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.
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.
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 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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Jacket 18 — August 2002
This material is copyright © David Hadbawnik and Diane di Prima and Jacket magazine 2002