When the definitive history of the Beat literary phenomenon is ultimately written, Janine Pommy Vega's name and her art will figure significantly in it.
"We move up the bench," said Vega a couple of years ago, at a memorial for Marty Matz, one of the last of the 'vagabond subterraneans' with whom she was associated from the 1950s alternative literary scene.
As dozens of fellow Bohemian artists fell by the wayside in the last decade or so, Vega moved up the bench to take a prominent position as a shamanistic and warrior-like voice out of the mists of the Beat literary era.
Now she's moved on, leaving those lucky enough to have known her to recall an artist with astounding gravity and fire, who in performance drew on nearly fifty years of participation in and experience of the alternative literary scene.
The current rap sheet concerning women associated with the Beat era tends to focus on their relegation to the sidelines during that male-dominated era. But to read Vega's aesthetic accomplishment that way would be to sell it short.
One need only turn to the writings of Herbert Huncke - whose soul of Baltimore gentility and extra-societal grace belied the mere underworld grifter role that some would ascribe to him - in seminal works like "The Evening Sun Turned Crimson," I mean, to see that original Beat figures were struck by the fuller light of her first entry onto the scene.
Janine, writes Huncke, "preferred her own means of obtaining her answers. She possessed curiosity concerning living and wanted to search on her own - I was honored she trusted me."
So the histories go, Janine Pommy-Vega (Feb 5 1942-Dec 23 2010) grew up in Union City, New Jersey, where she emerged from "a happy childhood and teenage years" to a young adulthood in which she felt a constant need to travel and experience life. Valedictorian in high school, she was magnetized to Manhattan, became lovers with Peter Orlovsky, and developed deep friendships with Herbert Huncke, Allen Ginsberg and Elise Cowen.
Vega's name began to figure prominently in the Beat scene through her associations with them, a denizen of the subterannean alternative arts scene of Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s.
A well-spring for inspiration that would inform the personae of the East Coast beats, it was a meeting place for art, jazz and literature with a quasi-underworld melange of drugs, boisterous sexuality and petty crime. This admixture went a long way to producing the fundamental character of the transcontinental Beat/Bohemian scene, which attempted to carve a free alternative lifestyle out of the iceberg of Eisenhower America in the 1950s. And Pommy Vega was in the midst of it.
The startlingly direct "Fernando," published by City Lights in 1968, provides a raw and ready glimpse into that scene. That's hard to get hold of. For what is perhaps the most accessible volume of her work, the best bet is to obtain a copy of the 2000 "Mad Dogs of Trieste: New and Selected Poems," from Black Sparrow Press, a book that is frequently to be found in shops stocking contemporary poetry.
If you don't know what
your name is, how
can I introduce myself?
-fr Polish Cantina
Over the years, Vega carved out numerous interest areas for aesthetic and polemic exploration. In particular, her connections to South America are profound. From '71-75 she lived variously in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, including a stay on the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, during which time she completed two books of poetry (Journal of a Hermit, Morning Passage). Other poems reflecting on South America followed, including the particularly beautiful is A Gift of Flowers, written in Peru in 1990:
You ask if I remember the flower
you gave me last year
on the puna, called Rima Rima
more than the flowers
on this or that mountain
but the flower you put in my hat just now
from the cactus Hudcuru Huayta
with a stick through the center
to keep it open
drones like a bumblebee
in the wind
as I run down the hill.
"Could we walk back to that garden and recognize your obsidian blaze/could we nod and duck into that kingdom, protected and creative, without words of division," she asks, in her poem Bird Mother of Calgiari, inviting us all to ask the same.
Vega was finely attuned to issues of gender, injustice and contemporary political events. There was no mere grandstanding - rather a distinct and full human voice at work - neither preaching to the choir nor shouting at the imagined barricades. She eschewed the easy and obvious, in favor of engaging her listeners in an impassioned discourse. Yet, her political statements could be quite incisive, as in Luricgancho, which concludes:
Ciao, South American continent
the murders in your face
are less disguised than where I live -
one sees who to hate
To the north the civilized killers
corporate fists, the ones with power
have no human faces at all.
They have no face.
Vega drew on years working with prisoners in upstate New York. This topic combined her impassioned political consciousness with an inherent emotional calm, borne of wide philosophical vision: 'one is inside/and one is outside/the same plane passing through/the same sky over both,' she wrote in one poem. An aphorism she brought to riveting life and gestural immediacy, with a surge of intimacy in the final lines: 'inside, walking out/through stone corridors/I rub a little lipstick on the wall.'
"She founded Incisions Arts in 1988, which goes into the prisons," notes poet Andy Clausen, for a dozen years companion and confidante in Willow, outside of Woodstock. "So many prisoners, men and women, have gotten out and have led productive lives because of these intense workshops that she would do once a week. She could only walk an inch at a time, with my help, on her last day, and she was still trying to go to the prison to teach the day before she died."
Artist and musician Bill Heine, who survived the era to remain a performing artist into the present time, recalled her beauty, her early efforts at writing, her relationship with her first husband Fernando Vega and her overarching survivor instinct, which brought her through sometimes harrowing lifestyles on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Haight Ashbury, and Paris. "She's an incredible survivor," said Heine in an interview with Carson Arnold a few years ago, "very strong."
Some of that resilience is suggested by the inspiration she found in nature, and a kind of East Coast zen attentiveness - aptly encapsulated in the 1997 poem "Morning," which Vega wrote on the New York Thruway in the month of February -- not on the face of it one of the most charming places to be:
A mountain chain of clouds
suddenly broken through by the sun
in just the way
the ego is broken through
real mountains in a real somewhere
and you have done that
you have given me back my joy.
Certain women who emerged as noted writers of the Beat era found their aesthetic fulcrum in an edgy kind of aggressiveness of style. By contrast Janine's presence and poetry -- for all its well earned reputation for blazing fearlessness -- revealed a persistent complexity of vision and subtlety of intellect, a gentleness and resolution that transcended pain, disappointment, outrage and the mundane. She gave the world back its joy.
One of the more moving and apt of the numerous tributes to Vega since she died a year ago was this posting on her facebook page by upstate poet Isaacs Lei: The woman set forth/And she faced all battles/ With peace, song, and clapping/And words of the triumph of love and spring and hope/And the strength of giving. That's an image and memory shared by many.
Janine Pommy Vega is no longer among us and memories will, necessarily, fade. But she has left her poetry. That will have to be sufficient to afford those who follow, who never met her and experienced her shamanistic fire and fierceness, to obtain a precious glimpse into her world.