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Beat writer Diane di Prima recites poetry, speaks to her generation’s influence

Feb 11 2014

When asked about the difficulties of breaking into the fraternity of Kerouac and Ginsberg as a woman, Diane di Prima took almost no time to formulate an answer, matter-of-factly declaring, “I wasn’t a woman; I was a beatnik.” 

Although popular representations of the Beat generation often emphasize masculine audacity, the life of Diane di Prima resoundingly proves that gender was a key component of the era’s intellectual upheaval. In November, di Prima came to Stanford to recite poetry both new and old and speak to her generation’s pervasive influence.

Although di Prima made the decision to dedicate her life to poetry at 14, her career did not begin in earnest until she dropped out of Swarthmore College to move to then-unknown Greenwich Village. Throughout her years working with and inspiring the likes of Ezra Pound, Audre Lorde, and Frank O’Hara, di Prima consistently pushed the boundaries of language and form while experimenting with naturalistic, feminist, and Eastern themes. Her radical work even brought her to the attention of the federal government, by whom she was harassed and eventually charged with obscenity for her affiliation with the subversive New York Poets Theatre and the newspaper The Floating Bear.

Diane di Prima’s coming to poetry

Di Prima said that she inherited her pioneering spirit from her maternal grandmother, an associate of Emma Goldman's who imbued her granddaughter with a fascination for anarchy and all things anti-authoritarian. During her adolescence, she realized that she could not long stomach the “regular lifestyle” expected of her generation of women. Rather than reading the stale romantic literature so acclaimed by the day’s intellectuals, she contented herself with simple comics like Archie. At age fourteen, she decided to dedicate her life to poetry, and since then has reportedly never taken a day off from writing. After leaving Swarthmore in 1953, di Prima moved to Manhattan to begin writing full time.  

Di Prima’s grandmother also taught her that “men are decorative . . . and do their own thing, not involved with the fundamental parts of life.” This secular attitude proved crucial to her professional and personal independence and to her sense of unrequited sexual freedom, evidenced in the deep spirituality and erotic aesthetic of her work.

She lived and breathed Greenwich Village before Dylan invaded, before it became the village of so many other famous personalities. She and the people she encountered there founded a transcendental bohemian community replete with sexual and drug-based experimentation that would eventually extend all the way to the west coast.

The Beat Generation

Before the 1950s, says di Prima “people didn’t give me a name.” Yet by the end of the decade, she was instantly recognizable as the female head of the Beat Generation, the radical post-WWII literary phenomenon that laid the intellectual foundation for the hippie subculture of the sixties. One who helped cultivate this transition was the poet Ezra Pound, with whom di Prima was able to correspond and share poetry during his incarceration at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Another was LeRoi Jones (or Amiri Baraka)—di Prima published her first collection of poetry under Jones's Totem Press label. The collection has been described in terms of its Poundian influences, but it also marked the beginning of di Prima's contribution to the era’s cultural upheaval.

Di Prima quickly found herself at the heart of a hyperactive “cottage industry” that never stayed in the same place for long. In this setting, she proved highly influential in bringing together the integral components of the San Francisco Renaissance, including such writers as Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg. In 1961, she, Jones, and others organized the New York Poets Theater, and would later help establish the still-influential Poet’s Press.

Throughout the sixties, she edited The Floating Bear, made infamous for homoerotic and revolutionary content--a role for which she would eventually be prosecuted by the federal government. She also spent time living in the creative community of Harvard professor Timothy Leary, a transhumanist who popularized the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out."

When asked about the difficulty of working with writers and artists of such diverse backgrounds, di Prima replied that she focused solely on publishing the best poetry she could find: “what schools? I don’t know about schools.”  

An intensely personal kind of writing

Di Prima says that she never really felt at home in New York, where she “was always an exotic.” She wore red satin ballet slippers and comfortable clothing rather than the black dress and pump heels that were so in vogue. For this reason and others, she moved to San Francisco in 1968 where she “felt at home.” There, she became a practicing Buddhist and a student of the occult. The multidisciplinarity of her literary imagination thus gave birth to an incredibly unique independence of mind and an intensely personal kind of writing that has proven central to the legacy of the Beats.

In describing her methodology, di Prima declared, “very often I hear a poem and have to stop and write it.” Throughout her career, she would periodically become infatuated with an image for months or more until the accompanying words would come to her. Such passion was clearly evident in the sultry, ascetic poetry she delivered to the Stanford audience, by which it was impossible not to be moved. 

For di Prima, the line between literature and life has always been a blurry one. Both her writing and her life have become powerful touchstones for writers, pioneers, and radicals of all backgrounds.

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