Janine Pommy Vega, Restless Poet, Dies at 68


(Photo: Suzanne DeChillo)

Janine Pommy Vega, a poet and intimate of the Beat generation luminaries Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky whose lifelong quest for transcendence took her to San Francisco in the 1960s and on a pilgrimage to neolithic goddess-worship sites in the 1980s, died on Dec. 23 at her home in Willow, N.Y. She was 68.

The cause was a heart attack, her companion, Andy Clausen, said.

Ms. Vega’s life course was set when, as a teenager in Union City, N.J., she read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” “All the characters seemed to have an intensity that was missing from my life,” she wrote in her memoir “Tracking the Serpent: Journeys Into Four Continents,” published by City Lights in 1997.

After reading a magazine article about the Beats, she and a high school friend headed straight for the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village where, as luck would have it, they met the poet Gregory Corso and, through him, Ginsberg and Orlovsky, who became Ms. Vega’s first lover.

The day after she graduated as valedictorian of her high school in 1960, she announced to her mother, “I’m going to live with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in Greenwich Village,” and she embarked on her sentimental education.

She worked as a waitress at the Café Bizarre, wrote experimental poetry in the Beat vein, wore baggy men’s clothes and a stocking cap, and fell in love with a Peruvian painter, Fernando Vega.

The couple lived the Bohemian life in Paris, where she passed the hat for a folk singer and worked as a model at the École des Beaux-Arts. She returned to the United States after her husband died of a heroin overdose on Ibiza.

City Lights, the bookstore and publishing house in San Francisco associated with the Beats, published her first book of poetry, “Poems to Fernando,” in its Pocket Poets series in 1968. She went on to publish more than a dozen books of poetry while roaming the world on spiritual quests that included treks in the Himalayas and two years as a hermit on the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. “Tracking the Serpent,” a kind of feminist “On the Road,” chronicled her visits in the 1980s to matriarchal power sites in the Amazon, Nepal, France and Britain.

Janine Pommy was born on Feb. 5, 1942, in Jersey City. Her father worked as a milkman in the mornings and a carpenter in the afternoons.

In the mid-1970s she began teaching poetry workshops in New York prisons through the program Incisions/Arts, whose director she became in 1987. At her death she taught at prisons in Napanoch and Woodbourne as part of the Bard Prison Initiative, a program of Bard College that confers bachelor’s degrees on inmate students.

Black Sparrow Press published her most recent poetry collections, “Mad Dogs of Trieste” (2000) and “The Green Piano” (2005).

In addition to Mr. Clausen, she is survived by a brother, Bill Pommy, of Tijeras, N.M.

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