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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Diane di Prima

in conversation with David Hadbawnik

Early in August 2001, poet David Hadbawnik visited with Diane di Prima to interview her about her new book, Recollections of My Life as a Woman.

This piece is 9,300 words or about twenty printed pages long. It first appeared in the Possum Pouch, at

You can read a sonnet sequence by Diane di Prima in Jacket 13.

David Hadbawnik: First I wanted to ask about what you write about your family, your early childhood. There have been some problems about that with your surviving relatives, but to me it seems that while there’s a lot of hard stuff in the book, there’s also a lot of insight and understanding and forgiveness. Could you talk about that, how specific things about your childhood and growing up shaped your attitude about men, how you say men are a luxury, and the whole attitude of being cool emotionally and masking your sexuality as a child.

Diane di Prima: I think to start with, there was that ‘men were a luxury’ thing that I got at the grandparents’ house, much as my grandfather was clearly the head of the family in terms of, he was the most intellectual, he was looked up to, and so on. Yet at the same time, there were six daughters and one son that he had — the six daughters and my grandmother constantly were working around him and his ideals to keep things going. So that was the ‘men were a luxury’ thing, and that was one thing, and maybe that’s the deepest stratum for me. They were a luxury in the sense that you couldn’t rely on them for basics, but they were there with brilliant ideas and often lots of excitement in terms of — I don’t know, politically you could get in trouble.

Photo of Diane di Prima, 1997, by David Short

Photo of Diane di Prima, 1997, by David Short

      But what I got at home, was that men were tyrannical, tended towards violence — so these were two completely different bundles of messages. And all women did was humor them and did what they wanted. So it was also working around them in a different way.
      And the problems I’m having now are that both my brothers have put a lot of denial into the violence that resulted in that, and also it was different for them because I was born three years before either of them. [Three years] before my middle brother and seven years before my younger brother. And as my parents I think probably adapted to each other as well as their situation, it probably changed a lot, but as the oldest child anywhere you get all the flak. But my father as far as I can remember was always, when I was living at home still, was always considered an explosive person. He’d be very, very quiet and then he’d just blow up. So between that and the fact that the way my mother handled him was to be completely codependent and completely wanted to wait on him.
      One time she was sick and she couldn’t get out of bed, she had hurt her back, and she called me in, I was about eight, I don’t know if I wrote about this or not — she called me in to her room and said ‘You let that man wash a dish.’ And here’s this little eight-year-old I’m supposed to keep the guys from getting their own glasses of water, or washing, touching any housework at all, and I — I thought she was crazy. I stood there looking at her — ‘What do you mean I let him wash a dish?’ You know, he’s the grownup.
      So given those two different sets of weird messages — they were different — neither set was such a kind of message that made you want to rush out and live with a man. With the grandfather and grandmother, they seemed quite happy, but if I was going to have all that excitement of a man that was a luxury, I might as well have the choice of when I wanted that around and when I didn’t....
      As when I was with Leroi [Jones, a.k.a. Amiri Baraka], there was that excitement, but we didn’t live together except very briefly, for a week or two, which I didn’t even bother to write about. He moved out and got his own place, and he and I lived together briefly — he made a very beautiful house.
      But anyway, the feeling was, you know, what’s the pluses here, I know what the minuses are. What’s the pluses when I can just be me, be who I was by the time I was 18 — I can have my pick of these guys and I can have them when I tell them to come over.
      The other stuff you asked me about, the family, the masking of the sexuality... I think that stayed with me a lot. In one way I’m very present in my sex... much less now — but still, I always tend to hide my body in how I dress and like that. It was also the time, but it wasn’t all the period. My favorite outfits were men’s corduroy shirts and jeans, or white sweatshirts and black jeans, not tight jeans. And men’s boots, from the navy surplus store.

Diane di Prima, book cover

Detail from the book cover

Photo: Diane di Prima
at the Gas Light Café, June 18, 1959; photo © Fred McDarrah. Visit his web site at

And dressing up, I still don’t know how to dress up. But I figured out a couple ways around it, and that’s what I do. I don’t know how to put on makeup. In fact, some friend is going to come over and we’re going to give it another shot. That was partly because that was very threatening to my mother, who had some kind of breakdown that we have never figured out anything more about than what I wrote in the book.

Well, for me it’s interesting, the whole relationship that you had with your family, as someone who also feels a lot different from my family, and what ways did you reconcile with that or not reconcile with it, or just accept that you were different and let go of it, because in the book there are all these letters to your mother — ‘why did you let this happen to you’ or ‘why did you do this,’ but most of them were unsent.

