by Henry Elliot
Rachel Jennings is a poet who often writes poetry of her experiences of the past life. Her works hearken back to the days of her youth in Eastern Tennessee deep within the Appalachian Mountains, where her books Elijah’s Farm and Knoxville Girl: The Walk to the River details the life living in the eastern mountains of the United States, poems of the lifestyle, culture and the surrounding environment of a mountain girl.
I was able to get into contact with Jennings via e-mail, with a brief interview about the life of an Appalachian residing in Eastern Tennessee, her transition to the cityscape and suburban lifestyles in San Antonio, and her her work as a writer and poet.
Henry Elliott: What is the writing community like in San Antonio?
Rachel Jennings: The writing community in San Antonio is tight-knit. Writers support each other by forming writing groups or sponsoring public readings. While many published writers are creative writing or literature professors, very few writers in San Antonio actually earn a living from their writing or even see a profit from sales. Writing is something they do because they care deeply about expressing themselves to other and care about their subject matter. I have found helpful writing communities through Gemini Ink, where I have read my poetry publicly, and which has encouraged me to be active in the Writers through Communities program. Through that program, I have conducted workshops at local public schools. Also, I have found community through the Macondo Writing Workshop, which includes writers from across the country and the world but is based here in San Antonio. The Macondo Workshop emphasizes the importance of writing with a social conscience. Most of the participants are Latino/a or people of color and/or LGBTQ, but they are open to anyone who is involved in writing and other work that supports social justice.
In San Antonio, I have noticed that writers tend to be divided between affluent, middle-class white writers who maintain their own networks and writers of color, who maintain other networks and tend to be more involved in social justice advocacy. As someone who lives in the heart of the Westside, is active in social justice activism, and earns a very modest living as an Adjunct English instructor, I find that I gravitate more toward the writing circles that are predominantly people of color. I am not always a good ally, and occasionally there are challenges and difficulties for me as someone who did not grow up in a Mexican American environment, but I still feel more comfortable in writing communities that are more oriented toward issues of social justice in regard to class, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on.
HE: How does living in San Antonio impact on your writing?
RJ: I grew up in East Tennessee, which has a mostly white population and only a small African American population. Culturally, my community was Appalachian with roots in the Appalachian mountains. My people had lived on the land for more than two hundred years and a particular way of life that was very insular and wary of the outside. It is a culture I still identify with despite the fact that I have lived outside East Tennessee for almost my entire adult life.
As an adult, I have spent many years in Texas with brief stints in Minnesota, Illinois, and West Virginia (the latter being the only US state that exists entirely within the Appalachian region.) During the period I was growing up, I was completely unfamiliar with Mexican American culture. By the time I first came to San Antonio in 1999 to teach at the University of the Incarnate Word, I had become very familiar with Mexican American culture, having lived in East Austin, studied Mexican American literature very intensely, and socializing primarily with working class Mexican American friends rather than more affluent white friends. San Antonio, however, is a city with much deeper Mexican American roots, so I had much to learn. Also, I was raised in one of the most Protestant regions of the country and found myself teaching at a Catholic university in a Catholic-majority city. Although I was very familiar with Catholicism through my studies in Irish and Mexican American literature, I found that I was not in a practical way familiar with the Catholic culture. I loved learning more about Catholicism even as I resisted some of its more patriarchal and heteronormative realities.
This experience immediately affected my writing, as I grappled with the tensions between Catholicism, Protestantism, and agnostic secular humanism. I questioned all three traditions, rebelled against all three, and embraced all three. It has never been an easy accommodation, but the influence of all three traditions has enriched my life and my poetry.
San Antonio is also a city with a colonialist past—a Spanish colonialist past and then an Anglo-American colonialist past. The Alamo is an unescapable symbol of this past, and Davy Crockett, the frontiersman from Tennessee, is an unescapable symbol of the Alamo. This history had influenced my poetry for years before I moved to San Antonio, but it was a history made much more vivid and alive when I moved to this city. As an Appalachian person who grew up in a marginalized mountain culture, I had to wrestle with what it meant to be Appalachian—Tennessean—in a place where Tennesseans had contributed to the domination and exploitation of Mexican Americans. As a symbol, sadly, Davy Crockett has been used as justification for subjugating Mexican American people, which is very painful for me to reflect upon and is a central theme in my poetry.
HE: Your poetry collection Knoxville Girl: The Walk to the River focuses on East Tennessee and Appalachia. What draws you to write about the place?
RJ: As an East Tennessean, I grew up with a very strong sense of place because Appalachian people have a strong attachment to their homeplace and their land. My family had lived on the land for a couple of hundred years. We were the original white settlers. Thus, some of my family relations going back to the nineteenth century are buried in a family cemetery on the ridge behind my parents’ house.
Other relations are buried in a churchyard on the other side of the ridge on Clinton Highway. My father grew up across the road from where I grew up. He grew up in a log house that had been built in about the 1860s or 1870s by my great-great-grandparents, a house without electricity or running water. When he got married, my father simply bought a house built by his brother across the road. I had numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins as my neighbors because all of them lived near the old homeplace. As I grew up, there was an old oak tree in the backyard on which my grandmother had carved her initials in 1913. The tree is still there. These reminders of the family’s past were everywhere in the woods and fields, so I grew up very attached to a sense of place.
