‘Mag­ick’ mother

At 82, Beat Gen­er­a­tion poet Diane di Prima still po­si­tions her­self as cre­ator and nur­turer — of­ten at the same time — in work that con­nects an­cient and modern myths

The Washington Post Sunday - - DRIVING THE BEAT ROAD - BY JEFF WEISS IN SAN FRAN­CISCO PART 3 OF 5

IIn­side this over­flow­ing apart­ment in the outer rung of the Mis­sion District, you’ll find Diane di Prima and her part­ner, Shep­pard Pow­ell. And also the ghost of Bur­roughs. Over the last sev­eral months, the two cor­po­real res­i­dents have care­fully read the col­lected works of their late friend aloud. These in­ad­ver­tent seances for the author of “Naked Lunch” have led them to call him “our in­vis­i­ble room­mate.”

Back when Bur­roughs was alive, di Prima’s dis­arm­ing charm forced him to aban­don his in­fa­mously stoic ve­neer.

“He was a thou­sand peo­ple, but there were two that I saw all the time. The cyn­i­cal tough-talk­ing guy, and the other [Bill] who showed me the ma­chine he used to heal his cats,” di Prima, 82, says, re­cum­bent in bed, wear­ing a red silk gown.

“The ma­chine was based on the 19th-cen­tury the­ory of pulling en­ergy out of the air. You need an an­tenna, a clamp and the pic­ture of what you want to heal,” the Brook­lyn-born poet con­tin­ues. “He said it’s much eas­ier to heal cats than heal peo­ple — be­cause cats don’t put up any re­sis­tance.”

Vis­it­ing di Prima feels like meet­ing the Or­a­cle in “The Ma­trix.” She’s propped up by pil­lows, par­tially de­bil­i­tated by arthri­tis, steno­sis and Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

The trea­sons of time have taken many of her teeth, made walk­ing dif­fi­cult and com­pressed her stature to slightly less than 5 feet. Her once waist-length, curly red locks have been re­placed with a short, am­ber trim. Her eyes re­main a stark blue-black — in­quis­i­tive, alert and in­ca­pable of dim­ming.

The for­mer San Fran­cisco poet lau­re­ate can still con­jure rev­e­la­tory anec­dotes about nearly ev­ery per­son in Beat lore. Many are con­tained in her twin mem­oirs, the semi-fic­tional “Mem­oirs of a Beat­nik” (1968) and the fear­less self-ex­am­i­na­tion of “Recol­lec­tions of My Life As a Woman” (2001). Pub­lished at the height of the hip­pie as­cen­sion, the for­mer’s raw, om­niv­o­rous sex­u­al­ity — com­plete with an orgy scene in­volv­ing Allen Gins­berg and Jack Ker­ouac — makes Lena Dun­ham’s work look like “My Lit­tle Pony.”

“Recol­lec­tions” con­tains a less li­cen­tious retelling of a Lower East Side Beat party. Weed or­bited and wine flowed, but when di Prima an­nounced at 11:30 that she was re­turn­ing home to re­lieve her daugh­ter’s babysit­ter, Ker­ouac thun­dered, “DI PRIMA, UN­LESS YOU FOR­GET ABOUT YOUR BABYSIT­TER, YOU’RE NEVER GO­ING TO BE A WRITER.”

I ask di Prima if she con­sid­ers this direct ev­i­dence of Beat sex­ism, one of many mi­nor ag­gres­sions en­dured. She shakes her head and slightly laughs.

“Jack wanted me to hang out be­cause ev­ery­one was gay and I was straight,” di Prima de­murs. “He was prob­a­bly hop­ing to get laid later.”

Ker­ouac’s sen­ti­ment, nonethe­less, seems par­tic­u­larly ab­surd in the present. Di Prima is the author of more than 40 vol­umes of po­ems, prose and stage plays, co-founded the New York Poet’s Theatre, op­er­ated her own in­de­pen­dent press and ran the cel­e­brated Float­ing Bear lit­er­ary jour­nal along­side her then-clan­des­tine lover, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka.) In 1961, the FBI ar­rested both for “send­ing ob­scene ma­te­rial through the mail.” A grand jury failed to in­dict them, but she in­curred mas­sive le­gal debts.

Upon mov­ing to San Fran­cisco in 1968, di Prima helped or­ga­nize the Dig­gers — com­mu­nity ac­tivists and oc­ca­sional mimes — into a char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tion that helped feed the hun­gry in Haight-Ash­bury. At the Band’s “Last Waltz” con­cert, she read a one-line poem called “Get Yer Cut Throat off My Knife.” Michael McClure de­scribes di Prima as the “best liv­ing poet in Amer­ica.”

“Read a lot,” is her ad­vice to writ­ers. “Read out loud a lot. If there’s some­thing that you’ve writ­ten that both­ers you . . . some­times I’d read into a tape ma­chine. I wouldn’t lis­ten hard; I’d would put it on in the back­ground while I was do­ing things,” di Prima con­tin­ues, of­fer­ing strate­gies dis­pensed dur­ing in­nu­mer­able lec­tures at the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts, the New Col­lege of Cal­i­for­nia, the Jack Ker­ouac School of Disem­bod­ied Poet­ics at Naropa Univer­sity, Columbia Col­lege and pri­vate cour­ses of­fered in her home.

“My sub­con­scious would tell my mind to catch where the poem had fallen down,” she says. “You’re just re­ceiv­ing the poem, and there are in­evitably go­ing to be places where your at­ten­tion breaks or you reach for a word and can hear the rhythm of it but it’s not there. Some­times I’d write in a sub­sti­tute, and fix it later.”

