“I didn’t know such bravery was possible, and it made me want to do right by her,” said Clausen, who had lived with Vega since 1999. “She was still planning gigs and counting on finishing her Bard College prison classes, even though she could only go an inch at a time by that point.”
Born in Jersey City to Joseph and Irene Telkowski Pommy on February 5, 1942, Janine Vega was effectively born a second time in 1960, when — after graduating as valedictorian of her class — she hopped a bus for New York City, telling her mother, “I’m going to live with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in Greenwich Village.” She hung out with Allen, Peter, Gregory Corso, and other luminaries of the Beat scene and began writing poetry. In December of 1962 she met the Peruvian painter Fernando Vega; they were married in Israel and lived there, in Paris, and finally in Ibiza, where Fernando died of an overdose of heroin. The love poems that Vega wrote to him during a year of mourning were eventually published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press as Poems to Fernando — the first poems by a woman to be featured in the City Lights Pocket Poets series. As R’lene Dahlberg noted in her 1983 profile of Vega for the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Vol. 16: The Beats), “Poems to Fernando is an exquisite chronicling of the birth of a poet through pain. Despite a few poetic affectations, the poet’s genuine emotions come through, and one experiences the birth pangs of a poet who is both mother and child. Janine Pommy is now truly Janine Pommy Vega — the name she will continue to use.”
Overall, Janine Vega published more than 15 books and chapbooks of poetry, notably The Bard Owl (1980); Drunk on a Glacier, Talking to Flies (1988); Mad Dogs of Trieste: New and Selected Poems (2000); and The Green Piano (2005). Her tales of journeys in search of matriarchal power sites, an odyssey that spanned four continents, were collected as Tracking the Serpent by City Lights (1997). These pilgrimages to the Amazon jungle, Nepal, Glastonbury, and Chartres Cathedral echoed the “road trips” taken by her male Beat compatriots, but were far more extensive, both geographically and in the nature of their investigations. The memoir, fueled by what the Boston Phoenix called Vega’s “compassionate indignation” at the subjugation of women and the demonizing of their spirituality through the ages, passes through loss and grief to a disciplined embrace of the life of the spirit. “That’s the fundamental relevance, for any woman artist, of Vega’s exploration of the world’s oldest female images of creativity,” the Phoenix concluded.
Vega’s friends and lovers constitute a Who’s Who of late-20th-century and early Third Millennium underground cultural heroes. But her most rewarding relationships were likely with the hundreds of inmates in the New York State prison system, her students of poetry and writing for more than three decades. Since 1987, she had directed Incisions/Arts, a program that brings writers into the prisons; at the time of her death, she was teaching at two local correctional facilities, Eastern and Woodbourne, through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a Bard College program that confers bachelor’s degrees to incarcerated students.
“Janine’s work with BPI only supplemented her long-standing efforts to make many of our region’s harshest places more hospitable to the arts and individual expression,” said Max Kenner, BPI’s executive director. “For nearly 15 years Janine offered poetry workshops within Eastern, on her own and with little or no funding…In many respects, it was her acquaintance and generosity that led to Bard’s collaboration with Eastern and the program we now have.”
The poet Hettie Jones, who taught a prose-writing class through Vega’s Sing Sing poetry workshop in the winter of 1989, credits Vega with launching her “subsequent career of more than a dozen years” teaching in women’s prisons. “She was such a light in everyone’s life,” said Jones, who eventually became the chair of PEN’s prison writing committee. “I admired her so much for her incredible energy. She and I often appeared as ‘Beat girls’ in readings at various venues, and we’d have such fun, because we weren’t impressed with ourselves. Janine didn’t have any airs about her, even though she had done so much that really was impressive; she just remained a hardworking person.”
Always a propulsive and passionate reader of her poetry, Vega became more musically sophisticated over the years, working with such musicians as Nina Sheldon, John Esposito, David Arner, Michael Esposito, and the late Betty MacDonald. Her CD Across the Table, featuring poems recorded at Mark Dann Studios in Woodstock and in concert at festivals in Bosnia and Italy, preserves the urgency and ardor of her voice.
“She didn’t really need a band,” said Sheldon, a jazz pianist and singer who had been working with Vega in recent years. “She drove her words by shaking her maracas, right on the beat, strong and unflagging, even when her hands were so crippled she could barely hold them.”
Until the attrition of her physical capabilities, Janine Vega had been an intrepid hiker, trekking the backbone of the Andes, the high plateaus of
the Himalayas, and the gentler summits of the Catskills, where she was a card-carrying member of the 3500 club (meaning, she had made it to the top of every peak in the Catskills more than 3,500 feet above sea level). In a 1999 interview for Ulster magazine, she said, “I’m married to some of these mountains — Kaaterskill High Peak, Plateau — and when I’m climbing, it’s just me and the mountain. Your face leaves you, you take on the contours of the place that you’re with . . . it’s like they say, there’s no you and there’s no mountain, and it’s true — that’s the state that one looks for.”
“I always thought of her as larger than life, but I recently realized that wasn’t quite accurate,” said poet Mikhail Horowitz, a friend of many years. “She was as large as life — meaning, she met life head on, kiss for kiss and blow for blow, never flinching from anything it dealt, and giving as good as she got. That only seems ‘larger than life’ because so many of us shrink from meeting life on its own terms. But Janine was that rarest of persons, one who was able to make life worthy of her.”