They were all unsent. They were letters I wrote all at one time, in a couple of days, after the last time she came to visit me on the West Coast, that trip I describe where we would keep going to the conservatory and then she said that remarkable thing about wanting to see everything there was to see in the world — that was her last trip out here. After she went home I wrote these letters. Because we had started to record a little family history, and this was all stuff that had come up, questions: how come we don’t know about this, how come no one in the family knows any of this — but I never sent them. She came to see me in one summer, and she died, I guess around a year after that. They were just scrawled on a yellow pad and put aside. More like notes, in case we got to talk again.

So did you feel like you reached an understanding with your family?

In some ways yes, in some ways no. I think I reached an understanding with my mother. She used to come and stay in our house in Marshall on Tomales Bay, and she had a lot of positive things that she saw about my choices. About how the kids were and how they were raised, and she said a lot of positive stuff at that point.
      My father died in 1969, and there was something going on for him in the way of understanding, but we never really talked. The problem has been with my own generation. Because when I left school and all that, certain wedges were set in place, between not only me and my brothers but me and my cousins and so on, by my parents, most particularly by my dad. He was terrified that anybody would find any of my books, find out how I was living, or any of that, and so the family has always thought of me — talking about cousins and people my own age — as this kind of like, they’re supposed to proud of me but they’re not quite sure why, this kind of maverick.
      And I have rarely if ever seen them since I left — 50 years, 48 years. I see cousins at my mother’s wake, grandmother’s wake a few years after I left, and occasionally at my brother’s house like when he got married for the second time... And it never occurred to me to invite anyone from the family either of the times I got married. It was more like I walked on it, than tried to reach an understanding. The understanding worked for me more from the subconscious up, like that dream I described where I was praying to understand and forgive my father in that church, and I was being told that our background was really Arabic, that’s how I had to understand Sicilian, if I understood that I would understand how he saw girls... So it was working from the bottom up, from subconscious up, and certainly didn’t happen in his lifetime.
      And at this point, I’m really dubious that there’s much understanding to be gained, or achieved between me and my brothers. With each of my brothers at different times I felt I was pretty close, but when the book came out the fact of the matter was they were both so freaked out they wrote an article — I don’t know if they published it — about what my parents were really like and how I was having false memory syndrome or something.
      And so at that point I said ‘I give up’... Because we’re too old to keep going over the same ground. I thought I was pretty close to my brother Frank the last 10 or 12 years, and I’m not mad, I was upset at first that they would refute the book without bothering to talk to me about it first, but they’re just who they are... So it’s not really like a reconciliation.
      I have a bigger family. I have a different family. I have a family that extends through generations of friends, people older than me all the way down to teenage people in the arts — so that’s my family. And I have a certain understanding with my kids, I believe, with each one separately and differently. So that’s the only family I really feel close to is my kids and grandkids. I feel like really for me, you have to take your eyes off this blood-link thing, and put it on who’s your real family. Who’s really part of your tribe. I did when I was writing the book. I didn’t let any of what they would think about it come up; I tried to keep a little book, or when I didn’t have that I had it in my head, of pictures of people I’m really writing for.
      Engravings of Keats at his window scribbling away, or photos of Jean Cocteau or H.D. — who am I really writing for, what is this for, you know? And it wasn’t about them. I put in the family stuff because I thought it would be helpful to young artists or young people who wanted to be artists who were having a hard time or coming from a hard background. More than, because I wanted to say, ‘O woe is me, I suffered so much.’ At this point I don’t think it’s relevant, doesn’t matter. None of that matters at this point.

Well, another theme I found in the book is the notion of power, and your observation of the power struggles in your own family and the society you grew up in, and there’s a quote when you’re having a meeting with your uncle: ‘It is power I’m talking about, the use and abuse of power, power and secrecy and deals made in the dark. Coils of the unsaid winding through our lives, tangling and tripping us, holding the fabric together.’
      And that, for me, seems like a theme for the whole book, of how you discovered that and learned to use it for yourself, the power of words and your power as a woman.

That could be, I never really thought about that. I know that the slant I was given — the only handle I was given on reading history or reading society as a whole, was that hierarchical power, how it works. From the time I was little, men would meet in my house, to divvy up whatever the plums were, and so on, it was clear that that’s how society works, but at what point I realized that was how a lot of one-on-one relationships work was much later, I think I was living with Alan [Marlowe] and we were hassling it out in Topanga Canyon, you know.
      I wasn’t really thinking about it as having power over anybody when I was having all those millions of affairs and all that, that was about peers sort of, but again, caught in the nuclear family situation it became power, a power game. Power of words — that’s something else. I guess there was always the hope or the possibility that they would go on for a while. So in that sense, the idea of getting a book out is that you don’t have to take care of those particular words out there any more, they can take care of themselves.

You talked a little bit earlier about how at an early age you chose mask your sexuality and not have any relations with men, and then later, when you were living alone in New York for the first time after leaving school, you had a ‘parade of lovers,’ and was that a gradual or sudden change?