If mothers are our first teach­ers, di Prima em­bod­ies the am­ni­otic and in­struc­tional spir­its of both. Her five chil­dren fig­ure heav­ily in her work, as does the mythol­ogy of mother­hood, whether in an­i­mal or hu­man form. Her po­ems can be star­tlingly em­pa­thetic or fiercely barbed, si­mul­ta­ne­ously ro­man­tic and re­al­ist, in­vok­ing im­agery that jux­ta­poses pa­gan, Bud­dhist and com­mu­nal an­ar­chism. She penned the bril­liant “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Let­ters,” a guide to weath­er­ing the bru­tal lu­nacy of the late ’60s;” the epic “Loba,” hailed as a fem­i­nist ana­logue to “Howl;” and “Brass Fur­nace Go­ing Out,” in which she com­muned with the soul of her aborted child.

The or­phic trans­mis­sions con­tinue un­abated. Sev­eral note­books sur­round her, con­tain­ing shak­ily scrawled sketches of dreams, vivid mem­o­ries, phrases and po­ems. They’re nes­tled along­side pens, books, paper clips, rub­ber bands, home­o­pathic vials, a Blue Shield med­i­cal brochure, yel­low cylin­dri­cal pill bot­tles and mis­cel­la­neous Bud­dhist decor. There’s a TV but it’s only turned on for San Fran­cisco Giants games.

More than 120 pages are writ­ten for a se­cond vol­ume of mem­oirs, but arthri­tis and stamina lim­i­ta­tions have sti­fled progress. It’ll have to be dic­tated and struc­tured in short bursts, but she hopes to re­sume soon. Her lat­est project reimag­ines the verse of Sap­pho, the bi­sex­ual po­et­ess from the 6th cen­tury B.C.

“I wasn’t try­ing to trans­late it so much as see what hap­pens. I’d read some­thing and see if it evoked any­thing. As time went on, it felt like Sap­pho was talk­ing to me,” di Prima says. “One I re­mem­ber was, “love has taken the sword out of my hand.” That’s the whole poem.”

As the work evolved, Aphrodite added her­self to the cho­rus, and di Prima be­gan writ­ing hymns equat­ing modern Amer­ica with the an­cient god­dess.

“I promised Aphrodite that I would re­new her wor­ship in this age,” di Prima adds. “I want her to say what she wants in this weird world.”

It’s easy to in­stinc­tively dis­miss this as over­ripe Cal­i­for­nia oc­cultism. But that per­cep­tion shifts in the same room as her. Di Prima’s writ­ing is re­plete with the be­lief in the prop­er­ties of “mag­ick.” Not like broom­sticks and eye of newt, but a way of ac­count­ing for in­ex­pli­ca­ble in­tu­ition, gaps in logic, the tarot dreams be­holden to a few. Di Prima is one such rar­ity: a con­duc­tor of benev­o­lent spells, a nat­u­ral-born Gnos­tic, an an­tenna for ar­cane prophe­cies.

Her frail con­di­tion forces you to face the ex­is­ten­tial dis­so­nance be­tween eter­nal time and the tem­po­ral rav­ages await­ing all of us. There is that di­a­mond in­fin­ity where di Prima ex­ists as she did in those mem­oirs and on their cov­ers: mys­te­ri­ous, brood­ing and car­nal. Bet­ter than the men, and an ob­ject of per­ma­nent al­lure. There’s also the present where mere sur­vival re­quires tremen­dous will. In a way, it al­ways has.

As for the Beats, she al­ways saw them as less of a lit­er­ary coven and more as a node of free thinkers who ex­isted within a long his­tor­i­cal con­tin­uum — a state of mind con­stantly push­ing the en­ve­lope. At the re­quest of Pow­ell, di Prima reads from “Keep the Beat,” one of her po­ems that can ex­plain things bet­ter than any ex­tem­po­ra­ne­ous re­sponse to an over-asked ques­tion:

“It’s not a gen­er­a­tion . . . It’s a state of mind . . . a way of liv­ing, gone on for cen­turies, a way of writ­ing, too.”

She pauses to put on a pair of bul­let­proof black glasses.

“Beat po­etry is older than the Grove of Academe . . . . It’s one of the ways that Diony­sus prays. I know for sure it’s not a gen­er­a­tion. Not once, one time, one coun­try.”

If the sur­viv­ing male po­ets fore­see a bleak fu­ture, di Prima is more san­guine. She points to the Oc­cupy and Black Lives Mat­ter move­ments as ev­i­dence of a healthy re­sis­tance, but notes that she ex­pected more progress in terms of racial, gen­der and sex­ual tol­er­ance.

“I thought we’d be way more civ­i­lized,” she ad­mits. “But I love how the var­i­ous lines be­tween women and men are fad­ing. I think we’re all nat­u­rally bi­sex­ual and the world should just re­lax and not put la­bels on ev­ery­thing. We don’t know who we are or where we’re go­ing. Just like I don’t know what the poem is go­ing to say un­til it writes it­self.”

FRED W. MCDARRAH/GETTY IM­AGES

ABOVE: Sit­ting atop a pi­ano, Diane di Prima reads from her first po­etry col­lec­tion, “This Kind of Bird Flies Back­ward,” in 1959 at the Gas Light Cafe in Man­hat­tan’s Green­wich Vil­lage. Firmly en­trenched with her own lit­er­ary of­fer­ings, the for­mer San Fran­cisco poet lau­re­ate can still con­jure rev­e­la­tory anec­dotes about nearly ev­ery per­son in Beat lore.

FRED W. MCDARRAH/GETTY IM­AGES

Po­ets LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) and Diane di Prima sit to­gether in 1960 in a booth at the Cedar Tav­ern in Man­hat­tan’s Green­wich Vil­lage. The fol­low­ing year, the pair would launch the Float­ing Bear, their mimeo magazine.

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