Giving Everything: On Diane di Prima

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Diane di Prima




Giving Everything: On Diane di Prima by Dale Smith

Revisiting the Beat luminary's radical life and work

January 26th, 2013 reset - +

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at CUNY has published several of di Prima’s prose works in their Lost and Found series that include under- or unpublished texts by mid-20th-century authors like John Wieners and Philip Whalen.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, a 15-year-old who shares di Prima’s bed with a woman she calls “Runaway Julie.” “I still remember how he rode me, eager and beatific,” she writes, “his fine mouth and well-made cock that filled me so well….” In all fairness, di Prima admits, she would lead Runaway Julie “almost to the edge of a quick little panting orgasm.”

Di Prima thrived within a gruff sub-culture of artist-outsiders. She identified her comrades by their clothing, the drugs they shared, and the language they spoke, “a bastardization of the black argot.” Famously, she relates the events of an orgy with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; the latter “wanted some pussy and decided he was going to get it.” The pleasure she describes as she “squirmed down on his cock” brings her desire front and center, dislodging the focus from male sexual prowess to feminine satisfaction and control. Adding to the raunchy, delightfully sloppy scene is the timing of her menstruation: in a theatric gesture as they’re all fooling around, she tosses a tampon across the room. Long before feminism was publicized by 1960s activism, di Prima encountered the postwar literary scene as a particularly instinctive kind of woman who would seek the attention of men as lovers, but not look for them to offer her security in the form of long-term relationships. In retrospect, her life stands out with a kind of determination far more radical than many of her contemporaries: she had more to risk as a young woman vulnerable to institutions of male dominance.

In conversation with San Francisco poet David Meltzer, di Prima once described these early years, and her relationship to the male dominated communities of New York. Her roots growing up in a conservative Italian-American family newly immigrated to the States informs many aspects of her outlook. “I decided I didn’t want to live with a man,” she said. “My family experience of growing up made me think that living with men wasn’t a nice idea. I had lots of lovers, and I asked people if they wanted to father a kid, and everybody thought I was insane, and finally I didn’t ask — I just got pregnant and had Jeanne.” Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), an inquiry into the radically transformed social landscape in America after World War II, chronicles a life of adventure and vulnerability, and articulates the stakes she faced as an unwed mother in the 1950s. “Can I be a single mom and be a poet?” she wondered, inquiring into the relationships of motherhood, art, and forms of cultural activism. She didn’t accuse institutions of patriarchy, however, in her efforts to re-invent herself, instead observing that women have colluded with forms of male suppression “in exchange for the dubious goodies of civilization.”

In Loba (1998), an epic-length poem that explores the figure of the Great Mother in mythic terms, she writes, “Make me mad, O Mother! / What’s the use of knowledge? / Make me drunk with the wine of your love.” The thin line between knowledge and feeling, divine inspiration and personal limitations, informs her critique of the modern world and its “assault” on traditional folkways. Her distrust was sparked by a kind of “immigrant fear,” di Prima remarks, “I carry to this day.” Behind the mythic patterns explored in Loba is her Sicilian family heritage, and its reception of “A Mediterranean, or North African ritual.” The many faces of the Earth Mother can be seen in diverse female figures that populate the imagination of di Prima’s childhood. There was Aunt Evelyn, for instance, whom di Prima loved “best of all my mother’s sisters, because she always sings. Heart full of joy, like a bird.” By contrast, Emma, di Prima’s mother, lived a life of “determined cheerfulness. Neatness.” While Emma fulfilled domestic duties with orderly faithfulness, di Prima explains that she did so under a form of implicit duress, and coped with her role as housewife by repeating grave proverbs: “Women had to learn to bear more pain than men. That was just how they were made.” In response to Emma’s fatalistic resignation, di Prima recalls a 1959 peyote trip, where “I wept for the soft and vulnerable flesh of things of the world in a universe that seemed metal and precise as clockwork. Armored as beetles, and moving with blind precision, I could almost hear the clicks of the machine.”

Di Prima responded to the challenges of motherhood and cultural “assault” with a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for work. With LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) she published nearly 40 issues of the mimeograph newsletter Floating Bear between 1961 and ’71. Subscribers included Living Theater co-founder Julian Beck, artist Jasper Johns, novelist Fielding Dawson, and many others involved in the various sites and inflections of what Donald Allen labeled as the New American Poetry. In places like New York or San Francisco, the period was frantic with creative possibilities. “In terms of the artists in general,” di Prima said, “there was so much happening, and one didn’t realize that it wasn’t happening like that always. There was no night when you weren’t at a movie or seeing someone’s new dance or going to a rehearsal of a dance you were in, rehearsing for Poet’s Theater, the amount of input was huge.” Her writing flourished in an atmosphere of ongoing activity; what the artists refused in terms of critical capacities they substituted for enthusiastic and constant, attention-heightening practice. “So there was a constant input, to the point where it was subliminal,” di Prima said. “There was no time to analyze or say, ‘Well, what’s Jimmy Waring doing that’s new in this piece, or what’s happening to form in that’ — but you were just taking it in and taking it in to the point where it was bypassing […] the left side of the brain, the way images do when you visualize. So you had this bank of stuff that was there for you when you wrote.”