Oh, no, I think it was, once I got away from my mother who was so threatened by sex and sexuality, my father too, he thought he owned my body, my mother was threatened by female sexuality totally, once I was out of there, and once it wasn’t a game, the social game of dating, and girls and boys and all that, and having status by who you were with, once it was just being with people, physically, that was not so hard for me.
      So in that sense it was a sudden change. You walk out the door of that house, you get your own apartment, and you’re a different person.

It seemed like you went through a discovery that you had your own body, studying movement and dance.

Yeah, that started a little earlier when I was 15. Yeah, that was important. But then also I think a lot of early sexuality, like I was 18 when I got my own place, and you have to figure those early 20s too, a lot of discovering you have your own body is discovering how someone else has their body, so for me I used to think of going to bed with someone as — I think I wrote that in the book as ‘embarking on a voyage of discovery,’ an adventure, each thing was different, each person was different, and I think what helped to find my physicality was to explore someone else’s physicality, and all that mutual surprise that you have in the early years about what all that is.

This book is called Recollections of My Life as a Woman, and I don’t know to what extent you made it be consciously for women, but it seems to me there’s just as much in there for artists and poets of any gender.

Yeah, I hope so. I call it that, because the title was there long before the book, and at that time in the mid-80s I was thinking about writing a short book for my daughters about stuff that happened to me because I bought into certain myths of how women were supposed to be, like you’re supposed to take care of everything, be all-powerful in terms of getting the work done, in terms of getting the kids, and all that, but then it turned into something else when I sat down to write it. But the title stayed because the title had been there.
      And when I was writing the book I was writing it more for all artists, and all people too, but artists especially, and young people who thought they might want to do that. At this point in my life and at the turn of this particular millennium, I feel like we’ve got a bare spark left of creativity and joy and it’s very threatened by a lot of darkness. So every chance I get as I run around my world I sort of blow on the embers, and hope that people can keep that joy of creativity going because there’s not much else for us. Without it it’s hardly worth being here.

One thing that is perhaps a paradox, but encouraging to read about, was your decision not only to have children by yourself but to raise them by yourself. And despite that, defying the cliché of the lone artist as the male, or the female, deciding to have kids and that’s it — you’re going back into the conventional lifestyle.

Yeah, that’s terrible because they’re using their kids as an excuse. That’s awful to do to their kids too, that’s a real cop-out. Because if they want to go back to that lifestyle it’s not their kids driving them.

But it seems like there were some doubts that you had about that. For example you had this vision of Keats warning you not to do it, and Kerouac saying...

Well, I had had that close relationship, séance relationship with Keats right along. And the life that Keats knew there wasn’t any such thing. I mean it was quite personally a picture of the real Keats, and there was no such thing, it was just the work. So you could say I was dialoging with that part of myself, but it was just the work. And people didn’t do that. Women didn’t do that, especially, but guys didn’t do it either, if they had kids, and they were doing art, they probably either abandoned the kids or whatever to go on with their work. And everybody said, ‘Oh, that’s OK, they’re guys, you know.’

Photo of Diane di Prima, 1998, by Sheppard Powell

Photo of Diane di Prima, 1998, by Sheppard Powell

      So, my feeling was I wanted everything — very earnestly and totally — I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body, and that meant that I wanted to be mother. You know, and I wanted to go through the whole thing of seeing them grow up and what that would be and all that. So my feeling was, ‘Well’ — as I had many times had the feeling — ‘Well, nobody’s done it quite this way before but fuck it, that’s what I’m doing, I’m going to risk it. All I can do is lose.’
      And whatever that meant, the art would stop, or the kid would die of neglect, or I would just die of exhaustion, or something. That’s what ‘All I could do was lose’ was. But it’s not really anything that we lose anyway. There’s nothing that we won’t lose, there’s nothing we have to protect.

There’s kind of a funny passage where you try to find somebody who would have a baby with you but not raise it —

Yeah, so my lovers — ‘Would you like to be the father of a child?’ I mean, hell, Isadora Duncan asked her lovers, they didn’t say no. But [the men] were all scared.

Why do you think that was?

Well, they thought I was crazy I guess. The last thing they wanted, men in that time, the main thing they were afraid of was being ‘caught,’ that was the phrase they would use, being caught by a woman. Maybe they were afraid if they had a child by a woman they would be caught; the last thing I wanted was them around when I had a child. But their conditioning of being free and not committing or being caught, was easily as strong as women’s conditioning of getting married and having matching dishes... So everybody was really, they were caught, they were all caught in the same box.

Then there’s that quote from Jack Keroauc that —

— unless you forget your baby sitter you’ll never be a writer.

But that sort of turns into, because I didn’t forget my babysitter that allows me to be the writer I am. So that was another interesting thing.

