“Between the Lines”: A Conversation with Diane di Prima

January 27, 2021   •   By Hilton Obenzinger

ACCLAIMED POET Diane di Prima died in San Francisco on October 25, 2020, after a long illness. Di Prima grew up in an Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn — her grandfather was an anarchist activist. She attended Swarthmore College for two years before moving to Greenwich Village in Manhattan, where she developed friendships with poets Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, and Audre Lorde, and became known as the most important woman writer associated with the Beat movement. Di Prima began a correspondence with the poet Ezra Pound in the 1950s, and visited him at St. Elizabeths. 


She was a contributing editor to Kulchur magazine in the early 1960s, co-edited the magazine Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and was director of the New York Poets Theatre from 1961 until 1965. After joining Timothy Leary’s psychedelic community in Upstate New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1968, where she participated in the political activities of the Diggers, lived in a commune, studied Zen Buddhism, Sanskrit, and alchemy, and raised her five children. In 2009, she was named the fifth poet laureate of San Francisco. 


Her over 40 books include This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (1958), Revolutionary Letters (1969), the long poem Loba (1978, expanded 1998), the short story collection Dinners and Nightmares (1960), Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (1990), the fictionalized Memoirs of a Beatnik (1968), and the memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (2001). Loba has been acclaimed as the great female counterpart to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. For di Prima, the “she-wolf,” or loba in Spanish, embodies a fundamental female force powerfully underlying female sexuality. 


She taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and in the Masters-in-Poetics program at the New College of California, and was one of the co-founders of the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts.


On November 6, 2013, she joined Hilton Obenzinger at Stanford University for a conversation on writing, life, and the writing life. This was part of a series called “How I Write,” examining the way people actually work. The following conversation is excerpted from the transcript of that conversation, edited, and rearranged for clarity and brevity.


[At the beginning of these conversations, guests are invited to say anything about writing, perhaps how one learned to write.]


¤


DIANE DI PRIMA: Since I was 14, I’d been writing every day. Once I decided that I was going to be a poet, I never didn’t write that day. So, I had a notebook. It was a school composition book and it said No Day Without a Line in Latin on the front. And inside were all these poems on the lined paper. I can’t stand lined paper now. But, anyway, I got caught writing once when I was in summer school by a teacher who made me read a poem out loud, and it was all downhill from there. And I never stopped.


Hunter College High School in the ’50s was all women. They were intensely, wonderfully independent and the teachers would send us out, go out and find out … And we would come in every morning: me, Audre Lorde, and maybe six other women. And we’d read our poems to each other.


HILTON OBENZINGER: You went to visit Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths hospital in Washington, DC, where he was committed at the end of his trial for treason [for when he collaborated with Mussolini’s fascists during World War II]. And you learned from him, as well as others. Tell us about that visit and what you learned.


I went down to Washington with a friend and stayed with Pound’s lover, Sheri Martinelli. I stayed at her house. I went every day [to the hospital] for those four or five days that we could afford to be there. And the wardens, because they knew that we weren’t there for long, they let us come in on days that were visiting days.


I studied with Keats and Pound. Keats’s letters told me everything I needed to know until I found Pound’s ABC of Reading, and I needed to know a little more, like the building blocks of poetry, the image, the dance of the language, and music. The music of words. Those three building blocks made the whole thing. I wanted to meet Pound.


I was shy at first, but then in the Cantos he says something: “But to have gathered from the air a live tradition. […] This is not vanity.” And I felt, you know, I’m not going to lose the opportunity to look this man in the eye and talk to him. I know nothing about politics. I don’t care. As Robert Duncan told me, “You should say ‘later’ all the time to get out of all kinds of conversations. But poetry is above politics, isn’t it dear?” And it is. I mean, who the hell cares? I mean, the planet is going to hell in a hand basket anyway, so might as well go.


I sent Pound some poems. He wrote me back and said, “They seem,” underlined, “to me to be well written. But — no one ever much use as critic of younger generation.” And that sort of gave me a lot right there for how to teach later: keep my hands off younger people’s work; try to grasp what they’re after, and if I can figure that out by hanging out with them, then I could nudge them in that direction. “You might want to read blah, blah.” “But no one ever much use as critic of younger generation.”


And how did you start publishing books?


I published This Kind of Bird Flies Backward. I did it myself in my kitchen because the guys who were going to publish it decided they would ask me for a book, these folks that had bought a press, and then they decided, “Oh, I don’t think I want to be a publisher after all.”


I said, “Well, I’ve got this whole thing laid out. Typed up. So, I’ll print it.”


They said, “Oh, you can use our press. We’ll show you how to use it.” I said, “Great.”


