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Poet Janine Pommy Vega's influence rippled far

Dec 29, 2010 7:38 am

Renowned poet and prisons activist/teacher Janine Pommy Vega died quietly in her sleep the evening of Thursday, December 23 at her home in Willow, just outside of Woodstock. Born February 5, 1942, Vega grew up in Union City, New Jersey and headed for Manhattan to become part of the "Beat Generation" at the age of fifteen, inspired by Jack Kerouac's On the Road and the poems of Allen Ginsberg. In 1962, Vega moved to Europe with her husband, painter Fernando Vega, returned to New York, and then moved to California, after his sudden death in 1965. Her first book, Poems to Fernando, was published by City Lights in 1968 as part of their City Lights Pocket Poets Series. During the early-1970s, Vega lived as a hermit on the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian-Peruvuian border. In total she wass the author of eighteen books and chapbooks since 1968, and was heavily anthologized. Her first CD, Across the Table, recorded in Woodstock, and from live performances in Italy and Bosnia, came out in November, 2007. She was the Director of Incisions/Arts, an organization of writers working with people behind bars, and had taught inside prisons for more than twenty-five years, most recently teaching a course in poetics for the Bard Prison Initiative.

And she came as a woman
You remember?
Once as a mother, plucking out
the heartstrings, tender
merciless she came
...wearing jewels
the Dog Star and the Hunter for a belt
Large-eyed and generous she
swooped with beak and talon
mercy dripping from the branches,
You remember?

So she wrote in her poem, "The Bard Owl."

Vega spent the last 11 years with poet Andy Clausen, tending her end-of-the-road garden when she wasn’t traveling the world performing.

At a 2000 talk as part of The Moth storytelling series at Joe's Pub in New York, she spoke about her favored physical activity of long walks, and coming across the Andes... the sort of self-challenging she spent a lifetime thriving on, and basing her cathartic art in.

She is best eulogized through her own poetry...

To You On The Other Side of This
  • You cannot take away this morning
    of lilacs, the soft air in the willow tree
    and his life again in the little backyard
    with his red wooden truck, playing
    until it was time for our snack and his packet
    of M&Ms until lunch.
    You can't take away the eager teenager
    bounding down the steps and out to his friends
    or his messy room with the socks strewn everywhere
    and the drum set awaiting his return
    his love of music and magic, the card tricks and rubber
    wolf mask, his practice pad alive with
    riffs and paradiddles,
    the wide excited smile of him sharing the bill with
    Tito Puente at the Union City dive.

    Your stupid fear, shooting at an interloper in your
    ill-timed gas station stick-up, with your gun exposed
    as though you'd been caught ex coitus in a phone booth
    with your pants down and your eyes still glazed.
    The horrible purple flower at his neck, where the blood
    flowed: killed on contact.
    And you're lucky you did not meet me then
    the wild grief in me would've torn you, tall as you are
    and strong, limb from limb
    I would've knocked you to the ground and choked the life
    from you, taken it from you like you did from him.
    You're lucky you did not find me then, trembling
    with hate and retribution.

    Months passed. You have taken away
    his forward momentum, but not himself
    his spirit still alive in the midst of my grieving.
    You crossed over into the mystery of someone else's life
    stopped by your hands
    And no one will join you in the ring as you wrestle
    with that.

    They asked if I want the death penalty.
    Will it bring my son back?
    Let nothing cushion the truth, I say
    of having flung up into the face of the sky
    his precious life, as though it were an afterthought
    Let nothing stop the growth of consciousness
    in you, I say, until you reach the place of owning
    what you did, and feel the relentless weight of it
    on your soul, like an iron anvil.
    killing you will stop all that. It will make others
    responsible for your justice, when it comes from
    within, more terrible and intimate than a faceless
    judge and cold contrivance of execution.
    May you live, I say, as long as it takes for you to own
    what you did, may the coldness turn to grief,
    and the grief call out for judgment,
    May the judge in you be just, and the fearful mystery
    of your penance unfold within.

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