There is a special brand of suspicion in some female circles towards women who purport to be ‘one of the lads’; the sisterhood demands loyalty, but often infiltrating the boys’ club is the only way to beat it. In a 1980s interview, Diane di Prima, one of the few female writers of the Beat Generation, commented on this issue in relation to her craft:
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 I was one of the first women to break through that.
Born in Brooklyn in 1934, Diane di Prima studied at Swarthmore College – one of the first colleges in the United States to accept both men and women – before dropping out to become a poet. By this time she had already been corresponding with Ezra Pound, and soon started developing friendships with emerging Beatniks Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara and Jack Kerouac, who helped her to ‘raise her rebellion into art’, as she later put it.
Di Prima revelled, in some senses, in her womanness. Her epic poem Loba was an ode to the female life force, inspired by the apparition of a she-wolf to di Prima in a dream. In the poem, which was hailed as the counterpart to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the wolf-goddess is celebrated but never placed on a pedestal; human for all her mythical qualities.
Di Prima saw her motherhood as part of her vocation in life, but did not want to bring up children within the strictures of nuclear family life in which she had grown up: “I decided I didn’t want to live with a man… I had lots of lovers, and I asked people if they wanted to father a kid, and everybody thought I was insane, and finally I didn’t ask — I just got pregnant and had Jeanne.”
Her semi-autobiographical novel Memoirs of a Beatnik was an eroticized account of her life in Beat circles. She has since admitted that some of the graphic depictions of orgies were put in to make it more commercially viable – the 1987 afterword recalls her publisher’s feedback being always “MORE SEX” – but the book also feels like di Prima’s way of putting herself on the same level as her male contemporaries. You need only extrapolate a little from On The Road to know that although the men of the Beat Generation abjured domestic responsibility themselves, they often failed to allow the same to the women in their lives, whom they expected to exist as stabilizing influences.
In 1960, aged just 25, Diane terminated a pregnancy under pressure from LeRoi Jones, her partner at the time and the man with whom she went on to edit the newsletter The Floating Bear. The regret and bitterness which she felt about the event were excruciatingly detailed in her poem ‘Brass Furnace Going Out – Song After An Abortion’.
I want you in a bottle to send to your father
with a long bitter note. I want him to know
I’ll not forgive you, or him for not being born
for drying up, quitting at the first harsh treatment
as if the whole thing were a rent party
and somebody stepped in your feet
The poem, with its graphic images of the unborn foetus, pulls no punches, and indeed the explicit content of her work often saw her harassed by the police. In 1961 she was arrested and investigated by the FBI for charging two allegedly obscene poems in The Floating Bear.
Di Prima went on to have five children in all, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing an incredibly active career. The late 1960s saw her move to San Francisco, where – as much a shapeshifter as her wolf-goddess Loba – she styled herself more as a hippie than a Beatnik, and did much to unite the East and West Coast literary scenes. Having co-founded the New York Poets Theatre in 1961, she now involved herself in the San Francisco theatrical community, working with improvisational actors the Diggers, whose brand of radicalism included the provision of free food, medical care, transport, and temporary housing, as well as organising concerts and political art ‘happenings’.
She later started teaching at colleges in California, and, along with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, established the poetry program at Naropa University, Colorado. Unafraid of sharing her expertise with the younger generation, she also helped to found two publishing houses dedicated to innovative emerging writers, Eidolon Editions and the Poets Press.
With over 40 published volumes, di Prima’s achievements in the literary sphere have been vast. She has always treated those who put her down with a good-humoured defiance, as testified by a section in her 1961 poem ‘Three Laments’:
I might have become
a great writer
in the library
were too hard