Interview with poet Pamela Twining - an active member of the experimental beat poetry of Woodstock, NY

"The joining of music and poetry influences the way information is received and perceived. A good musical riff will call the words up; an electric poetic phrase is music to the heart."

Pamela Twining: Dancer Of Rhymes

Pamela Twining is an active member of the experimental poetry of New York, and has been connected to the Beat movement. She's organizer of the Janine Pommy Vega Poetry Festival, held annually in Woodstock at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum. The poet from Woodstock, NY, present herself...Who is Pamela Twining...?

“I was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the middle of the last century, to a melting pot American family with early settler roots, as well as a Native American connection that no one ever discussed. I was always a poet, my first efforts published only in elementary school journals, but my sonnet 'Neveah', written at 16, was honored with a scholarship to a six week poetry workshop in Washington DC. An early poem, 'Rejoice! The Second Coming!' was performed at Regina High School in Hyattsville, MD, with orchestration and conducted by prominent Philippine composer, Rosendo E. Santos, professor of music at the Catholic University. I left school to travel, raise children and live off-the-grid on an organic farm, always finding time to write, though I only started reading my work in public in 2010. During the 1990s, I attended Vassar College on a scholarship received from the Ford Foundation, using poetry as a voice for a Women’s Studies discipline. A long poem 'The Rape of Humankind: a Conspiracy Theory', after William Blake, was used as the subject of a Graduate thesis on Blake, at the request of the professor.

Most of the past years were spent 'inhaling', as it were. And in 2009, my children raised, my parents no longer in need of me, I began to read my work at Open Mics and was soon a Featured performer. My first chapbook, 'i have been a river…' was published by Heyday Press in 2011, followed by 'utopians & madmen', DancinFool Press, in 2012 and 'A Thousand Years of Wanting' by Shivastan Press in 2013. My work has also appeared in Big Scream #51 and Big Scream #52, Heyday Magazine, Vol 1, Issue 1 and Vol 1, Issue 3, and Napalm Health Spa 2013, the annual magazine of the Museum of American Poetics. I have appeared with beat legends Andy Clausen and Antler, Jeff Poniewacz, Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, Anne Waldman, George Wallace, and others on stages in Detroit, Milwaukee, Boulder, Denver and Ward CO, and in New York City, as well as Albany and my home of over 40 years, Woodstock, NY. I am currently working on a long piece, a memoir in poetic form. I am also one of the organizers of the Janine Pommy Vega Poetry Festival, held annually in Woodstock at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Dennis Willard, Carola Polakov, Shiv Mirabito, & Erik Lamont/All rights reserved

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

I’ve written stories and poems ever since I can remember and I have no idea where the Original inspiration came from. I’ve always had a strong connection to Nature, spending many hours in the woods and fields and stream-sides, as a child. But even my earliest poems, from the time I was 7 or 8, had political themes: war & peace, relationships between people, the disappearance of countryside due to development, reflections on the nature of godhead, most often seen through the prism of the natural world.

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

Poetry plumbs the depths of the secret world within, yet translates those most personal understandings into an electric language accessible to the inner ear of Everyman (and Everywoman). Early on, I wrote for dresser drawers though. Like Emily Dickinson, it never occurred to me that anyone would ever see my work, as I was very shy, unable to speak in public and, therefore, unable to share my poetry without being published. As I became more confident in the vibrancy of my Voice, I also decided to brave the dreaded world of Spoken Word. The Beat Poets proclaimed their work aloud, spawning the creation of coffee house sessions and open mics, and I began to attend readings, finally becoming bold enough to share my words. And they Liked it! I was hooked! Not long after, I was approached by the publisher of a small magazine called Heyday! who wanted to publish a chapbook of my poems. Andy Clausen, with whom I was slightly acquainted, reviewed my first book, “i have been a river…”, for Home Planet News and our acquaintance grew over time from mentor and student to lovers and friends.

How would you characterize the philosophy of Pamela Twining’s poetry?

Being gifted (or cursed) with Poetry creates a responsibility to leave something wonderful and meaningful to the Future. My work is organic and comes forth from the deep Spirit shared via the ether, the exhalations of poets and artists lost to us over the millennia. But their passion can’t die, the energy and substance of their Vision goes on, to be tapped into by the Seeker, the Poet, the Futurist, and reinterpreted in new ways for all time. I often reach out to the shades of Kerouac and Janine Pommy Vega before tapping the Source. Then I follow the “first thought, best thought” model and set off on an unknown Journey within. There’s very little editing, usually. Sometimes I don’t write for weeks, I just inhale and observe and ponder, until the thoughts begin to coalesce. Then I can’t stop.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I am a Dancer. If music is playing, I can’t sit; I can’t be still. I Dance to the Drum, I Dance in Ceremony (the Sun/Moon Dance, a Vision Quest involving fasting from food, water, and speech for 3 days and nights), and I Dance to local live music, mostly Rock, Funk and the Blues. Though it has been said that I can Dance to Anything, even the news. Inspiration often strikes at those times, especially during the Sun/Moon Dance, where one’s innermost fears, longings, joys, and sadnesses are laid bare in the fasting and meditation process. My next chapbook will be a selection of poems written in connection with the Dance.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

The joining of music and poetry influences the way information is received and perceived. A good musical riff will call the words up; an electric poetic phrase is music to the heart. I’ve read that the brain perceives poetry in the same manner it perceives music, in the centers of emotion and memory, the areas of introspection and reflection. The language and rhythms of poetry insinuate themselves into the deepest corners of the psyche in ways that prose information does not. I often perform accompanied by Cosmic Legends, a shifting group of improvisational jazz musicians who have a special affinity for poetry, using music to create a conversation among the artists and the audience, shaping the subtle realm of experience and understanding.

Which memory from Andy Clausen, Antler, Anne Waldman, and George Wallace, makes you smile?                                    (Photo: Pamela & Andy Clausen)

George (Wallace) is a great friend. We stayed with him when Andy read at the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site. At that time, though I was unknown except in Woodstock, he asked me to Feature, reading erotic poems for the Valentine’s Day performance at the Parkside Lounge, a venue he hosts, with another poet well-known for her erotic writings. Since she failed to show up, I was the solo Feature for my first experience reading at a club in New York City. That was Sweet!

I don’t know Anne well, but when we read at The Laughing Goat in Boulder, CO, I was thrilled to see her in the audience and even more thrilled to hear her own Powerful reading. Since then, I’ve met her several times and she is always gracious, though her time is in great demand.

Antler. He is a treasure! A wise and gentle soul. Andy & I once performed with Antler and his partner, Jeff Poniewaz, in Milwaukee at the Riverwest Public House. The reading was scheduled during a week-long event called Power Down Week, when the city of Milwaukee made an effort to conserve fossil fuels by using fewer appliances and less electricity. We were supposed to have a bicycle powered microphone, but that fell through. Nonetheless, the venue was lit by candles and outside the window we could see the Underwear Bicycle Racers getting ready to do their thing. I’m not sure what Underwear Bicycle Racing has to do with energy conservation, but it was very funny.

My favourite Andy story is one that happened early in our relationship. I had known him from poetry readings and I knew his work. He’d been very helpful at times, advising me about my work and my delivery. I received an invitation from a friend to a surprise birthday party for Andy and gladly accepted. On the night of the party, a crowd gathered at our friend’s house and Andy arrived and was suitably surprised. We had a great time and he and I ended the evening by going out dancing. That night was the beginning of our intimate relationship, though we didn’t become lovers for another month or so. Several months later, he told me that he had planned that party himself, in order to have a chance to get closer to me. He said the only problem with the party was that “all those other people were there”. That’s not the only thing about Andy that makes me smile though.

If you could change one thing in the world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I don’t think I’d change the world. At least not consciously. The mysteries that have brought us to the place where we are now are incredibly complex. I can’t pretend to have the conscious wisdom to manipulate the myriad threads of Being and make it “all better”. Sometimes I despair at the way things seem to be unfolding, racial and religious hatreds, overwhelming Greed, the destruction of the ecosystem and possible rendering of the planet inhospitable to humans and other life forms, the seemingly mindless addiction to electronic pleasures, the often willful refusal to recognize and make the sacrifices that could save our lives, as we know them. But I believe that only a rise in the Collective Consciousness, a Big Hit with the God Stick, an undeniable shared Cosmic Vision, can bring us out of this downward spiral for the human race, indeed for all beings. I once believed that LSD and psychedelics would be the path that would open All minds to the vastness of our Brother/Sisterhood. Now, I only hope to change one molecule at a time, through the verity of my poetry. May it be So!

