At one point, I had a very specific playlist full of folk, bluegrass, and a little country music, but I stopped listening to that and started listening to badass women. When I was writing the heart of the book, I needed reminders that I deserve to exist, both in this world and on the page. My playlist was so eclectic, too. It included folks like Dolly Parton, M.I.A, Lizzo, Whitney Houston, P!nk, Valerie June, Madonna, the Beyoncé, Little Big Town, and Nina Simone.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
Don’t rush. The push to publish can be very real, but don’t be afraid to take your time and let the collection grow as it needs to. We do a disservice to ourselves and our work if we try to force it into fruition. And don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. I have been fortunate to have folks in my corner who were willing to read my book in parts and in its entirety, but I had to ask for their help first. Find people who really understand you and your work and who are truly rooting for you. Then, hold them close.
Savannah Sipple is the author of WWJD & Other Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), which explores what it is to be a queer woman in Appalachia and is rooted in its culture and in her body. With a beer-drinking Jesus as her wing man, she navigates this difficult terrain of stereotype, conservative Evangelicalism, and, perhaps most, shame. A writer from east Kentucky, her writing has recently been published in Southern Cultures, Split This Rock, Salon, Appalachian Heritage, Waxwing, and other places. She is also the recipient of grants from the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Savannah is an Assistant Professor of English at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and a mentor in the low residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. A professor, editor, and writing mentor, she resides in Lexington with her wife, Ashley.