So, I did that. And then I collated it, and we stapled it, folded it with a piece of bone. And then sent it off to be trimmed. And a book becomes a book after it’s trimmed. That’s such a nice moment when you get it back like that.


And then I had all these 900 copies of a book in my house. So, I would put them in the back of the stroller where I had my first baby because I wanted a kid, but I didn’t want a guy around. And I drove the stroller around town and dropped them off at bookstores by consignment. They disappeared in less than a year. And somebody picked it up to do a reprint. I honestly don’t remember who those people were. And that book stayed in print for a long time. And then it wasn’t in print anymore, but I was doing about a book a year coming out around then.


You talked a little bit about the East Coast and the West Coast, that there was this very different scene, very different approach to aesthetics. And I assume that’s changed. 


I think it changed and then changed again. We were homogeneous for a while and now I think New York is pretty different to me, the aesthetic is pretty different to me again, or part of it anyway.


I found that I was always an exotic in New York. But out here, nobody noticed, I was just one of the crowd. So, I wanted to move out here early on, that kind of thing about the aesthetic. I can’t explain it in single words. You would never catch anybody with a million stones from the sea and shells and pieces of junk on their windowsill in New York. I said these people don’t think I’m exotic. I don’t think they’re exotic. I feel at home. I’m going to move out here. And it took me a while, but I moved the whole kit and caboodle. When I moved, I moved 14 grown-ups, all their kids, and dogs, and cats, and rifles, and typewriters. And got a 14-room house on the Panhandle [Golden Gate Park in San Francisco]. It was $300 a month. Had an in-law apartment and a big garden. That was in 1968.


It was kind of a whole lifestyle or an aesthetic that was different on the two coasts. And I don’t know exactly [why]. We did a play of Michael McClure’s when I had Poets Theater in New York, a very intense one-act play. George Herms made the sets, and they were very opulent assemblage things. My friends in New York, like Frank O’Hara, who came to all of our plays, could make no sense of that one at all. It did not compute. And the two aesthetics were just different, the lifestyles, the clothes, everything. 


You had a striking way of going ahead with poetry and other kinds of writing, putting aside even other things about life, and eventually even coming to a kind of spiritual type of writing. And you’re still moving in that direction.


Well, you know, it’s very interesting. It’s like at some point there started to be a couple of serial poems. They’d just go on and on and on. One is the Revolutionary Letters and one is Loba. And it’s like they’re the two strands — one is very pragmatic and one is this very, sometimes, very far-out geography of the female imagination. But whatever it is, it just inundated me one day and wouldn’t go away. Because very often I just hear a poem and I have to stop what I’m doing and write it. Sometimes I hear it. Or sometimes, with Loba, I carried around an image, literally a picture for months in different notebooks until the words came that went with it.


But some things I still worked on as if I was honing them, like some of the Revolutionary Letters I had to work on because they were like guerilla theater. The first ones happened without my having that plan in mind. I was in somebody’s house, babysitting a house in Los Angeles while I was waiting to find out whether or not somebody was going to buy a book of mine, for a movie, which of course never happened. But while I was there, I saw something on TV that got me so mad. It was about General Electric moving in on the Navajo Reservation. And it just happened at that point:


I have just realized that the stakes are myself

I have no other

ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life

my spirit measured out, in bits, spread over

the roulette table, I recoup what I can

nothing else to shove under the nose of the maître de jeu

nothing to thrust out the window, no white flag

this flesh all I have to offer, to make my play with

this immediate head, what it comes up with, my move

as we slither over this go board, stepping always

(we hope) between the lines


[Revolutionary Letter #1]


And then [the letters] got more practical — they talked about storing water in your bathtub, if you needed it. Because they turned off the water in Newark during one of the big riots and that was the biggest problem. We could get in on back roads. They had blockaded the roads. But we could bring food in, but we couldn’t figure out what to do about the water. And then [the questions] came: Can you own land? Can you own a house, own rights from other’s labor, stocks, or factories, or money loaned at interest? What about the yield of some crops, autos, airplanes dropping bombs? Can you own real estate so others pay you rent?


To whom does the water belong? To whom will the air belong, as it gets rare? The American Indians say that a man can own no more than he can carry away on his horse. And, you know, times went on. Things change. The letters kept changing with them. And there was a thing called the Liberation News Service, and I would give them bunches of letters whenever I wrote them. [LNS] would mail them out to all the newspapers that were free papers in all the big cities, about 200 of them. Even the Black Panther newspaper published one or two of my letters at one point.


But it’s like this really organized red kind of energy, like anarchist energy, and I said, “Mmm, I think I’m going to go to the country.” Plus, the FBI was at my front door every night, banging on the door. I was sending different kids to the door because everybody grown up at the table was wanted for the draft or wanted for something else. Yeah, it was really like that.


