Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Poetics


From the cover to Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letters, courtesy of City Lights

by Andrea Brady

“Remember / you can have what you ask for, ask for / everything.” In these, probably the most famous lines from Revolutionary Letters, Diane di Prima echoes Frank O’Hara’s assertion in his “Ode to Joy” that “We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying.” Like her friend Frank, di Prima is writing about joy, “which will remake the world.”

Di Prima’s poetry channels her grandfather’s anarchist speeches of the 1930s, which emphasised love and solidarity as the weapons of working-class people against fascism. Domenico Mallozzi was an Italian immigrant, tailor and trade unionist, who would bring home “entire squalling families of would-be union organizers,” and Antoinette, di Prima’s grandmother, would entertain them “with her welcoming frugal abundance.” In her “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa,” di Prima remembered listening to her grandfather speaking at a rally in the 1930s:

I embrace
strangers on the street, filled with their love and
mine, the love you told us had to come or we
die, told them all in that Bronx park, me listening in
spring Bronx dusk, breathing stars
…I stood
a ways off listening as I pour out soup
young men with light in their faces
at my table, talking love, talking revolution
which is love, spelled backwards, how
you would love us all
…we do it for
the stars over the Bronx
that they may look on earth
and not be ashamed.

In this poem that opens Revolutionary Letters, di Prima presents herself as a child, looking on in admiration at the eloquent old man at the centre of the proletariat audience; and as the adult, standing aside, feeding young male activists who talk politics while she serves. Throughout her life, di Prima would repeatedly assume this feminised position as the provider of nourishment.

At the age of 18, di Prima moved to the Lower East Side, where her new neighbours were mostly poor Eastern European immigrants. Her cold-water flats were grim, infested with roaches, freezing in winter, but full of tenderness. Some nights they slept five to a mattress on the floor, taking turns “all night long, to keep the fire.” Like her grandmother, di Prima was able to generate abundance from scarcity. She scavenged fuel, shoplifted canned goods from the A&P supermarket, made sure there was soup on the stove. She drew a wage working at Columbia University’s electronics lab, where she learned to use a multilith press, and modelled for the painters Raphael and Moses Soyer and Nicolai Cikovsky. For a while she was unhoused and slept in Washington Square Park.

Di Prima presented as a queer, gender-nonconforming “outcast” who “tromped through the city as some strange hybrid: neither gay nor straight, neither butch nor femme.” They “raced about in Levis and work shirts, made art, smoked dope, dug the new jazz, and spoke a bastardization of the black argot.” They were outcasts, outriders, “scornful, contemptuous and beyond the concern for appearance… Pushing the bounds of the mind, of imagination.” But di Prima struggled to achieve the same respect as her fellow male “outriders.” She said in an interview:

Don’t forget, however great your visioning and your inspiration, you need the techniques of the craft and there’s nowhere, really, to get them… they are passed on person to person and back then the male naturally passed them on to the male. I think maybe I was one of the first women to break through that in having deep conversations with Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara.

She dwelt amidst a “male cabal: self-satisfied, competitive, glorying in small acclaims.” Her poetry circulated in a milieu dominated by figures like Olson, whose claim “A Man Is What He Does” reminded her of the macho posturing of John Wayne: “High Noon on the streets of the literary life.”

Diane di Prima and Charles Olson. Photo courtesy of Ammiel Alcalay

Throughout her life she insisted: “I wasn’t a woman beatnik.” She did write Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), an erotic potboiler that chronicled the anarchic energies of this period as a series of detailed sexual encounters. It ticks every box for the square reader seeking out salacious thrills: drop-outs, drugs, sex and orgies, porn, polyamory, art, crime, the mob, celebrity, poverty, fun. But she wrote it in San Francisco “for our rent and dinner,” to keep an extended family of fourteen people afloat, while a fugitive cleaned his gun behind her head. If she hadn’t, “how would we all have the seaweed and brown rice and miso soup I deemed necessary for our survival?”

Memoirs ends with di Prima’s decision to have a child on her own in 1957; “the man was obviously an incidental and unimportant adjunct to the process.” One person who did help was her dear friend Freddie Herko, a queer dancer and pianist. She pledged her love to him in Sapphic terms, and imagined that Freddie was Jeanne’s father: since “father’s the one / …who in the hospital looks at the thing / red & asleep / & thinks: / It has no figure.” The cover of di Prima’s volume of Freddie Poems (1974) shows a photograph of Herko, dressed only in a dancer’s belt, standing in third position with Jeanne slung over his shoulder, on the roof of di Prima’s house in Cooper Square.

A year after Jeanne was born, di Prima published her first book, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (1958). The poems are short, often ironic, and governed by the hipster “code, our eternal tiresome rule of Cool,” “a hard, clean edge and definition in the midst of the terrifying indifference and sentimentality around us.” Di Prima worked to make these early poems “as sparse as possible,” under the influence of a Dover paperback of Matisse line drawings that was published at that time: “I wanted to know how much information you could give with how few words, just like the lines in a Matisse drawing. So I would cut and cut and cut.” In her poetics as in her life, di Prima was seeking to produce abundance from scarcity: “to find the cleanest line that retained a lyric sense.”

“Pome for Freddie” from December 1957 is an example of this clean, laconic line:

It’s just as well
I’m not a man

you know
if one brings loving
to that game
there’s nothing

With an icy economy breaks that we might associate with Robert Creeley, di Prima rejects masculinity’s invulnerabilities and refuses to play the “game” of gender. At the same time, she makes a (rather uncool) commitment to love, which was the constant theme of the more than fifty books of poetry and prose she wrote before her death in 2020.

As an object, Bird established di Prima’s poetics as a social enterprise. The cover is by Mike Weiner; it includes drawings by Bret Rohmer; the layout was designed by Fred Herko; there is what Baraka calls “a weak little ‘caveat emptor’” introduction by Ferlinghetti. Di Prima typeset it, opaqued the negatives, and collated it herself. With her friends “we stapled it, folded it with a piece of bone. And then sent it off to be trimmed. And a book becomes a book after it’s trimmed.” She then put 900 copies of the finished book in the stroller and took them to bookstores to be sold on consignment.

Di Prima relished this opportunity to produce her own book. She recognised how empowering it was to take control of the means of production – as she did also by setting up her own small press in 1965, the Poets Press, and the mimeographed magazine which she co-edited with Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). Named The Floating Bear after Winnie the Pooh’s umbrella, which was sometimes a boat and sometimes an accident, the magazine extended to nearly forty issues between 1961 and ’71 (Jones’s resignation “for personal reasons” was announced in issue 26, October 1963). Editing the Bear entailed an “endless rhythm of editing, typing, proofing, printing, collating, stapling, labelling and mailing.” Friends helped; James Waring did some typing, Cecil Taylor ran the mimeograph machine. It was free, but the editors relied on donations to keep it going. Thomas Merton sent them stamps stolen from the monastery office drawer.

Their work together on Bear coincided with a brief but intense love affair between di Prima and Baraka, who was married to Hettie Cohen at the time. Her next book, The New Handbook of Heaven, published in 1961 and dedicated to him, is a series of surreal and spontaneous love poems. “Lord Jim” exemplifies the heroic openness that di Prima manifested in her life and relationships, promising: “I shall walk toward it,” an unspecified goal which is openness, a life of creativity and love, and reproduction. Later she hears the cry of a voice asking for incarnation: “Someone has cried out to me, has asked for life.” There is not much hope that the new (artistic or infant) life can be produced within a normative heteropatriarchal family. But, given we are all going to die, she asks him: why limit yourself to taking what’s offered? Why not meet the “green & flickering sea” halfway, embracing death and overcoming the protests of the flesh?

Di Prima did get pregnant and was coerced by Baraka into have an abortion, an event she laments in the poems Brass Furnace Going Out (“I want you in a bottle to send to your father / with a long bitter note”) and “Moon Mattress” (dedicated to “the child we didn’t have”). Other poems in New Handbook are similarly bleak: in “The Jungle,” “for Roi,” di Prima refuses to glamourise her poverty:

I shall sit in a freezing pad
while my door gets deathblows.
how my window’s bruised
blue fleshmarks on the glass.
the wind ignores me, glances off my cunt
my knuckles
& the corners of my mouth.
the wind is pink, it makes the snow obscene.

The icy wind of the city penetrates her body, and her body lends it a menstrual pinkness; landlords and FBI agents bang on the door, as her apartment and her body are battered and bruised by the hostility of the beloved and the state.

Later, di Prima went on to have a daughter, Dominique, from this liaison with Baraka. For companionship and convenience, she married the actor and model Alan Marlowe in 1962. He was gay; she described it as “almost a contractual relationship, and a warm friendship.” Together they had two children, Alex and Tara.  In the introduction to Audre Lorde’s first book, The First Cities, which she published in 1968, di Prima writes: “I have known Audre Lorde since we were fifteen, when we read our poems to each other in our Home Room at Hunter High school. And only two months ago she delivered my child. / A woman’s world, peopled with men & children / and the dead, exotic as scallops.” (Lorde helped di Prima to birth her fourth child, Tara, at the Hotel Albert in 1967.) Their feminist history is built on mutual aid, reliance on each other in moments when men and institutions fail them.

Marlowe and di Prima ran the New York Poets Theatre together from 1961 to 1965. The first programme included “Loves Labor, an eclogue by Frank O’Hara, Three Travellers Watch a Sunrise by Wallace Stevens… and Murder Cake by me… (My plays have no plot, or stage directions—they are “word scores” for a director to do with as s/he wills.)” The plays mixed revolutionary energy with absurdity and a rigorous anti-naturalism; Artaud was a guiding spirit. So too were the Romantics. In the “word score” of her play “Whale Honey”, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Byron exchange surrealist observations about a Brooklyn seascape. Byron makes typically overdone promises – “Oh, I’d drag you by your hair to the heart of the woods & offer your blood to the sacred lioness, I’d crush your bones in my fists and suck out your eyeballs, if that would help propitiate your gods, fatten these ghosts, bring light back to this air.” Mary’s response is deadpan: “As usual. The angle of vision affects the taste of the butter. There is a fly on your neck….” Echoing the hipster’s code of cool, she says little amidst the melodrama, but what she does say is full of feminist suggestiveness: “I dressed in a leopard skin and opened cages.”

The bounty of queer sexuality was at the heart of many of the Poets’ Theatre experiments. Di Prima remembers the set that her friend, the artist George Herm, designed for Michael McClure’s play The Blossom in 1964:

George made a round oil painting, The Blossom, and a huge sculptural flower from some Hawaii of the Titans—it had these thin carbon typewriter ribbons bursting from its center as pistils and stamens, and gigantic petals made of cloth and wire. And he hung huge paintings all around: flowers bursting out of cunts. Guns bursting out of flowers. To walk into the space was to become part of the piece….

Herms was a West Coast artist visiting di Prima, and at a loose end in New York, making woodcuts to accompany some of her haikus. At the time, he recalled, his friends in New York “were all doing courtroom drama because of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, and LeRoi Jones’s Brig and The Dutchman.” Detectives had seized Smith’s film Flaming Creatures at a screening hosted by di Prima in 1964, confiscating “the film, the projector, the soundtrack, the screen – everything but the seats, which were bolted down.” Four people were arrested, including Jonas Mekas. Di Prima “also asked to be arrested” in her role as “an officer of the American Theatre for Poets, Inc” (they let her go). These events felt like an extension of the absurdity of poets’ theatre. As di Prima wrote in her “Theatre Poem #1”, “How can I be serious when there are so many cops at the door / threatening me with papers or asking to see my papers?”

In the 1950s and 1960s, di Prima and her community regularly fought off state censorship and harassment by the police. Grove Press, City Lights publishers, and Ed Sanders (editor of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts) were tried for obscenity. McClure and the cast of The Beard were arrested over twenty times on pornography charges. Both di Prima and Baraka were arrested on obscenity charges in 1961 when issue 9 of The Floating Bear was intercepted by a prison warden. Di Prima, who was heavily pregnant, walked free, and Baraka persuaded the grand jury to acquit him by drawing on the 1933 trial of Ulysses. He “read all the good parts of Joyce’s Ulysses and Catullus aloud to the jury,” and then assumed: “I know none of you were aroused by any of these things.” A headline in issue 20 (May 1962) of The Floating Bear mocked the process: “‘Percentage of Homosexuals’ on Bear’s list still secret. Jones resists D. A.’s questioning on vital point.” According to the article, “Mr. Jones asked the federal attorney what percentage of the d. a.’s office was homosexual… Some of the jury busied themselves reading racing forms while this was going on, pausing only to hunch each other at the ‘dirty words.’”

In an essay called “Fuzz’s Progress,” published in The Nation in 1964, di Prima argued that the police were out to suppress artists’ ability “to utilize fully materials which their elders readied for them; among these are politics, drugs, homosexuality and what Susan Sontag has termed ‘intersexuality.’” The performance of queer life was under attack, not just the supposed obscenity of the artwork. An example of such “intersexual” art works was Jack Smith’s 1963 technicolour queer film Normal Love. Di Prima printed a one-page prose work with that title by Smith in The Floating Bear 28. Smith’s text is an account of three-foot-long cocks, shepherdesses, and bestiality, until “the whole hillside was one gigantic, seething, cretin, Mongolian and pinhead orgy,” a “churning carnival of freaky sex” that ends with the “freaks” being paddled by God and “a gang fuck which spread all over the heavens.” The text’s orgiastic energies are realised in Smith’s film, in which di Prima also participated. Towards the end of the film, she and her friends (including Andy Warhol) dance on a giant wedding cake constructed by Claes Oldenburg, while a green mummy leers. The film’s hilarious, deliberately amateurish, sexually joyful montage satirises heteropatriarchal marriage (the wedding cake menaced by a mummy); in its celebration of bodily difference and deviance, the camera also lingers on di Prima’s giant belly, nine months pregnant, as she does the cancan.

Jack Smith, Normal Love, 1963-65, Film Still, © Jack Smith Archive, Courtesy Gladstone Gallery

The early 1960s was a period of immense productivity for di Prima. Her activities are chronicled in The Calculus of Variation (written 1961-64; published 1972), a book of poetry and prose which opened a space for feminist explorations of reproductive labour such as Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. The book’s form was based on the eight trigrams of the I-Ching; writing it, di Prima opened herself to the illuminations of chance. “I’d write whatever showed up on the wall in front of my typewriter,” she said, refusing to revise the outcome, in a reversal of the tense editorial practices of cutting she adopted for her early work. Across a few pages of the book we find New York School-style poems like “An Anniversary Poem, for Alan” (“i looked at st. bridget’s steeples, like saying hello to frank”), prayers (“That I might waft in the god, pour slowly out, flittering, / cupping the words in the palms of my hands”), anecdotes about the children (“one of them is afraid of fire hydrants. Stops dead whenever she sees one in the street”) and friends (“In his great silken robes John Wieners paces”). The book diversifies the New York School aesthetic with intergenerational experiences, and leaves a record of her reproductive labour as an integral part of her artmaking.

But Calculus also admits that bohemian life was a struggle; poverty, drug use, racialised violence all took their toll on members of her community. Freddie took to “shooting A” and they had to “think a lot / about keeping you away from jail & the madhouse.” In Calculus, she writes: “The lady at the next table is telling her friend that dope addicts need a hundred dollars a day. Lady, everyone needs a hundred dollars a day, and to do what they want and gold light in their bedrooms.” But when Herko, who saw during an acid trip how his body had been ravaged “with speed and neglect,” danced out of a sixth-floor window in 1964, di Prima’s community began to fall apart. She turned to the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a way of caring for his soul, and all the hungry ghosts trapped in the bardo.

In her book of mourning for Freddie, and for the peoples of Haiti, Laos and Vietnam, Spring and Autumn Annals (written 1964-5), di Prima attempts to map the transformation of her grief onto the turning seasons. The title is taken from the ancient Chinese chronicle of the State of Lu, traditionally regarded as having been compiled by Confucius, and signals di Prima’s emergent Orientalist spiritualism. The city had become “too harsh, too hard to live in. A city in which I’d seen too many deaths.” She was tired: “Tired of the endless hassle to keep things going. How many landlords have pounded on my door, over the years, each one angrier than the last? How many last quarters doled out for quarts of milk? Cans of mushroom soup for Jeanne and Mini. Poor-food.” She felt herself “Defoliating. I am becoming light. / My bones shine thru my flesh. It falls away.” In the context of the defoliation of Vietnam by the US government, a reckoning was imminent: “By killing it, by poisoning the air, the water, the wheat, defoliating the jungles, perhaps we speak nothing but the truth. Perhaps we have indeed been sent by God. Perhaps we are saving the world, by turning its face back to the Mystery, away from the blackcloud science, back to the only knowledge that can save it now. The redemption of the earth thru blood and tears. Thru alchemy.” Filled with grief, di Prima endorses a troubling nihilism, which sees human suffering as creating the conditions for a rejection of rationalism and technology and towards the occult wisdoms of Eastern and Western traditions.

