Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. She lived and wrote in Manhattan for many years, where she became known as an important writer of the Beat movement. For the past thirty years she has lived and worked in northern California, and currently lives in San Francisco. She is the author of 32 books of poetry and prose, including Pieces of a Song (City Lights, 1990) and Seminary Poems (Floating Island Press, 1991).
How and when did you begin writing? I started writing when I was seven. At fourteen I knew I was going to be a poet. I wrote every day. I always knew you just had to let the thing come through you. I went to a very intellectual school for girls in New York City, ’48-’51. About eight of us came in early each day to read to each other what we had written the night before. Reading Keats, when I was thirteen or fourteen, was the first time when the poetic came at me, it was something I could take away, a complete theory of poetics, in the letters.
I published my first book in about ’58, it was called This Kind of Bird flies Backward. This was during a period when I was working very much on how much you could take out and have a really clean line, a very simple poem. That was from around ’53 when I dropped out of college until around ’60. I was trying to find the cleanest line that retained a lyric sense. It seems to me that that was the only time that I was writing in anything similar to a Beat voice. I’m still known as a Beat writer, whatever the hell that means. After that period, in the Calculus of Variation, I was really trying to follow the movement of the mind. Philip Whalen, in a statement on poetics, said poetry is the graph of the moving mind. My work came through me, I didn’t revise it a lot. I try to respect the original form of the poem. It can be important to leave the imperfections; they can make a way inside for the reader. As Keats said, poetry should come out as easily as leaves to the tree, or it had better not come at all.
It sounds a Zen-like point of view. Yeah, it is. Also in Abstract Expressionism, their interest in the gestural and so on. You have at the same time this vast view and an intimacy that that poised sort of gesture makes in the piece.
You describe the ‘clean line’, removing as much as you can, as in Occam’s razor. Was that the influence of the Imagists? No, it wasn’t consciously Imagist. It was more influenced by Matisse. A book of his line drawings came out around ’52. And I noticed that there were very few lines in them; they even implied colour, not only three-dimensional shapes. There was a feeling the eye was tricked for a moment and there was colour there. I was very interested in how little you could use to imply how much. And I spent several years on that but what happens is that when you’ve really learned a technique you incorporate it so that later you’re using it automatically. Then there were those years when I worked on what exactly is going on as the mind moves in those poems. That was a very internal exploration. After that there was a period when I was working externally. I began to write the Revolutionary Letters and be very active out here. The feeling was that up to that point there had been no way to be active. Because the world was too repressive. Until the late sixties. I moved out here and worked with the Diggers, and wrote the Revolutionary Letters, a lot to be performed on the street. In fact they were started because in New York a friend, another poet named Sam Abrams had rented a flat-bed truck and we were going out with a generator and a microphone, people were singing political folk songs, people were doing guerrilla theatre. Most of my poetry was too intellectual when I tried to read it on the street. So I wrote the Revolutionary Letters almost as theatre, as street theatre. And that kind of worked. But it was concomitant with other things happening. When I was writing the Revolutionary Letters I was also beginning Loba. You’re entering one kind of work but you’re still doing another kind of work at the same time.
Your writing was too intellectual for the street? Well for instance I had a poem called Lamumba Lives. But by ’68 the people on the street didn’t remember who Lamumba was. He was the Socialist head of the Belgian Congo, who was killed in, I believe, an airplane crash. There’s been proof that the CIA was involved in his death. At that point we put in the guy who ran Zaire until about two months ago. And the guy who’s now running Zaire was one of Lamumba’s lieutenants or something. Four years after his death nobody knew what I was talking about. You had to write direct, simple poems, like my first Revolutionary Letters, when I had just realised the stakes are myself; I have no other ransom money, nothing to barter but my life. People can hear that, they understand that. The first couple weren’t written with guerrilla theatre in mind, but by the time I had found that voice and done two then the flat-bed truck came along, the assassinations were happening, the year of Martin Luther King’s death and so on, so between the opportunity to perform on the street and what was going on they just got written. I was also out there on the steps of City Hall with Peter Coyote – he was in the Diggers. They were a revolutionary political movement. They had a slogan ‘1% free’, trying to get one per-cent of the profits from all the stores in town to contribute. They were occupying buildings and giving them to the neighbourhoods. They were getting City Hall to turn over empty city-owned properties. Free food was distributed 3 times a week, which my household was in charge of. We would pick up the food that the market people wanted to give us and delivered it to 25 communes. This was happening around San Francisco – that’s part of why I left New York.
