The Poetry Project

Remembering Diane di Prima

Iris Cushing

Diane di Prima at The Poetry Project, October 1986

Since learning of Diane di Prima’s passing a week ago, I’ve started a daily practice of bibliomancy using one of Diane’s books. Dinners and Nightmares, Revolutionary Letters, Loba, Pieces of a Song: I hold one of these books in my hands, close my eyes and place the soles of my feet on the floor, touching body to Earth, two primary teachers, as a preliminary to listening for her voice, a third foundational teacher. I breathe and wait for the moment I know to turn the pages, letting my fingers stop at an ineffable point of clarity and warmth. Then, I read the page, listening to the language in Diane’s sure tone, and consider the words a guide for the day ahead.

This sort of homemade divination feels just right for honoring the life of a poet who listened, insistently and courageously, for information from invisible sources. Diane di Prima committed herself to poetry at age 14, and began in her teenage years to establish lines of direct communication with poets both living (such as her friend and schoolmate Audre Lorde, and the controversial modernist Ezra Pound) and not (such as John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley). Poetic friendship was paramount for di Prima, and this included offering herself as a medium to receive guidance from friends, like the Romantics, who had lived long before. Her friendships in this plane of existence were enormously consequential. With Amiri Baraka, she founded and co-edited the Floating Bear poetry newsletter; with Fred Herko, George Herms and James Waring, she created the New York Poets Theatre and staged one-act plays by poets in the East Village throughout the early 1960s. She published many collections of poetry with her Poets Press, including the first books of David Henderson and Audre Lorde. After leaving New York, she continued to innovate in the realms of political activism, mysticism, and spiritual practice, often among friends, often on her own. She taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, and pioneered the mystically-oriented Masters in Poetics program at the New College of California. She unraveled two open-ended poetic epics, Loba and Revolutionary Letters, and wrote a sweeping memoir of her early life, Recollections of My Life as a Woman. Through all of these workings (and many more) she studied and wrote steadfastly, always pushing further into the frontiers of what it’s possible to know.

Earlier today I performed my bibliomancy practice with Revolutionary Letters, and found myself reading Revolutionary Letter #12:

The vortex of creation is the vortex of destruction
The vortex of artistic creation is the vortex of self destruction
The vortex of political creation is the vortex of flesh destruction
                  Flesh is in the fire, it curls and terribly warps
                  Fat is in the fire, it drips and sizzling sings
                  Bones are in the fire
                          They crack tellingly in
                          Subtle hieroglyphs of oracle
                  Charcoal singed
                  The smell of your burning hair
For every revolutionary must at last will his own destruction
Rooted as he is in the past he sets out to destroy

Diane wrote these words at the end of the 1960s, as the war in Vietnam plodded on, destroying lives and leaving millions irreparably damaged while activating a new generation of anti-war revolutionaries. She was living in San Francisco, a single mother of four children, gathering food and preparing meals with the Diggers to be given away for free in the city’s parks and public squares. Reading her invocation of burning bodies, I think of the Vietnamese Buddhist nuns and monks who self-immolated in protest of the US-backed military junta there; I think of the witches of Salem, of Joan of Arc, and of all of the revolutionaries throughout history who have metaphorically burned in the crucibles of transformation between worlds. I think of Diane carving out a life for herself in a new city that she would end up calling home for 50 years, living in community, committed to a life of mutual aid. Studying Zen Buddhism with Shunryu Suzuki, burning her ego in the crucible of dawn zazen. Collaborating with poets, activists and artists. In those early San Francisco years, she found numerous ingenious ways to support herself and her family (“the vortex of artistic creation”)—among them was the composition of an erotic novel, Memoirs of a Beatnik, which she wrote on a series of generous-for-1968 advances from Maurice Girodias’ Olympic Press. I picture her in her study, hands on the typewriter, children playing in another room, writing a Revolutionary Letter (such as #12) before putting Miles Davis’ “Walkin’” on the turntable and diving into a chapter of her erotic novel. Moving freely from one vortex to another.

Memoirs of a Beatnik was the first book of Diane’s that I read, having found it (to my utter delight) on my mother’s bookshelf when I was 12. I stole the book, read it backwards and forwards, and never gave it back. After I’d gotten over the sex parts, I fell in love with the vision of female autonomy—sexual, intellectual and otherwise—that Memoirs presents. The book takes place in New York in the 1950s, and details the daily adventures of a young poet (named Diane di Prima) as she moves through Greenwich Village cafés, lofts and coldwater flats. She has a lot of sex, yes, but always returns in solitude to the primacy of her imagination. She reads and writes poems, and insists on placing poetry at the center of her universe. Diane’s pithy sentences got under my skin. I began attempting to write prose like hers. The very idea of a sexually-empowered poet who writes frankly and beautifully about the whole spectrum of her experience became utterly essential to me. It showed me a way.

Years later, when I realized that Diane di Prima was more than just the author of Memoirs of a Beatnik, I learned that the novel was just that: a work of fiction, albeit with some autobiographical elements. I learned that, in real life, she’d been a central and rare female figure in the Beat movement, and had gone on to have a life after the Beat years that can rightly be described as heroic. Most fortuitously, I learned that she was alive and well and living in San Francisco. As I was getting into Buddhist practice myself, I learned that Diane was a longtime student of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and had written extensively on her experience. I began to read everything of Diane’s I could find, only to find that there always seemed to be more—more work on the Romantics, on hermetic secrets, on alchemy, on revolution. The unadorned language I’d fallen in love with in Memoirs of a Beatnik pervaded and moved through endless modes of poesis in Diane’s work.

In April of 2014, Ammiel Alcalay, my mentor at the CUNY Graduate Center, gave me Diane’s phone number. I called her while on spring break in San Francisco and was amazed when she returned my call and invited me over to her apartment. That day was the start of a remarkable relationship, one unlike any relationship I’ve ever had. It was a spiritual apprenticeship. I returned to San Francisco regularly for several years to meet with Diane, read her unpublished writings and discuss them with her, and talk with her about her life and thinking. I recall very vividly the mornings when I’d arrive at her house and find her wonderful husband, Sheppard Powell, administering her eye drops. I’d sit beside her bed while Diane, eyes closed, spoke Tibetan chants with Sheppard before a thangka painting of a green Tara. Later on, we might discuss details from her memoir Grail is a Green Stone, or her methods for reaching out to talk with Mary Shelley for insight into the last days of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s life.

The last time I saw Diane, I was grappling with a dilemma. I wanted to have a child, but I felt that the world had become irredeemably ugly and frightening, and having a child would only make the world worse. I sat beside Diane’s bed while she ate vanilla ice cream and swallowed her pills, and explained my dilemma to her. She said something to the effect of, “well, if you really believe that the world is an awful place, don’t have a child. But you know, we make our own reality. You have the power to change your believing system. Identify what it is that you find so ugly about the world, and vow to work to change it. Work every day. Have a child, and work so that your child can see what you’re doing.” We make our own reality. The conversation was profoundly clarifying for me, like most of my conversations with Diane. As it happens, I gave birth to my son about ten months later, in the month of August, the same month that Diane was born.

The vortex of creation is the vortex of destruction. There’s so much to listen for, so much to make, and I know I’m only beginning to understand the essential role that Diane di Prima plays in my own reality. My gratitude for her life--for her writing, for her work, for her friendship—is overwhelming, so much so that I have to return to the plain act of stopping, listening to my breath, and finding a poem of hers as a guide forward. Thank you, Diane.

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