Reflections from Abigail Rampone ‘17, Zilkha Center Writer-in-Residence

by Abigail Rampone ‘17

After a summer spent working as the Writer-in-Residence at the Zilkha Center, I’ve learned that it’s difficult to build self-discipline, Williamstown is more complicated than I’d ever imagined, and summer isn’t really long enough.

The position initially attracted me because I’m interested in art as activism. As a novelist, poet, and aspiring activist, I want my work to be a vehicle of genuine social change. The books we read, the movies we see, and the stories we hear all shape our worldview; whether we acknowledge it or not, media is formative. I’m passionate about environmentalism and social issues, so I hoped to explore their intersections in my work. I’d also become increasingly frustrated with the lack of campus activist culture and wanted to highlight issues in our area and the larger landscape of rural New England, which included my home in Vermont. I wanted to challenge both how we interact with our environment and how we approach (or avoid) activism that seeks to better it.

The summer was certainly an experience. One of the joys of summers in Williamstown is that your experiences never match up to your expectations. I wrote on themes that I’d never anticipated while applying for the position. I presented work at fellow intern Malik Nashad Sharpe’s dance event, made a dear friend at the Spruces through volunteering, slammed poetry in North Adams, went to a poetry festival in New York City, hiked, cycled, and learned more about the area than I did during my entire freshman year. Those experiences inspired and furthered my work.

I wanted to develop two concepts to make my project work: routine and vision. Routine was the most difficult. As much as I try, I’ve never been a writer who gets up every morning and writes four pages before breakfast. I tried to form a writing routine throughout the summer but never really succeeded. Since my project was so self-directed, I learned so much about my motivation and limits that will be invaluable as I pursue my writing career. Vision came more easily, but it took a few week of trial and error. Once I realized that I wanted to “pop” the purple bubble and challenge our strange brand of “isolationism,” it became easy to both write from experience and develop fictional experiences for pieces that belonged to a cohesive whole. This theme gives my work structure and focus.

I’m currently finalizing a portfolio of my summer writing called “Take Your Protests Outside.” It’s 156 pages of work divided into three sections: “Essays,” “Poetry,” and “Prose.” “Essays” is a series of short personal pieces about my summer in Williamstown. It includes accounts of my excursions to places like the Hoosic and Green Rivers, Mount Greylock, Mount Prospect, Blair Road, Sheep Hill, and more. Those pieces place our college community with its larger natural context. They explore classism, definitions of home, sense of place, and how women navigate these rural spaces. Despite this, “Essays” is perhaps the least intense section of the work. It’s a journal-like exploration of the area that illustrates how differently we each interact with the same places.

“Poetry” contains over thirty of my favorite poems from the summer. The issues addressed range from extreme weather’s impact on the underprivileged to drugs in small towns to wind turbines to rural high schools. My work relies heavily on imagery from mythology, folklore, and religion, so you’ll find poems like “street trash siren,” a prose-poem Odyssey, “Monocultures,” a piece woven with the parable of the wheat and the chaff, and “sidewalk skin,” a response to heroin’s rise in rural Vermont framed by Norse mythology.

Finally, “Prose” contains two pieces that explore “othering” in rural Vermont. “Haunting” focuses on a young immigrant’s relationships with her family, faith, and community, while “Worms and Crawlers” follows a gay teenager as she navigates her changing conception of home. Both pieces include touches of the supernatural: “Haunting” features a literal ghost and “Worms and Crawlers” involves other malevolent forces. These elements of fantasy or magical realism highlight the strangeness of the characters’ experiences. They emphasize the multiplicity of experiences in a world that we can’t begin to comprehend.

As the summer ends, my biggest regret is that I couldn’t say it all. There’s so, so much more that I could’ve written about for this project. The final portfolio contains pages and pages about how we interact with our environment (both natural and social), but there will always be more to say. There are so many stories and perspectives and many of them aren’t mine to tell. More than anything, though, my work is a challenge to listen to those stories. We cannot treat Williamstown as a mere thoroughfare, I say in one piece. We must engage with all its facets.

 

Abigail Rampone ‘17 is the Zilkha Center Writer-in-Residence. Hear her work at “Take Your Protests Outside: Reading of Stories and Poems by Abigail Rampone ‘17” on Thursday, October 9th at 7:00 pm in Harper House.