So from the meditative phase, if I can call it that, to the activist phase. Was that a concomitant of the move West? Well moving West was for two reasons. One of them was meditative and one was active. It was to study with Suzuki who started the Zen centre here. And the other was to work with the Diggers. So it wasn’t one or the other, it was both at once.
Did something click: the time came to be active? Well it wasn’t that the time came, I was always willing to be active but there was no real way to do it more than be reactive in the ’50s – not letting the FBI in when they came to your door looking for someone was as active as you could get. There was no real way to get out there with any kind of message. Then, at the same time that I was writing the Revolutionary Letters I began Loba, so it wasn’t really either/or. The Revolutionary Letters had been going about two to three years when Loba began and interestingly the introductory poem to Loba is a kind of poem in praise of all these wandering street women in the world. And that led into the love poems, some of which are very much about political consciousness, about prostitutes in my neighbourhood, and that kind of thing. This is all through Loba. In Loba both are encompassed but there isn’t an either/or about meditative or not.
Did other poets inspire you at that time, or was it, for example, the political circumstances, or paintings? You have to go back and realise that my mother’s father was an anarchist from southern Italy and a friend of people like Carlo Tresca, an anarchist in New York who was killed by the Mafia. He had an Italian anarchist newspaper in New York that my mother’s father wrote for. So I took that in when I was between about one and six years old. I spent a lot of time with him and learned his anarchist values. So I always had a totally wild point of view; and then of course being Italian-American during World War Two gave you not necessarily anything specific but a general dubiousness about what was being said and whether it was true or not, about what was being said by the papers, about what history tells. Who writes the history? So I grew up in that kind of world and from the time I was eighteen and went to college there was always trouble in the world that I was face to face with, like the Cold War going crazy. A friend of mine’s boyfriend had been left here by his Yugoslavian father. His father was recalled – he was a cultural emissary here – recalled by Tito, and the father was afraid to bring the son back. The father was imprisoned and killed. We found ourselves in the position of having to hide his son. The FBI decided he was a communist spy. I’m talking about being eighteen and being in this position: being on my own for the first time in an apartment and having the FBI at the door. It was a constant thing. I was very aware, I knew exactly where I was, when I got the news that the Rosenbergs had been executed. There was always the feeling, you were always doing stuff quietly. Hiding people. And everyone was using dope. The whole world was a little bit off.
So you were very much out away from the centre of things, certainly in political terms. And was that true of the poets who inspired you? Well, in the early period there was Keats and then there was Pound. And I had made friends with Allen Ginsberg in ’56, when his book Howl came out. I was writing the same kind of street language. That was the period when I was taking all the extra words out, his poems were also in the vernacular, in the hip vernacular that I was writing and I was interested in what he was doing because on the East Coast I was reaching a lot of opposition about “you can’t write in the vernacular and get published.” So, since I was already doing it I felt this kindred thing and I reached out and wrote him and Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti wrote the introduction to my first book.
Did you feel that certain aspects of what you were doing were also ‘Beat’? Well, there was no such thing as Beat in the 50s, in the time we’re talking about; that all came later, the word came later. What I felt was: Oh good; other people are writing in the vernacular that I knew. This was very interesting. It was very important, the language we were speaking. But we weren’t calling ourselves Beats, we never heard of Beat, just like Buddha never heard of Buddhism, as somebody said. There are all these debates; John Clellon Holmes said he invented it, the guy who wrote the novel Go. Then Kerouac said he invented it. Who knows. It’s one of those words. There are a lot of meanings to it that they’ve attached, like beatitude and so on. We didn’t think of ourselves as a movement. We were people writing. In the re-writing of history that happens with hindsight, we became a movement. I was interested in the fact that other people were writing in what we were calling still slang and getting stuff published and I wanted to be in touch with them; so it was something I was very interested in. I was very aware of early French poetry, and people were still reading that, even though they didn’t know the meaning of a lot of the words. The argument on the East Coast was: you can’t write slang because in ten years nobody will know what you were talking about. Well of course it’s forty years later and people are still reading it.
Was there a political motivation in writing with the street vernacular? No, it was the beauty of that language … and the precision. The political motivation was so ingrained in me that I wouldn’t even have thought of it as being a separate step.
