Janine Pommy Vega, Beat Sister
February 5, 1942- December 23, 2010
A great sister spirit, woman extraordinaire of the Beat literary movement who left her home in Union City, New Jersey age 15 to seek out the Beats, died December 23rd at her home in Willow, New York, outside Woodstock. She was close to Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. Peter was her first lover at a tender age. They lived together and she confronted the complicated sexuality and male chauvinist ethos early on when Allen took Peter off to India, with nary a thought to her feelings. “Is this the way it is with the poets? This is my first lover and this is the way it goes? Fuck those people, man, I don’t want to know about the writers. I rather meet the painters, the musician, the magicians, let’s get to the street.” And meet them and the street she did. Janine was a populist, a street fighter, a survivor, a world traveler and hugely prolific writer many decades. Tracking The Serpent: Journeys to Four Continents is an amazing account of an adventuresome life. She spent the last 11 years with poet Andy Clausen, tending her garden when she wasn’t traveling the world performing her magnetic and politically engaged poetry, and doing the scholarly work as well, burning the midnight oil. Even after being hampered with debilitating arthritis she was out on the road, her uplifted voice and spirit cutting through anyone’s gloom.
We were together in Prague at the height of celebration right after the Velvet Revolution, dancing in the streets, and I was with Janine as she shook her egg rattle and up and down Italy on the Pullman Bus Tour, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others. People loved her at every turn, moved by her warmth and deep-rooted compassion. She was a guest at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics recently, admonishing students to get active and do the work to benefit others. I count her in our band of “tattered bodhisattva” poets. At Naropa she spoke of “serving something other than the ego, serving as the glue of a civilization, serving clarity of thought, the specific vision of your truth”.
Janine was an indomitable activist on behalf of women’s rights and taught tirelessly inside the prison system, working many years for the PEN Prison Writing Committee. A poem from her collection, The Green Piano (David R. Godine, Published, 2005):
Christmas at Woodbourne
Sodden cardboard manger
at the front gate
to Woodbourne Prison
shrouded hills, lone gull’s
screech atop the searchlight
Who says we are separate
from what we love?
would call that ignorance
separate voices, separate
troubles, separate cells –
from the consistency
( Janine Pommy Vega
Woodbourne C.F., Woodbourne, New York
Janine: you continue to soar with your dignity and exquisite — yet fearless — grace.
The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics