I have an indelible picture in my mind of a poet dressed all in blue, head to foot, blue flowing long skirt and blue flying sleeves above her blue dyed hair, floating the early morning blue mist around the G Road lake on Albion Ridge. Floating in another world. It’s 1976 and I’m hosting the San Francisco-North Beach poets in readings at Pt. Arena and Mendocino, finding places for them to sleep. During the night in our cabin the poet Eugene Ruggles sleeping on the couch, gasped and screamed, suffering alcoholic delirium tremens. I’d heard of the D.T.s but had never witnessed it. I didn’t know what to do, his life seemed in danger.
In the morning my 15 year old son, Danny, disturbed by the convulsive screams that had kept him awake all night, was departing the door for the school bus coming down Albion Ridge, saw her cavorting in the meadow and gasped in dismay, “Poets! That one’s dressed all in blue!” Then, taking one last look at himself in the mirror, saw that he was dressed in red corduroys and a Mendocino Cardinal red jacket. Characteristic of his lasting honesty, he gasped, “and I’m dressed all in red!” I don’t remember Janice Blue’s poetry that night but I well remember my son’s bafflement. “Poets!”
Thirty-three years later, in 2009, I nominated and won for her the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Poetry Award. Her book was of beautiful and profound poetry. I don’t think I knew then that she had spent the previous 11 years in prison for killing a well-known North Beach union activist.
Or, maybe I did know.
She told me from the passenger seat of my Valentine van, as we were driving from the Awards ceremony through San Francisco to the Lombard Street bus stop for the 5 hour trip back to Fort Bragg, of those 11 years, what she was in for. Three friends were drinking in one of the three’s North Beach apartment. He, a Union or Something leader/activist, began beating her, his lover. Blue managed to stop him. But in the doorway he turned on his woman again, started beating her again, cursing that he was going to kill her. Blue grabbed the gun the girlfriend kept to fight off the inevitable next beating and after another powerful slug, knocking her to the floor again, shot him. Blue was arrested. The enlightened North Beach community of poets and political activists, in shock, loss and endemic sexism, was enraged that a woman had defended her abused sister of the common practice of wife-beating. When the woman that Blue had defended, typical of abused women, testified in the trial against her on his behalf, Blue was found guilty of murder.
Blue spent all or most of her 11 years of imprisonment in the Chino facility. And wrote magnificent poetry. Maybe she’d always been a magnificent poet, certainly she identified as a poet, floats still in my G Road lake.
Blue was from rural Kentucky, from a violent childhood, but she maintained a love and loyalty to the place. She was a hillbilly, she laughed. We shared Southern roots. The startling, rhythmic, complex language her poems are rooted in poured forth in breathtaking meaning and beauty.
After prison she settled on the Mendocino coast in Fort Bragg. “I can never go back to North Beach,” she sighed in sorrow, homesickness, her poet’s heart and spirit. “I’ll be killed.”
There are two wonderful photos of us at the Pen Oakland awards ceremony. She continued to write extraordinary poems. Extraordinary partly due, for me, to the Southern language root we share—not the stereotypical “accent” mimicked to this day by prejudiced Northern “carpetbaggers.” Janice Blue managed to get intellectual, political and social, symbolic, music-rooted depth onto paper.
On the night she died, Nov 7, 2017, the poet ruth weiss, living now on G Road, Albion, called me. Blue had asked her to.
When I moved into my love’s North Beach apartment here in Bob Kaufman Alley I found the 26-by-14 inch lithograph of Kaufman by Kristen Wetterhahn that she gave me at his death in 1986, and also the chapbook Closing Time Till Dawn by Kaufman and Janice Blue with the Wetterhahn replica on the cover. I knew that the long silent poet Kaufman had lived in this apartment complex a half block up from the original City Lights Bookstore on Grant. He’s been on all my rare walls since. Now I’m living in his Alley.
I see Janice Blue and Bob Kaufman and Eugene Ruggles still walking these North Beach streets, maybe drunk, but giant characters, great poets. Great accomplishments in this stupid, fowl-mouthed, evil country that tortured them. Tortures all of us.