Di Prima and Marlowe sought a quieter life in the Catskills. Her Kerhonkson Journal 1966 (1971) begins with an exploration of space and emptiness, the sunyata of Zen spaciousness, addressing Alan on the occasion of the first snow:

This, then, is the gift the world has given me
(you have given me)
softly the snow
cupped in hollows
lying on the surface of the pond

Her friends were “scattered now, dead or silent / or blasted to madness / by the howling brightness of our once common vision”; the collective project embodied by her presses and poets theatre has dispersed, all that was left was “this gift of yours—/ white silence filling the contours of my life.” But a life full of silence wasn’t entirely appealing. She came to resent this “house of mean proportions” as “a place without grace or luxury, a backwater.” She mourned her life in the city, where she could enjoy the Maltese Falcon, onion rolls, toothpaste; when

I went to see Shanghai Express at the Museum
of Modern Art, meet Frank for a drink, or a bacon and egg sandwich
somehow involve myself in the national culture

instead I sit here, discussing acreage

In her “Poem In Praise of My Husband,” di Prima describes their wandering as driven by confusion and necessity: “we cling to each other /as if each thought the other was the raft / and he adrift alone,” looking at the stars “about which they know nothing, to find out / where they are going.” In the coming decades, spiritual practices would help her to find her moorings as she and her family drifted from New York to the West Coast.

Like many of her contemporaries, di Prima found in Buddhism an alternative to the violence and consumerism of 1950s America. Buddhism “permeated my way of seeing the world and of being in it. For me, the basic dharmic teachings are simply axiomatic: emptiness, interdependence. They describe the actual structure of the world.” Moving West, di Prima observed affinities between Zen beliefs and the extension of America: “whether we are aware of it or not, something of Buddhism pervades American consciousness. When Bodhidharma came from India to China with the Buddhism that was to become Ch’an and later Zen, his answer to the Chinese emperor’s request for ‘the holy teachings’ was ‘VASTNESS, NO HOLINESS!’” She commemorated this sense of transcendent space in a poem written from the first Zen monastery in the U.S., in “Tassajara 1969”:

Even Buddha is lost in this land
the immensity
takes us all with it, pulverizes, & takes us in

Bodhidharma came from the west.
Coyote met him

At the meeting point of Bodhidharma and the indigenous trickster figure of the coyote, the empty Western landscape was a material manifestation of the Mu or emptiness of Zen Buddhism.

In the 1970s di Prima’s spiritual and aesthetic practices became more syncretic. She integrated “the Western spiritual practices we call Magick” with Tibetan Buddhism. In her teaching at the Naropa Institute, the New College of California, or the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts which she co-founded, di Prima explored alchemy, gnosticism, the Tarot, astrology and Rosicrucianism. Her interest in alchemy went back to 1965, when she wrote an introduction to an edition of the work of Paracelsus. She identified with Paracelsus as a fellow vagabond, “who hurled invective at the doctors of his day, found himself sleeping by the wayside in the company of gypsies, bandits, and pilgrims, learning from them, poor homeless, hunted, writing his best works only when his career was in ruins.” Paracelsus stood on the edge of the medieval and modern world, and so had much to offer those of us “at the brink of a new age”, children of the 1950s and 60s. According to di Prima, alchemy’s “real millennial question” was: “how to make paradise on earth.” She takes from Paracelsus the idea that the human mind has “in its power all the stars, the firmament itself, and universal heaven….The Sun and Moon are its subjects.”

The alchemists affirmed for her the Romantic argument that the imagination is a creative, worldmaking power – a belief which she had absorbed from her earliest readings of the English Romantics, particularly Keats and Shelley. Keats had been a formative influence since she was eleven years old. Throughout her life, she cites Keats’s remark in a letter of 1817 – “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of the Imagination.” She learned from Keats that the imagination “is not only holy, it is precise / it is not only fierce, it is practical.” The imagination must integrate the visionary with the real, neither elapsing into the realm of abstractions nor sequestered by actually existing conditions. Di Prima argued throughout her life that “the imagination creates worlds;” “if you could imagine anything clearly enough, and tell it precisely enough, you could bring it about.” Keats’s assertion that “what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be true, even if it never existed before” showed her a way of achieving political transformation through poetic imagination. As di Prima puts it in Revolutionary Letters, “What wd your fantasy      you imagination say / if reality were no obstacle    which it ain’t.”