Because to me it was, you can’t give your word and not keep it, and the thing of it is, I knew I was already risking that I’d never be a writer. And another point, a very liberating point I don’t think I wrote about, is, we’ll never know in our lifetimes if we were ‘good writers’ or not, because that stuff is decided way after we’re gone, if the work survives. And it might or might not. But I constantly remember that [Robert] Southey was the great poet when Coleridge and Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley were writing. You could go through the periods after that — it goes on like that.
      So you can never know, and the approbation of your fellows doesn’t tell you, and you yourself if you’re taking any risks can never know if they work or not, for sure, so I soon realized there was no way of knowing if I’d ever be a writer anyway. And then that working definition, if you write every day you’re a writer. I mean if you get up every day and what you do is you go write, maybe that’s all you need to know — not anything else.

In that vein, you said you took it as a matter of course when Donald Allen left you out of the New American Poetry anthology, because of the affair with Roi, and even today it seems there’s a question of recognition for the women of that era, compared with men, and — does that still bother you at all?

Well, I think I should have been in that anthology. It didn’t bother me then because I was quite arrogant and self-assured enough to think it didn’t matter whether I was in that one anthology or not. I got a letter from Don when this book came out denying that he told me that he was leaving me out for the reason that I say in the book, because Hettie [Jones, Baraka’s wife] asked him to, and I don’t distrust my memory on that one. I remember what doorway we were standing in in Roi and Hettie’s apartment.
      Of course Hettie also denies that that was the case — and Hettie might not have asked him, it might have been the way he dreamed up an excuse to get out of it, because he didn’t want to be caught in this triangle. And no one would’ve thought twice about a white lie like that in those days. Especially Don who’s very suave, and had a good position. So I’m not saying that he’s deliberately lying about it now, maybe he doesn’t even remember, but the thing is that at that point it was ‘Well, OK, so I’m not in it.’
      But I knew at that point, because some of the work I’d given him had been from the New Handbook of Heaven, it was ‘The Jungle’ and pieces like that, and I knew it was as strong as anything in Roi’s early work that was going in from that Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note [Baraka’s first book], we were writing almost as if we were writing back and forth to each other at that point. And it seemed like, well, Fuck it, if not this anthologym, another anthology, and not what you know in hindsight that this one anthology is going to define a period or movement, and I don’t know if I would have worried even if I’d known that. Because I always felt that the work finds its own places to go.
      But there was the fact that, given the fact that me and Roi and Hettie, we were all basically in one position of misbehaving — how does it happen that the woman gets left out of the anthology? But I didn’t even think about that. There was a European tradition that I was following a lot in my mind somewhere, you’re the mistress, so you should stay invisible. And so I never even questioned that at one point.

Did Donald ever give you a legitimate reason?

No, he didn’t give any reason, I have the letter somewhere, but later when he did the second anthology and he put in people he had left out, and I guess he had left out some people he put in — he did a whole other New American Poetry from that same time and I was in that one, he said in the letter he wrote me then that it had been a severe oversight on his part... It seems more likely that either Hettie asked him, or he just didn’t want to get caught in our little psychodramas, which I can’t blame him for in the least. And I was the one who was in the not-legit position, and that’s always been my choice, that I would choose to have an affair with a married person and be in that position. Not that I had much choice about falling in love with Roi, but you situate yourself and I situated myself always outside the regular relationships and regular roles. Like I never worked a regular job after the first year [of leaving school at 18].

Speaking of Roi, would you say that was the start of recognizing that men could be good for something more than what you had always thought?

Not really. No, Roi was more like, me looking for my Grandpa, looking for the firebrand revolutionary, yeah, maybe a little bit nihilistic and so on at that point in his life. There’s something about the way we came together that still feels like it had an element of kismet or fate in it, something that just had to happen, and it happened good. But Roi wasn’t there for me, either for the abortion [of their first child] or after Dominique [Baraka and Di Prima’s daughter] was born. He was too bewildered, he was too hurting himself from too many points of view.
      Not only about me and all his other ladies, his wife and everything else but that black-white thing and did he or didn’t he want to stay, and it was a beautiful, wonderful world he was welcomed in, the world of all of us artists, loved by folks like Frank [O’Hara] and so on, but then there was that other thing that he was called to, which was the Black Arts thing. So he’s hurting on so many levels, but probably it was just as well there, for him and I to have talked all that out was ridiculous, we didn’t have the tools, nobody had the tools at that time to figure anything out from somebody else’s point of view, and we would’ve gone in circles.
      So what he did, he just used to come and sit and hold Dominique and go home and not say anything, I mean that’s what he could do. But no, I didn’t feel like, ‘Ah, now men are good for something’ — no. What does he say to me when I come back from the abortion? He says, ‘You’ll never forgive me.’ I mean, what kind of being there is that? I’m not blaming him, I’m just saying no, I didn’t learn anything there. And I didn’t learn anything with Alan [Marlowe, her first husband], I didn’t learn anything with Grant [Fisher, second husband] of usefulness. Alan and I had a good working relationship, we made theaters and presses like nobody’s business, so on that level he came a little closer to joining a family life, he was also the one who really cared about keeping a house together and all that stuff.
      But in terms of really having a partner or equal peer I really never experienced that with a man till I was with Sheppard [Powell — her current partner]. And it took the first 10 years or so of being with him before I came to a real solid place of daily life-ness. Before that it was all insanity and art and stuff that I was probably too old for but he wasn’t, a lot of staying up all night. But no. I found out with Roi that I could love a man, but my Grandma loved my Grandpa, it didn’t make him reliable in terms of anything. Just made him a wondrous person.

