Revolutionary Letters: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition 
by Diane di Prima.
City Lights, 213 pp., £13.99, September 2021, 978 0 9957162 6 1
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‘The laws of hospitality are older than the laws of the United States of America!’ Diane di Prima shouted at the FBI agents who came to her cold-water apartment in Manhattan in 1956, looking for a young dissident writer from Yugoslavia. It was her first encounter with ‘the Big Reality that had undone so much of Hollywood, of New York. Had killed the Rosenbergs and was even then gunning for Wilhelm Reich.’ Di Prima forced the agents into the street. This wasn’t her last run-in with the authorities: her connection to anarchist politics and the Black freedom struggle made her a constant target of police surveillance and harassment. Later, when she moved to San Francisco, ‘the FBI was at my front door every night, banging … I was sending different kids to the door because everybody grown up at the table was wanted for the draft or wanted for something else.’

Militant hospitality ran in the family. Di Prima’s grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, was an Italian immigrant and activist who wrote for an anti-fascist newspaper. In her autobiography, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, published in 2001, she wrote that he would bring home ‘entire squalling families of would-be union organisers’, whom her grandmother would entertain ‘with her welcoming frugal abundance’. In ‘April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa’, she thanks him for ‘pulling/no punches’, weeping in time to Italian opera and introducing her to the dynamism of ‘revolution/which is love, spelled backwards’.

Di Prima also credits her grandfather with inspiring her to ‘make meaning in the world’ through words. She took a line from one of Keats’s letters as her credo: ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of the Imagination.’ At high school, di Prima and a group of friends (which included Audre Lorde) discovered the delirious visions of Jean Cocteau. It was a form of ‘magick’, but also a political awakening. ‘We came from a maddened people’, she later wrote, destroyed by greed, depression, ‘by being immigrants in a land of conformity’.

Di Prima enrolled at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia in 1951, but dropped out after two years and moved back to New York, where she joined the bohemian community on the Lower East Side. They lived in cheap apartments infested with roaches and freezing in winter. They sat on benches stolen from construction sites until the firewood ran out – then they burned the benches. ‘I wasn’t going to be able to snuggle into regular human life,’ she told an interviewer in 1999.

Di Prima’s homes formed the centre of a queer kinship network, of ‘men with lipstick,/women with crew cuts,/… Junkies and jazz musicians’; ‘haunted and drinking dykes, thieves, hustlers, confidence men in trench coats, runaways from the suburbs, dancers, musicians’ – artists as outlaws, and outlaws as artists. They ‘raced about in Levis and work shirts, made art, smoked dope, dug the new jazz, and spoke a bastardisation of the Black argot’. In the febrile city, di Prima pursued her ‘right to experience everything possible’, including a fluid gender and pansexuality. In 1957 she decided to have a child on her own: ‘The man was obviously an incidental and unimportant adjunct to the process.’ Her daughter, Jeanne, was adopted by the tribe, sleeping backstage when her mother performed in poets’ theatres.

Di Prima published her first volume of poems, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, in 1958. (At the time of her death in October 2020, she had almost fifty books to her name.) Her early work combines street slang with a Poundian sense of the image as ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’. She was also influenced by jazz musicians – Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk: ‘The cadence and line and syncopation that they use, and the places where they would break up a phrase in the middle,’ she wrote, ‘is all part of the American poetic.’ Bird includes poems like this:

So here I am the coolest in New York
what dont swing I dont push.

In some Elysian field
by a big tree
I chew my pride
like cud.

Inverting her urban environment into a pastoral scene in which the speaker is the milk cow, the poem imitates bebop’s ‘swing’, playing against the beat of di Prima’s classical learning. It is a performance of her community’s 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 wanted to produce ‘the cleanest line that retained a lyric sense’ and set out to make her work ‘as sparse as possible … 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.’

She also worked tirelessly as an editor and publisher. In 1961, she founded the mimeographed magazine Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). The pair were arrested for circulating obscene material in the ninth issue, but were eventually acquitted – Baraka helped persuade the grand jury by reading from the decision in the trial of Joyce’s Ulysses – and the magazine continued to come out, albeit with diminishing frequency, until 1969. William Burroughs, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Barbara Guest all appeared in its pages. Producing the Floating Bear was an ‘endless rhythm of editing, typing, proofing, printing, collating, stapling, labelling and mailing’, but di Prima understood the importance of controlling the means of production. In her memoirs, the acquisition of a stapler, a bone folder, IBM typewriter and Gestetner duplicator are vital moments.

Di Prima gave birth to a second daughter in 1962 and not long afterwards married the actor and model Alan Marlowe: he was queer, ‘a man I’d never fall in love with, so he seemed like a good person to marry’. Together they founded the New York Poets Theatre (they also had two children). Di Prima wrote plays, acted, directed and produced. They put on dramas by Frank O’Hara and Robert Duncan at various downtown venues and broadcast Antonin Artaud’s radio piece ‘To Have Done with the Judgment of God’, complete with ‘gongs and blood-curdling screams’, to the whole of Bleecker Street. In 1965 di Prima founded the Poets Press, which would go on to publish around thirty books, including titles by Clive Matson, Michael McClure and John Ashbery as well as Audre Lorde’s collection The First Cities.

Despite her centrality to the community of artists and writers on the Lower East Side, di Prima’s work was never afforded the same respect as her fellow male ‘outriders’. She was excluded from Donald Allen’s landmark anthology New American Poetry (1960) and was ‘not asked to literary events, though I published with everyone in the usual places, worked side-by-side with the men … As a woman, I was invisible.’

The Beat movement is remembered as predominantly male, but female writers made crucial contributions to the poetry counterculture of the 1950s and the 1960s, Helen Adam, Jane Bowles, Elise Cowen, Hettie Jones, Lenore Kandel, Joanne Kyger, Denise Levertov, Josephine Miles, Anne Waldman among them. Many of these women, identified by Joyce Johnson in her memoir as Minor Characters, are now major figures in postwar American letters. But as di Prima noted, ‘a lot of potentially great women writers wound up dead or crazy. I think of the women on the Beat scene with me in the early 1950s, where are they now? … The threat of incarceration or early death in one form or another was very real.’

For her own part, di Prima always insisted that she ‘wasn’t a woman beatnik’. Her Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) was a largely fictionalised account of the anarchic energies of mid-century New York. The text depicts an orgiastic community of drifters whose aim is to ‘get welfare, quit working, stay home, stay stoned and fuck’. She wrote the book in San Francisco ‘for our rent and dinner’. Her editor returned the manuscript with ‘MORE SEX’ scrawled across it. It was, she said, like adding ‘oregano to tomato sauce’.

While di Prima was a fierce advocate of sexual dissidence, she resented being typecast. The complex relation between sexual freedom and stereotype is evident in a story she recounts in her Recollections. She’s at a party, it’s getting late, and she has promised the babysitter she will be home by 11.30. Jack Kerouac announces: ‘Di Prima, unless you forget about your babysitter, you’re never going to be a writer.’ In Creeley’s version of events, di Prima takes Kerouac’s advice and ‘charmingly’ stays for an orgy. In reality she left: a person who would inconvenience her babysitter, she thought, ‘wouldn’t have stuck through thick and thin to the business of making poems’.

Gilbert Sorrentino, writing in the pages of her own magazine, described di Prima as ‘too concerned maybe with not being a “lady writer”’: her work, he said, suffered from a lack of ‘gentleness’. (In ‘The Quarrel’ she tells her man that ‘I probably have just as much fucking work to do as you … /I am sick I said to the woodpile of doing dishes.’) Creeley’s celebration of di Prima’s work in his introduction to her collection Dinners and Nightmares (1961) also relied on gender stereotypes: she is the embodiment of a ‘female principle’, ‘an adept and flexible provider of the real, which we eat daily or else we starve’.

Creeley was talking in part about her depiction of the minutiae of everyday life. Di Prima attended to dailiness not in the ‘I do this, I do that’ manner of O’Hara’s observations on his lunchbreak, but by writing about the urgent business of cleaning, feeding and mending. The Calculus of Variation, which she began in 1961, charts the struggle to keep life on track:

The shouts of children now angry, hungry. Endless wet sheets, diapers, nightgowns, shit in their hair. Endless cereals, yoghurts, bottles, orange juices. HOW MANY TIMES THIS MOTION, not without grace. The morning calls begin. For bail, for comfort. For seats at the theatre, and to use the machines. For poems too sometimes all one piece of courage. You fall upstairs, my hands go blindly on. Making some kind of chaos.

The ‘you’ here is her husband, whom she wakes at noon, when the work of serving her children and community (paying bail, arranging tickets, sharing her printing equipment) has already been in motion for hours.

The everyday of food, places, friends, the streets, were di Prima’s subject, not because she was a woman but because she was ready to ‘sacrifice everything for the clean line’. ‘I had come into poverty as into an inheritance,’ she wrote. The lack of worldly comforts was a route to artistic freedom, a means of rejecting the asphyxiating materialism and gender norms of her culture. For women artists especially, she thought, ‘the grind of economics’ must be met with ‘discipline, a spiritual path’. ‘Nulla dies sine linea’, she wrote in her high school notebook, after Pliny. No day without a line.

After the suicide of one of her close friends, the dancer Freddie Herko, in 1964, di Prima spent time at Timothy Leary’s experimental community in Millbrook. She had grown weary of New York City: ‘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?’ Like many of her contemporaries, di Prima became interested in Buddhism, which seemed to offer an alternative to the violence and materialism of mid-century America. Her work gradually became more syncretic, taking in Tarot, alchemy and Rosicrucianism, along with what she had learned from the Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, whom she first met in 1962.

Her spiritual research came to fruition in the epic poem Loba, which evokes several cultural manifestations of the goddess in the figure of the wolf. Di Prima described it as a ‘serial poem’, a ‘very far-out geography of the female imagination’. Inspired by a dream in which she and her ‘outcast or vagabond’ children were hunted by a wolf set upon them by the rich, she turns to confront it and recognises the animal as both protectress and mother:

I turned to confront
                      to face
                                            ring of fur, setting off
the purity of her head.
stood, strong patient
great mystic beast of European forest.
green warrior woman, towering.

