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Literature: Divine Diane

by Paul Wilner

Two new works pay tribute to the legacy of one of San Francisco’s greatest poets.

It’s been a tough time for poetry.

In just the last year, we lost Diane di Prima in October 2020, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in February, and then, in quick succession, Janice Mirikitani and Jack Hirschman — all San Francisco poet laureates, each of whom wore the wreaths lightly.

Di Prima’s passing last year at 83 marked the end of an era. She was a literary icon whose career combined artistic and political activism with a lifelong Buddhist practice.

She eschewed the “Beat” — though perhaps not “bohemian” — label, although she intimately knew the figures from that world, including Allen Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and her close friend Michael McClure. And her work, along with that of fellow women poets like Joanne Kyger, Lenore Kandel and Anne Waldman, provided needed counterbalance to the macho excesses of some of her peers.

Revolutionary Letters (City Lights Books) The late poet’s seminal work is being expanded and reissued for its 50th anniversary.

It’s fortuitous, then, that City Lights is reissuing an expanded 50th anniversary edition of her seminal Revolutionary Letters, along with the long-awaited memoir Spring and Autumn Annals, which serves as an elegy for her dancer-choreographer friend Freddie Herko, who leapt from the window of his Greenwich Village apartment in 1965, and a portrait of long-gone artistic ferment and the writers, artists and musicians in di Prima’s circle: poetactivist Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones, and with whom she had a daughter), poets Frank O’Hara and Robert Duncan, and jazz musicians Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor.

Sheppard Powell, di Prima’s husband, shares that she was writing until the end, even though she literally couldn’t walk for the last three and a half years of her life. “Sometimes the poems would be dictated, and sometimes she would use a stylus to tap them out on her iPhone,” says Powell, an artist and healer. He notes that a major impetus for di Prima’s move to the West Coast in 1968 was meeting Zen Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi. “She said that if he’d been an apple picker, she would have followed him and picked apples.”

But she never shirked social involvement, writing broadsides for the free-spirited Diggers, along with wild founders Emmett Grogan and the outlaw poet Kirby Doyle. “Feeding people was the kind of political action she completely understood,” Powell says. “They had a Free Bank, a shoebox full of money that she kept on top of her refrigerator. It would be filled by some of the musicians who were starting to make an obscene amount of money. Anyone who wanted could take something out of there and it was never empty.” As for her contributions to the Diggers, Powell laughs, then adds, “Each edition of the Revolutionary Letters got longer because the world never started behaving itself.”

Spring and Autumn Annals (City Lights Books) This new memoir as elegy focuses on a decade of Diane di Prima’s life, starting from the mid-1950s.

But di Prima’s loyalty was always to her muse, which she sums up in the poem Rant: The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. She was a fierce, funny feminist who unabashedly celebrated sexuality — though her notorious Memoirs of a Beatnik, published in 1969, was admittedly semifictional in response to publisher Maurice Girodias’ frequent entreaties to include “more sex.” Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, published in 2001, presents a more measured account.

Philosophical about the vagaries of fame and fortune, she was sometimes snubbed by literary festivals. “Probably the reason for that was because she didn’t schmooze that much,” says Powell. “But if you were talking about something, she’d talk all night.”

As di Prima put it in The Poetry Deal, which she read aloud at her 2009 induction as poet laureate at the San Francisco Public Library:

I’d like my daily bread, however
you arrange it, and I’d also like
to be bread, or sustenance, for
some others even after I’ve left.
A song they can walk a trail with.

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