In February 1977, the alluring and gifted Jamie MacInnis came to Washington DC from New York to read with Doug Lang in one of the earliest of the legendary readings at Folio Books in Dupont Circle. This reading series was, in fact, organized by Doug. But when I called him recently to check on Jamie’s historic, though brief, visit to DC, he thought she had read with me, not with him. Neither of us has any convincing memory of the event.
It would be hard, however, not to remember Jamie herself. She was about 35 at the time. Her one and only full-length book of poems, Practicing (Tombouctou, 1980), was still a few years in the future, but Hand Shadows, published by Larry Fagin’s Adventures in Poetry press, came out in the mid-1970s, filled with her characteristic witty, unpretentious work:
Jazz to Spare
A voice tells me there’s
jazz to spare. I don’t
know, it must be my own
“There’s jazz to spare,”
it says, but when I listen
to the music I worry that
there’s not enough to go
In December 1978, Fagin, who had a long-time on-and-off relationship with MacInnis, also published an edition of his magazine Un Poco Loco devoted to Jamie’s poems. The writing in Hand Shadows and Un Poco Loco make up most of what wound up in Practicing. Jamie and I connected, shall we say, during her visit to DC and wrote to each other for about a year. I have a dozen or so wonderfully smart, funny, unguarded letters from her. One of them included a poem (“for Terry, obviously/from Jamie, obviously/ 6/77”) that later appeared in Practicing:
The train starts by accident
leaving Washington D.C.
A flowered kimono lies wrinkled in my canvas bag.
The rays go dim as I travel east
out of your frequency.
You are like me
You admire people who like you.
I read your book
The Beautiful Indifference
looking for clues.
The train starts by accident
stopping in Newark.
Here, there’s a neighborhood,
where people have grape arbors in their yards
next to ivy-walled factories.
A man with a banjo sits in a chair.
The train starts by accident.
A businessman tells me his story.
The train tells its story of people
having a drink at 80 miles per hour.
The factories go by telling their stories
in billboards and a hundred tiny windows
talking at once.
The letters stopped in early 1978, and I don’t believe I ever again heard from her. So when she came to mind a few weeks ago, I did what we all do now—I went to Google in search of any information about her. Two findings surprised me: one, that there was so little trace of her, not even a photo; and two, the one source I did find that mentions her at length (a book entitled Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian) reveals her vivid and dramatic role, previously unknown to me, as a 20-year-old beauty in Jack Spicer’s circle in the early 1960s:
“The daughter of a legendary trial lawyer, MacInnis was a woman of deep poise, moving with ease between the worlds of the upper class and the bohemian Beat. Among the habitués of Gino & Carlo’s, she stood out: her shining young health, beautiful bone structure, precise speech, and fine skin were a reproach to the pasty male drinkers she mixed with. She was stylish, outspoken, and lovely. ...She was extravagantly talented as a poet.”
My favorite anecdote from this book involves an encounter she had with one of her detractors among Spicer’s set who said to her, “How would you like it if we took you out in the alley and gang-raped you?” Jamie’s response: “Oh, dear, do you really consider yourselves a gang?” That come-back would take some poise.
Larry Fagin alerted me to an uncaptioned photo of Jamie from a 1964 book called Our San Francisco, which appears above in this post; in addition, he sent me a scan of this ca.1970 fresco of Jamie by the late George Schneeman:
Some sleuthing by Arlo Quint of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project suggests that Jamie, now around 71, may be living in San Francisco.
Jamie MacInnis was also an addict. In the poem "Science," she writes: “Heroin gives you its dreams/and takes yours away...”
[Update, Jan. 19, 2014: I made a PDF of Practicing, which Charles Bernstein has added to the Electronic Poetry Center . See this link. Some of the poems were slightly truncated in the scanning process, which I didn’t realize until too late. Apologies.]