Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Ally Wharton

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Ally Wharton

Ally Wharton

is a rising sophomore history major and Appalachian Studies minor and currently resides in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. She sits on the board for Shepherd University’s Appalachian Studies program, and is on the committee for the Appalachian Heritage Writer-In-Residence (AHWIR). She has been selected to read at the AHWIR since 2015, is a three-year alumna of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, and served as an intern for the 2019 West Virginia Writers Conference. After graduating, she plans to pursue a masters and PhD in history, studying Appalachia and focusing on diaspora studies and labor and working class history. Her poetry and writing has appeared in various journals, including Maudlin House, Cheap Pop, and Five2One, and her micro-chapbook “Polarity” is forthcoming from Ghost City Press.

Twitter: @Ally_Wharton, https://twitter.com/ally_wharton
Instagram: @_angelheaded_hipster_ ,
https://www.instagram.com/_angelheaded_hipster_/?hl=en

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. My mom tells stories all the time about when I was 18 months old and first learned how to read. I remember being a kid, still not really knowing how to “write,” per say, but my parents bought me a book kit for children when I was about five years old for Christmas, where you would write out the words to the story, had space to draw pictures, and then could send it away to have a bound hardback book made. To get the words of the story, my parents would listen to what I said and write down everything. From early on I was telling stories, and always had the complete support of my parents, which meant everything.

When I started middle school, I started writing what, at the time, I would have deemed seriously. I was learning to play guitar back then, and was dead set on eventually going to college for song writing, which in a sense is a form of poetry. I was bullied a bit in middle school, and writing helped me through it. It was in those middle school years that I first discovered Confessional poetry, which is what later on would give me the final push to start writing actual poetry.

My freshman year of high school, I dropped the song writing dreams and started writing flash fiction. It was this year that the most important moment of my writing career occurred. I wrote a simple short story for class, and my wonderful English teacher, Jennifer Nicholson, handed it back with the comment “Ally- do you even know how brilliant you are?” Words like that are a shock today still, let alone back as a shy fourteen year old. It still gives me chills to know that someone believes in me like that.

It was that summer that I first attended the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop and first met the woman who basically has become a sort of writing mentor and a wonderful friend over the years, Natalie Sypolt. I returned to that workshop the next year, as a sixteen year old with two publications already, and a new perspective on life.

Somewhere along the lines of high school stress, I broke down. The first spell of depression came about that time, and that is when I turned completely to Plath and Sexton. Writing had always been a part of my life, but I looked at these women who wrote so openly about their lives, and that is exactly what I wanted for myself. I realized at some point, that I didn’t want to hide my feelings under the guise of fiction anymore. I wanted my writing to be more raw and gritty and honest, and poetry has allowed me to do that.

This is a long timeline to get to how I first started writing poetry, but I think the writing background is something important to acknowledge when asked about my beginnings as a writer or just a poet in general. In my writing, as well as my life, there were times in which I thought that I wouldn’t make it. The people who have supported me are the ones I want to share my successes. As I continue in my writing to explore the darker sides of human nature and life, those same people have stayed by me. It’s easier to talk about the scary things if people are there to catch you if and when you fall back again.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I sort of stumbled into poetry on my own to some degree. While studying female poets, I very easily was able to discover the female confessional poets, as well as other significant female writers.

At the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, there are manuscript review sessions for participants that sign up, and my second year attending, I was paired with an absolutely outstanding poet, Bryce Berkowitz, who introduced me to the book Mayakovski’s Revolver and I was immediately obsessed with the style of writing in the book, and still am. The following year, I was paired with the now-director of the Workshop, poet Renée Nicholson, who gave me a full packet of work from poets that were necessary to know. Twitter has also been a great resource in finding modern poets and new journals to read and submit to.
I tend to gravitate towards poetry of the 50s and 60s and Appalachian poetry, while writing more experimental pieces. It’s wonderful to be a poet from West Virginia because between the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop as well as the West Virginia Writers Conference, I’m always being introduced to new poets. In the literary world, I’ve learned we never stop getting introduced to new poets, and it’s something I love about the genre as well as my home state and region.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I first started submitting poetry to publishers when I was fifteen years old, and naturally, I received many rejections before that first acceptance at sixteen. I definitely was aware of the presence of older poets and what that meant to be a new poet trying to break into the scene. I took my rejections lightly and moved on, but the one that stands out in particular is when I first started out and received a rejection email that simply stated that I was not old enough to be a good writer or to be well read.

