This article originally appeared on Literary Kicks, May 1, 2008
In New York’s Greenwich Village, from 1957 to 1963, poets Hettie Jones and her then-husband LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) published a magazine called Yugen, showcasing poetry and writings by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and others. Hettie also started Totem Press, which published poets such as Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Frank O’Hara, and Edward Dorn. Jones is currently involved with PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Committee and teaches writing at the New School in New York. She also runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women at Bedford Hills. The Bedford Hills workshop has published two books of poetry, More In Than Out and Aliens At the Border. I purchased a copy of Aliens at the Border and I agree with Bibi Wein of the PEN American Center when she says, “Each of these women has a unique voice, and the writing is luminous, surprisingly lyrical, tender, and hopeful as a candle in the dark.”
You can enter Shelby’s Coffee House from the Laura street, or through the new Downtown Public Library in Jacksonville, Florida. I arrived early, hoping I could meet Hettie Jones in person before she took the podium. It paid off. Hettie arrived an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, accompanied by a guide from the city. I introduced myself and she invited me to sit at her table while library staff rearranged the chairs and tables to face the microphone.
“This is a beautiful library,” she said. “With a great children’s section.”
When I gave her a brief summary of the revitalization projects of downtown Jacksonville, Hettie’s first question was, “Has anyone been displaced by all the new construction?” I told her I didn’t think so, but didn’t know for sure.
I said I was interested in her prison writing classes, and wanted to if she would be talking about that aspect of her work. Jones said she wasn’t really supposed to talk about anything but the Beats.
“That’s what they brought me here for,” she said.
“Will you take questions from the audience later?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.
“Well, then, if I raise my hand and ask about Bedford Correctional, they can’t blame you for talking about it.”
“True!” she said.
I apologized for being a pest, but I wanted to talk some more, in case we ran out of time later. Hettie is as cool as anyone I’ve ever met.
“No, it’s quite all right,” she said. “I like talking about the prison workshop. It’s important to me. The thing about teaching in a correctional facility is, you accept people for what they want to become, not what they have done in the past. I got my start in 1988 when I got paid $50.00 to teach a prose workshop in Sing Sing. It went well, but the funding ran out. Soon after that, I got the chance to teach at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, and I did that for about a dozen years.”
“Is that through PEN?” I asked.
“No, PEN is different. I was elected to PEN in 1984, and because of my involvement with prisons, PEN insisted that I join their Prison Writing committee.”
By now, most of the chairs were filled and it was time for Hettie Jones to speak to the audience. She gave a brief introduction to the Beats, and spoke about several key players individually, reading a sample of each writer’s work.
“I first met Allen Ginsberg,” said Hettie, “When I was 24 years old. Allen needed to hear the Jewish prayer called the Kaddish, to help with the poem he was writing. He had never learned it. LeRoi brought me over to Allen’s place because I knew the Kaddish. And here you have a good picture of how the Beat movement mixed people from different backgrounds together. Here I was, a Jewish girl disowned by my parents for marrying a black man (LeRoi Jones), chanting the Kaddish to a homosexual poet who would later become a Buddhist!”
Speaking of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, Hettie explained that Jack didn’t say that writers shouldn’t rewrite or keep journals. The best thought may be the best thought, and you write that thought in a journal, but you still must “Edit, edit, edit. And that is a hard lesson to learn.”
Asked about LeRoi Jones’ relation to the other Beats, Hettie said, “The fact that he was a black man was less important than the fact that he and I were publishing people.”
Someone wanted to know about William S. Burroughs. Hettie said that Burroughs was a loner, didn’t hang out at parties, and was hard to know. “Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, although gay, still had female friends to whom they showed love. Burroughs seemed to have no use for women at all.”
I raised my hand and asked if there were any paid positions for teachers in prisons.
“Nobody wants to pay you to do it,” said Hettie. “You have to raise your own funding. That’s what I did. Prisons are like little fiefdoms. It’s hard to get in the door. Most prisons have an Office of Volunteer Services, and that would be the place to start. If you teach at a university, it’s a good antidote to go teach at a prison for a while. The poetry is as good, sometimes better, than poetry written elsewhere. It’s rewarding. You go in with the attitude of accepting people for what they want to become, not what they have done.”
The last questioner asked if their were any writers today that Hettie would compare to the Beats.
“We have one running for President,” she said, to a smattering of applause, referring to Barack Obama.
“We have many good poets today,” Hettie continued, “And a lot of them are not coming from universities. In New York, we have the Bowery Poetry club run by Bob Holman, a dear friend of mine. We have the Internet. We have Hip Hop. We have Def Poetry on television.”
After the event, I had one more question. A friend of mine wanted to know if there was ever a rivalry between Hettie Jones and Diane De Prima. This was a sensitive subject because both women had been involved romantically with LeRoi Jones during the fifties. I got up the nerve to ask.
“You should just tell your friend to read my book, How I Became Hettie Jones,” she said. “I tell all about it in the book.”