                                                  kind watchdog I cd
leave the children with.
                                            Mother & sister.

The wolf’s appetite is suspended; instead, she becomes the ‘watchdog’ that allows the speaker to relieve herself of the burden of care.

In​ 1968 di Prima moved her family to San Francisco, where her aim was to ‘participate in the revolution’. She began working with the Diggers, a group of anarchist activists who distributed free food. Di Prima’s van was used to take supplies to other communes. She continued to harbour fugitives: ‘Black and White Panthers, Hell’s Angels, parrots, rock bands, assorted Chinese and American Indian dealers and babes without diapers wandered in and out of the room’ as she worked on her poems.

On New Year’s Eve 1968, di Prima wrote to Lorde enclosing ‘a bunch of new poems “Revolutionary Letters” in a separate envelope’. She would continue to add to this sequence of poems for the rest of her life, writing in a direct, declarative style – a voice that could ‘reach everyone’. Throughout the Letters, di Prima articulates her resistance to capitalism: ‘every large factory is an infringement/of our god-given right to light and air.’ The solution to crisis is not better housing or education or medicine: ‘if what you want is jobs/for everyone, you are still the enemy,/you have not thought thru, clearly/what that means.’ In the end, ‘even the poorest of us/will have to give up something/to live free.’

She circulated the poems in hundreds of free newspapers across America, including the Black Panther newsletter. In a poem dedicated to Huey Newton, she writes: ‘I will not rest/… till all can seek, unhindered/the shape of their thought, till laughter/bounces off our hills & fills/our plains.’ Five editions of the poems appeared between 1971 and 2007. The new City Lights edition, which was overseen by di Prima and her partner of many years, Sheppard Powell, marks the fiftieth anniversary (a UK edition is published by Silver Press). Over the years, the book grew to include more than 114 letters and related texts, as di Prima responded to events including the Gulf Wars, Hurricane Katrina and the Christchurch massacre.

In the Letters, di Prima takes what she learned in New York as a publisher and a maker of street and poets’ theatre and adds a radiant political energy. The poems combine spontaneous analysis of political conditions with a compendium of survival skills. She offers spiritual guidance and pragmatic advice for social action. When you go to a demo, take a plastic bag with a damp cloth in it to protect against tear gas; ‘don’t stampede or panic others/don’t waver between active and passive resistance/know your limitations.’ Be prepared to offer hospitality to people on the run, to tend wounds and stash weapons. Construct a person-sized hiding place in your apartment walls. Stockpile food and vitamins, also, fill your bathtub – this was a lesson she learned during the 1967 riots in Newark when the authorities turned off the water.

Revolutionary Letters is not an idealistic text. Yes, let’s ‘teach the chicks/how to heal with herbs’, but let’s also ‘BLOW UP THE PETROLEUM LINES.’ Di Prima embraces revolutionary violence against those who profit from capitalist domination, and in particular the makers of napalm:

1. kill head of Dow Chemical
2. destroy plant

Other suggestions: ‘define/your aim clearly, choose your ammo’; don’t carry a knife unless you know how to use it; guns won’t win this war – the Buddha nature will – but get in some target practice all the same.

This combination of spiritual and pragmatic strategising culminates in her dictum that ‘THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION/ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT.’ Keats is still a guiding spirit. But di Prima tempers her idealism: ‘The imagination is not only holy, it is precise/it is not only fierce, it is practical.’ The imagination allows us to ‘will’ space and time into a shape of our choosing, to counter the forces that keep us from thriving. The war against the imagination might seem abstract to the people of Vietnam, but di Prima’s focus is always internationalist. ‘I wonder if I’ll live to sit in Peking or Hanoi/see TV programmes of LBJ’s Reich: our great SS analysed, our money exposed, the plot to keep Africa/genocide in Southeast Asia now in progress Laos Vietnam Thailand Cambodia.’

She wrote the first poem in 1969 after seeing a news report about ‘General Electric moving in on the Navajo Reservation’:

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

Just as she had made her life an artwork, she made her body a political tool, the weapon and ground of revolution (‘this flesh all I have to offer, to make my play with’):

My body a weapon as yours is
My tits weapons against the immaterial

My hands
Lethal to imprecision
My cunt a bomb exploding

For di Prima, revolution is the culmination of women’s labour (in both senses), manifested by women who ‘hear/the plea in the voices around us’, who ‘liberate/out of our knowledge, labour, sucking babes, we/ liberate, and nourish, as the earth’. The following year, her fifth and final child was born.

With her grandfather’s anarchist speeches in mind, di Prima imagines a world beyond catastrophe. Her eyes are firmly on the horizon: ‘Every revolutionary must at last will his own destruction/rooted as he is in the past he sets out to destroy.’ Like reproductive labour, or the endless cycle of feeding and mending, the work of the revolution is multiple and unfinished:

we die
a million times a day, we are born
a million times, each breath life and death:
get up, put on your shoes, get
started, someone will finish

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