As a nineteen year old, with a few publications now and a chapbook forthcoming, I still feel the pressure of older poets and writers. It’s always interesting to see how I’m treated at conferences especially. Peoples’ reactions to my own presence range from being thrilled to meet a young writer, to completely refusing to even look my way. The presence of ageism in the literary world is real, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really bother me. I am a person who loves feedback when it comes to writing, whether it is positive or not. It is my belief that as a writer, it is part of our job to better our craft and ourselves. I personally feel as though it is definitely not age that makes someone a good writer, but rather their willingness to listen to others and take their feedback to heart to try to improve. As a young writer, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative experiences of ageism in literature and poetry, but it’s much more important to focus on the genuine feedback and real, good connections and friendships that blossom through writing instead.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I wish I could say I have more of a consistent routine than I do. The sadly dying art of journaling is where most of my poems begin. I like to just sit down at the end of a long day and aggressively free write for as long as I need depending on the events of the day. Sometimes I can pull good lines out for later. Sometimes I can’t. I think that through letting ideas flow freely from my mind to paper, I am able to get the most real lines out about what I am feeling. Those good lines I am able to use are important because those are the emotions I am able to build off of. If I had a bad day, I may be able to make something beautiful out of it. It’s a messy process, but I find it effective because even if I don’t get exactly what I’m looking for in a good poem, I at least get to blow off some steam.

5. What motivates you to write?

Lately a majority of my writing has centered on themes of mental health and West Virginia.
As far as mental health goes, in my first chapbook, “Polarity,” I wrote very directly about my personal struggles with bipolar disorder, and it’s terrifying. As a matter of fact, it’s weird even saying it now. But I think that’s why I do so. Mental illness is such a taboo subject even still today, and looking back at writers of both the past and present that lived with such illnesses and wrote and were successful, it’s something important to speak about. I strongly believe that the more open people are, the more understanding of a world we are able to create. Progress is important, and I want to be a part of that.

West Virginia is a topic also near and dear to my heart that motivates me to write. I am currently an Appalachian studies minor, sit on the board for my university’s program, serve this year as an editor of the Anthology of Appalachian Writers and judge of the West Virginia Fiction Competition. West Virginia is one of the few states that consistently lose population every year. The most impactful class I have been in thus far was a West Virginia history course.  One day during class, a student raised his hand and remarked that what West Virginia’s poor McDowall County is to our state West Virginia is to our country. Our final essay in the course was on industry in West Virginia and how to keep people from leaving. I got an A on the final. I didn’t come close to solving the problem.

I of course owe my commitment to the state of West Virginia to the director of Shepherd University’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities, Dr. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt. Dr. Shurbutt is a person I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to learn from as her student, research with as a mentee in the field of Appalachian studies, and someone I am proud to be able to call a friend. I got involved in Shepherd University’s Appalachian Heritage Writer-In-Residence when I was fifteen years old, reading for Dr. Shurbutt and writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Wiley Cash, Charles Frazier, and Karen Zacharias over the years. Reading the works of these writers has made me understand just how much a writer can do for the culture of a region, as we work to combat nationwide stereotypes through our words alone. Labor activist Mother Jones is quoted to have said “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” and I want to be able to do this through writing.

