Janine Pommy Vega: 1942 - December 23 2010

Yesterday Janine Pommy Vega took the journey to the other side. We found out last night, just before heading off to bed. I was doing one of my habitual tours of the internet. One stop is Ron Silliman's blog. When I saw that wild spiked hair appearing on the screen I knew she had died. Lee and I lay in bed talking about Janine, her visits to El Paso, her being so much alive. We'll miss her. Here's a video of her reading the poem "Habeas Corpus" which reflects deeply her work with prisoners, talking with them, learning about them, helping them to write. May she rest in peace. As my previous blog shows, she has been in our hearts for a week or so. We'll miss her. But her poetry is still here.


Janine Pommy Vega & the Black Sparrow

Kitchen Dream

In my room over the kitchen
in Barranco, the shadow of incense
curls across the wooden floor
I lean over the kingdom
of my possessions, and just like that
one day
the smoke will stop

A pigeon lands outside my door
and coos coming in and
out of silence
like a life
lit up for a moment
like someone at the mouth of a river
rushing out to sea.

--Barranco, Lima, Peru, September 1993

This is another reason I love being a poet.

Last weekend I was cleaning my office at home--always a long process because I start picking up books, especially poetry books, and opening them up to random pages and reading. So I picked up Janine Pommy Vega’s book The Mad Dogs of Trieste and opened to that little poem above. I was enchanted with the poem. Sad. Wise. Joyful. All at the same time. I forgot my cleaning-up tasks and spent an hour or so with Janine's poems. She’s a good friend and a wonderful poet. I’ve known her work a long time through Bob and Susan Arnold’s Longhouse Books. She came to El Paso twice, both times performing her poetry at the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art and we became good friends. She’s a great storyteller, and she told us about leaving her New Jersey home at the age of 15 and moving to NYC to be a poet. Like so many of us she had read Kerouac's On the Road and was, well, persuaded. She took up with the Beats and began being a poet. All those legendary times with Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Ray Bremser…you can read about it in the many books about the Beats. But like all the other poets of those times, NYC was only a jumping off place for her journeys into the world. She loved following her nose for life and vision--intellectually, figuratively, spiritually—as the poems in Mad Dogs testify. And she’s a wonderful performer. A wild and excited voice, especially when collaborating with musicians. Janine is also a teacher of the writing of poetry, and she’s done much work in the prisons. I took the photograph above on April 14th, 2004, so, if I remember rightly, Lee, Janine and I were celebrating my birthday (I would be 62 the next day--Janine also was born in 1942 but a few months before me) in the backyard. A bottle of wine, good food, good talk. She and Lee became good friends, talking all the woman stuff that is a mystery to me. I was honored they let me listen.

It was then that Janine gave us our copy of Mad Dogs. It’s a Black Sparrow book (2000). Black Sparrow books--John Martin the editor, his wife Barbara the cover designer, the nice rough feeling cover, the colored end sheets, the generous typography inside. You could always pick out the Black Sparrow titles on the poetry shelves. A long time ago (the 70s, 80s?) I had sent John Martin a manuscript for consideration. He wrote me back a generous letter. He had thought seriously about publishing it, but in the end had to decide against it. I was honored. Janine’s Mad Dogs was probably one of the last before John and Barbara Martin sold the rights in 2002 to Harper Collins (Bukowski, Paul Bowles and John Fante) and the rest to David Godine. Oh well. All good things end. It’s the law of change. That’s okay. I still love those books. I have bunches here and there.

I’m so happy I picked up The Mad Dogs of Trieste. Such a good book of poems by a good friend. It’d be great to see her again. Saturday I start cleaning my office again.