"Poetry plumbs the depths of the secret world within, yet translates those most personal understandings into an electric language accessible to the inner ear of Everyman (and Everywoman)."

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

The best advice ever given to me was to finish my education before having children. I didn’t listen. To the new generations, I would say “Read poetry. Listen to poetry. Write poetry.” Poetry is the last bastion of Free Speech, the unacknowledged soapbox where you can say almost anything with impunity, because the more prosaic Powers-That-Be rarely recognize its subversive nature. 

What are your hopes and fears for the future of world?

All my hopes are in my poems. That’s the only place I still maintain that Sparkling Center of Knowledge that there will be a going forward, that there will still be people who read and love poetry, who create art and music, who work with their hands in the soil or with wood or metal, who honour the humanity in all people and our connections with each other, the other beings on this planet, and the planet itself.  I fear, but “fear is the mind-killer”. I see the rise of the Techno-State and increasing authoritarianism around the world, including more racial and religious hatred, as peoples are pitted against each other to feed the war machines as the most Fearsome tendencies at this time. But, as an unregenerate hippie, I hold fast to the idea that some way will be found to let us live in Peace with each other through a recognition of the Divine Spark. When everyone can say “Namasté” and understand what that means. Martin Luther King said “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” I believe that too, difficult as it is.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Beats with the Native American heritage in your poetry?

The Beats were disestablishmentarians, not anti-intellectual, but not of the Academy. Their focus on nature, on alternate forms of consciousness, on spiritual disciplines not Judeo-Christian all inform my work, as well. Through Drum and Dance, the songs of the ancestors are made new for the People who have forgotten. Many Anglos still don’t admit to First Nations ancestry, as if it were somehow shameful. So rediscovering the stories and traditions lost to this lost generation is satisfying in a visceral way. The raw emotion of the Beat writers jars loose the frozen sea inside and leads the reader to his/her own self-realization. The first time I read Kerouac, my Spirit was energized. I felt that I had touched a High Voltage wire; the words flowed from my pen in a stopless stream.  

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

Laughter in these times is at a premium. Most of my laughter these days is ironic rather than full belly laughs, but to laugh is to push back the darkness one more time. Fascists have no sense of humour. I am deeply moved by the situation in Gaza, by the Powerless victims of fundamentalist orthodoxy all over the world, and by the social regression in the US vis a vis racial equality and women’s rights. To name just a few. Really, there are so many toxic manifestations of prejudice and hatred abroad in the world today that I believe that unreserved laughter is a Revolutionary Act, a psychic break from the miasma of Ugly that seems to inform this era. I don’t mean humour of the Charlie Hebdo sort, mean-spirited and provocative, but a Surprise of laughter, welling up from the ridiculous core of human experience.

What from your memorabilia (books, records, etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I would include copies of each of my books, and all of Andy’s, as well as our CD with Cosmic Legends (in the making), travel journals, and performance photos. Copies of On the Road and Howl, for sure, as I would want Any future to have access to those groundbreaking works. Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, who were my earliest inspiration, certainly Gregory Corso, Emily D, Walt Whitman, Marge Piercy, Janine Pommy Vega, Pearl Bond, Mary Oliver… this is getting to be a pretty large time capsule! The music I would include would be mostly dynamite local groups, who may or may not ever attain fame, eg Marc Black, Finley & Pagdon, Black Mountain Symphony, Dharma Bums, Hallow Dog, Joe Bones, Connor Kennedy, Peggy Atwood. They keep me young by keeping me dancing. My chanumpa (ceremonial pipe), eagle fan, and Dance whistle, unpublished notes & poems, and my stuffed kitty, Soma (remedy for insomnia) that Andy always calls a monkey.

Woodstock Beat Poet - Home

Photos by Dennis Willard, Shiv Mirabito, Erik Lamont & Carola Polakov/All rights reserved

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