Something unsettling and frightening appears alongside the great experiment in living that became the 1960s. Di Prima captures strange forms of discord in the beatnik, boho-types; a dislodged and dislocated mode of being emerges with new fears of nuclear annihilation and submission to capitalistic systems of precision that underscore the paranoia of the period. “Three days ago they dropped the bomb and today it rained,” di Prima writes in Dinner and Nightmares (1961). “If my head was a Geiger counter and I was a chicken I’d have clucked my way to a hundred eggs in the beat of that rain.” The small-town and largely rural existence of the nation before the war became increasingly urban and self-conscious, in part thanks to new forms of advertising and media. The physical and psychic mobility after the war gave new freedoms; a new mobility exacted terrific pressures on individuals, too, and their lives do not always seem to align with coherence in what became the newly permissive landscapes of American plenty. The spare back-and-forth of conversations in Dinners and Nightmares border on absurdist dialogue, but the distances between feeling and belief create a sad dissonance. In “The Poet,” she writes:

You gotta love he said. The world is full of children of sorrow
and I am always sad.

He was watching this cat beat up his chick in the street.

Sure man I said. The children of sorrow.

The chick had nothing on but her bra and pants and she was
kneeling on the sidewalk.

All over the world he said the children are weeping. I weep with
all the children of the world.

Great I said

A kind of posturing to reinvent a life as a woman is evident in Dinners and Nightmares. Di Prima’s narratives reveal artistic communities that are threatened not only by external cultural pressures, but also by internal paranoia. She articulates well the physical and psychic violence, though she does so at times in detached, self-protective voices. Absurdist humor and mythical fables provide some distance through which di Prima filters her energetic narratives. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “in a horrible city, lived a poet and a unicorn.” Describing her frustration with the often-unreliable participants in her bohemian enclaves, di Prima acknowledges the “loyalty” of unicorns, and how one “grew angrier” as “he heard one of his friends berate another.” She writes, “As he grew angrier he began to look straight ahead and carry his head very high, and the muscle in his jaw stood out, which is a sure sign in a unicorn that he is Very Angry Indeed.” While the poems and narrative vignettes show di Prima as a hip initiate in a rough and active world of male creative energies, something unstable and difficult to fix animates the events. A kind of empty spiritual life seems to have taken root even as di Prima and her companions pursued their creative liberties. By taking as much permission as necessary to fashion new self-identities in the vast systems of wealth that sustained postwar culture, di Prima’s texts are sometimes at odds with the ancient and pervasive figure of the Great Mother, whose rites are often strict and in accord with austere devotions.

The more expansive and hopeful writing of Revolutionary Letters (1971) articulates an optimistic dream of human love in opposition to the repressive features of the postwar nuclear family and the economic pressures sustaining it. In the fourth letter, dedicated to Bob Dylan, di Prima writes:

Left to themselves [people] make love
sleep easily
share blankets, dope & children
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own: touch of love
on the brain, the ear.

But di Prima was never a starry-eyed idealist. She understood the limitations and failures of the period, and describes them personally and figuratively in Recollections of My Life as a Woman. “Certain times, certain epochs, live on in the imagination as more than what they ‘actually’ were,” she writes, “and there is always a price to pay for them. They are, if you look close, times when the boundary between mythology and everyday life is blurred.” The extremes of drug abuse, revolutionary enthusiasms that clashed with federal laws, and art that blurred social boundaries put extreme pressure on those involved. “Our downfall was,” di Prima writes, “it was so beautiful. For us, who had replaced religion, family, society, ethics with Beauty, who saw ourselves as in the service of Beauty, no warnings were understood, no traps anticipated. To go down, in the service of That — that was the ultimate grace.”

Sensing the disintegration of the period beneath its heavy optimism, she observes: “Archetypes have their own drama: a vast uncharted cycle of Comedia dell’Arte, which they play out through us, without our informed consent. And with, ultimately, no concerns for human purpose.” In 1964 di Prima’s New York Poet’s Theatre was closed. She had produced plays by Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, and herself. “A typical evening in the lobby [of the Poet’s Theatre],” according to di Prima, would have seen Larry Rivers, Morris Golde, Panna Grady, Cecil Taylor, Richard Lippold, Joan Mitchell, any number of dancers, poets, what-have-you hobnobbing and flirting as they waited for the lights to flicker.” Along with the closing of the theater is a feeling of anxiety or dread. In 1964 di Prima’s close friend, the 28-year-old dancer Fred Herko, committed suicide by jumping out of a sixth-floor walk-up. “It was the finality of it I remember,” she said. “A kind of stuck place — the end of the film cut off and burned so you never see it. Never know what’s supposed to happen.”

