Di Prima, Diane

(1934– )
   For Diane di Prima, arguably the one female writer most readily identified with the Beat literary movement, “the best travel has always been in the realm of the imagination.” Although not initially part of jack kerouac, allen ginsberg, and William s. burroughs’s Beat fraternity, she forged a bohemian life that paralleled theirs in many respects, and by the late 1950s she had become part of the Beat literary circle. Her life story is one of total dedication to literary freedom, personal liberation, and the struggle for those systemically marginalized. During a career of almost a half-century, she has emerged, in the words of poet Marge Piercy, as “one of the giants of American poets.” Di Prima was born in 1934 in Brooklyn, New York, into the Catholic Italian middle-class family of Francis and Emma Mallozzi di Prima. However, it was her maternal grandfather, an anarchist, who seems to have been the major influence on her vocation as a poet. He instilled in her at an early age a love of art, music, and literature, especially that of Dante Alighieri, and by the time di Prima turned 14 years old, she knew that she was destined to be a poet.
   She attended Hunter High School in New York and then Swarthmore College from 1951 to 1953 where she studied physics. During these years, she avidly read John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Shakespeare, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. By 1953, however, her interest in formal education had considerably waned, and she moved to the Greenwich Village, Lower East Side neighborhoods of New York, intent on developing her life as a poet. The 1950s and 1960s were extremely prolific years for di Prima, who earned money to support herself by modeling and other odd jobs, all the while fashioning around herself a community of artists and libertarians that included dancer Freddie Herko, choreographer James Waring, and writer Sheri Martinelli, a confidante of Ezra Pound’s. Through Martinelli, di Prima established a correspondence with Pound who was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where she visited him several times. She also met LeRoi Jones (now amiri baraka), assisting him and his then wife hettie jones with the publishing of the literary journal Yugen and books for their Totem Press.
   In 1958 Totem Press published di Prima’s first collection of poems, This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards. This volume speaks with a distinctly Keatsian voice mixed with Poundian abbreviations and Beat vernacular (for example, dig, hip, flip, baby-o, and cool). The collection stands as a prelude to her mature dinners and niGHtmares (1961), in which she reveals the squalor and luxury of her life as a woman poet. Many of the selections in Dinners and Nightmares demonstrate her wry humor as it services astute observations of political and social inequities. In “The Quarrel,” for instance, the female narrator silently addresses her lover/artist who refuses to help her with the housework: “I got up and went into the kitchen to do the dishes. And shit I thought I probably won’t bother again. But I’ll get bugged and not bother to tell you and after a while everything will be awful and I’ll never say anything because it’s so fucking uncool to talk about it. And that I thought will be that and what a shame.” Dinners and Nightmares is a highly experimental collage of genres, including plays, conversations, interior monologues, free verse, and lists, a postmodern text long before that term become mainstreamed. It remains a powerful testament to the complications and triumphs of Beat bohemia for women.
   With LeRoi Jones, di Prima also published the Floating Bear (1961–69) arts newsletter, named for the boat in A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Floating Bear, while published with the slimmest of budgets and what is now considered antiquated mimeograph technology, served an essential role in shaping and maintaining the various literary schools that are now associated with the mid–twentiethcentury avant-garde. With Alan Marlowe, di Prima’s first husband, she also cofounded the New York Poets Theatre and the Poets Press, publishing texts by Jean Genet, Audre Lorde, and Herbert Huncke. Her work with both Floating Bear and the Poets Theatre led to confrontations with the FBI concerning obscenity charges. These exciting and turbulent years are covered in memoirs of a Beatnik, her quasi-fictive autobiography, published in 1969 by Olympia Press—The Traveler’s Companion, Inc. Recently, she has chronicled the period in a more conventional memoir: Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (2001). As di Prima developed as a poet, she was also intent on having a family, although she was not concerned about pursuing it in a conventional middle-class manner—she did not consider it necessary to have a husband to have children. She had long practiced free love (both heterosexual and homosexual), and she continued to act independently when she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Jeanne, in October 1958 without the legal sanction of marriage. She had a second daughter, Dominique, fathered by LeRoi Jones in 1961. Since then she has had three more children: Alexander, Tara, and Rudra. She has also been married and divorced two times and now lives with her life partner, Sheppard Powell, in San Francisco.
   All of di Prima’s literary works exemplify her deep belief that one cannot separate one’s life as an artist from other duties, responsibilities, and desires. In particular, many of her strongest poems are unafraid to claim a female artist’s need for a domestic life and her struggles to construct that family compatibly with poetic production. Her most important poem in this regard is “Brass Furnace Going Out: Song, after an Abortion” (1960), which draws on lyrical surrealism to express the mother’s love for all life as she speaks to the spirit of the lost fetus:
   the lion pads
   along the difficult path
   in the heart of the jungle
   and comes to the riverbank
   he paws your face
   I wish he would drink it up
