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The Bard Owl takes wing

Janine Pommy Vega dies; her mighty voice soars on

December 30, 2010 01:29 PM | 3 3 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Photo by Susan Black
Janine Pommy Vega, 68 — poet, political activist, Beat legend, world traveler, hiker and lover of the Catskills, teacher of aspiring writers in schools and prisons, and so much, much more — died on December 23 at her mountain home in Willow, in the arms of her lover and longtime companion, Andy Clausen. Over the past few years she had suffered greatly from rheumatoid arthritis (which she wryly termed the “Mean Ol’ Badger”), heart and liver trouble, and a medley of other illnesses, but she never let them stay her from teaching, writing, performing, or any of her other appointed rounds, answering their insults and humiliations with a courage that those who knew her deemed extraordinary.

“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.


Feet

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

Outside hypnosis

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

eyes entirely

cognizant

the lyrical voices rainbow bodies

your friends my friends nobody left

but the mad dogs of Trieste as we

cover the streets.

August 1998

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?

Michael Perkins

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

in 1979.

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

vivacity.

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

Ed Sanders
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.

Mikhail Horowitz

Saugerties


Comments
(3)
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naomi shihab nye
|
July 27, 2011
Janine was a brilliant star and her affectionate care for the guys in prison and their important voices and stories changed us all. i never saw a teacher more loved by her students. she carried radiance of language into rooms that needed it desperately and she believed, oh, how she believed.
Chuck Taylor
|
May 16, 2011
I just discovered Janine Pommy Vega, finding a copy of "Tracking the Serpent" in a used bookstore in Texas last week. I know of no other woman who is such an adventurous travel spirit. Many of my women friends in the 1980's were involved in the revival of women's spirituality in Austin, but Janine's book explains to me most deeply why women needed this so desperately. I was saddened to learn of her passing on this site while I checked the web for more information about her.
Cheryl Yarter
|
December 31, 2010
What a remarkable woman. Certainly a life lived to its fullest. My sincere condolensces to those whose life she touched. May God grant her peace. Cheryl

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