With all of the excitement about the upcoming Appalachian Studies Association conference, we decided to get in touch with UPK author Amy Clark. Check out our question and answer session to learn about the University of Virginia professor:
UPK: What first prompted you to think about and study Appalachian Englishes?
AC: I grew up in the coalfields of southwest Virginia, and my first education in vernacular dialects had to be my upbringing. Voice was at the center of everything, like how my family told stories, the cadence of a preacher’s sermon, and music…always music. My dad sang in a quartet on weekends so I grew up traveling and listening to old-style mountain music, which is full of vernacular grammar, accent, and words.
UPK: Who are some of your role models in the Appalachian community?
AC: I grew up with three living generations of family, so I have to say they were my first role models because they were my first teachers, historians, sociologists…you name it. Everyone who came after simply added on to that foundation they gave me. I know everyone says this but it’s true of me, as well: I discovered Appalachian literature when I was introduced to Lee Smith’s and Denise Giardina’s books. And seeing my own voice on the printed page was a revelation, because it meant there was artistic integrity in the way we speak. I continue to be inspired by other writers like those I’ve gotten to know through the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop at Hindman. Helen Lewis has inspired me because of her service and activism. And so many scholars who have done good work…too many to name.
UPK: Have you ever been a victim of linguistic bigotry?
AC: I’ve experienced regional bigotry, which likely had a great deal to do with my accent because that’s the first indicator of where I’m from. It surprises me that denigrating Appalachia is still not taboo, and it surprises me when the bigotry comes from highly-educated or high-ranking people.
UPK: What are your responsibilities as the founding director of the Appalachian Writing Project?
AC: My primary responsibility is growing a network of teachers who are good role models for their colleagues in progressive ways to teach writing in all disciplines, at all levels. I write grants to support my leadership team of teachers, who train a new batch of teachers every summer to develop workshops that we offer in public schools. We also have Young Writer’s Camps and Writing Retreats. As co-founder/Director of our new Center for Appalachian Studies, I’m including the AWP as part of the CAS outreach, and there will be more opportunities for teachers to integrate Appalachian studies into their curriculums.
UPK: What have you learned from working with the Appalachian Writing Project?
AC: I was a public school teacher at the beginning of my career, so I know how hard it can be. There are so many excellent, hard-working teachers in our system who-if given the resources, support, and time-are willing to go beyond the call of duty in the classroom and share their good practices with colleagues. So many of them are good writers, too, but like their students, they have trouble acknowledging it. We spend time in our writing institutes working on that insecurity. Several of our teachers, like Rebecca Elswick, author of Mama’s Shoes, have gone on to publish their work.
UPK: What do you most look forward to at the 2014 Appalachian Studies Conference at Marshall University?
AC: I’m doing a workshop on Friday about teaching writing to vernacular speakers, which is based on my chapter in the book, so I’m excited to have that opportunity (see my answer to 7 for more about that.) I’m looking forward to catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while, and hearing about the new work that’s being done.
UPK: What advice would you give a teacher from outside of the Appalachian region who might be teaching in Appalachia for the first time?
AC: Come with your cup empty and learn as much as you can about our histories. And because most teachers aren’t well-versed in sociolinguistics, I would urge them to learn more about the dialects-where they come from, why people speak them, and how best to teach bi-dialectal speakers. Contrary to institutionalized ideas about a “right” and “wrong” English, we speak on a continuum of Englishes. So I would advise them not to simply dismiss what is nonstandard as wrong or incorrect, but instead, appreciate the historical significance of it and then teach students how to sensitively shift into a standard spoken and written version when they need it, but understand that they don’t have to deny their “first” voices.
UPK: What was it like to have your co-edited book, Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community, be used as a dialect resource for actors during the filming of Big Stone Gap?
AC: It was thrilling. Adriana Trigiani called me when she saw a piece I had written about Appalachian dialects and she said she wanted to use the book. She also asked me to do a phonetic rendering of the script so actors would know how to pronounce some of the words, so we met and talked about that once the movie was underway. I was able to watch Patrick Wilson and Ashley Judd (who Tweeted about the book) as they filmed a scene, and our dog, Sadie, ended up in the scene with them.
UPK: What other successes has Talking Appalachian seen in the past year? Has it been used as a resource in other areas?
AC: It is being taught in several university classrooms, such as University of Kentucky and UVa.’s College at Wise, and it was recently nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Award in Nonfiction. I’ve received some wonderful feedback from readers, especially after a recent piece I published in the New York Times about writing in a vernacular voice. I’m also happy to report that it will be released in paperback this fall.
UPK: Did you have any favorite Appalachian traditions or pastimes growing up in Virginia?
AC: My family made and sold molasses on my great-grandmother’s farm, and I have good memories of participating every fall. They harvested the cane, which was crushed in horse-drawn mill. We boiled it in pans flanked by benches that someone had taken out of old school buses. The kids used hole-punched pie pans nailed to broomstick handles to skim the batch as it cooked. Then, the pan would be hoisted on chains so the molasses could be poured into mason jars. My family took orders and sold out before a batch was even finished. I can still remember the smell of smoke in my hair every night, and the older folks sitting on the bus benches near the evaporating pan, smoking and listening to the high school football game on the radio. I’m quilting now with my mother and grandmother, and my four-year old daughter watches and pretends to help. I’m eager to start new traditions with my own children that they will carry forward.
To delve deeper into the life of Appalachia and Amy Clark, check out her book Talking Appalachia!