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Poets should ride the bus: on Diane di Prima (1934-2020)

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“....even the poorest of us

will have to give up something to live free” 

Revolutionary Letter #17

Like the teenaged Diane di Prima, I have a lot of feelings about Keats. It was amidst the restless teenage chatter of a stuffy classroom that I first poured over Endymion. In a year that has seen poetry relegated within the GCSE syllabus to “optional status”, it's difficult to overstate the lifelong reverberations of stumbling across the right poet at the right age. It’s an event that can feel like a personalized planetary alignment. A single poem in an assigned anthology can initiate fevered hours in libraries and the private nooks of bedrooms. My own taste was developed through these introductions. I bought precious, slim volumes with my Education Maintenance Allowance — another austerity-ravaged relic of my youth. To my surprise, I discovered that Keats had abandoned a dalliance with a medical career for poetry. All dutiful children of immigrants can recognize this painful bind between familial expectation and creative fulfillment. I could relate, and I did so enthusiastically. Diane di Prima spoke of her “séance relationship” with Keats, one which began when she was thirteen and only deepened with age. Upon reading the English Romantic’s letters, she would wonder why people bothered to write philosophy when they could write poetry instead.

Keats himself  was savaged by the conservative journals of his day as a vulgarly sentimental, jumped-up Londoner from lowly origins. "It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet", one critic infamously snarked. As far as I was concerned, these barbs only reflected honourably on Keats and anyone who held him dear. In an 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse, Keats characterized the poet as “the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures”. A poet has no identity, he declared. A poet must wear their subjectivity as lightly as possible, humbly serving as a vessel for keenly observed experience. No identity. No nature. Self-annihilation in the service of the poetic ideal. Such effacement is easier said than done. Harder still to figure out how to live, and survive, a poet’s life. There are templates, furrowed paths and chosen pantheons. To me and so many others, di Prima offered something better; a devotion to alternatives. A week ago, I rose to a text from a friend — a lone black heart emoji accompanied by a screenshot of Revolutionary Letter #17. My friend had spent the night of di Prima’s passing revisiting this letter, amongst countless others.

Revolutionary Letters began as a guttural bullhorn-aided performance from the back of a flatbed truck. Disseminated through the potently international network of underground presses, di Prima’s series of poems sublimated the discontent of long hot summers and regular betrayals. The letters were written throughout the late ‘60s, with di Prima mailing them to Liberation News Service and performing on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press spruced them up into a 1971 first edition, published in the Pocket Poets series that also included a raft of Beat compatriots such as Bob Kaufman and Gregory Corso. In Revolutionary Letter #61’, di Prima invokes a litany of political prisoners; flamingoes dying in Phoenix tourist parks, bored school children, housewives, Soledad brothers, Joan of Arc, and the seven million starving in Pakistan. Free them. Free yourself. Help to free me. Her refrains rattle in the mind long after they are recited. Each letter throbs with a refractory power, blinding us with the gap between our revolutionary fervour and the actual gristle of our desires. All the works of Mozart do not amount to one human life, di Prima states, and insists upon, what should be obvious. Writing against the murderous regime of resource extraction fertilising the greenery of suburbs and college lawns, her poems prod at our callous investment in the fruits of our own suffering.

 “If what you want is jobs for everyone, you are still the enemy,

you have not thought thru, clearly

what that means”

Revolutionary Letter #19

Capital’s seesawing grind renders all poems unfinished. Under these stultifying conditions, we write to the best of our ability, envisioning the kind of poems we could write outside its stranglehold. We don’t know what these poems will be like, or if they will even be recognizable as poems. But we can be sure that they will owe much to Di Prima’s stirringly generous corpus and being. Brooklyn-born to a first-generation Italian-American family, di Prima slipped between many registers; Wall Street file clerk, electronics lab worker, street actor, teacher, wolf-mother, publisher, psychic, healer, poet laureate. Dropping out of college when the Rosenbergs were executed, she fell into poetry and would grow increasingly prolific, even co-founding a press that published Audre Lorde’s first books (who incidentally attended the same high school as di Prima). 

She immersed herself, but always rose above, the coastal coteries of Greenwich Village beatniks and Haight-Ashbury flower children. Memoirs of a Beatnik, as well as decades of writings, voluptuously reveal this confluence of friendships and varying commitments. Sunday breakfasts with Frank O’Hara. Rehearsals with Cecil Taylor. A stop at Timothy Leary’s psychedelic commune. In New York, di Prima co-founded The Floating Bear — a  literary mimeograph — alongside Leroi Jones. The Floating Bear would trigger the arrest of the two lovers and their collaborators by the FBI under trumped-up obscenity charges.  Then Malcolm X was killed. Leroi would become Amiri, and di Prima would raise their daughter.

How do we know our friends from our enemies? Baraka had his own clues: “Only by what they do. Who they hold onto, who they fight for and support, who they help, who they feed in the storm, whose side they’re on.” In San Francisco, di Prima peeled potatoes and distributed food with the Diggers. Her circles teemed with “Panthers, Zennies, out-riders and rebels of all sorts”. She embraced alterity as the ideal vantage point from which to observe, build, and live. This period’s poems remain shards of clarity, cutting against political pageantry and obfuscation. She knew what and who we were up against. Hers was the kind of deadly serious poetry that terrifies unserious poets into febrile bouts of necessary self-reflection.

If, as Ruth Forman writes, poetry should ride the bus, then so should poets. Forman’s poets carry Safeway bags and massage tired scalps to red revolution love songs. For di Prima, “there is no way you can not have a poetics”. Plumbers, bakers, teachers, and warmongers all construct their own poetics. These are our varied and vertiginous cosmogonies. On this terrain, the forever war against the imagination rages. The famine of political hope is ongoing, and di Prima rallied against this grinding defeatism with poems, spells, street theatre, rants, and eroticism. In 1961, she added her name to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee-associated A Declaration of Conscience by American Artists and Writers, denouncing the Cold War’s “process of suppression and regimentation of American life” while affirming the Cuban people’s right to “determine their own destiny without intervention from the United States government.” Later, writing from the context of Nixon and napalm-soaked imperialism, she captured the truth of her epoch; that we die everyday for the lack of alternatives.

“If you do not come apart like bread

      in her hands, she falls

    like steel on your heart.”

 Loba, Part I

Excluded from anthologies and sidelined in her early career, di Prima was often contrasted as the prominent feminist conscience to the bro-ish Beat Generation. But works like Loba, an epic inspired by a wolf that appeared to di Prima in a dream, are singular and deliciously mercurial. Loba’s first part was published in 1978, and di Prima continued to expand its universe in subsequent decades. The feminine dances between the beastly and sacred, with its own gallery of usual suspects; suckling she-wolf, sphinx, Lillith, Great Mother, Ishtar, Julian of Norwich, blue-faced Kali with her lolling tongue, mistresses of a Carterian world of “sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair”.

Momtaza Mehri is a poet and independent researcher. Her latest pamphlet, ​Doing the Most with the Least​, was published by Goldsmiths Press in 2019.