6. What is your work ethic?

I oftentimes worry that my work ethic is too unconventional. I’m a procrastinator at heart, but once I get started on a project, it’s just in my nature to just jump in headfirst all the way. For me, I’m either all in a project, or wait around forever to complete it, and there’s no in between. I’m hoping that with age I’ll eventually learn time management, but as of now it’s not so promising…

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

As I mentioned before, I was big into song writing as a kid. I grew up listening to country music, Cash, Jennings, Williams. Old country. A little later I got into punk rock, and I like to think I have some of the fight of the punk bands of the 70s in my writing. The idea of art as a form of protest is an interesting concept to me, and social change through writing is something I think is really important. I also mentioned before that the confessional poets were major influences when I was pretty young to be reading them. I was also into the beat poets as a middle schooler. I used to carry Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems with me wherever I went. The classics were also on my radar pretty early on as a kid. I loved The Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes I still feel like Holden Caulfield. Sometimes I feel like a phony. I think that might just be the nature of writing.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

This is a difficult question to answer since most of the writers I love write very different things. Silas House will always be a favorite. Southernmost is an absolutely brilliant novel written by a brilliant author. Karen Spears Zacharias is another excellent writer I had the pleasure of meeting, and so importantly portrays mental illness and how it is treated in Appalachia in her book Mother of Rain. Natalie Sypolt (The Sound of Holding Your Breath) and Renée Nicholson (Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center) are both outstanding writers I’ve looked up to for years. Through Natalie, I was introduced to poet Keegan Lester, whose book this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all I had so I drew it has become a favorite of mine, and is a book I find myself consistently going back to for inspiration. Another book I’ve been obsessed with since it’s release is Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, a necessary read for anyone who has read Vance’s problematic Hillbilly Elegy.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

To quote a poet I’ve previously mentioned, Renée Nicholson, “words do save us.” I think it’s as simple as that.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Writing makes you a writer. That’s all there is to it.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I have quite a few projects I’m currently working on.  I’m a history major, and last semester I was in an introductory course to historic preservation taught by one of my favorite professors and people in general I’ve met while in college, Dr. Keith Alexander.  I absolutely fell in love with the subject, and because it had such an impact, I wanted to start a poetry project based on some of the subject matter I learned while in the class.  For my newest project, I am creating a chapbook of found poetry by taking lines from The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation & Illustrated Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. Found poetry has always been an interesting poetic concept that I’ve enjoyed playing around with for fun.  This project is much more serious, however, and I’m what I hope to achieve in the construction of these poems are pieces meant to reflect both the tragedy of deteriorating properties as well as a deteriorating mental state.  The work-in-progress is currently titled “Rehab,” and I’m about a forth of the way finished so far.

My second big project I’m working on is a collection of memoir essays. So far the most difficult part of this project is not the writing process itself, but rather dealing with peoples’ negative reactions when I tell them about these essays. I realize it is a bit strange for a nineteen year old to be writing her life story, but for me, that isn’t what memoir is all about. My memoir-in-progress is a collection of specific moments in my life that have shaped who I am, from my adoption from Romania, to growing up in West Virginia, and dealing with the side effects of medication, this project is a series of personal essays on specific moments and memories in my lifetime. It of course is not my whole life story, but it doesn’t have to be. A memoir is but a series of moments that help writers define who they are and focus on the memories that helped shape them. If nothing more, memoir writing is an exercise in wellness, and a way to make sense of life events as they quickly pass us by.

With the release of my chapbook, “Polarity” (Ghost City Press, 19 July, 2019), I’m also preparing for a book reading, which will happen in conjunction with the Anthology of Appalachian Writers at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on July 14. Big projects in the Appalachian Studies program are coming up as well, with our Writer-In-Residence series starting at the end of September, featuring writer Crystal Wilkinson, and the second year of a student storytelling series—Shepherd Speaks StoryCorps Project—I co-coordinate.

To find out more about Appalachian Studies at Shepherd University, you can go to: https://www.shepherd.edu/appalachian.

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