Reimagining Jesus: A Conversation with Savannah Sipple
Debut poet Savannah Sipple self-describes as a “queer, fat, unapologetic Appalachian woman.” She grew up in Beattyville, Kentucky, the town often depicted as the epitome of American white poverty (as in this Guardian article). Today, Sipple lives not all that far from her hometown; now in Lexington, she writes about her love/hate/love of the mountains, as well as her survival of an abusive father, evangelical subculture, and the closet.
The recipient of awards from the Barbara Deming Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, Sipple’s poems can be found in journals like Waxwing, Appalachian Heritage, and The Offing. Her firecracker first collection, WWJD and Other Poems, released last month from Sibling Rivalry Press, reads like a country coming-out memoir—and it’s already gathering high praise from leading Southern writers like Carter Sickels, Nickole Brown, and Silas House.
The poems in WWJD and Other Poems are written as little holograms of transformation, of redemption, inviting an ancient figure—normally used to shame and control Sipple (and countless others)—into a new space in which he can have a new voice. In this way, Sipple redeems the redeemer.
I was excited to speak with Sipple about about shame and self-acceptance, her complicated homeplace, and of course, Jesus.
The Rumpus: Let’s start with your book’s title, WWJD and Other Poems. Anyone who has spent even a little time in evangelical circles knows those letters stand for “What would Jesus do?”—at its best, it’s a prayer for the faithful, used to correct their steps. At its worst, it’s a justification. Is your title a prayer? A joke? Both?
Savannah Sipple: The gravel road that brought me from Appalachia, through domestic abuse, misogyny, and the coming-out process, also included a devout evangelical period where I wanted nothing more than for Jesus to make me into the woman that the church said I should be: compliant, feminine, straight, skinny—“normal” in at least one damn way. I mean, I had the bracelets and wrote “WWJD” on stuff and in letters to friends, but did I really ask myself, what would Jesus do? Maybe, but I think more often than not, the focus is on considering what the evangelical church tells folks Jesus would have done. For me, WWJD and Other Poems is both tongue-in-cheek and prayer, not the joke but the punchline, because in my faith and in my life I’ve realized very few people are open to considering that Jesus might actually do the things he does in my book: go to the bar; tell me to love my big, gay, feminist self; sign me up for a dating app; walk away from the things that are toxic and abusive and designed to uphold a white, patriarchal, capitalist power structure, including evangelism itself. For me, the title is less of a question and more of an answer.
Rumpus: What Jesus does in your book is surprising—somehow your Jesus is both congruent to his character in the synoptic gospels, while also being totally inside this American moment. In your book he embodies a radical, revolutionary love, the exact opposite of that judgmental wimp the church too often projects. How hard was it for you to conjure him for the reader? To imagine him for yourself?
Sipple: I was twenty-nine before I left home for good and was almost thirty-one before I started coming out, so I’d say it took me a while to imagine this Jesus for myself. It was a hard thing to reckon my faith with my sexuality. I didn’t want to be gay. I had decided romantic love wasn’t in the cards for me. I would stay single forever, focus on my career and writing, and be the best auntie in the world. (I am the best, by the way). I also decided I would be an ally—the loudest, most loving advocate you ever did see. I was unhappy and lonely. I couldn’t picture any kind of future for myself because I wasn’t willing to face my whole self.
I also knew I couldn’t come out and be a lesbian in the mountains. That isn’t true for everyone, but I was so isolated I couldn’t breathe. So I moved, and I started to imagine, what if? And even then, there was this huge BUT in the shape of a Bible and a cross. I had a lot of self-hatred to process. Hell, I’m still processing certain parts of it. But once I started to work through it and started to focus on the very basic tenets of my faith, it wasn’t hard at all to imagine the Jesus that’s in my book because he had been there all along. Conjuring him for the reader was never hard because by the time I started writing those poems, I had already done the work for myself, and it felt like I was writing about my adventures with one of my close friends.
Rumpus: Although Appalachia is commonly articulated as red, racist, Republican Trump country, its roots are in a radical proletarian, Socialist Democratic culture that delivered to the whole country the Labor Rights Movement and, later, importantly influenced the Civil Rights Movement. Despite what J.D. Vance would have his readers believe, our region is currently enjoying a revival of this left-of-left culture, perhaps no better witnessed in the catapulting efforts of the rural LGBTQ+ community. But which Appalachia is the Appalachia of this book?
Sipple: My hometown is in the foothills, geographically located between the really mountainous areas and the rolling hills of central Kentucky, and I feel like that is an accurate description for so much of my life: always on the fine line between one thing and another. The setting in my book is both the Appalachia I grew up in and the Appalachia I want to see. The language in the book, the references to food and preservation, and even the pure determination of the narrator to survive—that’s the region I love. WWJD is the Appalachia I live and breathe, and I want it to be whole, just as I want myself to be whole.
Today, folks like Rachel Garringer and Gina Mamone work to change the isolation that contributes to suicide and depression among the LGBTQ community in the region. When I was growing up, all I had was Little League, church, and school activities; these were positive ways to spend my time and they gave me a sense of community, but in them I also felt more isolated because I was different from the norms those institutions protected. I’m not sure what was more detrimental: trying to fit their molds or trying to exist inside their structures but outside their norms. I became really good at “passing” (as straight, happy, compliant), but I never belonged.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about where you felt like you did belong. You said earlier that you were imagining a Jesus who would have told you to “love [your] big, gay, feminist self.” One reason why I love your book is that it is so deeply grounded in the particular genius of place, while it also reads like a kind of homecoming, and the home that’s found is the speaker’s own body.
Sipple: The book is a homecoming—one I had to create for myself. I make a conscious decision every day to love myself and the body I live in, and sometimes I fail. In the past, I would have made compromises to try to fit in. But I do that less and less now. I cut toxic relationships out of my life. I have zero fucks to give when it comes to toxic masculinity, racism, or folks who try to tell me I should change my accent. I’m thinking now of the poem “WWJD / at the bar.” At the end of that poem, I use the word “drank” when grammatically it should be “drink,” but “drank” captures my dialect, which tends to get thicker when I’m excited or trying real hard to flirt (like in the poem).
The language of the book is rooted in the Appalachian vernacular because that language is my most honest self. It’s also a risk for me to write about the violence I’ve witnessed and participated in because in my culture, we’re taught not to “air the family laundry,” which means you don’t talk about things as they actually are. In the poem “Box[h]er” I try to explore the ways one violent act fuels another and how my own anger manifests in the ways I’d seen demonstrated for me. While it was true “I was kind until I wasn’t,” there was a legitimate satisfaction in acting on my emotion, in the way I felt when “my fist loved the side of her head.” There’s a duality there: to actively work hard to counter certain parts of yourself. It isn’t easy to admit that sometimes “I ran my mouth / to get them / anyone / to hit me / please.” The reality was I couldn’t act against my father, so once I was pushed to a certain point, I acted against whatever other source there was: a bully, a teammate, myself.
Another important part of creating a home has meant accepting my body, which includes accepting my sexuality and my erotic desires. There is no room for hate in this body, and that’s why Jesus cheers me on.
Rumpus: “Acceptance.” What an understatement. Your protagonist fights and wins a hard, hard battle against shame—not the kind that leaves a person’s life when she leaves a toxic environment, but the kind that feels like it’s coming from inside the house, inside the mind. Integrated. Believed. I mean, we move through poems like “Box[h]er” or “Pass/Back” or “A List of Times I Thought I Was Gay” before the voice softens into poems like “And the Word was God.” To finish the book, the reader must directly engage the hard work of liberation, as it happens in real time.
Sipple: The book does move through those poems as the softening happened in real time, but even well into the third section, there’s a hardness, a deep-rooted belief that I’m still not enough and am also too much all at once. I wrote “WWJD / about my fat body,” because in the world of that poem I am deeply in love and being loved, and I’m terrified, “afraid to let her / love on all of me yet.”
The shame I struggle with is so deep, a part of me believes good things aren’t supposed to happen to me because I’m not thin. Falling in love, publishing a book—none of that happens to fat people. But it does. It has. The poem “And the Word was God” is a short retelling of my becoming, but it focuses the story’s terms toward my body and how I’ve grown larger. It starts, “In the beginning was the word and the word was FAT” and circles back to that in the end “in the beginning was that word / and that word was God the word is not god / I am God I am that word I am God’s / word I am still fat.”
