Last year I wrote a fan letter to poet, writer, teacher and Beat chick Hettie Jones. I’d just finished reading her 1990 memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, and was overwhelmed with joy to find that, yes, there were women kicking ass in the boys-club Beat scene of the late fifties – even if they had to fit their ass-kicking around a full-time job, young children, and the ironically conservative demands of their Beat husbands.
It was my second fan letter. My first was to the Spice Girls. I was nine and I’d laboured over the composition for hours with coloured pencils and glitter pens. Four months later I found a glossy card wedged in the depths of the mailbox with a few snails chewing away at the filmy offering. The remains of the card invited me to join the Official Spice Girls Fan Club. At the bottom were five scanned signatures.
So you can imagine my delight when, a few weeks after hitting ‘send’ on my Hettie Jones adoration letter, I spied a hand-typed reply snuggled into my Gmail account, thanking me for my kind words.
Ten months later, I completely pushed my luck and begged for an interview on behalf of Going Down Swinging.
“Ask me anything you want to and if you have erroneous information I will certainly correct it,” Hettie tells me during our scheduled phone interview. I smother my anxiety in nervous laughter and try to talk smooth.
The night before, she’d spoken alongside Lou Reed, Anne Waldman and other co-conspirators at a second-hand bookshop to commemorate her late friend Allen Ginsberg on the re-issue of his debut vinyl album, First Blues (1983).
There’s a nice video of the launch on YouTube, where Hettie has the towering microphone dragged down to match her slight stature. In an unexpectedly big, rolling voice, she recites the anecdote of her first meeting with Ginsberg and reads his ‘Broken Bone Blues’ to the bubbling crowd.
Hettie was 24, newly married and “slightly pregnant” when she first met Ginsberg in 1958. After stirring things up in her conservative Jewish family by marrying African American poet LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Hettie not only co-founded Totem Press and the literary journal Yugen (both of which published big Beat names like Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima and Gary Snyder), but also worked full-time to support her husband’s writing. LeRoi had suggested she meet up with the Ginsberg to recite the Jewish liturgy for a poem he was writing – what was later to become ‘Kaddish’.
Hettie says last night’s launch was a success.
“I came home very happy and it gave me a lot of energy, so that all day yesterday I cleaned the house.”
Hettie was especially pleased at her housecleaning triumph because it’s something that, even at 78, she has very little time for these days.
After publishing her first book six years after her divorce with LeRoi in 1965 – who left her and their children to pursue the demands of his increasingly activist poetry and politics – Hettie has had a remarkable publishing output. She’s released over 23 books for adults and children, including her award-winning debut poetry collection, Drive, her Beat-era memoir, and her co-authorship of Rita Marley’s memoir, No Woman No Cry – in addition to her regular work teaching at the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center and in the Graduate Writing Program of The New School in New York.
At the moment she’s polishing up a collection of letters, written over forty years between herself and long-time friend Helene Dorn who, in the fifties, was similarly young, married to a poet, raising his children, and feeling the difficulties of maintaining one’s own voice under the circumstances.
“It was a long long time ago, so there wasn’t really very much room for a woman to do her own work, and so we mainly supported each other through writing to each other,” says Hettie.
“It was very very important, the correspondence, because it kept me writing […] At the end of the day, if I could sit down and write to a friend in an intimate way, it was very freeing.”
Perhaps it’s because of these letters that Hettie is such a determined advocate for any type of writing at all.
“Any kind of writing that you do – especially at the end of the day to rehash the day or whatever – is very good. It keeps you in the habit of expressing yourself.”
Hettie was 24, newly married and “slightly pregnant” when she first met Ginsberg in 1958.
How to write under restricted or difficult circumstances is also something Hettie is passionate about teaching.
“The idea of self-expression, through words, is very freeing,” she stresses. “It makes people more assertive than they might be, and it’s good for you.”
After her first stint teaching creative writing to inmates at New York’s Sing Sing prison, Hettie initiated and ran a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women at Bedford Hills from 1981 to the end of 2001. She also published an anthology of work by her students, Aliens at the Border, and took on the role of (former) chair of the PEN Prison Writing Committee.
“I did it for twelve years and I had a wonderful class of people,” says Hettie of the Bedford Hills workshops. “They always used to say that coming to the class was like getting out of prison for a couple of hours.”
She says all her writing students need – no matter the background or situation – is a little guidance. The hard part is how difficult the prison system makes receiving such help.
“The contrast between those people that I teach on the outside and the people I generally meet in prison affords me a chance to see that […] all you need is instruction, because it’s a class difference here for the most part,” explains Hettie. “The only people in prison are lower class people who haven’t been able to make a living otherwise. The United States imprisons more people than any other place in the world and we’re all ashamed of it.”
No wonder Hettie sees the rise of slam poetry as playing such a key role in freeing up people with words – and it’s something that takes its roots in the Beat movement.
“When I was in college you never heard anyone reciting poetry as a means of entertainment,” she tells me. “People didn’t have poetry readings just for fun, to go listen to like a concert, and the only people I ever heard on recordings were old English authors like T.S. Eliot, and his voice was so boring.
“And then, when I came to New York right after college, I fell in with the Beats and some other people who were beginning to promote what we now call the spoken word, and they were dedicated to giving readings aloud. Gradually this just went all over the United States and all over the world, and now the whole idea of going to a poetry reading is something people do usually, the way they would go to a musical concert.”
Keeping with the popularisation of spoken word and the mad poetry all-nighters the Beats made so famous, Hettie sees the rise of slam poetry as an exciting and inspiring move, particularly in terms of it being a sounding board for everyone, no matter the background or colour, sex or religion.
“[Poetry slam] started here maybe around twenty years ago, and it caught on, and the best part about it was that it involved a lot of young black people as well as young white people.”
Hettie says poetry slam was also a much-needed reaction to the sexism inherent in popular hip hop lyrics.
“Some of the subject matter which comes from hip hop music got a little too sexist for people to really stomach. The people who do the poetry slams are far more political and reacting to the sexist material the hip hop artists put out, like with a lot of ‘bitches’ in it and whatever.
“But that’s really very boring. After all, how many names can you call a woman?”
For Hettie, girl power isn’t about image – it’s about expressing yourself, working hard, and finding your own voice. And writing is imperative to all this.
“Writing is very very important to me and makes me feel like I’ve done what I’ve set out to do in this life. I would rather write than see a bad movie, for example, or watch a stupid television show.
“The act of writing, it’s good. It keeps you involved with words and that will take you far.”
Megan Anderson is Going Down Swinging’s online editor.
Photo by Colleen McKay