There was a celebration of the life of Janine Pommy-Vega yesterday in Woodstock, NY. Vega, who passed in December, 2010, was one of the few females allowed into and promoted by the tight, male-dominated circle of Beat poets in the 1960s. She was a force unto herself as well, and for almost 30 years taught writing workshops in the prisons of New York State. Two former workshop participants were among the speakers, and they revealed that the groups often referred to Vega as "Mother".
I knew Janine only as an acquaintance. My shyness, which may come as a surprise to some, sometime prevents me from taking advantage of the poets around me, the big leaguers that we are accustomed to having among us here in the Hudson Valley. The same is true of my relationship with Enid Dame, who many recall as perhaps the least threatening person to inhabit the planet. I was lucky to have had her attentions for one morning at a small workshop, but I do regret not just going up and chatting with her at the many readings she and her husband Donald Lev attended. Donald is still here, and yet I still feel that absurd intimidation with him at times, though I do my best to go beyond it. Regret is a bitter, irrevocable emotion, but one that can perhaps help to change my future behavior, at least a little.
Vega was genuine, tough, dynamic, and yet so sunny and positive that if one didn't know better, one might think it was merely an attention-grabbing false face she wore at readings. Even the last few times I saw her read, her once strong body crapping out on her big time, the energy behind her words remained. I was privileged to have seen her up close and it action. She grabbed your attention, that's true, but it was because of the power of her words, her energy, for lack of a less Woodstocky term. She had the beat, she was a Beat, and that rhythm will echo down through future generations of writers, activists and optimistic doers.
I will remember two things about Janine. During a chat after a reading, we were talking about chapbooks, and she advised me to use a spine as opposed to a folded and stapled format, so that the book would be visible on the shelf. What an excellent observation! I also have an image in my head of driving down the back roads of Woodstock during a fireworks display, sometime in late summer a few years back. We passed by Janine, standing beside her car, left foot wrapped in the boot that had become a permanent part of her wardrobe. She was looking up at the sky. smiling. Janine Pommy-Vega, who had traveled the world, charmed hardened criminals, moved mountains as she hiked them, could still be delighted by the simple spectacle of summer and gunpowder. What an example for us to follow, always trailing behind where she cleared the way.