If I could choose a single literary touchstone with which to anchor the remarkable life of Diane di Prima – poet, activist, teacher, healer, mother, weaver of worlds – it would be Dante’s Divina Commedia. Something about the dazzling vastness of Dante’s allegory feels just right for invoking the great courage and imagination of America’s pre-eminent poet of revolution, who passed away on 25 October this year at the age of eighty-six. Di Prima’s existence was impossible to pin down, marked by surprising encounters with human wisdom at its most fundamental. She encountered poetry through Dante at an early age, at the knee of her maternal grandfather Domenico Mallozzi. Domenico was an Italian Anarchist, a skilled tailor by trade, and a mentor to his granddaughter, whom he treated as an intellectual equal. He encouraged her to walk the path of the poet, a path that led, like Dante’s journey, into the unknown.
Diane di Prima was born and raised in Brookyln, New York. At fourteen, she made a solemn commitment to poetry, recognizing that this would likely mean poverty and lifelong marginalization. As a student at Hunter College High School, di Prima met Audre Lorde, forming a friendship with the innovative Black lesbian feminist poet that would last until Lorde’s death. She attended Swarthmore college, but dropped out in 1953 at the age of nineteen and moved to an apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She embraced autodidacticism from that point on: she spent days on end at the Met; studied dance, calculus, Greek, Italian, existential philosophy; and struck up correspondences with the poets Kenneth Patchen and Ezra Pound, the latter of whom she visited at St Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital for two weeks in 1955.
The mythos of Beat literary culture swirls mightily around di Prima, who is sometimes touted as the ‘only’ woman Beat poet (although, in fact, there were many others: Helen Adam, Lenore Kandel, Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger and Mary Norbert Korte, to name just a few). It was during the 1950s – living in cold-water flats, working as an artists’ model, devouring books and films in place of food – that di Prima earned her Beat Generation status. In her book Dinners and Nightmares, composed throughout the 50s and published in 1960, di Prima gives a vivid sense of the cultural tenor of this time, forging a vernacular for talking about the type of bohemianism that would later be known as Beat. In ‘Nightmare 10’, she imagines mainstream America placing a bounty on the heads of ‘. . . people over 21 in dungarees and ancient sneakers, / men with lipstick, / women with crew cuts, / actors out of work, / poets of all descriptions.’
In her 2000 memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman, di Prima characterizes the austerity of her existence in the 1950s: ‘. . . choosing to be an artist: writer, dancer, painter, musician, actor, photographer, sculptor, you name it . . . was choosing as completely as possible for those times the life of the renunciant. Life of the wandering sadhu, itinerant saint, outside the confines and laws of that particular and peculiar culture.’
Di Prima’s existence outside the norms of mainstream post-WWII America led her down untrodden paths. Going against the most sacred of cultural dictums for women at the time, di Prima intentionally became pregnant out of wedlock – and outside of the confines of a relationship – choosing to raise a child entirely on her own.
One of my favorite anecdotes of di Prima’s occurred at this time in her life. She had often summoned the spirit of the Romantic poet John Keats, through her own kind of psychic visioning, in order to seek his council on various subjects. In 1957, as she contemplated the possibility of becoming a mother at twenty-three, she contacted Keats. She found, to her shock and terror, that Keats thought di Prima’s decision to have a child was a betrayal of her commitment to poetry. ‘You have said nothing will be as important to you as Poetry,’ Keats told her, she writes in her memoir. ‘And yet now you plan to have a child, a child who will certainly come first in your heart.’ She told Keats that although she was aware of the risks to her craft that came with having a baby, she needed to find out for herself what it was like to be both mother and poet. To have that largeness of heart. She gave birth to her first daughter, Jeanne, later that year.
Through her pregnancy and the first year of her child’s life she wrote prolifically, and published her first book of poems, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, the year after. It was the first of many books to come. Di Prima wrote and studied continuously. As the 1950s became the 1960s, di Prima formed bonds with choreographer James Waring and dancer Fred Herko, collaborating with them to create the New York Poets Theatre. The theatre produced one-act plays by poets, including di Prima’s own play Murder Cake; di Prima also wrote and published poems frequently in the ‘little magazines’ that flourished in New York City at the time, and gathered these pieces in Dinners and Nightmares (Corinth Books, 1960) and The New Handbook of Heaven (Auerhahn Press, 1963). With Amiri Baraka (with whom she would share a daughter, Dominique), di Prima began editing and producing the Floating Bear poetry newsletter in 1961.