Photo of Diane di Prima, 1987, by Sheppard Powell

Photo of Diane di Prima, 1987, by Sheppard Powell

      I think what I had with Roi that my Grandma didn’t have was that exchange of the poem, back and forth, exchange of art back and forth. And doing the [Floating] Bear [magazine] together was a wonderful experience, difficult as it was. And again, he and I equally chose the work, but who typed, was me, and I didn’t mind, I just took it for granted he wasn’t going to do anything like that. And who did most of the physical work was a crowd of folks that either we both knew or that were friends of mine like Freddie [Herko], who would just come together and do it.
      Sometimes Roi would show for those, because it was good crowds, he would run the press for a while, but I wasn’t counting on him to be there for any of it, except when we chose.
      And in the choosing again, that was a good example of where [being] cool worked, because we didn’t discuss, ‘Well I think this piece is a’ — ‘I think we should put in this Dorn piece’ — ‘Well, Roi I don’t like this Dorn piece.’ We didn’t do that. Instead we just said, ‘Oh, OK, you like that, OK, that can go in, I think I’d like to put this in,’ and we just made space for each other’s points of view without trying to mishmash them down into a common denominator. So cool sometimes worked very well for us.

Speaking of that attitude in the Bay Area — when you had the poet’s theater, you talked about the importance of having a surround of other artists, and it seems like you had that all along, but especially when the Bear was happening, and the Theater—

That all started to take off around the same time, around ’61.

How important do you think that surround of artists was in terms of your own development as an artist, and how important do you think it is in general, and talk about how hard it is, and the difficulties of that today that you see.

Well I think I learned early on that, aside from what I learned early on, going through trying to read everything in the ABC of Reading [by Ezra Pound], everything I learned through Pound, the place where I learned the most about poetics, was actually typing those poems for the Floating Bear, onto those green stencils.
      By the time you start, since the Bear was the same size as a typewriter page, once you copy exactly the line breaks and the spacing that Olson had done, it gave you plenty of time to absorb it and to ponder why did he do it that way. You’re typing a lot of poets, in my case I was typing a lot of poets that were further along, that were cutting edge in some other area than the area I was working in, like Dorn, so I don’t think I ever learned more than I did typing. What are there, 16 of those Bears, typing them, proofreading them, handling the material right onto the page.
      That was big, and also the Poet’s Press books. On Bear’s Head was completely prepped by me, for Poet’s Press, and including all the drawings that Philip [Whalen] had in it, had been cut out and photostatted and pasted in, when he wrote me and said I couldn’t do it because he’d just made a contract with Harcourt Brace. And each one of those you’re typing with special ribbons on slick paper, so you’re actually doing, you’re repeating the process that the writer went through, and On Bear’s Head was a monster, a huge book, and I finished at Millbrook in ’67. So it was just about ready to go to press when Philip found a publisher who could give him money and he needed the money, but it never came out with all the pictures...
      All of those were real important in terms of what I learned. In terms of the artists in general, there was so much happening, and one didn’t realize that it wasn’t happening like that always. There was no night when you weren’t at a movie or seeing someone’s new dance or going to a rehearsal of a dance you were in, rehearsing for Poet’s Theater, the amount of input was huge. Cecil [Taylor] would say ‘Do you want to come over, I want to practice all afternoon.’ And again, where cool worked, I wasn’t going to come in and chat or anything, I was going to come over with my notebook and scribble.
      So there was a constant input, to the point where it was subliminal. There was no time to analyze or say, ‘Well, what’s Jimmy Waring doing that’s new in this piece, or what’s happening to form in that’ — but you were just taking it in and taking it in to the point where it was bypassing what is they call that, the left side of the brain, the way images do when you visualize. So you had this bank of stuff that was there for you when you wrote.
      And you had all that human blessing energy of all these people. Some of them you didn’t like but it didn’t matter, you knew that it didn’t matter. Because what was happening from them, this ectoplasm of creative energy that was in the air, it was thick. Maybe you dodged this one because he was always asking for dope, but they were all still part of it, it was like you couldn’t have left out a single one of those without making a whole.
      So I talked about this in writing classes, you know, in the day of Shakespeare everybody wrote sonnets, and songs, and everybody could write at least a passable whatever, or draw a passable whatever, all the ladies played piano. And that matters, in that you have a ground from which the people who have stature are going to grow, they don’t have to start in a place where there’s nothing at all and invent a platform and stand on that, there’s like a real ground of fertile energy all the time. We had that then. And I’m not sure, I can’t say ‘Oh, alas it died out in this year or that year,’ because I don’t know. I walked on the East Coast in my mind in ’67 but permanently in ’68, after Frank [O’Hara] died... I was out of there. I was out of there before it was over.

