Diane di Prima  

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"What do you suppose happened to all those Beatniks?" mused a blonde freshman as she drove me back to San Francisco after my reading at Berkeley last year."

Diane di Prima May 1969, foreword to Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) is a book by Diane di Prima

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Diane di Prima (August 6, 1934 – October 25, 2020) was an American poet. She was also an artist, prose writer, memoirist, playwright, social justice activist, fat acceptance activist, and teacher.

Her book Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) is a fictionalized, erotic account detailing her experience in the Beat movement.

She is featured in the documentary Gang of Souls (1989) directed by Maria Beatty.



Early life

Di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. She attended Hunter College High School and Swarthmore College before dropping out to be a poet in Manhattan. Her official online biography notes that she was "a second generation American of Italian descent" and that "Her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, was an active anarchist, and associate of Carlo Tresca and Emma Goldman." Di Prima began writing as a child and by the age of 19 was corresponding with Ezra Pound and Kenneth Patchen. Her first book of poetry, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, was published in 1958 by Hettie Jones and LeRoi Jones' Totem Press.

Involvement with the Beats

Di Prima spent the late 1950s and early 1960s in Manhattan, where she participated in the emerging Beat movement. She spent some time in California at Stinson Beach and Topanga Canyon, returned to New York City, and eventually moved to San Francisco permanently. Di Prima was a bridge figure between the Beat movement and the later hippies, as well as between East Coast and West Coast artists.

She edited the newspaper The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and was co-founder of the New York Poets Theatre and founder of the Poets Press. On several occasions she faced charges of obscenity by the United States government due to her work with the New York Poets Theatre and The Floating Bear. In 1961 she was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for publishing two poems in The Floating Bear. According to di Prima, police persistently harassed her due to the nature of her poetry.

In 1966, she spent some time at Millbrook with Timothy Leary's psychedelic community and printed the first two editions of "Psychedelic Prayers" by Leary in Spring 1966.

In 1969, she wrote a fictionalized, erotic account detailing her experience in the Beat movement titled Memoirs of a Beatnik. From 1974 to 1997, di Prima taught Poetry at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, sharing the program with fellow Beats Allen Ginsberg (Co-founder of the program), William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and others. In 2001, she published Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years.


In the late 1960s, she moved permanently to California, where she resided ever since. There, di Prima became involved with the Diggers and studied Buddhism, Sanskrit, Gnosticism, and alchemy. In 1966 she signed a vow of tax resistance to the Vietnam war. Di Prima read two of her poems at the iconic farewell concert The Last Waltz, by The Band. The first was "Get Yer Cut Throat off My Knife", the second, "Revolutionary Letter #4". From the 1960s on she worked as a photographer and a collage artist, and in the last decade or so of her life she took up watercolor painting.

Di Prima collaborated with filmmaker Melanie La Rosa to make the documentary "The Poetry Deal: a film with Diane di Prima." The film has historical significance as the only film to focus exclusively on di Prima's work, and it features rare archival footage and recordings of di Prima reading her work from as early as 1974, acquired from places where di Prima had longstanding relationships such as Naropa University, The Poetry Project in New York City, and the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University. The film also features contemporary readings of di Prima's poetry, read by her friends and by the artist herself, including a spontaneous 2007 reading of "The Poetry Deal" by di Prima in her living room and a moving 2009 reading of "Song for Baby-O," recorded at a poetry festival in Gloucester, Massachusetts, as well as several film-poems shot in various stocks to create unique aesthetics in homage to di Prima's literary aesthetic. Reactions to "The Poetry Deal: a film with Diane di Prima" note that it allows the viewer to "experience di Prima's poetry directly" and that the "remarkable kineticism emanating from the core of di Prima’s lush, intimate and powerfully wrought poems”.... is ...."organic and faithful to the buzzing sense of boundary-less joy that made the Beats so special" — important qualities for anyone seeking to know di Prima's life and work.

According to di Prima's official website, she also taught workshops, with her most popular being one where she taught attendees how to combine paintings or photographs with the printed word. Di Prima has several poetic works that were in progress, including City Lights' expanded edition of Revolutionary Letters, which includes new poems. According to the Poetry Foundation, she has "taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and in the Masters-in-Poetics program at the New College of California."

From 1980 to 1987, she taught Hermetic and esoteric traditions in poetry, in a short-lived but significant Masters-in-Poetics program at New College of California, which she established together with poets Robert Duncan and David Meltzer. She has also taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. She was one of the co-founders of San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts (SIMHA), where she taught Western spiritual traditions from 1983 to 1992.

Di Prima's works are held at "the University of Louisville, Indiana University, Southern Illinois University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s libraries." Her poetry often presents a struggle with the social and political disturbances that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Although many of her poems did have a social or political slant, much of her writing also involved issues with personal relationships and her life. A majority of her newest material has female paradigms and religious practice, specifically Eastern philosophies.

Personal life

Di Prima was the mother of five children: Jeanne di Prima, Dominique di Prima, Alex Marlowe, Tara Marlowe, and Rudi di Prima. Dominique is her daughter with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). She was married to Alan Marlowe in 1962 (divorced 1969) and in 1972 to Grant Fisher (divorced 1975.)


Di Prima was known for her involvement in the fat acceptance movement. Her poetry often reflects her views on the subject, such as her 1990 collection of poems Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems. In a 2001 interview with David Hadbawnik, she discusses her thoughts about society's views on obesity. "I think that the way America treats people who happen to be larger in scale is absolutely despicable. We need to stop hating on the larger, and start loving them." Di Prima developed strong opinions on the subject matter after she watched an obese homeless man get beaten by a group of children. "They wouldn't leave him alone. I wanted to intervene, but I was too afraid at the time." Di Prima has since devoted time to helping people struggling with weight-related body issues overcome depression and bullying. "Everybody deserves respect. Not just those who have slim bodies, but everyone, regardless of pounds."

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