   in that strong gut it would come
   to life . . .
   The poem is sometimes read as an anti-abortion poem, a reading that di Prima vehemently rejects, and while “Brass Furnace” directly addresses the act of abortion, its allegiance to the symbolic and surreal also speaks to the creation of art—the need for Keatsian beauty and truth in all aspects of one’s life. As the Beat Generation evolved into the Hippie Generation, di Prima moved a great deal, traveling across country with her children, staying at timothy leary’s experimental commune at Millbrook, New York, and joining the San Francisco mime troupe called the Diggers, a political activist group that among other activities distributed free food to the indigent. These years, which she has called her warrior years, led to the publication in 1971 of Revolutionary Letters, a collection of poems that she often performed on the street. Lines such as this list from letter \#19—“1. kill head of Dow Chemical / 2. destroy plant / 3. MAKE IT UNPROFITABLE FOR THEM / to build again / i.e., destroy the concept of money”—exemplify the angry and extremely idealistic vision of the collection, which reflects the tenor of what some call the second civil war in United States history. The messages conveyed in these poems, with di Prima’s signature use of typewriter abbreviations, colloquial language, and uppercase, may strike some as outdated today, but the letters remain valuable cultural critique, illustrating what critic Anthony Libby describes as “extreme left meeting extreme right in the romance of violent revolution or anarchy.” Di Prima had also begun a serious commitment to the study of Zen Buddhism by the time that she settled in San Francisco, studying with Shunryu Suzuki, Katagiri Roshi, and Kobun Chino Roshi. Her interest in the magical arts attracted her to Tibetan Buddhism, and she became the student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1983. These practices have remained central to her process of moving from arts and political activism into a more contemplative, spiritual state of artistic production. They have also contributed significantly to her evolving aesthetics. For instance, she has said that in the creation of texts such as The New Handbook of Heaven and The Calculus of Variation, both blendings of poetry and prose, she acted as “receiver,” rejecting the polishing of the language in favor of the visionary quality of the text, a process that she describes as “accepting dictation” and “the moving mind.”
   For the last 30 years, di Prima has pursued what may become her master work, loBa, a multilayered vision of woman as the wolf goddess, spanning thousands of years and mixing the sermonic, hermetic, and the vernacular to create a kaleidoscopic vision of female myth and reality. Loba, shape-shifting into a myriad of forms such as Kore, Lilith, Eve, the Virgin Mary, Kali-Ma, and Emily Dickinson, began as an essential exploration of female power. Through the vast mythological spectrum that Loba signifies, however, the collection has become a more contemporary portrait of the multifaceted nature of gender identity. Methodologically, the collection exemplifies poet Robert Duncan’s idea of composition by field: “[T]he poem,” she wrote, “can include everything; and each ‘thing’ (image, stanza, song, quote, blob of light) has equal weight in the Field . . . implying, like within an ideogram, the unsaid commonalities, which themselves form other dimensions.” The first eight parts of Book I were published in 1978; Books I and II were published in 1998 by Viking Penguin. Book III is in progress.
   Today, di Prima, teaches two private writing classes each year. She has also taught poetry at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and in the masters program that she helped to found at the New College of California in 1980. Her more than 30 books exemplify a fundamental message from “rant” (1984), one of her most-often quoted poems, regarding the inevitable fusion of the domestic, political, and artistic spheres of life:
   There is no way out of the spiritual battle
   There is no way you can avoid taking sides
   There is no way you can not have a poetics
   no matter what you do: plumber, baker,
   teacher
 Bibliography
■ Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
■ di Prima, Diane. The Calculus of Variation. San Francisco: City Lights, 1972.
■ ———. Dinners and Nightmares. New York: Cornith Books, 1961.
■ ———. Loba. New York: Penguin, 1998.
■ ———. Memoirs of a Beatnik. New York: Olympia, 1969.
■ ———. Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990.
■ ———. Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years. New York: Viking, 2002.
■ ———. Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: City Lights, 1971.
■ ———. “The Tapestry of Possibility.” Interview, by Ann Charters. Whole Earth (Fall 1999). Available online. URL: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0GER/is_1999_Fall/ai_56457596. Accessed September 2005.
■ ———. This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards. New York: Aardvark Press, 1957.
■ Kirschenbaum, Blossom S. “Diane di Prima: Extending La Famiglia.” MELUS 14, nos. 3–4 (Fall/Winter 1987): 53–67.
■ Knight, Brenda. Women of the Beat Generation. Berkeley, Calif.: Conari Press, 1996.
■ Libby, Anthony. “Diane di Prima: ‘Nothing Is Lost; It Shines in Our Eyes.’ ” In Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, edited by Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, 45–68. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
■ McNeil, Helen. “The Archaeology of Gender in the Beat Movement.” In The Beat Generation Writers, edited by A. Robert Lee, 178–199. London: Pluto, 1996.
■ Moffeit, Tony. “Pieces of a Song: Diane di Prima” (Interview). In Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers, edited by Grace, Nancy, and Ronna C. Johnson, 83–106. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004.
■ Waldman, Anne. “An Interview with Diane di Prima.” In The Beat Road, edited by Arthur and Kit Knight, 27–33. California, Pa.: Unspeakable Visions of the Individual, 1984.
   Nancy M. Grace

