The Poison in His Past
A shift in medium helps veteran journalist tell his most personal story

t’s not as if Dana Jennings ’80 couldn’t find the words. An editor for the New York Times, Jennings started out as a print journalist. He’s written three novels, two works of nonfiction and a children’s book. #hecanwrite.

But to talk about the impact a literal toxic environment had on his life, to make the audience understand the smells and sounds and the poison that spewed from the 55-gallon steel drums at Kingston Steel Drum, Jennings picked up a different pen. And he sketched. Furiously, it seems to the eye. Purposely. Telling the story of his father’s cancer, his own cancer and the rage against the hazardous waste site where both worked decades earlier.

Dana Jennings illustration 1
Courtesy Dana Jennings
Those memories, along with others from his boyhood, fill the black and white pages of the sketchbooks that make up “Toxic Youth,” an online exhibit now on display at the UNH Museum of Art.

“As a writer for decades, I’ve been keeping notebooks since the 1990s, but the sketchbooks are really freeing. As for subject matter, it comes from factory memories, Kingston memories, song titles and sometimes trying to get at my various illnesses in a more interior way,” says Jennings, who was diagnosed with an aggressive, invasive form of prostate cancer at the age of 50 as well as ulcerative colitis. “And even though they are drawings, it still feels narrative. For me, writing, drawing and serious reading are all kind of mixed together — a way of dreaming myself awake.”

Kingston is Kingston, New Hampshire, where Jennings grew up. Where he scoured the steel drums at the Rte. 125 factory — today, a Superfund hazardous waste site — to rid them of paint, motor oil, pesticides. And where, as a boy, he began to draw. And still he says, “The sketchbooks, they are a pretty recent way of me trying to understand/delineate stuff of all kinds.”

Dana Jennings illustration 2
Dana Jennings illustration 3
He calls the sketchbooks “a place where I can bushwhack through my memory. I am still haunted by Kingston Steel Drum — 50 years later.”

But there are better memories depicted, too. Sparked by music — Neil Young; King Crimson — Marvel Comics and underground comix and the “simple fact of growing up in a small New Hampshire town.”

“In these sketchbooks, I’m an archaeologist, excavating my deepest self,” Jennings says.

Toxic Youth” is virtually on display through April 2.

— Jody Record ’95