Monday, November 9, 2020

RIP: Literary Lioness Diane di Prima

Di Prima reads from her first book,
"This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards" in 1959

The prolific Beat poet and teacher Diane di Prima was the mother 
of five children and became a Lioness of Letters at a time when poets mostly belonged to boys' clubs. She died on October 25 at the age
of 86.

In an often-repeated anecdote from her 2001 memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, Di Prima recalls being at a "boozy, marijuana-filled party one night in New York" with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and when she announced she needed to leave at 11:30 p.m. to relieve her babysitter, Kerouac shouted, “DI PRIMA, UNLESS YOU FORGET ABOUT YOUR BABYSITTER, YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE A WRITER." 

She wrote of her decision to pursue a career in poetry, "The things I now leave behind... leaving the quiet unquestioned living and dying, the simple one-love-and-marriage, children, material pleasures, easy securities. I am leaving the houses I will never own. Dishwashers. Carpets. Dull respect of dull neighbors. None of this matters really. I have already seen it all for the prison it is."

The actress who played Don Draper's Greenwich Village girlfriend in TV's "Mad Men" read Di Prima's Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) in preparation for the role. As quoted in Sisters of the Extreme, Di Prima wrote in Memoirs: "As far as we knew, there was only a small handful of us—perhaps forty or fifty in the City (NY)—who knew what we knew; who raced about in Levis and work shirts, smoked dope, dug the new jazz, and spoke a bastardization of the Black argot.....Our chief concern was to keep our integrity...and to keep our cool."

In her epic poem Loba she wrote, seemingly to the goddess Parvati

They call me drunkard, though I drink no liquor
I drink her nectar only; my mind reels
I sit day and night at the feet of Shiva's consort
High, not dulled with the wines of earth.  
The cosmic egg floats on the elixir of her Joy.
She delivers the low-born, I shall not leave her side. 
Virtue, ignorance, action, wisdom—these drugs delude
But when you drink Her wine, you are out of tune
And the Divine Bard loves you: she takes you on her lap.
Why do I regret
hours in pastel gardens where scented drugs
might have sharpened our senses?


Di Prima, who was arrested for obscenity and denounced for taking LSD, was named San Francisco's Poet Laureate in 2009. In her acceptance address on Candlemas 2010, she lamented "how much of my city is now run by the UnPhun Party. I call them the UnPhun Party; the Surrealists call them Miserabilists. They can be Democrats, Republicans, radicals—it doesn’t matter. One way you can identify them is they don’t even know how to distinguish between noise and music, or between vandalism and art. They just want it out of their neighborhood. They are afraid people might be having a good time." 

"That UnPhun Party has unfortunately gotten very big in San Francisco. It can now be found on many boards and planning commissions. Selling fear, selling puritanical morals, making rules about eros, lumping all drugs together, so that one high school kid I met while teaching told me, 'I might as well shoot heroin. I’m already evil. I smoke pot.'” 
She envisioned instead, a city "where no drug is criminalized, though some are more useful than others, and addictions are treated benignly and without judgment. Where everyone is taught how to use psychedelics. Even how to use pot. Just as one is taught both safety and pleasure in sex education and The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich is required reading in high school. In the fifth grade kids memorize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
She ended -

my vow is:
to remind us all
to celebrate
there is no time
too desperate
no season
that is not
a Season of Song

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