In Memory of Joanie Whitebird


Joanie Whitebird was an old-fashioned fence hater, a wire-cutter, a woman in love with the open road, with open relationships, with open futures fraught with possibilities. Like that line in Pat Garvey’s song, Joanie believed that “the treasure’s not the taking, it’s the lovin’ of the game.” She understood hard traveling better than almost anyone I’ve ever known, and she knew that being an outlaw poet in America demanded not only heart and soul, but absolute honesty. She enjoyed being a legend, and she deeply regretted the tremendous inconvenience it was to be numbered among her friends. But that never stopped her from showing up in the middle of the night with her trailer and her wolf hound and her boyfriends and her stories. She was always on the way to somewhere else, and she was always surprised by what lay around the next bend in the road. Anyone with eyes could see that Joanie was in a vortex without any exit; yet I am certain that when Death arrived, she must have said, “What the hell? What are you doing here?” Fare forward, Joanie, fare forward. –Bryce Milligan, San Antonio

I met Joanie in Houston in 1974 when she invited me to read at Southern Seed. She spread the cards and did her Tarot Dance at one of our first marathon talks. Joanie gave me the cards I still use and taught me to use them, insisting you can’t take money for reading and you must read for anyone who requests it.

I’ll never forget a 3 a.m. censorship battle at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, when Austin Poets Theater came down to perform while she was Poetry Curator there. We read poetry, performed in various venues, and were close friends for many years. Vassar Miller and I were godmothers for her child, Jessie, who died of a brain tumor.

Joanie was self-educated, brilliant, wise, deeply insane, deeply magic and courageous. I don’t think there was a healing system she didn’t embrace at one time or another. She said it was more difficult to be psychic than to be a poet. Her antics and addictions were legend. Her creativity redeemed her, beautiful poems that cut to the core of us and were true. At her best, Joanie was magnificent. At her worst, she was magnificent. It was never a good idea to underestimate her.

To those who object to speaking “badly” of the dead, I can only say: 1) I doubt that she is dead, or if she is, she’ll be right back. 2) She would be insulted by anything short of the truth. 3) Joanie was a friend of mine and I loved her and honored her brilliance and she knew it. –Susan Bright, Austin for Vassar

I remember as a child my mother coming home latefrom Vassar’s salons and listening to her readVassar Miller to me there was a line”coming home late at night, carrying buckets of old light” Vassarwas my idol, she worked words like my brotherfolded origami cranes like raindrops likedreams that kept me alive, like thatVassar worked words

young when I actually met her, in my early twenties,I was struck dumb, in awe of the strength that hid behindthat camouflaged form, my big cowgirl body soft and flimsy as cottoncandy compared to her iron sinews, steel resolve, she didn’t rememberthe line, she said she wasn’t sure it was hers, one of those poems notgood enough to keep, I wassure

she always thought she sounded like a frog but I could sit for hourslistening to the water ripple of her voice, a breath away from others, it’sjust that the breaks are differentshe’d say, it’s just that she lived one heartbeat away fromthis world, neither here nor there but in between, a cage she wears, barscurled around her life, to me a door to that other, a door only Vassar wasstrong enough to open

one time we were sitting in that most often of poet positions, by thebathroom door, waiting her turn so I could help her with those ‘peskyphysical problems’, when I turned to her and said “Vassar, you and I were both born crippled, you in one way and I in another. Why is it? How did ithappen? How have we come to be who we are?”

Vassar bowed her head and sighed beautifully “Amazing Grace”I will carry that answer with me always, “buckets of old light,”Vassar, you are what I carry with me in the night of my hearta bucket of old, wisdom tinted, strong, life givinglight

–J. Whitebird

I accepted this poem from Joanie Whitebird before she died August 29. Accompanying it was the chattiest, happiest letter I think I ever had from her in the 25 years we knew one another. I asked two of her dear friends to write about her for this tribute page. Joanie, what you say about Vassar is what we would also say about you. Go in peace.

–Naomi Shihab Nye