Hettie Jones: Prisons and Poets

Branching Out, a joint project of Poets House and the Poetry Society of America, with funding from the National Endowment for Humanities, presents Hettie Jones on the Beat Poets, Tuesday, May 6 @ 6:00 PM.

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 used 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 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 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 said 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,” said Hettie. “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. I assumed she was talking about Barack Obama because of articles like this, and when I asked her later, she confirmed that I was correct.

“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.”

Hettie Jones, to me, is a reminder that we have to keep improving. An important question for fans and students of Beat Literature is, where do we go from here? We know about the restless few, post-World War II, seeing beyond suburban conformity, crafting fresh free forms of verse, and of course, looking for kicks. But a lot of young writers seem to ride Kerouac’s Mobius road in circles. Hettie Jones is moving forward.

16 Responses

  1. This from ‘The Ballad of
    This from ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’
    by Oscar Wilde

    The vilest deeds like poison weeds,
    Bloom well in prison-air;
    It is only what is good in Man
    That wastes and withers there:
    Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
    And the Warder is Despair.

    For they starve the little frightened child
    Till it weeps both night and day:
    And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
    And gibe the old and grey,
    And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
    And none a word may say.

    Each narrow cell in which we dwell
    Is a foul and dark latrine,
    And the fetid breath of living Death
    Chokes up each grated screen,
    And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
    In Humanity’s machine.

  2. Good article Bill, must’ve
    Good article Bill, must’ve been a fun evening. I’ll bet the writing from Bedford Hills is as real as it gets. And it’s a great thing Hettie Jones is doing, giving hope to people. It’d also be quite interesting to see some copies of Yugen magazine; see what those folks were up to back then when it was all new.

  3. Bravo, Bill.
    How fortunate

    Bravo, Bill.
    How fortunate that Hettie showed up at Jacksonville, and thank you for asking the gutsy question about Diane. I will look for Hettie’s book – would love to hear how she talks about those early days.

  4. As usual a very well written
    As usual a very well written article. I haven’t spent much time so far to get informed about Hettie Jones because during the past decades everybody was mainly interested in the “restless few” what was maybe not quite ok. But was there much to know about those “minor Characters” here in Europe? I guess it wasn’t. Only now that they themselves came out with memoirs and other things you become really aware of the fact that there have always been other people, and especially a lot of strong women, who’ve been able to stand the presence of the few.
    I admire the prison project though not at all feeling able to realise only part of how much it might mean to the inmates of such an institution.

    And where are the fans and loyal followers of the BG heading to? I know hardly for myself.

  5. Good article, Bill. I’ve
    Good article, Bill. I’ve heard that Jacksonville is a sort of cool place, not like Miami or Fort Lauderdale, but more down to earth. Could you comment on that?

  6. Jennifer, that Oscar Wilde
    Jennifer, that Oscar Wilde poem is fantastic! Sounds like the old boy went through hell, and for no good reason.

    Thanks, Judih and Mikael. Yeah, I’m going to read Hettie’s biography soon, too.

  7. Erni, I would like to know
    Erni, I would like to know more about the German “beat” artists & writers of the 1950s & 1960s. Did you call them “beat” or some other designation?

  8. Bill Ectric,

    Yes, it is.
    Bill Ectric,

    Yes, it is. Although, that is only one part of the poem. Oscar Wilde went to prison after allegations of homosexuality and debauchery instigated by his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas’s father. It destroyed him. I believe he died shortly after his release from an infected ear abscess he had obtained whilst in prison. He died penniless, infamous and very much ‘alone’. An awful, ironic ending to such an incredibly revered poet and playwright, who championed the concept of aesthetics.

  9. Jennifer,
    Yeah, I that’s why

    Yeah, I that’s why Oscar Wilde went to jail, for no good reason, and it’s really weird to think that could happen. Here in the United States, back in the 1950s, they could legally put homosexuals in insane asylums, especially if they were minors. The nazis also persecuted people for that, as well as many other reasons as we all know.

    You asked me to comment on Jacksonville. Well, for one thing, it’s so big, area-wise, that it’s almost like several towns put together. It depends on where you live as to how you would describe it. I live in a suburban area. It’s alright. I’ve got no complaints.

  10. Of course, on election days,
    Of course, on election days, you have to swerve on the road to avoid hitting those boxes of chad ballots falling out the back of government step vans.

    And it’s too damn hot. The only thing I hate about Florida is the sun.

  11. Have any of you read Gunter
    Have any of you read Gunter Grass, a German author, who wrote THE TIN DRUM and other great tales? I consider him to be a primary German beat writer–or at least, Bohemian. Heh Heh.
    I REALLY loved THE TIN DRUM. There was a movie made from it, too.

  12. Cool, that’s the kind of info
    Cool, that’s the kind of info I like to hear. Yes, I have heard of Gunter Grass, but I’m not familiar with his work.

    I’ll email my friend Erni in Hamburg, see if he wants to comment.

  13. Hi Steve Plonk,

    I’m a friend
    Hi Steve Plonk,

    I’m a friend of Bill’s who asked me to write a little answer to your comment where you mention Germany’s most well known writer and Nobel Prize winner of 1999 , not for a specific product but for his literary output in general, and always in mind his best written and most famous novel “Die Blechtrommel” (The Tin Drum).
    Grass was born and brought up in Danzig, a city German for long centuries and nowadays belonging to Poland. The whole area around that place, situated beautifully at the shores of the Baltic Sea, was taken away from German Reich after WW I and from this and other faults the fathers of “Versaille Treaty” in 1919 made (including President Wilson!), Hitler and his movement arose and started WW II.
    A tin drum was used by the Nazi- youth organisation “Hitlerjugend” out of Prussian military tradition and of psychological reasons. In Germany’s history it was always custom to announce news of the administration by officials who were accompanied by drummers to catch people’s notice.
    Look at any document, either in print or in film, about the Third Reich and you’ll know what I mean.

    Günter Grass is not a Bohemian and never was. In fact he’s an “Intellektueller” (intellectual). Those guys had their high times in the 1960s in Germany when the discussions about Nazi past started and finally discharged into the student uprisings of 1968 (Berkeley, Paris, Berlin).
    Mr. Grass is a good and very successful writer, no doubt at all. He has a worldwide reputation to be an honest man who speaks and writes frankly about politics. He also spent some years living in Calcutta recently. His books are found rather boring by people like me, used to Kerouac and Burroughs & Co since 1968. The Tin Drum I’ve read of course, and many other works of his – even his poetry!

  14. Bill Ectric write
    Bill Ectric write this:

    “Erni, I would like to know more about the German “beat” artists & writers of the 1950s & 1960s. Did you call them “beat” or some other designation?”

    In my view the BG was and is a genuine US-American phenomenon. Fascinating about it is, that one can easily pick up the patterns of conduct their founders and members of the early days have created and left behind. I myself prefer the term “lineage”, comparable to those of Tibetan Buddhism.

    In the 1950s West Germany was still very much traumatized by the lost war. Only little was known (or discussed) in public about the atrocities of the concentration camps (Eichmann still hidden in Argentina). So Germans were generally speaking in a state of mental patients and there was no writing or fine art that could have matched the Beats in that decade. We didn’t even know about them before 1969 when the breathtaking works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs had been translated and edited in the “Federal Republic” as our country was called.

    There was one writer in the 1960s, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, who was fascinated very much by BG and tried to write somerthing similar, and later on there was Jörg Fauser, a very good but not wellknown writer too. Carl Weissner, the famous king of all BG translators, should know more about the “German BG”. Buta s far as I know there wasn’t one.

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