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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  • Di Prima, Diane — born Aug. 6, 1934, New York, N.Y., U.S. U.S. poet. Di Prima settled in Greenwich Village and became one of the few women to attain prominence in the Beat movement. In 1961 she cofounded Floating Bear, a monthly featuring notable Beat writers. Her …   Universalium

  • Di Prima, Diane — (n. 6 ago. 1934, Nueva York, N.Y., EE.UU.). Poetisa estadounidense. Establecida en Greenwich Village, fue una de las pocas mujeres que destacaron en el movimiento Beat. En 1961 fue cofundadora de Floating Bear [El oso flotante], revista literaria …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Diane di Prima — Diane di Prima, photo by Gloria Graham during the video taping of Add Verse, 2004 Diane Di Prima[clarification needed] (born August 6, 1934) is an American poet …   Wikipedia

  • Diane Di Prima — Diane di Prima, photo by Gloria Graham during the video taping of Add Verse, 2004 Diane DiPrima est une poétesse américaine née le 6 août 1934 à New York. Elle est considérée comme la femme la plus importante de la Beat generation. Dès… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Diane DiPrima — Diane di Prima Diane di Prima, photo by Gloria Graham during the video taping of Add Verse, 2004 Diane DiPrima est une poétesse américaine née le 6 août 1934 à New York. Elle est considérée comme la femme la plus importante de la Beat… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Diane — [dī an′] n. a feminine name: dim. Di; var. Dianne: see DIANA * * * (as used in expressions) Arbus Diane Diane Nemerov Hillary Diane Rodham Di Prima Diane Diane de France duchess de Montmorency and Angoulême Diane de Poitiers duchess de… …   Universalium

  • Diane — (as used in expressions) Arbus, Diane Diane Nemerov Hillary Diane Rodham Di Prima, Diane Keaton, Diane Diane Hall …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Diane DiPrima — Diane di Prima, Foto von Gloria Graham während der Videoaufnahmen zu Add Verse, 2004 Diane DiPrima (* 6. August 1934 in Brooklyn, New York City) ist eine US amerikanische Schriftstellerin der Beat Generation …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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