In 2000, I was a freshman at the delightfully and wackily radical institution of Antioch College. We had no football team, but we had a women’s rugby team. We had no grades, but we had courses on “The History of Feminist Self-Publishing.” We had no fraternities or sororities — they were banned from campus by hippie law — but we had the campus legend of the “Secret Frat,” a group of shadowy, anonymous male students meeting in some secluded lair to be sexist and NOT EVEN FEEL BAD ABOUT IT, which we related to each other with much horror. The men in the Secret Frat could be anyone! They could be the men you knew! Did you date boys? You could be dating… A FRAT BOY! Such was the spine-tingling terror of the Secret Frat!
Of course, the world is a Secret Frat. I know that now. The reason I loved Antioch College — continue to love it, though it no longer exists, due to predictable yet dramatic hippie finance struggles — is that it was possible to preserve your innocence there. It was possible to believe you had entered a world where boys simply would not be allowed to meet behind your back and say stupid, misogynist shit about you; if they were going to do it, they had to do it in some dank basement or dark corner of the woods, to hide themselves from the forces of lady justice. It was sweet, really. To imagine that they needed a Secret Frat to say or do the stupid misogynist shit; to imagine that it wasn’t happening anyway, to you and to every girl, every time that you left the room.
Still, I had been on campus for less than two weeks when I met my first nemesis. He was a socialist, a DJ of annoying techno, and a dedicated practitioner of the art of misogyny. Let us call him “DJ Guevara Shirt,” for indeed, many of his t-shirts featured that man. DJ Guevara Shirt was in his twenties, and cheated on his girlfriend with a high school senior; DJ Guevara Shirt then pressured that girlfriend into having a threesome with the senior, in between bouts of shouting at her in public; when he heard that I was a feminist, DJ Guevara Shirt took me into an abandoned dorm room, with a large friend of his guarding the door like a bouncer, and explained to me that the great struggle of our time was one of class, and that focusing on women’s issues was selfish, divisive and destructive to the revolution. Which made sense: If you wanted a revolution in which you could verbally abuse your girlfriend and cheat on her with a teenager, it would indeed be destructive to have any feminists lurking around. When he heard I was a poet, though — for such, at the time, did I very insufferably call myself — he unaccountably did me a favor. He gave me his copy of Diane Di Prima’s Selected Poems.
“She was one of the Beats,” he said. “Sort of. But, you know, a woman.”
I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life
— Diane Di Prima, “Revolutionary Letters”
“A great woman poet,” is what it says on the back of Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems by Diane Di Prima, and the guy saying it is Allen Ginsberg. If and when Di Prima is spoken of, most people speak about this; her association with the Beat poets, her time in Greenwich Village before the Village became a theme park, her acquaintance with Ginsberg and Snyder and Kerouac and all those other boys. It’s probably why DJ Guevara Shirt knew her, and gave her book away: She was a woman, and a writer, in one of the most famously misogynist scenes of the 20th Century.
Which, on one level, is inspiring. It’s as if all those wordless, exotic, eternally obliging girls in the Kerouac novels stepped out of the background and started talking. You can point to Diane Di Prima, if you want to prove something. You can say, see? There were women there, after all! Here’s the woman!
And yet, when you refer to “the Beats,” to whom are you typically referring? Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg. Corso and Snyder, maybe. You rarely refer to Diane Di Prima. Which is one of the key things about being a “great woman poet,” and not a “great poet,” about being the girl in the scene: We don’t talk about Diane Di Prima without mentioning the Beats. But we usually talk about the Beats without mentioning Di Prima.
There are specific structures in place to make sure this happens. In her memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, Di Prima gives an example. She went to a party with some friends, she said, smoked a little pot, had some fun, and then left. She was a single mother with a small child, and she’d told her babysitter that she’d be home by 11:30. But it’s at this point that Kerouac makes his only memorable appearance in the book, and praise be to baby Jesus, it is exactly as awful as you’d expect: “Jack Kerouac raised himself up on one elbow on the linoleum and announced in a stentorian voice: ‘DI PRIMA, UNLESS YOU FORGET ABOUT YOUR BABYSITTER, YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE A WRITER.'”
See? No wonder there are so few “great women poets!” They can’t stay at the party and do speed and write “On the Road” for a month straight while their wives bring them soup and clean the house, because they’re always thinking about their babysitters! As opposed to, you know, marrying their babysitters. Which was the approach preferred by Jack Kerouac, and many other men at the time.
