You can burn my favorite snapshot of myself
Lead me on paths or non-paths anywhere
You can not make sense for years & I’ll still believe
drop husbands, tribes & jobs as you wish
(The Poetry Deal, 2014:20)
She does not leave in her going, she arrives
Diane di Prima lived a life devoted to poetry. A second generation American of Italian descent, di Prima was born in Brooklyn in 1934. An often quoted early influence in her life was her maternal grandfather Domenico Mallozi who, as she wrote in her memoir, read her Dante and told her stories that made her feel as if a “huge responsibility of knowledge lay on [her], age four or five” (Recollections 9). Following this early foundational lesson, di Prima sought an intensive education through both official and unofficial paths: after two years in the privileged liberal arts Swarthmore College, where she was majoring in physics, di Prima dropped school to pursue the life of a poet. For the aspiring poet-to-be this meant, as it could not be otherwise, moving to the Lower East Side to work in bookstores and live in the crowded apartments that would often feature in her poems. Taking a vow to poetry at age fourteen, di Prima understood how poetry, more than simply writing, meant “the shape of a Life […] lived in the Vision of art to be achieved” (Recollections 78). Choosing poetry also meant, as she wrote in “Poem of Refusals”, consciously rejecting the normative path assigned to her sex:
No strong men in shirtsleeves
my kitchen: warm & obtuse.
No me curled-like-kitten around
a sleeping child & smiling
No dishwasher; washing machine
unlikely. No flowers,
good legs, plaintive
poems about marriage … (Pieces of a Song 132)
The one “strong writer who could hold her own” (in Peabody, 1) according to Allen Ginsberg’s rather unfortunate comment on the participation of women in the Beat generation, Diane di Prima came into the spotlight of Beat creative endeavor and authorship from very early on. In 1961 she helped form a small literary community with the creation of The Floating Bear, a mimeographed newsletter she edited together with LeRoi Jones[i]. Distributed exclusively through a mail list, The Floating Bear made room in its pages for Beat, and extra-Beat, associates such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Robin Blaser, Robert Creeley, or Philip Whalen. During these years di Prima also co-founded the New York Poets Theater, as well as the Poets Press, an independent publisher through which she published many of her early collections[ii] as well as works by Audre Lorde, Jay Wright, Herbert Huncke or Michael McClure, among others. During the late sixties di Prima took part in the psychedelic movement—temporally staying at Timothy Leary’s experimental commune at Millbrook—and later joined the anarchist group the Diggers when she settled in San Francisco. Mother to five children, di Prima combined her art with the study of Zen Buddhism and magical arts as well as teaching.
The irreverently and wonderfully tenacious autonomy that underlies these biographical notes takes center stage in di Prima’s poetry. In collections such as her landmark Revolutionary Letters (1971), for example, she elevates poetry to the realm of political and social revolt by stressing the value of individual and communal resistance to different systems of oppression. Against the “enemy” that in “Revolutionary Letter #19” sacrifices “the planet for a few years of some / science fiction utopia” (31), di Prima denounces the materialistic welfare and constructs a greener and more egalitarian society where we “have the right to make / the universe we dream” (“Revolutionary Letter #51”, 66). This envisioned society, as demonstrated powerfully by “Revolutionary Letter #66: To the Patriarchs: for Inez Garcia” (83), indubitably includes a freer space for women.
Although di Prima acknowledged the presence and impact of a type of “boy-gang” within the Beat literary community—both Memoirs of a Beatnik and Recollections of my Life as a Woman expose the obstacles women encountered to access the publishing market—she avoided thinking in gendered terms when it came to working and collaborating with men, appreciating her male companions for their shared passion and dedication to art[iii]. Nonetheless, female experience and agency did have a strong impact in di Prima’s body of work; from the short poems and fragments included in This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961), where she accommodated both ironic depictions of beatnik lifestyles and poignant images of abortion, to the mystical incarnation of the she-wolf goddess in her epic poem Loba (1998). In the latter, through the fluid and ever-changing Loba, di Prima revised and contested various representations of femininity produced by a limited and limiting patriarchal discourse that is in the collection unable to contain the power and creativity released by the goddess:
The Roads not taken.
Opening to us
as She opens
shd we dare (Loba, 166)
Female agency and the experiences of women shaped not only di Prima’s work thematically, but also formally, a valuable lesson she summarized with the sentence “The requirements of our life is the form of our art” (Recollections 227). This mantra, shared by other women associated with the Beat generation, draws attention to the particular and unequivocally gendered conditions under which women like di Prima needed to develop their art. In any case, always marching to the beat of her own drum, Diane di Prima dissolved any kind of domineering relationship with the Beat movement in her latest collection, The Poetry Deal (2014), where she stressed the self-sustenance of the poetic vision and the continuous flow of poetic creativity across ages and generations:
it’s not a “Generation”
it’s a state of mind
a way of living
a way of writing too
“Beat” poetry’s older
than the grove of academe
or Pythagoras (“Keep the Beat”, 2014:81)
Seeing her poetry as part of an ancient tradition, not tied by any specific literary group, at eighty di Prima renewed the vow to poetry she took when she was fourteen: “You can burn my favorite snapshot of myself / Lead me on paths or non-paths anywhere / You can not make sense for years & I’ll still believe / you / drop husbands, tribes & jobs as you wish” (“The Poetry Deal” 20). Author of more than forty books of poetry, Poet Laureate of San Francisco, recipient of the National Poetry Association’s Lifetime Award and the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement, Diane di Prima kept using poetry again and again to humbly remind us of her undying and evergreen commitment to poetry:
I’d like my daily bread
however you arrange it, and I’d also like
to be bread, or sustenance, for some others
I’ve left. A song they can walk a trail with. (The Poetry Deal, 19)
Those of us who stay once she has left cannot but thank the poet for the daily bread, the sustenance, the trail that will continue to lead to those paths and non-paths where poetry reigns.
[i] di Prima and Jones edited volumes 1 to 25. From 26 onwards, di Prima took over as the main editor.
[ii] These include poetry collections such as Earthsong: Poems 1957-1959 (1968), Hotel Albert: Poems (1968), New Mexico Poem (1968) and L.A. Odyssey (1969).
[iii] In Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001) she writes: “I saw these guys, myself and the others, as artists simply. All the striving was for and of the Work, and I loved them for it. I loved them at their best and beyond their one-upmanship, their eternal need to be right. Or I took it in stride as not important. A minor part of their Act” (107).