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American Homecoming

“Beauty inspires me,” says Jennie Boyd Bull ’67, a lifelong feminist and LGBTQ+ activist. In her poetry collection, Where I Live: Coming Home to the Southern Mountains (Finishing Line Press), she takes readers on a picturesque journey through valleys, along mountain streams, and into the warmth of her hard-won wisdom.

What inspired your new book of poetry?

When I was growing up in Knoxville, Tenn., we frequently hiked and played in the Smoky Mountains, so I grew up loving the Southern mountains; they are my heart home. When I retired to the South Toe River Valley at age 70, I returned home to live beneath the towering Blacks, the tallest mountains in the East. As I write in the prologue to my new chapbook of poems, Where I Live: Coming Home to the Southern Mountains: “the steady warp threads of these mountains and their watersheds continue to define this rich land, inspiring and enlivening its people with their beauty, fertility, and diversity, for those who live with eyes, hearts and minds open to the wisdom of earth and sky.  I marvel—write poems of discovery this first year.”

The inspiration for publishing the poems came from a University of North Carolina Asheville Great Smokies Writing Program continuing education class taught by Catherine Reid and from friends in my poetry critique group, whose support and example encouraged me to venture from private to public with my work. 


Many of your poems make your life in a tiny green house with a pointed roof seem so picturesque. Is it your writing that makes this beauty, or the beauty that makes you write?

Beauty inspires me, and poetry is one way to express the inexpressible, the wonder of the mountains, kindness of neighbors, and the heart-opening self-discoveries evoked by settling into a new life.


What do you want your readers to take away from your poems?

In our lives and work we can sometimes drown in noise, busyness, scattered attention.My hope is that readers open to the beauty of nature, the slower pace, and the soul-nurturing deep silences that enrich life.


What has been the most enlightening experience of your move?

Living in the rural mountains of Appalachia, with the nearest town of Burnsville 15 minutes away, is a daily journey of discovering the values of rural life. Folks here share a deep knowledge of and respect for plants, animals, weather, and history, resulting in shared interdependence and neighborliness as requisite for survival.“Glad for yesterday’s rain—my garden needed it.” “She’s a Burleson, her folks once owned all this land.” “My daughter’s hens have gone broody and refuse to lay.” “The trout lilies are blooming early this Spring, down by the river.” My preconceptions of “backward” or “quaint” rural life, so hot a topic in the current political polarization of the U.S., daily transform into respect for this more interconnected culture rooted in the earth—and the need for us all to reclaim that connection.


What about your most challenging experience?

I find being “out” about my spiritual path the biggest challenge, and drive an hour into Asheville to attend my Indian chanting and meditation group. I have returned home to a culture where Christianity is still the norm—a country church every mile or so along the road—and socially conservative values coexist along with progressive views. Artists and retirees from many cultures have settled here and live in community with the many Scotch-Irish and few African-American families who migrated here centuries ago—Latino families more recently. I find acceptance at the Celo Friends Meeting up the road, part of an intentional, progressive Quaker community founded in the 1930s by Arthur Morgan and sustained by conscientious objector families from World War II who worked with the WPA to building the BlueRidge Parkway just up the road.


In the poem “Coming Out at Book Group,” you describe how the room fell silent, with only one nod of acceptance. Do you find acceptance is still a challenge?

I’m regularly delighted at the acceptance I receive when I come out to individuals and groups, including the book group, yet I'm thoughtful. For example, I’m very out with friends and the groups in which I participate—and even led a panel discussion on LGBT rights at the local Celo Friends Meeting—but I chose not to mention my sexual identity in a recent interview for the local county paper.


In the poem “Doctrine of Discovery,” you resolve to use awareness of privilege to right wrongs while seeking connectedness and community. Are you able to still make that difference where you live now?

