Boni Joi (poet; aerobics instructor; bibliographic assistant; window display designer)
Income: $26,000 (1998)
Health Insurance: none
I lived on the top floor of a 100-year-old Victorian house back then. It was 1993. In New Brunswick. It was a very cold winter. The trees were like icicles. When I came home one night, I saw flames shooting up in the sky. The roof was burning away. I made the firemen run in and get my disk with my poems. I lost my bed, a lot of clothes.” She lost her black lace antique dress “that I liked to wear with my combat boots,” her 1950s green lace high heels with gold sparkles, and “the bra I made out of Ping-Pong balls. It melted. I lost about $4000 or $5000. That’s when I realized material things can go away. My brain and my body, those are the investments that have the most longevity.”
Boni Joi invested in her brain. She took out loans for $50,000 and, with the help of $5000 in scholarships, enrolled in the M.F.A. program at Columbia. She took classes with Lucie Brock-Broido, who wears only Victorian clothes, and Kenneth Koch, a core member of the New York School, and another professor who had “a long fight with a student over whether a piece of mine would be categorized as poetry.” Sometimes it got a little rough. “Basically I went to Columbia to be with a bunch of people who are as obsessed with poetry as I am and no one says, ‘How about those Knicks?’ Yes, you could say that people take me a little more seriously when they find out I have an M.F.A. from Columbia. Of course the whole thing about an M.F.A. is you have to teach. But to become a professor you have to have a book published.”
Joi, one year out of school, has been writing her poems in her studio apartment in Fort Greene, reading them “all over the metropolitan area— Nuyorican, Cornelia Street Cafe, Jackie 60. When I was at Columbia, I used to run the readings.” Since poetry is not a commodity and she has to start paying off her M.F.A. loan, which will take 25 years, for now she teaches aerobics and works as a bibliographic assistant and photo stylist.
She also worked in window display for 10 years at Abraham & Straus and the Gap. “My Abraham & Straus job was very creative. Then I decided I wanted a job that was totally uncreative so I could just put my creative energy in my own work. I went to design for the Gap, but my plan backfired and they sucked out all my ideas.”
Joi does not know how old she is. “I was adopted. My records are locked up. I only remember how long I’ve lived. I’m probably close to 30. I grew up the first couple of years in Miami in a foster home. Then I was adopted by a family in Iselin, New Jersey, an hour from New York. We lived in a ranch house on cement.
“My adopted father was a manager for an air freight company. He was Dionne Warwick’s special dress shipper. I’d answer the phone and it would be Dionne Warwick calling him at home, to be sure her dresses would arrive. He tried to open his own company. He went bankrupt. He liked tropical fish.We’d go see Broadway plays all the time. He lived beyond his means. We had Cadillacs, a big green Cadillac with a white interior. He died of cancer when I was 13.
“My adopted mother’s been in and out of hospitals since then. I lived alone in the house for months at a time when she was in the hospital. When I needed money I had to write one of my mother’s cousins who had power of attorney. I’ve worked since I was 14, baby-sitting, making popcorn at a movie theater.
“I’ve been searching on the Internet for the last two years to find who my real parents are. I know my real mother’s name is DeVoe. I have a list of every DeVoe in the U.S.”
She is hoping to get her book of poems published. “If my book doesn’t get published, I’ll publish it myself. I’ve published my poems on matchbooks. I give them out to people.”