Printed on a mimeograph machine and mailed out twice a month, the Floating Bear amassed a readership of hundreds of poets across America, creating a forum for the rapid exchange of ideas that didn’t exist in any other form at the time. The Bear presented work by New American poets including Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Robin Blaser, Philip Whalen and Robert Creeley. Poets weren’t the only ones reading the Bear closely: in October of 1961, Baraka and di Prima were arrested by the FBI, who mounted an obscenity case against them based on a poem of William S. Burroughs’ that they’d printed, as well as on Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hell (the case was thrown out by a grand jury). Di Prima founded Poets Press, publishing the first books of Audre Lorde, David Henderson and Jay Wright, among others. All of these home-grown productions unfolded in the motley rooms of di Prima’s East Village apartment. The Beat literary movement was formed, in a large part, around di Prima’s kitchen table, as much as it was formed at Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Six Gallery reading, or on Jack Kerouac’s open road.
It is as a Beat poet that di Prima is often remembered, but this period marks only the beginning of her trajectory. In 1964, Fred Herko, who had been di Prima’s closest friend for a decade, jumped to his death from a sixth-story window on Cornelia Street. Herko’s death prompted di Prima to leave New York more or less for good. With her family in tow, she headed first to upstate New York – living briefly in Timothy Leary’s experimental LSD community in Millbrook – and landed in San Francisco in 1968. There, she became involved with the Diggers, a radical activism and street performance troupe, and began organizing communal meals in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. She began to study Buddhism with Shunryu Suzuki, embarking on a spiritual inquiry that would last the rest of her life. She also began to write the part-epistolary, part-manifesto poems that she called Revolutionary Letters. Di Prima sent these poems out through the Liberation News Service to be printed in independent newspapers throughout the country, and published the first collection of Revolutionary Letters in 1971. Di Prima wrote these poems in a common idiom that all people could share, intending to create a revolutionary poetics available to anyone who needed it. With Revolutionary Letters, di Prima’s readership began to grow outside of the circle of Beat and New American poets she’d previously been associated with, and established her as a poet capable of speaking to a broader counterculture.
Di Prima gave birth to her fifth child, her son Rudi, in 1970, proving again that motherhood was not at all incompatible with the life of the poet-activist. As Revolutionary Letters continued to expand, di Prima began another epic poem, Loba, an open-ended meditation on the divine feminine that centered on the Wolf-goddess archetype. Both Revolutionary Letters and Loba were printed in numerous editions, with each edition growing in length and complexity. She taught for decades at the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (with Beat poets Anne Waldman, Gregory Corso, Ginsberg and Burroughs), and helped found the New College of California’s Poetics Program with David Meltzer and Robert Duncan. Her own singular pedagogy also blossomed: in the 1980s and 1990s, she taught courses on pre-Christian Western hermeticism at her San Francisco Institute for Magical and Healing Arts. In 2009, she was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate. A poet possessing a rare combination of brilliance and longevity, di Prima had published nearly fifty books at the time of her death, and several more are still forthcoming.
I first discovered Diane di Prima’s work at the age of twelve, when I found a copy of her fictional erotic memoir, Memoirs of a Beatnik, on my mother’s bookshelf. I read the book cover to cover, reveling in the salacious tableaus of Beat life that di Prima’s youthful pseudo-self inhabited. (Di Prima wrote Memoirs of a Beatnik in 1968, soon after moving to San Francisco; she conceived of the book as a racy tell-all about the life of a ‘beatnik’ chick, and sold the manuscript for a tidy sum of money to Olympic Press). The Diane di Prima of Memoirs of a Beatnik provided a model of a sexually- and creatively-empowered woman that I had never seen before, and that, at a young age, showed me a way of being that would shape who I’d become as an adult.
In college, di Prima’s poetry and essays were like beacons of spiritual light, and I sought out every book of hers I could find. Several years ago, I was offered the opportunity to work with Diane di Prima as a doctoral student, under the mentorship of poet and scholar Ammiel Alcalay, a lifelong friend and a primary champion of di Prima’s work. Over a period of a few years, I visited di Prima in her home on a quiet street in San Francisco’s Outer Mission district, and spent many hours with her, looking over unpublished manuscripts, talking with her about her life. Getting to know di Prima was, for me, an encounter with an intellectual archetype made real. This awesomely courageous, rule-breaking, revolutionary woman poet: that she was willing to share her life with me was an honor that I’m still awed by. We talked about many things, among them her writing of Memoirs of a Beatnik – a book which has been mostly maligned by critics, but which I found (and still find) absolutely essential.