There are times when the shame rears its head, and these days it’s often in regards to who gets to tell my story because for so long it was told to me, and I had to choose to fight the established narrative or to participate in the lie. First, the battle was to get enough strength to walk away, to believe I was deserving enough, to accept my sexuality, and to believe I shouldn’t have to live with such toxicity in my life. Even now, there are folks who want to make my narrative their own, to the point that they’ve outed me to people they shouldn’t have and have acted like my being gay is a traumatic event that’s happening to them. It’s really not. All I know to do is continue telling my story.
My lifelong best friend, who saw me through a great deal of abuse but who remains evangelical, has been very afraid I’ve changed. I understand there’s this part of me that I kept hidden, but I have always been gay. If anything has changed, it’s been my willingness to accept that part of myself. My heart is still the same. How do I find a way to communicate that to her? How do I get anyone to understand what a relief it is to love myself and let myself be loved? Even as I write this, I can hear the church’s response in my head: that my heart is not the same because I’m making a choice to, in their words, consciously sin. In my story love wins, and I deserve better than a life where I’ve resolved to ignore my needs in order to go along with what some men have deemed acceptable. Regarding this friendship I’ve mentioned, my hope is that love continues to win, and our friendship finds a way to grow in love, rather than getting caught up in fear. But of course we both have more choices to make. So, telling my story, being the one in charge of its narrative, is one piece. Another is the complicated issue of audience. To whom am I telling it, and why, and how successfully (or not).
When you garden, you’re supposed to move your plots every so often so the land can recover. My shame is rutted deep because it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve moved the garden. I’m now growing different beliefs about who I am and what I deserve.
Rumpus: Can you share what you’re working on right now?
Sipple: I am working on a memoir. In some ways, WWJD and Other Poems is my coming-out memoir, but as I was writing the poems, I realized there’s so much more to tell, so much nuance to unfold, including my years working at an evangelical television station. It was led by a woman who on one hand fought hard for her role and faced constant scrutiny for being a woman in a power position in ministry, and on the other hand feared lesbians almost as much as she feared snakes. I started examining the complexities of some of my stories by writing essays, and that’s been really interesting to me. My plan was to weave the essays together into a memoir written in prose, but one thing I’ve learned as I’ve been writing is that form is meant to be played with. So it’s possible the memoir will be a hybrid form.
The other thing that’s happened is a few folks have solicited work from me, which has meant I’ve needed to write about a particular theme or I’ve needed to generate and revise new work somewhat quickly. In that process, I’ve played around with writing a poem and then expanding it into an essay and vice versa. I had one essay I’d written that just couldn’t seem to find its heart. So I started trimming it and in that process, I ended up with a long poem. There was also an essay I’d written for a magazine that was about leaving Appalachia and I wrote it as a list, but in my mind, it was definitely prose. The magazine holds a one-day conference every fall and I couldn’t make it, but the editor told me a few of the other readers referenced my piece as a thread for the issue, but they all referred to it as a poem. So I’ve just been allowing myself to explore and play around with form to see how that can open up a piece. I’ve also been pitching essays to magazines and media outlets.
I have an idea for a novel, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to go there yet.
Rumpus: What would you say to the young writer out there who feels like they doesn’t have a subject or a self worth exploring?
Sipple: Explore it anyway. Write. Make art. Cook. Journal. Garden. Walk. Read. Surround yourself with art and writers and people who value you. In therapy, we’re told to fake it until we make it. There were plenty of times when writing WWJD I felt like I didn’t have enough authority. My feminist self really struggles with the misogyny of Ernest Hemingway’s work, but his memoir A Moveable Feast has some beautiful sections, and one thing that has always stuck with me is this quote: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” One step and then the next. And for days when I’m feeling really defeated or unsure of myself, I surround myself with my literary mothers and queer brothers and sisters. I reread their words to give myself strength. And I play Audre Lorde on repeat: “I am deliberate / and afraid / of nothing.”