Di Prima’s spiritual explorations come to fruition in the epic poem Loba, which she began writing in 1971. Loba was a “very far-out geography of the female imagination” that originated in a dream she had while working in a Wyoming reform school. These were places “filled with so much pain, so much no-touching, so much no-loving, so much anger and these kids were in such a hungry place.” When she returned home, she got sick from all the “toxins” she encountered there, and had fever dreams about “really heavy incidents: a girl at the reform school… showing me the solitary cells for thirteen to eighteen year olds,” and so on. She then had a visionary dream about “being in an outcast or vagabond situation with my two children”; they were hunted by a wolf, set upon them by rich people living upstairs. But they escape and then “this wolf digs what’s happening, and falls in behind us and starts walking with us. Keeping pace.” She recognised it as “a goddess that I’d known in Europe a long long time ago.” In Loba, the epic poem that resulted from this vision, the wolf is an avatar of the multiple manifestations of the goddess across world religions and cultures, through which di Prima explores female fecundity, solidarity and resistance through mythologies of gender.

Di Prima was in Wyoming as part of the Poet-in-the-Schools programme, funded by a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts she received in 1971. In Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, Western community colleges and jails, di Prima confronted America’s colonised and carceral landscapes not as Zen emptiness but as sites of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organised abandonment.” These experiences contributed to her development of a poetic style that could reach a wide range of audiences, and affirmed her belief that everyone, no matter how poor, is a poet or artist: “there is no way you can not have a poetics / no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher / you do it in the consciousness of making / or not making yr world.” The plumber, baker, teacher, or Shoshone girl possess beginner’s mind, and through their work of dwelling and imagining they remake the world. Together, all of us work on “the Magnum Opus, the vast design that the Work of Man shapes through time, weaves in and out of history.”

But di Prima was no idealist; and the toughening of her revolutionary politics can be traced in The Floating Bear. Issue 35 (April 1968) transcribes a “WFME Interview with the Night Editor of Newark Evening News.” Its notices include an announcement of a “stop Oakland” strike called by the Black Panthers, fundraising for LeRoi Jones’s legal defence, the recommendation: “Hoard matches. Learn to shoot. Make love twice as much. Observe the moons,” and a question: “Is Eldridge Cleaver running for President?” During the Newark riots, she fundraised for Baraka’s legal defence and tried to bring in supplies. She offered solidarity while recognising her role as a white woman was not at the centre of these struggles. “The newspaper tells me that there is a war in Newark. / My hope is small but constant / black men shall tear down the thing they cannot name.” (She may be echoing her friend Audre Lorde’s claim that poetry gives “a name to the nameless so that it can be thought.”) When she heard on the radio there was “dancing in the streets” (referring to the riots of 1964-65), “I wondered what the guys at the Black Arts Theatre were saying / and sent them my love, my help, which they would not accept / Why should they? It’s their war, all I can do is wait.”

It was a moment of political intensification. “The feeling was that up to that point there had been no way to be active. Because the world was too repressive. Until the late sixties.” In 1968, di Prima took her family to San Francisco, where her aim was to “participate in the revolution” and actualise “some of the dreams I’d absorbed from my anarchist grandfather and hung onto ever since.” In a VW van filled with rifles and electric typewriters she had been given at her going-away party, she “moved 14 grown-ups, all their kids, and dogs, and cats” to a huge house on the Panhandle where she sheltered fugitives and was regularly harassed by the FBI. Di Prima began working with the Diggers, a group of anarchist activists and mime theatre artists whose politics combined anarchism and love. As they professed, echoing her grandfather, “show Love. Do your thing. Do it for FREE. Do it for Love.” The Diggers regarded money as “an unnecessary evil” which blocked “the free flow of energy.” They distributed food to communes, hosted free lunches for the thousands of hippies who had descended on San Francisco in the Summer of Love, and kept a Free Bank on top of di Prima’s refrigerator, a shoebox full of money for whoever needed it.

