In Memoriam: Diane di Prima

Diane di Prima
photo © Chris Felver

Diane di Prima (August 6, 1934 – October 25, 2020), poet, writer, playwright, activist, teacher, San Francisco Poet Laureate emeritus, and one of the foremost luminaries of the Beat Generation, passed away yesterday, October 25th, at the age of 86.

Not only was Diane a pioneering woman of the Beat Generation, but she bridged and transcended subsequent generations in her inexorable journey to live an authentic life. She was born in Brooklyn, and grew up in the Italian enclave of Carroll Gardens. While attending Hunter College High School, she and a circle of other girls, which included a young Audre Lorde, would meet before school to share their poetry. She spent two years at Swarthmore College before dropping out and moving to Greenwich Village to be a poet, where she became involved with the Beat Generation, and in 1958, published her first collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (Totem Press). Diane became a major figure on the scene; she co-founded the New York Poets Theatre, and edited the magazine The Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones.

The Floating Bear, Issue #23

Diane defied barriers in life as she did in her work. When she first came to San Francisco in 1961, at the behest of Michael McClure, she was a single mother of two children, Jeanne di Prima (by Stefan Baumrin) and Dominique di Prima (by Amiri Baraka, then LeRoi Jones). An ardent feminist, she wrote candidly, and often explicitly about sexuality, often vis-à-vis her own sexual adventures, and challenged contemporary attitudes about the role and autonomy of women, motherhood, race, and class. In Dinners and Nightmares and particularly in Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), the explicitness of her writing went well beyond that of her male Beat contemporaries. She was arrested in 1961 for publishing two poems in The Floating Bear, which authorities alleged were obscene, though the case was dismissed. 

Cover of John’s Book, with Diane pictured at center

She married poet/actor Alan Marlowe in 1962, with whom she had a son and daughter; Alexander and Tara Marlowe. In 1964, they founded Poets Press, publishing books by Herbert Huncke, Frank O’Hara, and Audre Lorde, along with her own work and Marlowe’s. The press embraced a do-it-yourself aesthetic. Writes Tate Swindell, “I attended an event at the Excelsior Library during her term as SF Poet Laureate where Diane passed around works she had published. As I drooled over Huncke’s Journal she stressed the importance of DIY—to not allow the perception of amateurish appearance to preclude one from releasing their work into the world.”

Cover of Revolutionary Letters with Di Prima’s signature

In 1967 she moved to California for good. Diane cites two major reasons for moving out west: one was to work with the Diggers, who were living out their anarchist, community-oriented ideals by helping to feed and shelter the heavy influx of runaways who arrived in the Haight during the Summer of Love. The other was to study Buddhism under Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Upon arriving in San Francisco, she stayed with poet Lenore Kandel. “Lenore was wonderful as the woman on the scene, the matriarch, and she made it so clear that I was welcome; otherwise, it could have been very different.” They found a 14-room house on Oak Street for $300 a month, which they rented, and moved into it “A whole slew of grown-ups, some of them crazy, some with children.” The Diggers used Diane’s VW van for food pickup and delivery to as many as 25 different communes. During this time she was writing lots of Revolutionary Letters, which went out via the Liberation News Service to underground newspapers around the country. Members of the White Panthers and Black Panthers were coming and going all the time, and by the fall of 1969, she says, the FBI was knocking on the door every day.

Her marriage with Marlowe didn’t last, and in 1973 they were divorced. She then married Grant Fisher, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, with whom she had a fifth child, Rudi di Prima. The family moved from the Haight to Mashall, in West Marin, leaving the chaos of the city for a house on stilts in Tomales Bay, where they lived for the next five years. During this period she completed her book-length epic Loba, which she revised multiple times over twenty years following its initial publication.

Diane di Prima at Bird & Beckett Books, 2014
photo © Tate Swindell

In 1978, Di Prima moved her family back to San Francisco, and began teaching poetics at New College of California, and later taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and later co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. For many years, she taught in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder.

In 2009, Di Prima was appointed Poet Laureate of San Francisco.

Throughout the corpus of Di Prima’s work is often the struggle wherein the social and the political are deeply personal; Diane’s life and work were inseparable from one another.

In her later years, Diane battled numerous struggles with her health, all the while continuing to write. 

Diane di Prima at Bird & Beckett Books, 2014
photo © Tate Swindell

“Diane was writing poems up to the day she died. Last summer I visited her at the S.F. Campus for Jewish Living—with fellow poet Neeli Cherkovski—and Diane was writing as we showed up. She was excited for her forthcoming book from City Lights, and equally enthusiastic about the poems she was writing. We are fortunate that her partner, Sheppard Powell, recorded so many performances. Her impact is far and wide with seeds and beacons of light as guides towards sukha.” –Tate Swindell

Rest in peace, Diane di Prima.

Editor’s note: We’ve reached out to several of Diane’s friends and colleagues for their thoughts and reflections upon her passing, and we expect to hear more in the coming days. This article will be updated accordingly.

On Diane di Prima

by Alan Kaufman

Of course, I knew of Diane di Prima before I ever came to San Francisco. Through a brilliant outpouring of poetry and prose, in such books as Memoirs of a Beatnik, Revolutionary Letters, Recollections Of My Life As A Woman, and LOBA, she became one of the few Women who attained canonization in the largely male Beat cosmos.

When we met in 1990, reading together onstage in San Francisco’s Mission District, we liked each other immediately. She was beautiful, and literary brilliance apart, I was always a little in love with her. She was so present, so connective, so aware. She made you feel totally alive.

I included Diane prominently in my anthology, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, which is now in its twentieth printing and has sold over 100,000 copies. In 1994, I featured Diane and her daughter, Dominique, in Wordland, a monthly massive literary show held in the auditorium of San Francisco’s Women’s Building. Before an audience of 400, Diane and Dominique performed a mother-daughter trade-off of poetry and rap lyrics that brought the audience to its feet, dancing. Mother and daughter were featured in a San Francisco Chronicle article about the event.A few years ago, I conducted a full-length interview with Diane before audience at San Francisco’s famed Mechanics Institute Library. In the talk, she revealed that during the Nineteen Sixties, while living with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), she had smuggled guns from her NYC-based bookshop to assist West Coast revolutionaries. The girl meant business.

Yet, Diane was pure. Deeply aware of the material and political corruption all around, her Diane had little patience for compromised decency. Her way was to write, to teach, to act, while holding fast to the values of tolerance and spiritual, political and cultural risk-taking by which she declared herself in great poetry and prose to be a champion of freedom and a defender of the human heart.

 In time, she became a Zen Buddhist. She was, to the last, truly Beat in the sense that Jack Kerouac meant: not downtrodden or spiritually defeated but rather angelically possessed of innate human transcendence.

–Alan Kaufman