Di Prima’s experience of the risks and violence of the period are augmented by a scrappy enthusiasm for her role as a poet. She certainly helped me understand my obligations as a writer at a time when I was trying to figure it all out. More than a decade ago, I was working with my wife, Hoa Nguyen, to publish a small magazine from our home in Austin, Texas. We had been corresponding with di Prima about the publication of Floating Bear. We shared an affinity for animal totems, naming our small, stapled zine Skanky Possum. Di Prima had invited us to dinner one evening while we were visiting San Francisco. I had reviewed a recently published edition of Loba for a small journal in Lawrence, Kansas. The epic poem’s concern for the many manifested forms of the Great Mother resonated with my own interests in poetry, religion, and anthropology. Not since Robert Graves’s poetic investigation of the feminine figures of the imagination in The White Goddess had I encountered such a provocative and complex engagement with the archaic spirit of poetry. Di Prima’s concern for “these faces before the Face” connected the mythic relationships of Cerridwen, Brigit, Io, Artemis, Isis: all were representative aspects of feminine energies and powers not always articulated in contemporary cultural discussions of poetry. Di Prima’s knack for retrieving significant formations of a feminine psyche seemed pertinent for better understanding the rich emergence of feminist discourses I encountered as a young man making my way in the world of poetry.

The night we met di Prima possessed a matter-of-fact presence. She was short and round, and her eyes sparkled. During dinner her voice and face interacted to bring back down to earth my misled imaginings of what it was a poet might be. Di Prima showed me a rugged practicality, a sort of fighter’s resilience. Give everything to poetry, she said, but remember close relationships bring it into the world.

Great strength and character animated her conversation. She spoke about her visit to Ezra Pound in 1955 while he was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s for his wartime radio broadcasts, and what an inspiration he had been to her. Di Prima was keen to impart foremost that we had to do things ourselves. No one else, she said, could publish the poems for us. No one would support our vision unless we acted on it. She told the story of Pound discovering Vivaldi’s music in a library in Italy, and how important it was to follow your enthusiasms. Without Pound we would not know Vivaldi, she said. The various institutions that support the arts, she was insistent to say, do not make new discoveries: poets must take charge of their curiosities — and act on them.

Such a practical vision seems also essentially idealistic when viewed from this side of the Cold War, and 10 years into a new war, now one on terror. David Meltzer argues how he “always considered the Beat Generation as a dissident movement, a kind of resistance movement, anti-materialist, pro-civil rights, early poetic ecology, a whole bunch of things, and that it came out of a very complex postwar American culture.” The term “Beat” as literary marker for larger cultural phenomena fails to convey the active public and private engagements those mid-century artists moved forward. The notion of art and life, public and private, indeed, blurred for writers like di Prima, Meltzer, and others. While Beat adventures are reanimated in popular culture through film (Viggo Mortenson as William Burroughs and James Franco as Ginsberg in separate movies), it’s tempting to idealize and celebrate people who responded to the new forms of urbanization and political control at mid-century with art. The dissonant moments are the ones that stand out though. Looking through the cracks in the narratives expose something that might be useful to reflect on now, and di Prima, in her self-invention as a woman, exposes the raw, fragilely mediated experience of a person inspired by poetry.

In an essay on the visionary modernist H. D., di Prima describes her critical process as “a circling / and a zigzagging: a backtracking in and out of the material.” While she hesitates to put her “thoughts out in this way — are they after all, ‘only’ subjective, a woman’s mind? — [she] finds an echo in her own questioning of [H. D.’s] work/her life.” The subjectivity at stake is fluid, improvised, and accessed through an effort to achieve self-perfection. “What we tend so eagerly to forget is that poesis, especially visionary poesis, is a religious path, sought and chosen,” she writes.

The “religious path” for di Prima is one of secular vision. But it’s curated by a passion to influence the immediate experience of culture. It’s hard not to read her “zigzagging” and “backtracking” as fundamental strengths in the stories she tells. Di Prima reaches into a confused and exacting moment in our cultural history to reinvent something that maybe wasn’t there at all: a genuine social commitment to cultural change through visionary poesis. Di Prima’s not so much in control of the stories she tells. Instead, she participates creatively in inherited narratives. Her poems and memoirs document relationships that often remain unresolved in terms of how we understand the Cold War era and its social manifestations. The events and relationships she describes suggest contradictory and often confined experiments with democracy in postwar culture. It comes down to how to live in a modern world based on “assault”: from drones killing children in Pakistan to guns killing them in our schools closer to home. Similarly, healthcare remains something one “owns” through a job. The struggle is to challenge the constant global aggressions that have defined in many ways the postwar period, from conflicts in Vietnam to Afghanistan, or, closer to home, the ongoing injustices of our health and education systems. Di Prima’s current situation in terms of her own health and its costs reminds us that our commitments to satisfying human needs remain uncertain. Even so, new archetypes of some future are yet to be born.

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