I was really surprised to find that you were such good friends with Frank.

Oh, yeah, right down-the-street friends. Coming over for Sunday breakfast friends.

Was he that way with other poets?

I don’t know. He really adopted me in some way. One poem I wrote after he died I said ‘you my big brother brought me up.’ And he’s only a few years older than me, but sometimes in the arts a few years can make a big difference. He socialized me, brought out the part of me that was a social being, that could make witticisms at cocktail parties, and be at ease in all those crowds. Because he enjoyed watching it so much, it gave me confidence.
      But I also knew him very much privately. I used to go over with Jeannie [her first daughter] for breakfast. I didn’t meet a hundred poets there, it was me, sometimes his friend Joe LeSueur and people like that. And I remember when he said I want you to meet these younger people that have come on the scene — turns out now, they were two or three years younger than me, like Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Tony Towle — these were three of his younger people that he was excited about, and Bill Berkson, although Bill knew him a little earlier than that. Bill was always — me and Bill and Frank would have lunch sometimes at the bar near the Museum of Modern Art, and to me Bill was this dear friend, younger brother person, so I thought of them — three or four years made differences in how we were together, and how we were in the city.
      But aside from Bill, I didn’t see Frank with people a whole lot, I saw him at social events with millions of people, or sometimes I would just go over digging through his kitchen to find poems for the Bear. And sometimes I would go over with the bread and he’d make eggs in his own boiler, and do breakfast or something.
      So I think Frank’s death, although I was in the country when it happened, was one of those things that really tossed me out of that milieu, before that milieu was really winding down, the creative energy. I felt it still there when I would go read like in ’72 — I don’t think I felt it there so much, say by ’75 or ’76, but around ’76 I decided not to go back to the East Coast for a while, it was eight years before I read there again.

You were feeling the pull of the West Coast...

I had been living here for four or five years. At first you go back a lot, and then you go back less, and then one day, I was there on a reading trip and I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to come back here for awhile.’ And it was eight years, I came back with Shepard and we stayed at Bob Wilson’s house in Chelsea... but a lot happened in those eight years, it was ’83 — in the arts milieu, I mean. I don’t know when it started to not feel like that in New York, but a lot of young people in New York, they still feel it like that. Although I don’t know if there’s that mixing up of all the different arts that we had.

It seems that you were beginning to get an appreciation for the West Coast, that aesthetic, and different people like Mike McClure and George Herms and Wallace Berman, people like that, and that you perceived a real clash between those aesthetics, between the East and West Coast, and you hoped for some kind of cross-pollination. To what extent do you feel that that eventually happened?

I don’t know if it ever happened. I don’t see George’s work at a million museums back east, I see it at a few out here. I think we were really hoping to bring it together, and one of the first places I was clear that it wasn’t happening, I was talking to Bruce Conner last night, was how people hated The Blossom [by Michael McClure], with George’s set, which was one of the most phenomenal things that I’ve ever experienced. It was like taking Artaud and assemblage and Michael, and putting it all together and running with it. But, yeah we brought George out a few times, we tried to bring some of that together, but I don’t know if it ever did happen. I wasn’t at first seeing it as a clash, and the very first time I came out here I was interested in it, but before that, the very first, Hymns to Saint Geryon & Dark Brown by Michael McClure (1969), and that other big book that Philip put out, that first one, those both wended their way into my hands right after they were first out. That’s why I was waiting for Michael to make his first trip, and put him up at my house his first time out, because that stuff was, to me, phenomenal, and of course we’d be printing it in the Bear. The Bear was real cross-pollination. I don’t know that it got so far as being theater and visual-arts-wise. What do you think, how is it now?

Well, I don’t know.

There’s a lot of New York aesthetic here, I don’t know that there’s much out there, I feel colonized more than cross-pollinated.

Well, there was, Margaret Kilgallen just died, and she had a show in New York, and there was a big piece about her in the New York Times, so that was surprising... but my perception is that there’s a huge schism.

