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Tribute for Janine Pommy Vega

Janine Pommy Vega was a trailblazer extraordinaire—as a poet, as an adventurer, and as a passionate and dedicated advocate for social justice. I’d read some of Janine’s work before meeting her, and then had the pleasure to get to know her personally as a good friend after she started going out with my longtime friend, Andy Clausen.

Janine’s work was riveting, both on the page and on the stage—filled with a determination to find new perspectives for eyeing the sometimes blossoming, but too-often decaying, heart of our planet’s present moment; and also new ways of imagining rhythmic routes to a more satisfying human future. And she lived her life in line with her poetic ideals, including many years spent teaching poetry in prisons and teaching migrant farm workers.

When I first met Janine, my partner Vivian and I would go up from Astoria, Queens to Woodstock and Willow; and Vivian and Janine would take miles-long hikes through the nearby woods. As someone with a decades-long bad back, I was amazed at Janine’s and Vivian’s physical strength. Later, when Janine began to be hit by rheumatoid arthritis, and with some personal health problems beginning to limit my own physical energies, I remained amazed at the way Janine refused—right up until the end—to let her debilitating illness keep her from continuing her literary and activist work.

During the later Bush years, Janine invited me one evening to be the guest poet in her class at the Eastern Correctional men’s prison. After my reading, the men in her prison class had an open reading, and then we all had an incredibly lively discussion about current political events, including the crisis of America’s rightward and militaristic drift. When I remarked that the open reading was one of the most exciting and perceptive open readings I’d ever attended, several of the men credited their devoted and inspiring teacher.

Janine’s work and life have inspired thousands around the globe, and like all of us here today, I’m really going to miss her. How I wish, for instance, that she would have been with us these last few weeks to see a grassroots, nonviolent movement topple a dictator in Egypt! And to see thousands of American workers and young people take over a state capitol building in Wisconsin to protect fundamental union rights.  If we can ultimately prevent climate change from causing an end to human history, the 2010s may well be remembered by history as the Last Decade of the Tyrants. Fortunately for us, in this nonviolent struggle for peace, real democracy, and human interdependence, we still have Janine’s amazing, justice-urging voice with us in books and in moving videos. And now we’ll also have the annual Janine Pommy Vega Woodstock Poetry Festival that Andy will be organizing.  Thank you, Janine.