Do you think it was the same for Ginsberg and the others? I don’t know, I don’t think so. Because when Allen talked about those years, he sounded like his memory of them was more middle class and more protected than my memory was, it was only later that he became more radicalised, I think. I don’t think it happened quite as early. You see, he went on to be in college and he went on to have degrees. I dropped out. In my sophomore year I got an apartment on the lower east side in New York, which was pretty much all really poor Eastern European people.
Allen Ginsberg described you as being heroic in life and poetics. Is that how you feel about yourself? It depends on how you use the word ‘heroic’. In terms of larger than life as life is lived in the twentieth century, yes. I have a lot of trouble with the kind of poetic that underestimates human consciousness. I don’t particularly like tea-cup poetry. But it’s not about ego. It’s about writing poems whose subject matter and therefore forms evolve as the mind expands; but also some of my poetry, Loba, in particular, is mythic. It’s very long now, about 400 pages. It goes all the way back in time.
And what are your thoughts on Robert Creeley’s foreword to your selected poems, Pieces of a Song, in which he says, to paraphrase, “men give the world specific form, yet there is no-one there unless woman, the ‘other person’, is there as well”? I thought it was very much how Robert always saw me, what I was to him; and I was glad to be of use to him! I love him, you know, he’s a very deep man with, to me, a lot of sorrow, that maybe he wasn’t conscious of. We had a lovely relationship. I haven’t seen him much in ten, fifteen years. So, yes, that’s what he saw. But what he said was nonsense: the world gives the world specific form, which changes every minute; and we will always make of it what we will, what we can, men and women.
Do you feel part of any strand of women poets? I think of myself more as an artist and secondarily a woman’s voice – which made it possible to hang out with the guys, because it was mostly guys who were writing. Some women were writing that had a lot harder a time – I don’t mean in terms of getting published, but a lot of them had the belief that they should keep it all together for the men, keep the house. I never wanted to live with a man in those days. I wanted a child and I had one in ’57, my first child, but I didn’t want a man. I don’t think I even fell in love until I had the affair with Amiri Baraka which was in the ’60s. That obviously was not going to work as a way of life so I went on to other things. Now I have five children. But I was never looking for, nor was I looking to keep the world together for a man. I had kids, I had a very strong ethical feeling that I should try to keep it together for them.
These other – largely male – poets: did they respect your independent spirit? I think so because I never got much shit from any of them. There were few that even tried to come on. It was very much my choice when I had an affair. I rarely slept with writers. Too intellectual! Painters, musicians, dancers, but not writers!
Many of your poems are about people who have some kind of relationship to you – not necessarily an intimate relationship. Are people your main inspirations? I think that changes as your life goes on. When I was young, I think more. There was a period when I wrote a lot of what I call occasional verse, verse for people with birthdays, all kinds of personal stuff. Actually, it’s like wearing out a shoe, you get tired of it. Or, it goes away. It isn’t like you’re consciously tired of it, but you get to a place where the personal just doesn’t get into the poem very much. It just doesn’t. There are a lot of people now, a lot of young people, who are struggling with the idea that poetry shouldn’t be personal. But I think it has to be personal until it stops being personal. You wear that vein out; you’ve mined that, you’ve got what you can from it. But where there’s still an urgency to write a love lyric for example – and the whole of Loba is a love lyric – when it’s urgent to still write a personal love lyric… It’s ridiculous to say I should be writing impersonal poetry because that’s what the poetic theory of the time is dictating.
There seems to be a disjunction between poetry in the US and the UK. I try reading off some well known UK poets over here and nobody’s heard of them. How about Simon Armitage, Christopher Reid, Carol Ann Duffy..? I haven’t read any of them. There was a period when there was a lot of contact, British poets were coming here. People such as H.D., yes, but even in the early period of my writing time people like Tom Roberts. There was a lot of contact. And with Canada, which we don’t have now. I read in Toronto a lot, I read in Vancouver. A lot of poets came down here but that’s all broken up now.
Do you think it might be not just that the books aren’t getting over here but that there is an insularity in US poetry? There is an insularity, not only in America. It’s been encouraged by the media. Have you seen the San Francisco newspapers? Maybe one page of international news, and the rest about what the mayor wore yesterday. And, for instance, within San Francisco each group of writers is pretty much unto itself. The slam poets, the Latino poets, the Asian-American poets… It goes by the name of diversity and cultural identity but what it’s doing is encouraging people not to get together and talk to one another.