Well, Revolutionary Letters was one type of writing you did. And then there’s Loba.


When Loba began, I was in a classroom teaching somewhere in San Mateo or somewhere in a farm community, Gilroy. We were having [the students] all write poems. And I’m hearing in my head: “If he did not come apart in her hands, he fell / like flint on her ribs…” So, [the co-teacher] is teaching the class and I’m scribbling, because it wasn’t going to stop saying those lines until I wrote them down and I got the next lines. And so it went on from there. And that’s what mainly happens. It comes to me.


Describe more how you learned to write poetry, your poetics.


Once I dropped out of college, I spent half the day writing and half studying. I took the agenda more or less that Pound proposed and taught myself some Homeric Greek, you know, so I could sound out the poems. And I’d study usually at home and then I’d take my notebook and go out and write, run around the city and write. And then the typing and revising happened at home in the evening. We needed very little, so $70 a month covered the rent. The house was $33, the apartment — four of us lived in it. It was a cold-water flat. No heat. Bathroom in the hall. I didn’t expect that I’d have more than that, so it was fine. And people would come in the evening. They’d all bring something. We’d get together. Somebody would bring the bread. And I always had a big soup. Somebody would bring desserts. And so that was how it was then.


One thing that happened for me that was very helpful was that Jack Kerouac came through when they were going to India in February of ’57. Everybody was reading, so I read some of [my] poems. And Jack said, “What did it look like when you first wrote it?” And we went back to my first [draft], and he said, “Hmm, I like those words.” And what I got was the sense you could always go back to those drafts and pull something out. When you got stuck, you know, and then I got the sense of how your mind worked in the first place. That was very interesting.


And then I took a class with James Waring in composition. He was a choreographer, but I wanted to take his composition class. I was taking dance, and I was doing some performing with him. “Tonight we’re going to talk about form. Everything has a form.” He said nothing else. After about 10 minutes, we all started to go out the door. We were looking at everything. Oh, that has a form. That has a form. What he was telling us was all forms are okay. Leave your mind alone. Don’t mess with everything all the time. And I started to write and tried to follow my mind wherever it went, what [poet] Philip [Whalen] calls the graph of the moving mind. Write exactly what’s happening as closely as you can.


And one of the things that came out of that was Calculus of Variations. One of the things I learned from Jimmy’s class was taking a structure and then hanging absolute freedom on the structure. So, in The Calculus of Variations I took the eight trigrams that make up the I-Ching and they were going to be the eight sections of this book. And then I would immerse myself in the qualities of the first trigram … And I immersed myself, by that I mean I listened to that kind of music. I’d just be in that kind of state for a couple of months. And then I’d start writing. And I’d just write. And I’d write whatever showed up on the wall in front of my typewriter. One of the kids that I said that to in some reform school in Wyoming where I was teaching said, “Man, she must have taken a lot of acid.” But this was way before acid or any of that. I was writing what showed up on the wall in front of my big IBM typewriter.


And when I was all done and sat down to start rewriting [Calculus of Variations], I knew how to make it smooth and really like hip, or kind of avant-garde prose. And I knew that if I did that, I would be violating this book, so all of a sudden, I decided, “Hmm, I can’t touch this. I’m going to leave all the flaws in it.”


I got an offer from New Directions to publish it, but they wanted to assign me an editor. And I said, “I’m sorry, this is in the nature of a received text. I can’t touch it.” And I never did. So I published it myself. And I never did publish with New Directions. There were other reasons, too, like I was a girl and so on.


Audience Question: Was it hard to be a woman beatnik?


Oh, everyone asks that. No, not at all. You just are yourself. I didn’t think of myself as a girl or a boy. I don’t know what the guys were thinking about when I would sometimes answer the door and with almost nothing on. Joel Oppenheimer wrote a whole story about it. He was very upset but that was his problem, not mine.


Once at the age of 14 I decided to be a poet, I knew what wasn’t going to happen, like matched dishes, a washing machine, a regular consensus lifestyle of any sort.


But, no, seriously, I wasn’t a woman beatnik. First of all, there weren’t any beatniks when I started. That’s something that the magazines made up later. Different people claimed they made that word up. Herb Caen is one. But there were several. You couldn’t be a beatnik if you didn’t know they existed.


If you read the beginning of Recollections of My Life as a Woman, you find that I learned very early from my grandmother that men were decorative. They weren’t important in the world, because they didn’t deal with the daily business of life. You know, it was nice to have one around, but they came and went and did their thing and you did yours.


