THE POET DIANE DI PRIMA faces serious health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, the loss of her teeth, and a degenerative failure of vision brought on by glaucoma. The 78-year-old Beat legend continues treatments for these and other health-related problems while her partner, Sheppard Powell, recovers from a liver transplant performed earlier this year. Di Prima’s poetry student, the actress Amber Tamblyn, created a fund to help defray the former poet laureate of San Francisco’s medical expenses and has raised nearly $25,000, thanks in part to the support of the Poetry Foundation. In October, Just Buffalo Literary Center, a community-focused literary organization in Buffalo, New York, staged a benefit featuring di Prima’s 1960 absurdist play Murder Cake. Recently, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY has published several of di Prima’s prose works in their Lost and Found series that include under- or unpublished texts by mid-20th-century authors like John Wieners and Philip Whalen. Sales of the current series are being offered to aid in her recovery. My interest in di Prima is more personal. She’s not considered to be a relevant force on the literary scene now, nor is she particularly a household name. But her presence in contemporary poetry and culture remains significant because she has shown so many younger writers how to participate in a literary life, one that is devised to achieve artistic integrity, if not institutional success.
When di Prima began writing in 1948 the legal policies of the nation were hostile to writers like her Beat comrade Allen Ginsberg, whose publisher of the book Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, went on trial in 1957 for obscenity. It was illegal for di Prima to sell copies of Jean Genet’s writing in the Phoenix Bookstore where she worked for a time in New York City. Homosexuality was outlawed; books were banned for obscene or graphic language; and single women were manhandled by a patriarchal medical industry. Men made claims to power based on new Cold War living and work conditions that rewarded masculine posturing in newly refashioned and romantic figures: the cowboy, the rebel, the bohemian, and the drifter. Adjacent to these outsider stereotypes, di Prima sought new kinds of gendered experiences through her art and social relationships. It can be easy to take for granted di Prima’s determination to bring a woman’s voice into a mostly male-dominated subculture.
Di Prima has documented her life in two essential autobiographies detailing her experiences as a young woman in the largely male-driven artistic and social communities of mid-century. The first, Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), is a semi-pornographic (and semi-fictitious) representation of the coteries and dramatic social groupings she discovered in the New York of the 1950s and 1960s. The cover of the book, republished by Last Gasp in 1988, shows a young di Prima in a simple blouse and skirt. Her gaze is cast thoughtfully downward, her large eyes closed. In a picture behind her two nude women recline suggestively. Self-consciously parodying herself and the “Beat” mythos, she nonetheless reveals the incongruent forms of love and labor required to successfully survive as a young woman. Di Prima reveals her tenuous social position through pornographic self-description (in part to increase sales when the book was originally released in 1969). “It was as if he had been born for fucking,” she writes of one lover, Jack,...read more