You know, when that Beat show happened, I didn’t see it in New York, but when it was coming out here I was talking to one of the guys who was curating it because we were setting up when I could perform and all that. And he asked me — I’m sure he asked everybody — ‘What do you think I can do to make it more cogent to right here?’ I said put in more of the West Coast visual art, because that’s who we are out here.
      And people who saw the show in both places said it was a different show out here, East Coast and West Coast. So that’s telling about how much we still haven’t grocked each other, that it would even have to be a different show, that all that West Coast stuff wouldn’t automatically be there, at the exhibit in New York, too.

Speaking of the West Coast, when I read this quote of yours too, which is another thing that seemed really counterintuitive, or maybe just surprising the way you had this realization, that ‘One of the mistakes I made at that time, a mistake many artists make, to the end of their days, was thinking that surrendering control of the poem was and should be concomitant with surrendering control of my life.’ And how did that sort of affect your whole approach to life?

Just that I would sort of follow wherever my passion led in my life, and I think that’s fine in the poem but you don’t really have to, maybe you do, up to the time you’re 35 or 40, maybe you do and maybe it wasn’t a mistake, but just one thing you sort out over time. But just because whenever you’re in the process of making a work whether it’s a poem or painting or anything, you’ve completely put aside the self, doesn’t mean you have to follow your nose, or follow your heart into all kinds of completely untenable situations because you’ve fallen in love, or this, that and the other thing, that’s what I meant by surrendering control of my life. Just going where my passion led. And it’s not necessarily the smartest thing to do. You want to save that energy for the work, but it takes a long time to know that.

Well, that struck me in terms of someone like Lew Welch, who seemed to feel like when he was open he had to be all the way open to whatever came and it was an either/ or proposition. And maybe that destroyed him somehow.

It could. It’s also that either/ or proposition is something you find a lot discussed in books on addiction, that all of us who are somehow touched by those worlds tend to be black and white or either/ or people. And it takes a long time to fill in all those modulations like, yes, I can totally surrender to Loba, that doesn’t mean I have to pick up and pack and move to somewhere else every time some guy like Alan says ‘Oh, let’s go live in, Ranchos de Taos...’ not that it wasn’t in some way very filling for me in terms of images for work and knowledge of landscape and so on, but I really did mix up the idea that you surrender with the idea that you also surrender on practical, daily-life terms. It gives you less energy to put into the work if you’re constantly chasing after everything you want.

One thing I wanted more of when I read this book was more gossipy stuff and details, like about meeting Ezra Pound, and people like that. Was that a conscious decision you made not to go that way, or was that just all you had to say?

No, I decided I didn’t want to write a cute little book of anecdotes, and definitely didn’t want to just drop names, you know. It wasn’t all I had to say but it felt like it was enough, and there was so much I wanted to put in, too. Every little piece or every little section is pretty condensed, and I was still thinking ‘Oh, gee, I didn’t write about...’ So it was more, what were the things that were salient in terms of defining the time, and the time was part of it, too.
      But also, how do you avoid that stupid thing that people are doing in their memoirs all the time of just constantly telling the story of this and the story of that? So hitting some mean there. So you would’ve liked more gossip, huh?

I guess so, yeah.

People have complained that I didn’t tell them enough about my affair with Roi and so on and so forth. But maybe that’s still the same cool. I don’t know.

It seems like, I know one of your favorite ideas of Pound’s is that ‘all times contemporaneous.’ And that seems to also be at work in the memoir where things progress not so much chronologically all the time but flashing back and forward in terms of insight and emotional moments and things like that.

I think that’s true. Definitely there’s a kind of chronology that I used as, what do they call that in sculpture? An armature. But then I didn’t particularly, I wasn’t particularly interested in telling a linear story. Do you even think time exists? I think it’s just a construct of the mind that we make just to keep us from being overwhelmed. Everything might be happening all at once, and we’ve sorted it out this way. I don’t know.
      But I certainly wasn’t interested in saying ‘then, and then and then,’ and probably I even feel like I did that a little too much, but there was more jumping around than there is, and some of it, folks asked me to cut out, and I decided they were right. I’m not sure now they were right, but some of those pieces will go into book two. Maybe they fit better there. I trust where my mind goes, so that if I’m writing about 1937 and my grandparents, and then I remember my mother when she came out here in 1983 and what she said to me at the conservatory, that’s where it goes, because there is a shape that the mind has already woven of all this material, and part of what I was trying to do in the book was lay out the actual process of remembering.
      What is that process like? So sometimes I would repeat something, and add to it. And that would also drive my editors crazy, you know — ‘You said this on page 72!’ — but I didn’t say this plus that on 72, that on 72 became the key for me also remembering this on [page] 153, I mean it’s no news, Proust did it and others, I’m not inventing something, but I was following more the shape of my memory and also my consciousness rather than just the calendar years. So that was why that.
      And as for why not more stories, the main story was what it took and how I did it to be able to stay with what I thought I wanted to do which was be a poet no matter what, and grow in the process, rather than just be a stuck poet that does the same thing for 50 years. And so that was the main story I wanted to stick to, and I wanted to stick to it hoping it would be useful as well as interesting, I mean, nice writing and interesting to read, but useful to other people.
      So when I was doing the revisions I had two questions on the wall: 1) is it necessary to the integrity of the work? and 2) will it be helpful to others? And things came out sometimes just because they weren’t necessary to the integrity of the work. I would guess that I have a small book of outtakes in the computer. They maybe were interesting stories in themselves but they didn’t really add to the thrust of where the book was going.

