Nancy Jainchill Remembers Diane Di Prima

 In every issue, we try to remember something. In our Winter/Spring 2015 Issue, our friend Nancy conjures some turbulent moments.


Remembering Diane Di Prima

We went to the same high school—Hunter College High School in New York—all girls at the time, and you took a test for admission. Diane was a student more than ten years before I was. We were all smart but she was really smart, receiving the top score on the city-wide exam, with an IQ above 165. She started writing when she was seven, and at 14 she gave herself “whole heartedly to the poem. … I made what I knew would be a lifelong commitment.” Nonetheless, her mother sent her to typing school: “No matter what you think you might want to do, you’d better know how to type.” I was told the same thing.

I don’t think enough people have heard of Diane Di Prima. I’m not sure why. She wrote about oreo cookies and she wrote about Revolution. She wrote about sex. She was writing about these things in the 1950s, post-World War II, during the McCarthy era—she remembers sitting on the steps of the New School for Social Research when she heard that the Rosenbergs had been executed.

A revolutionary activist of the 1960s Beat literary renaissance, she is best known as a poet, with 34 books published including Dinners and Nightmares, Memoirs of a Beatnik, and Recollections of My Life as a Woman—a memoir published in 2001.

Post Hunter High School she briefly attended Swarthmore College, dropping out because she rejected the cashmere sweaters topped off by a single strand of pearls, rejected the perceived loneliness of family life she encountered while babysitting to support her student-existence. Her self-expulsion (along with that of her peers), was a denunciation of the fifties culture, particularly its vapid marriages and gender-specific expectations.

Moving back to New York City, not to her Brooklyn Italian roots, but to the lower East Side, she lived on her own when few young women did. Many years later, when I returned to the City I also lived on the lower East Side, not far from where she had been. A motorcycle tough guy, Mitch, had been murdered in the storefront flat I briefly called home—his name in dayglo pink adorned the ceiling over the bed: “Mitch slept here.”

When Di Prima lived there the neighborhood was made up of immigrants who mostly spoke Polish or Yiddish. Their imprint lingered still while I was there, but has gone now, overrun by gentrification. Walking down the street, she put up with whispered comments and name-calling in one language or the other—“No woman lived alone in that world—or in my parents’ world for that matter—unless she were a whore. Or somebody’s mistress. . .” Di Prima describes her life: “My house was abuzz with all forms of humanity. Haunted and drinking dykes, thieves, hustlers, confidence men in trench coats, runaways from the suburbs, dancers, musicians. A hundred kinds of crumpled, flamboyant persons. Wearing their scars like tattoos, their tattoos like banners. Tearing into the bread, the wine, the conversation. Leaving ashes on my painted floors.. . . They made my self-identity as maverick, outrider, seem natural and easy.”

Like the other Beats, Di Prima valued experience, any experience, and sexual freedom was particularly important. When she decided that it was time to be a mother, although she understood that a second person was required, she didn’t consider including a man in her life or home. Her concern was the impact a child would have on her writing. Since her teen years she had been “communicating” with the poet, John Keats, who died in 1821, and he warned her, “That women didn’t do it right, the art thing, we wanted too much of the human world besides. That no one had done the thing I wanted to do….That I probably wouldn’t succeed.” Keats didn’t know di Prima—in spite of being a woman and having five children, she became one of the most acclaimed writers of the Beat generation, and has continued to write and be published.

Prompted by the oft-repeated question of how she survived the male-dominated community of writers around her in the 1950s, di Prima says that she saw herself as one among artists, not as a woman among men. “All the striving was for and of the Work, …We walked together on the roads of Art. Roads of our dreaming…” Yet, she also wrote that “As a woman I was invisible. I took that as a matter of course.”

Di Prima relocated to San Francisco in 1968 because New York City had become too harsh, bridging the world of east and west coast artists. Her life went on to involve Buddhism, the hippie and revolutionary countercultures. I was already living in the Bay area but I didn’t stay—the magical quality she ascribed to the city, didn’t last for me. I returned east, moving to an apartment in the west village, with my toilet in the hall, my bathtub in the kitchen—still in search of di Prima and the life she had left behind.

In 2010 in her acceptance of becoming Poet Laureate of San Francisco, she said:
“It is the poem I serve.
Luminous thru time that
Celebration of human breath
Of melos It is and always had
Been the muse androgynous
And ruthless as any angel.”

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