Another factor that influenced my sense of place was my family’s identification with Appalachian culture. My father was the first in his family to go to college. He went to Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, a small liberal arts college that promoted a positive sense of Appalachian identity. Thus, although the rest of the world often stereotypes Appalachian people negatively—as violent, drunken, misogynist, uneducated, and so on—I have always viewed my culture with affection and admiration. To this day, I am often shocked when others make pejorative statements about Appalachia, as it never occurs to me that my Appalachian culture is something of which I should be ashamed.
Finally, I think my interest in Appalachia and East Tennessee stems from the fact that I have lived far from my homeplace for so many years. The way that I continue to feel close to my home is by writing about it and reflecting on its meaning in my life. In that way, I never have to leave home. I often find that I want to defend my home region. At other times, I wish to explore the hauntedness of the region. For example, I was fascinated when I learned that my great-great grandfather, Elijah Jennings, and his brother had gone to fight in the US-Mexican War in the 1840s. He would have known nothing about Mexico or what we call the Southwest, nor would that land have meant anything to him personally, so why did he go to fight? Why would he leave our Tennessee home when home has always meant so much to me and to my family? These are questions that I have pondered in my poetry.
HE: What was your path to publishing your first book of poetry, Hedge Ghosts?
RJ: By the time I published Hedge Ghosts in 2001, I had been publishing my poems in journals and small publications for a number of years, most notably in the Appalachian Journal. I identified mostly as a literary scholar at that time, but I had a private need to write and publish poetry. When I was teaching at Stephen F. Austin State University in 2000-2001, a professor in the art department asked me if I would provide some poems to him so that he could publish them using a traditional hand press and set type. Another art professor would draw the illustrations. Each handmade copy of such a book costs a great deal, but I was excited to be able both to publish my poems in Hedge Ghosts and to support a traditional form of bookmaking that emphasizes the physical book as an aesthetic object.
HE: Could you tell us about your work at the Conjunto de Nepantleras at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center?
RJ: I have been on the board, or Conjunto de Nepantleras, of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center since 2005. The Esperanza Center has played a major role in my life, so I feel privileged to serve on the Conjunto. The name for our group suggests that we work or create together just as a musical conjunto might do. Also, we take our name from the concept of Nepantla as theorized by Gloria Anzaldua. Although the term originally is Nahuatl, Anzaldua, a Chicana from the Valley and leading feminist US intellectual of the twentieth century, used the term to suggest how each of us occupies a space of tension and creative conflict, a space occupied by more than one identity, a space that crosses borders. The term applies to Chicanas but to others as well. Certainly, as an East Tennessean living in San Antonio, I often feel that I occupy such a multi-leveled space.
My work as a Nepantlera requies me to volunteer for Esperanza programming or for advocacy work, to be an ambassador for the organization, and to help with fundraising, I often write articles and poetry for the Esperanza’s newsletter, La Voz de Esperanza, and also volunteer to fold and mail copies. I attend monthly Conjunto meetings and semi-annual, weekend-long retreats at which we plan for Esperanza’s future. If we participate in a march (such as today’s International Women’s Day march) or attend meetings at City Hall (such as during debate about the Vista Ridge water pipeline from Bureleson County), I try my best to participate. When we have our annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos, I try to work at the information table or to cut geraniums for the flower display. The work is very eclectic, but it is almost always fun. As a result of my work at the Esperanza, I have come to identify more closely with my Westside Mexican American community, which affects my poetry. My poetry often draws upon Mexican American culture, although always contextualized from my Appalachian perspective. For instance, I wrote a poem recently about Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the Westside, but I made no pretense of being a worshipper there but wrote from my own personal perspective.
HE: Do you have any words for those who aspire to become poets?
RJ: For those who aspire to become poets, I would recommend that they read many books, both prose and poetry. They should challenge themselves in their reading selections but also should read what they enjoy. Eventually, they will learn to identify those genres and authors that spark their imaginations and help them creatively. It is always a mistake to write poetry with the expectation that others will read the poetry but then never to read poetry oneself. I find such an attitude not only self-defeating, since we all need inspiration and guidance from other writers, but also arrogant. What would my our own poetry so special that others would want to read it, while we should not be bothered to read others’ work?
Also, I would recommend that poets be patient with themselves. Write privately in journals, write private letters to friends and family members, and write poetry privately. Share the poetry with family, friends, and professors, but do not expect to become a major prize winner right away. Learn to value poetry for its own sake and not to over-emphasize prizes and prestige. Take pleasure in each publication, regardless of how seemingly small the publication might be. Every published poem has a right place, a mission, a role. Thus, take pride when a poem finds a home in a publication.
I would advise poets, too, to seek out mentors, whether those mentors are professors, editors, or others. Listen to what more experienced poets say—you have the right to reject advice but be willing to listen.
Finally, listen to your inner voice, your intuition. Poetry is a calling, do not silence your intuition. Writing poetry is hard, but think of the hard work as a spiritual discipline. Hard work and intuition go together in the service of self-expression.
Rachel Jennings is a poet currently residing in San Antonio, TX and works as administrative assistant for the College of Liberal & Fine Arts at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Jennings earned a B.A. At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and later both her M.A. And Ph.D. At the University of Texas at Austin.