Diane di Prima (1934-2020) was a poet, artist, activist and teacher who navigated countercultural landscapes of both the Beats and the Diggers and published more than 40 books of poetry, essays and autobiography, including Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) and Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001). di Prima was on the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in 1989 when Lisa Janssen was enrolled there. di Prima’s death in late October inspired this poetic recollection by Lisa, in tribute and in memory.
A few weeks ago, I got Audre Lorde’s memoir Zami, for some reason. It was probably reading the New York Times review of Lorde’s new Selected Works that piqued my interest. As I was finishing it, I was compelled to look for my copy of Diane di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman. They were friends, both part of a group they called “The Branded” at Hunter College. I remember really loving it, thinking I should give a copy to my mother-in-law as an example of how you can pull through the most difficult circumstances and make art, on sheer will.
The receipt in the book shows that I bought it on May 15, 2001, and that I had bought it in Chicago at a reading she appeared at for the book’s publication. I’d clipped the announcement for the reading from the alt-weekly paper, which is in the book too.
To my surprise, I had forgotten she’d signed it. “For Lisa, may the Work find its way to you, & you to it – always.” “Work” capitalized.
I’d probably told her how I wasn’t writing, how frustrating it was that I couldn’t get there anymore.
Diane di Prima was there for my first summer at Naropa, 1989. In my memory, she was a giant round woman in giant loose clothing. It was summer, after all, and there was no air conditioning in the old Arapahoe building. She had a vivacious voice and presence. There was always a laugh just about to break to the surface. I did not know her work then even though the reason I’d ended up at Naropa was because of the misogyny of the Beats. I know that doesn’t make sense, but that’s another story.
In her memoir, she is one of the boys sometimes, excusing all because she can roll with them without sexual advances (except for that ape Kerouac), match their intellect and therefore escape their worst tendencies.
Other times, she is hunkered down with a cabal of women who help her survive and raise her children. She has a long affair with the married Le Roi Jones, one of the most misogynistic of them all.
I admire both.
on this gutted
Out of sheer will!
Barreling through life with that confidence, through the horrible bloody (for women) 1950s, the whole neighborhood in terror when a single young women moves in, and then has the nerve to have a baby there. I love how she describes the way her body told her it was time to get pregnant, which she does, determined and unflappable.
Later she aligns herself with another ape group – the Diggers. Emmett Grogan, such a macho bore. She, neither escaping nor denying her womanly impulses to care for them.
You have to live with everyone and sometimes the worst are the most brilliant and should you deprive yourself of that light because they are apes? And when you know your light is as bright or brighter than theirs?
That’s the question, at least a question.
I spent some time looking at pictures of her online, wondering what all her children ended up doing. A photo from the summer I was at Naropa, shocked at the photo of her in a nursing home, barely any hair and her big joyful body shrunken down, but her eyes still smiling.
The reason I thought to remark on this. I had left my copy of Recollections of My Life as a Woman open, pages down on my bed on Saturday. My kitten Elsie likes to chew on paper and she managed to chew a whole hunk of one page out of the upsidedown book.
I was sad, but this wasn’t a super valuable book, it was only of personal value to me, signed to me, thus decreasing the value. I would put it back on my shelf for now.
Then, on that following Sunday, she died.