* * *
I won’t be “translated”
alone, or at least w/out female
buddies, I know some of the men will “buy” the ideal
but they don’t count
— Diane Di Prima, “For Bella Akhmadulima”
* * *
In 2007, nearly seven years after DJ Guevara Shirt tossed me his copy of Pieces of a Song, I found myself reading it in a Manhattan emergency room, waiting to get the Morning After Pill. I had taken to carrying the book around with me, along with Di Prima’s memoir; I thought it would help me to start writing again.
I’d fallen in love in college, as you do. The boy and I had stayed together for nearly six years. Around year four, I had stopped writing. I’d graduated college, gotten a degree in writing poetry, decided against grad school, and promptly settled down into a life of office temping and domesticity and waiting for a marriage proposal. When the boy and I split up, I found myself at a loss. For my entire adult life, I had been half of a couple. I’d had routines, long-standing compromises, a plan for the next several decades of my life. And that was all gone. I had to be someone else entirely. And I had no idea who she was.
What would I cook for myself, if I could choose? Because I had to choose. What would I do for fun? Left to my own devices, would I ever again watch the hit FOX procedural Bones? More important: What would I do with my life? For the past six years, my goal had been to get married before I turned thirty, so that we could get started on having kids. And that was, clearly, shot to shit. Now I had only five years to meet someone, get married, and have kids before the dreaded Spinster Deadline, and, you know, that was contingent on meeting someone I liked enough to marry, and, you know, I had never really dated around, I wanted to try that, maybe we should scrap that whole “marriage by 30” plan. So if I never got married, if I never had kids, what would make me happy? All I could remember was that, at one point, I had wanted to be a writer.
And here I was, waiting in an emergency room alone, and it really wasn’t fair. Was it? None of it was fair. It wasn’t fair that I’d had to wait for the proposal, that the one time I had tried to propose he told me it was “the guy’s job.” It wasn’t fair that I had waited so long, because everyone assured me “men are just that way,” they naturally feared anything that gave a woman more power or made her harder to get rid of. It wasn’t fair that I’d had to get tutorials on dressing up and wearing makeup and not scaring men off by having visible feelings, so that I could date; it wasn’t fair that I was going to pay $200 to make sure I didn’t get pregnant, and the guy who could have gotten me pregnant had paid for French toast and coffee.
It wasn’t fair that I was twenty-five years old and feeling like a failure. It wasn’t fair that I was twenty-five years old and thought my life would be over in five years. It wasn’t fair that I’d stopped writing. I’d had ambition; I’d been talented; I had stopped writing, because I was focusing on a relationship. And now the relationship was over. Because people can leave you, and writing won’t leave unless you make it, and nobody ever pointed that out to me; they were just happy I was turning out normal. Such a normal, marriage-focused, baby-focused, receptionist-desk-working type of girl. And now I had no boyfriend, and no plans for my life, and my job was answering a telephone, because I had stopped writing: This, above all things, was just not fair.
I know which site I am writing for, dear reader; I know that many of these problems are not your problems, and are in fact the result of my being a massively privileged straight lady. But I was sitting there, in a cold-ass emergency room, reading this woman Di Prima who actually got to be a writer, even back when sexism was way more overt, in the goddamned 1950s she got to do it and in 2007 I was being encouraged to get married by 30 and perfect my filing skills, and I’m telling you: It wasn’t fair. I had just started to notice how unfair it was. I had just started to think of it in gendered, and not purely personal, terms. I had just started to believe that it was essential to start writing again – not poems, I had lost any skill I’d ever had with poems, but something else. Essays, maybe. I had just started. I was sitting there in the hospital, waiting to be born.
* * *
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION
THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION
ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT
Diane Di Prima, “Rant”
* * *
At every deciding moment in my adult life – every moment when I had to take a step, from being something to being something else (child to woman, wife to writer) – I’ve read Diane Di Prima. And it only makes sense that I would. Deciding moments and reckless decisions are, in large part, what her work is about.
When I first read Di Prima, I was reading as someone learning the craft of poetry: I noticed the spareness of her language, how it can give way to longer conversational lines or condense itself into brief, fractured images. I noticed her tendency to lush language and to repetition. I noted that her use of contemporary slang sometimes dated the poems (“dig it;” NO THANK YOU, I was born in 1982), and reminded myself to avoid it.
