Remembering the serpent goddess

Janine Pommy Vega

The Beat Generation peaked before feminism’s Second Wave came along, and although its ethos was far too iconoclastic to be characterized as patriarchal, “phallocentric” might be a fair description. Many of its central figures seemed to be more into each other than into women; the female characters in their iconic novels weren’t exactly fully realized individuals; and the few women writers who managed to establish a foothold in the literary movement tended to burn out early for lack of support.

One who survived, throve and found her own distinctive, female-identified voice was beloved Woodstock poet Janine Pommy Vega. Inspired by reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, she set off for Greenwich Village to find the Beats right after graduating from her New Jersey high school in 1960. And find them she did, promptly losing her virginity to Allen Ginsberg’s bisexual partner Peter Orlovsky. Soon Pommy married a Peruvian painter named Fernando Vega, and bummed around Europe with him until he died of a heroin overdose in 1965.

Returning to the States, Pommy Vega wrote a cycle of memorial Poems to Fernando, which got published in 1968 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Publishers as part of its Pocket Poets Series. Then she went to live as a hermit for two years on the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. She also made pilgrimages to the Himalayas.

Somewhere along the line, her spiritual quest diverged from the Buddhism of the Beats to an urge to explore the world’s power sites associated with Neolithic matriarchal religions. Her chronicle of her visits to these springs of Earth energy in Nepal, the Amazon, France and Britain during the 1980s, Tracking the Serpent, was described in her New York Times obituary as “a kind of feminist On the Road.”

Reclaiming that ancient heritage of female empowerment for others as well as herself, she devoted her last years, living in Woodstock with fellow Beat-inspired poet Andy Clausen, largely to creating poetry workshops for incarcerated women. She was the director of the not-for-profit Incisions/Arts program, and most recently taught at Napanoch and Woodbourne Correctional Facilities through the Bard Prison Initiative. The Green Piano (2005) was her last published poetry collection.

Pommy Vega was a longtime fixture of the Hudson Valley’s avant-garde literary scene, and her death from a heart attack in late 2010 left behind many friends and admirers in the local arts world. Poetry festivals dedicated to her memory are starting to become an annual tradition, with the third such event scheduled for this Saturday, August 3, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at the Woodstock Artists’ Association and Museum (WAAM). Pamela Twining will perform some of Pommy Vega’s verse.

Among this year’s guest poets is Charlie Plymell, another Beat Generation survivor who shared a house in San Francisco with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady in the early ‘60s. A noted small press publisher, Plymell co-founded Cherry Valley Editions with Ginsberg. He was also influential in the creation of the underground comics movement, printing the very first issue of Zap Comix and championing the work of then-unknown counterculture cartoonist Robert Crumb.

Also on the roster of performers for the Janine Pommy Vega Poetry Festival on Saturday evening are poets Elizabeth Gordon, George Wallace and Andy Clausen, and musicians Cosmic Legends and Marc Black. The price of admission is $15 for the general public, $8 for WAAM members.

Third annual Janine Pommy Vega Poetry Festival, Saturday, August 3, 9:30 p.m., $15/$8, Woodstock Artists’ Association & Museum, 28 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-2940, www.woodstockart.org.

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