Over the recent holidays, we learned of the passing of poet, activist, and memoirist Janine Pommy Vega on Dec. 23rd at her home in Willow. She was 68.
Ms. Vega was perhaps best known as one of the "women of the Beat Generation," a group of women poets and writers -- including Joyce Johnson, Carolyn Cassady, Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger, Diane DiPrima and Anne Waldman -- who gravitated toward the the beatific and countercultural impulses of the Beat movement, but resisted elements of its male-driven ethos and the prevailing sexism of the late 1950s and early 1960s in the culture as a whole. Later, they would come to identify more closely with feminism and the women's movement.
A native of Union City, N.J., Vega read Jack Keroauc's "On the Road" in 1957 at age 15 and promptly set out for Greenwich Village with a high school friend to explore the Beat scene. Through a remarkable set of circumstances, she was able to meet the then-27-year-old Gregory Corso, who in turn introduced her to his friends Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. Within weeks, she found herself accepted into the Beats' inner circle.Following her graduation as valedictorian of her high school class in 1960, Vega moved to Greenwich Village, sharing an apartment briefly with Ginsberg and Orlovsky, who became her first lover. In Manhattan, she met, fell in love with, and married the Peruvian poet Fernando Vega. The couple moved to Paris in 1962, where Corso, William Burroughs, and Ginsberg had already relocated to a shambolic boarding house known as the "Beat Hotel." From there the couple moved to Spain, and later Ibiza, where Fernando died of a heroin overdose in 1965.
Widowed at age 23, Ms. Vega moved back to New York, and later California, where she completed her first book of poems, a collection of love letters to her dead husband. "Poems to Fernando" was published by City Lights Books in 1968 as part of its Pocket Poets Series, and it became the first book of poems by a woman of the Beat generation to win a widespread readership.
The success of the book marked an inflexion point in Vega's career, and her subsequent work expanded upon what had been the Beat ethos of the 1950s and '60s to embrace a more inclusive poetics based on her growing interest in feminism and the experience of women in traditional cultures around the world, as well as a social activism informed by her travels among the impoverished and disenfranchised peoples throughout the Third World.
Returning to her late husband's native South America during the early to mid-1970s, Vega lived alone as a self-described "hermit" on the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian-Peruvian border. Out of this self-imposed exile came her books "Journal of a Hermit" (Cherry Valley Editions, 1974) and "Morning Passage" (Telephone Books, 1976). Upon her subsequent return to the United States at the end of the decade, she began working as a teaching artist in schools through various arts-in-education programs and as an educator in various prisons across the United States through the Incisions/Arts organization.
A particular focus of her activism involved working to improve the lives, conditions, and opportunities for women in prison. With her longtime friend Hettie Jones, she co-authored "Words Over Walls," a prison writing workshop handbook for the international writers' association PEN, which appointed her to its Prison Writing Committee.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Vega traveled, read and performed her work across the North American and South American continents, throughout Europe, including Eastern Europe, and the countries in the Middle East, more often than not, traveling alone. She also published extensively, releasing eight collections of poems over those two decades. One of the best of those volumes was "Apex of The Earth's Way" (1984), a collection edited by Buffalo-based poet Dennis Maloney for his venerable White Pine Press, a leading Western New York based independent publisher since 1973.
In 1997, she published "Tracking the Serpent: Journeys to Four Continents" (City Lights Books), a memoir that traced her life and travels in the context of a larger spiritual journey involving pilgrimages to sites of female spiritual and temporal power in myth and nature. Many reviewers (including yours truly) read the memoir as Ms. Vega's attempt to write a woman-centered response to Keroauc's "On The Road," the book that first drew her out of New Jersey four decades earlier.
After decades of living out of a suitcase, Vega settled in Willow, a small community near Woodstock, with her companion, the poet Andy Clausen. In 2000, she published "Mad Dogs of Trieste: New & Selected Poems" (Black Sparrow Press), a retrospective volume that is perhaps the best introduction to the first 40 years of her career.
Although she battled the debilitating effects of arthritis in recent years, she adopted gardening as therapy and continued to tour, teach and read from her work on a regional basis for the Bard College Prison Initiative and other organizations. Vega published two more collections of poems, "The Walker" (Shivastan Publishing, 2003) and her 18th and final book "The Green Piano," published in 2005 by the legendary experimental press Black Sparrow Books, David R. Godine, Publisher. Here is the first poem from that collection:
Four Days before Rumi Died
(for the Harvest Moon Collective in memory of Fielding Dawson)
I could travel around the world
sending you postcards:
These people are not as free
as you either,
but the law does not allow postcards.
I could call you from across the country:
I had a dream! You were in it!
But there is no phone line
to just a bank of cells,
just the telegram of a sixth sense
set precisely in the present.
Like Aymara natives of Lake Titicaca
for whom the moment of sundown is always
five o'clock, there's no time
for egos, yours or mine
they are luxuries in a prison
it's five o'clock, the sun is going down.
Realists in the best sense
you stretch out to embrace a word:
freedom, for instance
more than a sound, the thing itself
like love reverberating with all the tremors
No one in prison presents a poem stoop shouldered
drowned in the rectitude of truth, romance
flies out the window,
the heart recognizes freedom
in an emissary from a different place
in a lost tribesman from the human race.
In the workshop of diligent hammers
we send up
some messages have been caught from far away.
We gulp down freedom
like a cat with a canary in our stomach,
guards suspicious of smiles
look at me perplexed:
Where is that sound coming from?
Your open mic poems celebrate
what few in the life outside allow
Like a denizen of the Twilight Zone
I hop back and forth across a mirror
What is that singing in your belly?
the guards demand. What is that singing?
Because they don't now
I can't tell them
Just a telegram, I say,
a singing telegraph from my next of kin.
Eastern Correctional Facility,
Napanoch, New York, December 13, 2001