How do you feel about the reactions to the book so far? There was that terrible review in the Times.

Yeah, and I’m told the guy it was given to review in L.A. hated it, and since the main editors there liked it, they just killed the review rather than print a bad one. Well, you know there are all kinds of reactions, so I’m mixed about them.

I guess the only ones I’ve read have been the Times and Rain Taxi.

The thing is that I read reviews that aren’t particularly positive with an eye to, is there something here I can use, but what I’m finding a lot of the time, or maybe it’s just my mind’s little way out of the dilemmas, is that people just sound confused or really put off and upset and negative about my life, rather than the writing. I think I’m just threatening to some folks. And that would be true whether I was on the East Coast or the West Coast.
      You know about my work and the two coasts, I think my work is better received here than on the East Coast. For instance Loba. When Loba was being written, if I read it in New York, people had a million intellectual questions and they didn’t understand. If I read it in Sonoma, all the young, single moms with their babes would come out of the woods, and they’d hear it and dig it. There was no problem. The work can be received more intuitively here than there. I’m talking about the real ground culture here.
      My work is easier here for me, in that way. In terms of recognition and money and awards, that was way easier in New York, but it might have left me stuck in the same work forever. They liked what I was doing, they weren’t going to want me to change it. But I think, I find this whole milieu much more compatible to work with than anywhere.

One other thing you talk about a lot is weaving some other discipline into the dance, and for you that has been alchemy, magic, primarily, and to me that would be one of the reasons Loba would be better received on the West Coast than the East Coast. At what point did that particular strain start to be of such importance to you?

Well, I think I write in the end of the book how I had just gotten that gig to write the introduction to Paracelcus, in ’65, and that’s when I began to really read alchemy was then, 1965. The magic was around from the beginning, but got subsumed by the poetry after I left school, but came back around the same time, a year or two years later in ’76, when I was living in Ranchos de Taos and started working with the cards every day. By ’71 I had pretty much taught myself cabala, and then the whole process wove itself into some coherence when I taught at New College in 1980, and put together the Hidden Religions courses there. But once I did the Paracelcus there was no stopping reading alchemy after that. It was all the time.
      And I would read a passage and go to bed and dream about it, that kind of thing. That was also how I would work with the cards. I’d stare at the cards and take an afternoon nap and inevitably that card would be in the dream. So that stuff grew later, and the understanding of how it wove itself into European consciousness, and which parts came at which point, that understanding came more around ’80, when I started teaching [at New College in San Francisco].

And that led to your whole friendship with Robert Duncan?

Being in that school did. Robert was really the soul of that whole program. In a lot of ways. And he said yes, with the idea that we’d do it for five years. We did it for seven.

He also shared your interest.

They were very much his interests. He would never practice magic, though, and when in one summer course that we did there I brought in devices for visualization from the Golden Dawn, showed them to people and talked about actually practicing trance work with these symbols of the elements and sub elements — he was quite upset. He would never practice it, and [said] that he needed neither religion nor magic, because poetry was a complete path in itself. And I think for him it was, but also he was a little afraid, because of his upbringing, of actually getting his feet wet. So we had lots of interesting tugs of war like that.
      He came to one of my classes one time and, toward the end of the class there was a general discussion, and I don’t know what came up, but he said ‘I don’t want to see the whole picture, I just want to see my little piece that I have to work on, and just work on that little piece, I don’t want to see the whole thing.’ And I said, ‘I want to know, I want to know it all, even if I never pick up a pen again.’ And the students were like, ‘Who’s right here?’ And it was, you know, all under the general aegis of friendship, but there was that definite line of difference, it was very strong.
      But Robert had been, I can’t say that’s when the friendship began; Robert used to come and hang for days, he’d move into my house in Marshall in the ’70s, and bring his French mysteries that he was teaching himself idiomatic French from, and his notebook, and he’d stay for days. And he always came to Christmases with the kids, because Jess doesn’t like holidays, and so I’d have to say mid-’70s, through ’75 on, he was there many weekends, many mornings.... Eating fried herring from the bay for breakfast. And he opened for one of Dominique’s plays at Intersection, you know she had a theater till she was 11 or 12, and he was the opening act one time...

Jacket 18 — August 2002  Contents page
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