But I focused on the language because I was a teenager; I hadn’t lived much yet, had nothing to compare to the life in the poems. Now, what strikes me is how the language changes, how the slang adjusts with the time, the fact that she dedicated one series of poems to Bob Dylan and a later one to Audre Lorde. What strikes me is that, though she worked with Beats and is described, if at all, as “a Beat” (sort of; but, you know, a woman), she only really wrote as Beat poetry at the very beginning of her very long career.
Yes, she wrote Beat poetry. She also wrote hippie poems – some wildly aggravating! Yes, you had long hair and smoked grass on blankets with your bare feet! – and feminist poems, poems about the Civil Rights movement and the gay rights movement, Buddhist poems, when that was happening, and some very New Age poems about “magick” with a K, as we move forward into the eighties and the nineties. There is a chronology of her life in the back of Pieces of a Song, and though there are some bizarre lines in there – “1966: Moved to Kerhonkson, New York, and later to Timothy Leary’s experimental community;” “1978: Moved back to San Francisco and studied psychic reading” – what stands out is the adventurousness of it all. This woman found the riskiest, weirdest thing to be, at any particular moment, and then she became it.
And it wasn’t easy. Her memoir fills in the blanks of the chronology: Ditching college. Being desperately poor on Avenue A in the ’50s, pulling part-time shifts in a bookstore so she would have time to write. Having sex with a friend so that she could get pregnant, and raising that baby with her girlfriend. Falling in love with the very married poet LeRoi Jones, before he was Amiri Baraka – she refuses to call him anything but “Roi” – and carrying on a years-long affair. Being pressured by Jones to have an illegal abortion; doing it, despite watching a friend nearly die from the procedure; being excluded from an anthology of “new poets” specifically because of their affair. His poems made it in, of course. He was a very important new voice. And also, a man.
The woman has courage. Choosing to write, she said, “was choosing as completely as possible the life of the renunciant.” In 1994, she still apparently had trouble paying her rent. And that’s just how it goes. The key word here is “choosing.” You are not deprived; you have renounced. You have chosen something for your life. And you did not choose the “tons and tons of money” option. So, good luck.
But to do it as a woman, to do it as a woman in one of the most notoriously misogynist scenes of the 20th century, to do it as a bisexual woman, as a single mother, as a radical anarchist activist who never answered the door because it was either her landlord or the FBI: I don’t think many people have the backbone to make that choice. It cost her. If she had followed her original path – college, a modest and prudent attempt at writing, early poems praised by Ezra Pound – there is a very strong possibility she would be more well-known today.
Or, there is the option that no-one would read her. That she would never have lived enough to write the poems we have; that she would have been boring. A well-mannered lady poet, making well-mannered lady choices and well-mannered lady compromises, settling back into obscurity and into a very luxurious armchair, confident that she could always pay the rent on time.
* * *
There is no way out of the spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
There is no way that 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
– Diane Di Prima, “Rant”
* * *
“THE REQUIREMENTS OF OUR LIFE IS THE FORM OF OUR ART,” is one of Di Prima’s statements on how art works. She said that she intended it especially for women. And it’s true: It is, or they are. The requirements of being a woman inform every line of Di Prima; so do the requirements of poverty, of rebellion, of standing on the outside of the culture. But the requirements can be beautiful, in their way. For example, the requirements can include courage. And vision. And hope. Which all became requirements when I read Diane Di Prima in an emergency room on a cold, lonely December morning in Manhattan.
I am not a poet. I run a website. My writing sounds nothing like hers. But notice how I can refer to “my writing.” Because I write now. I am, in fact, a writer. All I had to do was decide I was going to write something. You don’t have to be a poet to have a poetics, like the lady says, and you don’t have to be a poet to appreciate this idea: The boldness of making your own world. Deciding what your world should look like and then just making it look that way. Taking risks – bullheaded, obvious, deadly or ruinous risks – as often as you have to, to make it happen. All of your friends, the very talented ones who just never get around to painting anything any more, the very smart ones who are going to start writing one day when they have more time, the people who know who they want to be and what they want to do but just haven’t done it yet, the people who’ve never stopped to wonder who they want to be, never realized it was a choice: Make them read Diane Di Prima. Especially if they’re girls.
“There is no part of yourself you can separate out / saying this is memory, this is sensation / this is my work, this is how I / make a living,” Di Prima warns us. “There is nothing to integrate, you are a presence.” She is. I am. And you are.
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