Memoirs of a Beatnik reveals a momentous depth of freedom and possibility. At the time I discovered it, I knew nothing about Diane di Prima, nor did I know that the book was written ‘for hire’, and almost entirely invented. The protagonist of Memoirs is a highly-sexualized being, but she’s also a poet. Her life is devoted to reading, writing and sharing a world with other artists; sex is a significant part of that sharing-of-life in this book, but it’s part of a greater flow of existence. She never stops watching, taking notes, using the knowledge derived from her attention. There’s a distinctly spiritual quality to that observation. Her capacities as a poet, lover, reader, friend and observer are all part of the same whole, the same holistic being.
There is one part of the narrative that still stands out to me, a version of a woman poet that I identified with instantly. Di Prima’s protagonist has returned to New York City from a season living in upstate New York, where she finds that the Greenwich Village ‘pad’ she’d been living in before she left for the country has been ‘lost due to non-payment of rent’. She forgoes the process of finding a new apartment, opting instead to sleep on the steps of a fountain in Washington Square Park. Every morning she wakes, packs up her attaché case and sets off ‘for the Chinese laundry on Waverly Place’, where she stores her clothes on separate tickets. Then she heads to Rienzi’s cafe and orders breakfast. She writes,
While the order was making, I’d find my way to the bathroom which was hidden away downstairs: down a rank, damp staircase which with oozing walls, and along a corridor straight out of The Count of Monte Cristo to a tiny, cramped room, fortunately vaguely cleaned, where I would wash my face and feet and hands, brush my teeth, and change clothes . . .
Great pleasure it is to sit in an unhurried, uncrowded shop, drinking good, strong coffee and reading while your friends come in and out and the morning draws to a close and you write stray words in a notebook. I would linger as long as I could, usually a couple of hours, leaving finally to go to my afternoon’s ‘work’.
This scene finds di Prima free from the burdens of family or romantic relationships, with no home to maintain, without a job or school to show up to, or anyone to perform for – free instead to take her time, to move through the world exactly as she pleased. Sitting alone in a coffee shop, looking around, drinking coffee and writing in a notebook – this all aroused my imagination.
Diane’s ‘afternoon’s work’ consisted of modeling for Russian-born identical twin Social Realist painters Raphael and Moses Soyer. This is one of the details included in Memoirs that is genuinely autobiographical. ‘I would perch on a high stool,’ she writes,
or recline on a couch, in Moses Soyer’s studio, while his wife rattled in and out chattering and Moses told me the gossip about his other models: who was going to have a baby, who was leaving for San Francisco, and one could almost believe oneself in that haunted and haunting world of 19th-century Paris, would catch the bold and flashy faces of La Bohéme out of the corners of one’s eyes. The money I got for two hours modeling was enough to buy me dinner and next morning’s breakfast and to take another outfit out of the laundry, and, as I had no other needs, I thought myself quite rich.
It was this version of Diane that offered me an image of the poet’s life I longed to lead myself. She was a young poet who had left home, who indeed had no need of a home. There was something so intuitive, so crafty about her system for living freely. What would it feel like for me, as a woman, to inhabit such an utterly free space? A space where one could look out into the world, and also look in, to one’s own mind? A space where intuition, presence, and spontaneity ruled?
Di Prima was always creating the conditions for her imagination to flourish, and living a life that was committed to that flourishing. Sex flowed into art, art flowed into livelihood, livelihood flowed into poetry, poetry flowed into friendship, friendship flowed into sex. The entirety of this life was sacred. An awareness, a reverence for this sacredness undergirded everything she did. In reading her work, I realized my own desire to know the sacredness at the foundation of daily life.
When I first visited di Prima at her home, I noticed a framed painting of her as a young woman on the wall in her living room. In the painting she looks pale, delicate, much as she does on the cover of Memoirs of a Beatnik. There’s something eternal about her face in the painting, with its dark, wide eyes looking to the left: it could be the face of a Florentine peasant, or a Sicilian girl standing in the doorway of a church at any moment in the last thousand years. Sheppard Powell, Diane’s husband of more than forty years, pointed to the painting and told me, ‘that’s Raphael Soyer’s painting of Diane, from the fifties’. Looking at the painting, I could see the young Diane perfectly: equal parts Virgil guiding Dante through Hell, and Beatrice guiding him through Heaven. And I could see her as she really was, brushing her hair in the damp basement bathroom of Rienzi’s in the morning, before going upstairs to sit in the cafe and write.