After the 2016 election, I began facilitating a social equality group that meets in the library, a clearinghouse and support for our varied concerns—the Los Vincenos Latino group, the NAACP, the Dig In community garden, rural healthcare, electoral politics. Our group includes a local Methodist pastor, a young Mennonite poet and graphic designer, a Baptist teacher and mother of a gay son, a writer who serves on the county agriculture board, a retired Jewish physician who worked in rural public heath, a young mother who advocates for women’s rights.We’re planning a precinct BBQ at Hoot Owl Hall in the park down by the river next week, with all local and state candidates invited to speak and answer questions—I’m baking cornbread. We’ve endorsed a Democrat to run against Rep. Mark Meadows, head of the U.S. House freedom caucus. This area is purple, both Democrat and Republican, a legacy from Civil War days; I’m part of the mix to create communication and understanding across differences.


Prior to your retirement, you wore many, many hats: editor, pastor, librarian, LBGT activist. With this simpler life, what do you do to keep busy?

I’m more than keeping busy, I’m unfolding the more creative side of my life. A certified Tai Chi instructor, I teach Tai Chi and Qigong three times a week, at the local Celo and Bakersville Health Centers and in Ashevillle. I delight in teaching folks to “be still like a mountain, flow like a river.” I’ll lead a class this weekend, run family activities on the Burnsville Town Square, and regularly teach at the “Home Remedies” program at the local hospital, offering alternative options to opioids, to address pain and stress. I volunteer at the Dig In community garden, growing fresh produce to give away at Harvest Tables to folks with food scarcity, and in the process have learned to grow and preserve my own kale, collards, beets, tomatoes, and basil.

Along with artists and craftspeople and mountain music (more per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.), these mountains also offer a rich literary life, which sustains me.  I participate in four poetry, writing, critique, and book groups, take Great Smokies Writing Program classes in memoir and poetry, and volunteer with the annual Carolina Mountains Literary Festival as archivist and an introducer.  Gail Godwin is our keynote this year—a North Carolina native, her latest novel, Grief Cottage, is set in the coastal Carolinas.

With the NC High Peaks Trails Association, l’m part of an Audubon Climate Watch team that identifies birds here in the mountains, slowly learning calls and feathers at my feeder and on the mountaintops.  I pick up litter at the Buck Creek Gap overlook along the BlueRidge Parkway a few miles up the road from my home.

And I’m learning to weave—four placemats and napkins are nearing completion in russet, turquoise, and gold yarn on my four-harness loom at the end of the counter. 


What was your most memorable experience as a student at Swarthmore?

Coming from Tennessee on a full scholarship, I was soon aware of the class and educational differences, and gleefully gobbled up all I could learn in classes and beyond—Friday night folk-dancing, College Chorus, movies in Clothier, Charlie Chaplin seminars with Prof. Vandercamp, fasting and speaking out against the Vietnam War with SDS—the beginning of my activist days. And yet, some of my most memorable experiences foretell my present life; I loved the campus arboretum and Crum Woods, where I often walked for the welcome relaxation and solitude they brought amidst the intense academics.

One highlight was an evening of study in the old Friends Library with its high stained-glass window, discovering T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” for Samuel Hynes’s Modern Poetry seminar and ecstatically scribbling out a paper about its truth, likely incomprehensible to professor and classmates but core memory to this day.


Was there a professor that helped inspire you?

I don’t remember the names of the professors so much as the delight of the subjects—Shakespeare with Derek Traversi, Italian Renaissance Sculpture, Modern Poetry with Samuel Hynes, Political Theory with Roland Pennock, Romantic Poetry with Harold Pagliaro, Spencer’s Faerie Queen with Susan Snyder. The Honors Seminars inspired me to focus deeply and creatively on their content. During the English honors exam, when I faced a panel of scholars, I wore a daisy in my hair, spilled my drink, and defended my essay on King Lear that challenged the prevailing thesis on Cordelia’s death.

I was an Honors English major, with minors in art history and political science. Obviously, my studies were not about preparation for a career—I volunteered with AFSC in eastern Kentucky after graduation—but about the liberal arts, expanding my knowledge in many directions.

The curriculum was still old white European men at that time—it was during my feminist, coming-out days in the ’70s in Baltimore that my world expanded to include the writings of women of color and much more. I’m grateful to Swarthmore for that very ability and encouragement to expand my horizons and live a life that supports the “growing edge of history”—a phrase I learned from a history professor at Swarthmore.

As T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding”:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.”