JANINE POMMY VEGA (1942-2010)
On December 23, 2010 poet, educator, activist and performer extraordinaire Janine Pommy Vega passed on to the great unknown. Born in Union City, NJ (“the jewel of the Hudson”, in her words), Janine came up in a late wave of the Beat Generation and contributed significantly to the feminine voice of that movement.
Like many of her contemporaries, poetry for her was more a mode than a medium, a mode of discovery (self & world), and her dedication as a poet led and drove her around the world, thereby giving her poems a unmistakably global texture and inward orientation.
As a performer, Janine possessed an uncanny ability to blur the lines between the lexicon and the utterance, between the poem and the song. The tribal tendencies of her writing contributed to this deliberate blending of media. The poem “Drum Song” from Mad Dogs of Trieste exemplifies this unique and admirable poetic quality:
Red and white candy striped
enter a hole in the wall
to a hidden world of juju beads
and maps the size of Atlantis
and little boys stalking the deer
Red and white
Peruvian flag, the Polish flag,
and other breastplates
and gew-gaws of domination
since there ever was a war
since there was the idea
of conquering your neighbor
Red and white
the woman in her childbearing
year, and then herself, soft haired
watching the fire, taking to her
the grandchildren who want her stories
red and white, the passionate
female, the passionate male
Orgasm and abstinence
hosannas coming up from the belly
to the top of the head
the blood and bone, the skeleton
in its scarlet flag
the two-step zigzag dance
across the tightrope, the red and white
agenda, wavering like a flock
of geese, like a ribbon
across the sky.
My view of Janine is admittedly through the eyes of a student and this, I think, is important to mention, not because I was ‘one of the few’ to study with her; but just the opposite: because I was one of the thousands. One would be hard up to find another poet so dedicated to teaching without any interest in reaping the benefits of tenure or an academic life as she.
Janine taught for 25 years, in Spanish and English, throughout New York State, in schools and in prisons. The book Voices Under the Harvest Moon, which she edited, is a collection of poetry written by inmates in workshops that she led.
I met Janine during one of her tours through the New York State public schools and had the good fortune of participating in workshops with her there and then in Lake George the following summer. Her dedication as an educator was only outmatched by her knack for lighting the fire of imagination (or kindling it, perhaps) in those she worked with. I recall as a teenager how inspiring the poem “Witchcraft” was to me, and as I reread these lines, the aroma of that fire, “roaring / pyramid-shaped” invades my memory and reminds me why I write and translate poetry.
Janine Vega has the capacity to channel the intuition
of children down to states of death, Hell & the devil.
If my child attends her classes, we’ll sue.
– excerpt from a parent’s letter to a local school
Wish you hadn’t said that, about
opening channels inside kids,
as though I were drilling down
into their ears. Wish you hadn’t
mistaken intuitive power for
I saw a devil once, he was a
closed face, like a fist, a concrete
wall thrown up against understanding.
The Bodhisattvas say, Until
everyone’s free, no one is free.
Heap up the wood for the next fire
and I’ll dance around it, like the
witches on May Day
Call it Beltana, call it Aks aya trt iya,
call it Mary’s Month or Buddha’s Birthday
any name I’ll be there, with the fire
and watch its mirror image in my heart.
Fire burns and doesn’t burn.
Where’s my broomstick?
Janine Pommy Vega’s books include Poems to Fernando (1968), Journal of a Hermit (1975), Morning Passage (1976), Here at the Door (1978), The Bard Owl (1980), Apex of the Earth’s Way (1984), Skywriting (1988), Drunk on a Glacier, Talking to Flies (1988), Island of the Sun (1991), Threading the Maze (1992), Red Bracelets (1993), The Road to Your House Is A Mountain Road (1995), Mag Dogs of Trieste: New & Selected Poems (2000), The Walker (2003), The Green Piano (2005).