Imagine that you sent a package of American poetry to Britain. What would be in it? Definitely the poetry of Robert Duncan. One poem that comes to mind is Circulations of the Song – or maybe Ground Work as a whole. Some of the poetry of Frank O’Hara. I suppose I would put in Cottage of Allen’s, rather than Howl. Howl was terribly useful at the time but Cottage seems to me more deeply human. I would put parts of Maximus by Charles Olsen in there. And what about the women? You’d have to hear some Adrienne Rich, however that felt. She’s from another world, she’s more academic than me, but I love to read her. Then there’s H.D. The things of H.D. I’d put in would be the last three long works. Hermetic definition, and Helen in Egypt and Trilogy, especially Trilogy, the poem about being in the bombing in World War Two in England. I’d put in Chuck Berry, and the Blues. The Blues is very important. I don’t think you can make sense of poetry in America without someone like Miles, early Miles, and early-to-middle period Thelonius Monk. The line, the cadence and line and syncopation that they use, and the places where they would break up a phrase in the middle – that stuff is all part of the American poetic. Oh and I’d have to say that I’d put Philip Whalen in there, and also Michael McClure.
Is there anything else you would identify as being part of the American poetic spirit? For my generation, the abstract painters. The gestural. We were all pretty close in those days, we weren’t all friends but we were aware of each others work. We always wanted to hear jazz, and we would go to a painter’s place and hang out. It was much more interlocking. I think the commodification of painting, of music and the publishing scene is pathetic, it’s horrible. You can work with small presses, which I’ve done all my life, or you can work with mainstream press. I’m working with Viking and Penguin now for the first time in my life. It’s a complete disjuncture, two different worlds. And then there are the poets who just publish in the university presses. Regular bookstores won’t carry them, because the market is too small. So if you go to a regular bookstore you can’t find them. On every level there’s that sense of commodification and how much is it worth. And does it look just like everything else? Everybody’s prose has been reduced to being the same as everybody else’s prose.
You’ve mentioned Loba: what else are you working on now? I have just finished a long memoir called Recollections of My Life as a Woman.
When can we expect to see that? Well, probably ’99, because the editor turned it into regular prose. Now I’m turning it back into my prose, and that’s a long process. Everything that was a turn of phrase that came from Brooklyn/ Italian/ American speech he would turn into regular English. So I’m reversing his changes.
I’ve pretty much completed a manuscript called Death Poems for all Seasons. I’ve been running a workshop around the country called the Poetics of Loss. I started it because of the AIDS epidemic. I’m doing it because I feel that people need to be able to talk about not only death but loss in general. This is a country of vast denial. You’ve probably noticed. And we’re good out here compared to New York. In New York if you even talk about the past – not even about death, just the past – they’ll say why are you being so morbid. And LA’s like that too.
Does that extend to poetry as well? Richard Silberg said to me that it’s almost a tradition not to have a tradition in poetry over here. I would say that the fashion is not to have a tradition. Just like the fashion is not to write personal stuff, not to be emotional. The kids at the institute I taught in two years ago gave me a list of what was taboo to write about. Politics, sex, emotion, family background. Everything that counts! Right. I don’t know why they were bothering, why they wanted to write.
Finally, alchemical processes feature prominently in your work. What does alchemy mean to you, and how does it link to your poetry? Some of the most gorgeous texts in the world. It’s the science of transformation. There are laws of energy that pertain whether you are talking about metals or galaxies or human consciousness. There are energy laws of how things transmute from one thing to another. Those people who say that alchemy is all psychological, it’s all laboratory work, it’s all… are all right. But it’s not all any of those things. Those are all special cases of general laws, and it’s essentially those general laws to start with. I think they have been found, many times in the past, by adepts. I think they can be expressed but not necessarily in what we think of as the way words are normally used. In other words, I’m not interested in the purely descriptive, but in using words to evoke, or suggest things beyond that. So I think they can be expressed. In the way they were expressed say in the Hieroglyphic Monad by John Dee – which reads as if he was doing a text of geometric theorems like Euclid, but when you start getting under the surface you start to realise … reading an alchemy text is for me like reading language within language within language. And it’s also about what can’t be said outright and has to be encoded, and how that’s done – but not in any facile Language Poetry way. I guess I got caught because it’s so utterly beautiful. What happened to me was some guy in New York named Felix Mann had a press called University Books and he did a reprint of two volumes of Paracelsus that had been translated in the 19th century, and he asked me to write the introduction. So he lent me these books which were beautiful big, fat, red-covered India-paper volumes. It was about ’65. I was totally, utterly caught. I’ve been reading that stuff ever since. I haven’t done any laboratory work, but you can’t really do that stuff in The City!