On Christmas Day, Bob Arnold, the executor of Vega’s estate, and his wife, Susan — old friends to whom Janine dedicated Tracking the Serpent — made the long drive down from Vermont to gather her books and papers so as to ensure their safekeeping. The next day, Andy Clausen sat in the house he shared with Janine Vega and remembered when he first fell in love with her. “We were on a bus in Jersey City, standing and holding onto the straps, and I realized that she came from the same kind of neighborhood that I came from — the old school, the library — and neither of us had gone to college, but we had both learned poetry…” His reminiscence then skipped ahead, to encompass all the years they spent together: “She was stubborn, feisty, smart, big-hearted, big-spirited, and a tremendous worker. She really saw the infinite in the flowers, the Mother of us all in the night sky, and she had great love for the common people.”
In addition to Clausen, her survivors include a brother, Bill Pommy, and his wife, Carol, and a nephew, a niece, and a grandniece. She was predeceased by her sister, Irene Setaro.
A celebration of Janine Vega’s life will take place in February in Woodstock, the date, time, and place to be announced. There will also be a memorial in New York City. Her ashes will be buried in the Woodstock Artists Cemetery in the summer.
I look down at the flat feet by the toilet
my feet, this life
First we’re hypnotized that this is it
then we’re saying good-bye
How many nights have I done this?
Shivering moth wings on the screen
it really is good-bye.
August 12, 2001
from Vega’s The Green Piano
Mad Dogs of Trieste
for Andy Clausen
We have never been in a war like this
in all the years of watching
the street at 3 a.m.,
kids lobbing cherry bombs into garbage cans
the last hookers heading toward home
It used to be, stopping in Les Halles cafes
after a night we could find the strong
men from the market
and the beautiful prostitutes
resting in each other’s arms
Le Chat Qui Peche, Le Chien Qui Fume
alive with Parisian waltzes, his hands on her ass
We could pick up raw produce from discard bins
and have lentil stew for tomorrow
Things have never been like this.
Cops square off against teenagers in the village square
take the most pliant as lovers, and reroute the rest
into chutes of incarceration
The mad dogs of Trieste
we counted on to bring down the dead
and rotting status quo, give a shove here
and there, marauder the fattened and calcified order,
have faded like stories
We used to catch them with their hat brims
keeping most of the face in shadow
and sometimes those voices
one by one
turned into waves
like cicadas in the August trees, whistling
receding, and the words crept under
the curtains of power, made little changes,
tilted precarious balance, and brought relief
Those packs don’t crisscross the boulevards
now in the ancient cities, no political cabal
behind us watches the world with
the lyrical voices rainbow bodies
your friends my friends nobody left
but the mad dogs of Trieste as we
cover the streets.
from Vega’s The Mad Dogs of Trieste
Elegy for Janine: Singing in Eternity
No, it cannot be that you are gone.
I weep for thee, sister spirit!
Do not say I should not cry.
Death has stolen your smile from me,
And stilled the voice of passion
Through which the Great Mother spoke.
You walked the world opening doors
In prisons and in our hearts.
You talked to flies on glaciers!
You held on to life with your fingertips,
And just kept on coming.
I weep for thee sister spirit!
Do not say I should not cry.
How can the beautiful die?
23 December, 2010
Janine Pommy Vega
She was born on February 5, 1942
in Jersey City, New Jersey
Soon after it was published, she read
Kerouac’s On the Road — that was 1958
It made a big impression on her
She was a wild young woman
and at age 16 she met Beat Poet Gregory Corso
at the Cedar Bar
on University Place in Manhattan
The Cedar was where the painters and poets commingled
Through Corso, the 16 year old Janine met Kerouac,
Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky
She returned to N.J. to finish high school
and then fled to Greenwich Village
where in the summer of ’59 she became a waitress
at the Beat coffee house on West Third Street
called the Bizarre.
She met the Beat writer Herbert Huncke
& for a while lived with him.
She also was a lover of Peter Orlovsky
And she began to write poetry
She lived in Paris, in Israel, in San Francisco, in Ireland
and other places
till with $5,000 she inherited from her mother
she purchased a six room house in Willow
Throughout her career, since 1968 she published
a sequence of excellent books
Miriam and I toured Italy and Sardinia
with Janine a couple of years in the early 2000s
and were always amazed by her cross-cultural
Her final years were wracked with declining health,
but she kept up her touring, her work helping
writers in prison, and appearing in festival upon
festival. Never surrendering. Never giving up,
always with a gleam in her eye.
And now she is gone. Just two months shy of
her 69th birthday.
Rest in peaceful glory, Janine Vega
Her voice was invincible
Janine Pommy Vega — poet, lover, witness, warrior, clarion voice for those forgotten and discarded by governments, gardener of vegetables and verbs, speaker of truth to power, singer of the fearless, unconstrained heart — has left us, way too soon, and we have no instruments with which to gauge our loss, which is incalculable. She recorded it all with an eye that never flinched, heard it with an ear that never stopped paying attention, voiced it with a tongue that never apologized, and embraced it with a generosity of spirit that never quit. Time and again, she reached deeply into the darkness and retrieved something that is so essential, it can’t be named—and yet she named it, each time, with great eloquence. Her life and work were illuminated by the wisdom that a true struggle for justice has to be waged with laughter and joy as well as anger and tears. Her voice will not be dispersed with her ashes, and the great and beautiful gift she gave us will never stop giving.