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Diane di Prima - An Obituary

Diane di Prima – Poet, writer, artist

 Born August 6, 1934; died October 25, 2020 


 Diane di Prima, who has died aged 86, was a poet who was at the centre of the Beat Generation, who roared their way into the post-war American literary world with freeform libertine abandon. Di Prima may not have received as much attention as male contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but her presence was vital, both as an enabler of other writers and for her own candid and fearlessly provocative work. The latter appeared in more than forty volumes of poetry and prose, beginning with This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958), published when she was in her early twenties. 


Di Prima decided to devote herself to being a poet aged fourteen, after she starting writing aged six. Dropping out of college to chase her muse, Di Prima landed in Greenwich Village in the midst of a jazz-soundracked cultural revolution. It was an era documented in a fantastical manner in the knowingly titled Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), a book now regarded as a classic of feminist erotica.


By the time it was published, Di Prima had spent eight years editing New York lit-scene zine, The Floating Bear. The first 25 issues were co-edited with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and the pair attracted attention from the FBI, who arrested Di Prima for publishing allegedly obscene works, including William Burroughs’ piece, Roosevelt after the Inauguration. The case was thrown out by a grand jury.


With Baraka and others she co-founded the New York Poets Theatre. Also on board was actor Alan Marlowe, who became her first husband. The company’s modus operandi was to only stage one-act plays by poets. These included two pieces by Di Prima, The Discontent of the Russian Prince (1961), and Murder Cake (1964).


In 1964, Di Prima and Marlowe founded the Poets Press, and published books by Herbert Huncke and acid guru Timothy Leary, with whom she spent time on his blissed-out commune. 


In 1968, and with the hippie dream becoming increasingly politicised, Di Prima moved to California, where she taught at various institutions, including the San Francisco Art Institute and the California Institute of Integral Studies. This began a new phase of activism with anti-capitalist community activists, the Diggers. She also studied Buddhism, Sanskrit, Gnosticism and alchemy. Di Prima taught at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics for several years, and created collages as well as writing.


This melting pot of ideas and actions fired Di Prima’s life and work. Hungry for experience, she remained unwavering in everything she did. This was the case whether in Revolutionary Letters (1971), her major work, Loba (1973-1998) or her memoir, Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001). Her restless artistic journey fused the personal, political and spiritual with a lyrical open-ness born from the soul.


Diane Rose di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Emma and Francis di Prima, a schoolteacher and an attorney, respectively. She attended Hunter College High School and Swarthmore College, but, fired her Italian anarchist grandparents, she escaped her parents’ middle class expectations and moved out to the Village. 


As free spirited as she was, Di Prima took pride in being a mother of five children, despite what Kerouac said to her as she left a party early, about how “Unless you forget about your babysitter, you’re never going to be a writer.” Di Prima begged to differ, and proved Kerouac wrong umpteen times over. Motherhood, she said, gave her a discipline to make time to write around her domestic commitments. Di Prima had a daughter, Dominique, with Baraka, and married Marlowe in 1962. They divorced in 1969. She married Grant Fisher in 1972, before they divorced in 1975.


Arguably Di Prima’s greatest literary achievement was Loba, a rolling multi-part epic drawn from mythic notions of the wolf-goddess. With the first part published as a chapbook in 1973, by the time the 1998 edition appeared, Di Prima’s ongoing work in progress ran to more than 300 pages. In it, she questioned ‘How was woman broken?/Falling out of attention./Wiping gnarled fingers on a faded housedress./Lying down in the puddle beside the broken jug./Where was the slack, the loss/of early fierceness?/How did we come to be contained in rooms?’ The poem was regarded by some as the female equivalent of Howl. In truth, Loba went much further.


In 2009, Di Prima was named poet laureate of San Francisco. A new collection, The Poetry Deal, appeared in 2014. Revolutionary Letters was expanded for a new edition in 2019, the same year as her most recent publications, Spring and Autumn Annals, and Haiku, were published. Even in her final hours, hospitalised by the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, Di Prima kept on writing. Both Di Prima’s frankness and her sense of grassroots activism could arguably be said to have pointed the way for many poets today.


Di Prima is survived by her partner of 42 years, Sheppard Powell, her five children; Jeanne di Prima, from a relationship with Stefan Baumrin; Dominique di Prima, from her relationship with Amiri Baraka; Alex Marlowe, and Tara Marlowe, from her marriage to Marlowe; and Rudi di Prima, from her marriage to Fisher. Two brothers, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren also survive her.

The Herald, December 2nd 2020




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