But soon “the scene got heavier and sadder, and the FBI started to show up everyday, and it seemed like time to close up shop and move to the backwoods.” In 1969, she moved to a remote anarchist commune in Northern California called Black Bear Ranch. There, she harboured fugitives from Ann Arbor’s White Panther Party. Members of other anarchist organisations, including the Motherfuckers and Diggers, Black Panthers and affiliates of the Revolutionary Action Movement, also inhabited the commune. Sean Lovitt provides an important account of this period in her activism.

Remembering that time, di Prima said “we were naïve as hell”: “There were too many people with no survival skills at all who came to San Francisco and needed too much for the small number of people who had real vision and really wanted to do something.” Recognising the need to teach the flower children these necessary survival skills, which she herself had honed through years of poverty and improvisation in New York, di Prima wrote Revolutionary Letters. There were five editions between 1971 and 2007, as the collection grew from 43 letters to 114 letters plus additional poems. They offer spiritual and practical advice, and test the reader’s capacity for subterfuge and commitment to revolutionary struggle. In letter 14, for example, di Prima asks if you are prepared to lie to your ‘truelove’ and smuggle someone across the border, taking a child with you “so that the three of you / look like one family.” Be ready, she warns, to exploit the conventions of the heteropatriarchal family against the state – just as she had done when she put on a Chanel dress, makeup and tights to collect hand grenades for Amiri Baraka in New York; or when she emphasised her pregnant belly to the police to avoid being charged for obscenity as an editor of Floating Bear.

Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letters, courtesy of City Lights

Di Prima begins the Letters with a recognition that, as a poor person trapped in the great political roulette game of survival in a white supremacist settler nuclear state, she had nothing to wager but herself:

I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life

Beginning from a state of absolute impoverishment that also incorporates the emptiness or nothingness of Zen sunyata, di Prima recognises that to oppose the murderous tendencies of capital, she must be willing to stake her life for her principles.

The “self” which is at stake for di Prima is an embodied, feminised one: “My body a weapon,” “My cunt a bomb exploding.” This weaponised female body is on the attack, tearing out “the throat of yr despair,” its orgasm a nuclear bomb: “the shock waves of my pleasure / annihilate / all future shock / all future shock forever.” This is not the mother or woman as gentle, passive provider of care. Instead, revolution for di Prima is the culmination of feminised knowledge and labour. Birth is “women’s alchemy”; it is women who “hear / the plea in the voices around us,” who “liberate out of our knowledge, labor, sucking babes, we / liberate, and nourish, as the earth.” And through reproduction, women are creating a liberatory force. Di Prima calls to the incarcerated, “know that we have this land, we are filling its crevices… / with our mating flesh, with the fierce play of our children / our numbers increasing / we are approaching your cells, to cut you loose.” In these moments, di Prima’s anarchism fuses with the goddess-worship found in Loba in a fantasy of maternal femininity as a route to emancipation.

Over forty years, Revolutionary Letters grew to include over 114 letters and related texts, as di Prima added to this ‘serial poem”, updating it with poems on climate change, the Gulf War, Hurricane Katrina and the Christchurch massacre. Di Prima’s work continues to extend its militant hospitality to readers, offering a model of solidarity both in its poetics and its modes of distribution that counteracts the repressive and censorious force of the state. Her revolutionary poetics were grounded in a non-hierarchical pedagogy – an offering of experience and pragmatic advice to the next generation of activists – and in the anti-pragmatism of occulted, alchemical, and Romantic wisdom. She took heart from Paracelsus, Keats and Buddhism, and the belief that the mind literally makes the world: that objective reality is malleable by the imagination, that the subject constitutes the world through cognition. As di Prima says, what we experience as history is actually “a living weapon in yr hand / & you have imagined it.” Di Prima’s ability to create abundance from scarcity, in poems and at the table, are models for those of us writing through an era of contraction and ecological crisis. While she made good her grandfather’s imperative to “love or die,” her aim was finally a refusal of the norms of productivity, finding in the space of that refusal a way “to do what will not work / in living / like in poems / …and not the satisfaction of saying / I did it for love.”


About the Author

Andrea Brady‘s eight books of poetry include Wildfire (2010), Mutability (2012), Cut from the Rushes (2013), The Strong Room (2016), The Blue Split Compartments (2021) and Desiring Machines (2021). Her second critical monograph, Poetry and Bondage: A History and Theory of Lyric Constraint, was published by Cambridge UP in 2021. She is Professor of Poetry at Queen Mary University of London.

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