My grandfather was an anarchist. He’d quit a job every time somebody had been insulted or fired at work. He’d bring the person home and all the person’s kids. And my grandmother would cook for them, too. And she and the girls in the family also would take in crocheted beading or something else, make enough money to feed this extended family. And eventually, my grandfather was a custom tailor, made very good money. He’d work at home and then another job would happen. And then some other thing would happen that didn’t accord with anarchism, and everybody would come over to the house to eat again.


So, I learned from her that this is okay: men come and go. They have their business; we have ours. And frankly coming from the family I came from, I was just as happy not to have any men living in my house ever. I raised my kids. And I never wanted alimony. That gave the guy some say as to how you raised these children. I didn’t want that. It didn’t work that way for me.


Audience Question: I was just wondering what was Timothy Leary like?


He was a love. He was a wonderful man. When I stayed in [Millbrook], that would be a whole nice story. But the whole aim of that community was, from his point of view, to gather together a whole bunch of creative folks, let them have as much acid as they wanted, and let them have any supplies they needed for like painting, writing, or anything else. And turn them loose with all those materials and see what they came up with. They created what they wanted to do, whether they accidentally expressed a wish to be a photographer, you’d find the camera and all kinds of film and stuff in your house the next day on the land there. Stuff like that.


He would go out on the road to make money to pay these bills to keep us all there doing what we pleased to do, what we wanted to do. That was part of his story. I was writing a lot there. We had a separate house. A lot of people lived in the main house, which was 64 rooms. The land belonged to the Mellon family and they had another house on the land that they called the Cottage, which was only 40-something rooms, and it had a copper roof. I wanted to be away so I could work more. And they had a chalet that was a bowling alley downstairs and some kind of billiards room upstairs, which was just a high peaked room with a small room to the side. The small room I wrote in. The big room we lived in. And, yeah, I got a lot of writing done, and I typed Philip [Whalen’s] book On Bear’s Head, which we [Poet’s Press] were going to publish. It had all his drawings in it.


And Philip got a deal with Doubleday, or whoever did it, and they offered him money and he wanted to get back to Japan. He let me know he did it with them. Only recently did I discover that it didn’t have the pictures in it, because I never opened it because I knew the poems by then. And I was very mad with him for going with somebody who wouldn’t put the pictures in when he’d already agreed to do it with us. I wrote him a very funny mad poem, but I wasn’t really mad. You know, we hung out anyway all the time the last few years of his life.


Audience Question: What was Frank O’Hara like?


Frank lived a few blocks from me, and we hung out a bunch because I would walk up there with the baby carriage (Jeanne was my first one), and we’d hang out and talk.


He would lose his poems all over the house. And I could look anywhere to find poems, like in the drawers with the towels. I would find poems here and there for The Floating Bear, which was my mimeographed newsletter. And I’d say, “Frank, can I have this, and this, and this, and that?” And there was always a typewriter at his kitchen table. So, if he was having a cocktail party in his other room, he’d go into the kitchen and type a line every once in a while and go back inside. There was always a poem in the works, at least one.


Sometimes he would get very drunkenly bitter about himself. And later in life, thinking back on it much later, he reminded me of a later time in my life when I worked at the BIA schools, Bureau of Indian Affairs, in Arizona. And I watched in that role kids play chicken with the trucks in a suicidal way. And kids committed suicide that way all the time. And I used to watch Frank do that sometimes at night with the trolleys, walking down the middle of the street, and I wondered what he was doing that night on Fire Island [where O’Hara died]. Was he pushing a taxi, what was happening? People also say that the accident wasn’t an accident because the thing that hit him was out to trash some gays. It was a dune buggy that was out to kill somebody that night. The story is this cab he was in got stuck in the sand. He got out to help the cabdriver push. And then some other dune buggy that was driving along toward the edge of the beach came by and clipped him. I have no idea what story is true, what happened. He never regained consciousness.


But I do have a poem I wrote right after he died for a memorial book. One line was, “You, my big brother, brought me up,” so that’s something of how I felt about him. He was eight years older than me.


Audience Question: I’m sure you’ve heard this, but your writing has always reminded me of a jazz musician. I wondered if you wanted to say something about the influence or the way jazz might have poured through you in your work?


Music was the first thing to break free with Bird and so on, from our perspective, my generation. By the time I had dropped out of school in ’52 or ’53, Miles was playing — you could go hear anybody. You could go to the Café Bohemia every night for free and hear Miles Davis. Or Monk would go walking around the keyboard. It was just always in the air and was always around.


And so, music was just part of my life. And I wasn’t so aware of it until Marion Brown told me one time that my work did that kind of melody line on syncopation that jazz does. I don’t know what it does. I just get it and it just happens. And I love to perform with music.


¤


Hilton Obenzinger writes cultural criticism, history, fiction and poetry. He is the author of American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania, a literary and historical study of American fascination with the Holy Land.