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
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.”
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.
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.