Iconic Poet Diane di Prima dies at 86 in San Francisco
by Gary Carr
A member of the circle that included Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, poet and feminist Diane di Prima died in San Francisco on October 25, 2020. She was 86 and had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Born in Brooklyn in 1934, Di Prima attended Hunter College, lived in Greenwich Village and worked on Wall Street “to support my poetry habit.” She sent some poems to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, where he had recently established City Lights Press and published Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Impressed by her work, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg drove from San Francisco to New York meet her. The result was a relationship that lasted for decades.
running ragged among these hills, driving children
to forgotten movies? In yr service
broom & pen. The monstrous feasts
we serve the others on the outer porch
(within the house there is only rice & salt)
And we wear exhaustion like a painted robe
I & my sisters
wresting the goods from the niggardly
healing each other w/ water & bitter herbs
Who else to celebrate the strength of women but a woman who bore and raised five children, most often as a single mother? In the late 1960s, di Prima moved permanently to California. There, she became involved with the Diggers and studied Buddhism, Sanskrit, Gnosticism, and alchemy, all of which would inform her poetry. 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 received many honors, including a stint as Poet Laureate of San Francisco, a title Ferlinghetti also held. In 2008, she received the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award. At the ceremony, the award was presented to her by fellow poet Michael McClure. In addition to her international reputation, Di Prima was a popular figure on the San Francisco literary scene. She read her work at San Francisco’s Beat Museum, itself a storehouse of Beat Era artifacts and culture. https://www.kerouac.com
Di Prima appeared regularly as the opening performer at San Francisco’s annual “DIVAfest,” a week-long celebration of women writers, playwrights, and artists produced by the EXIT Theatre. At a 2007 DIVAfest reading, di Prima unveiled some of her latest work from her series, Alchemical Fragments. In “Covenant/Jungle” the woman “in the service of broom and pen” takes a Whitmanesque leap to the cosmos.
All I know for certain is that you are green
a thousand ways – & tangled as my heart.
I feel you curl around me – moist heat
& utterly safe. The amniotic fluid
of some planetary being. I can feel hands
or viscous sweet liquid, specific density
of my very flesh. I want to swim in you
like flying – feel a healing
I cannot name or remember –
I will attend on you, day & night
knowledge of plants
the loyalty of lizards
of a thousand kinds of sentience
I will listen
I will remember
the seething power
at the core
Oh grant I
I now see why the Grail
Is a Green Stone
Her final major collection of poems, “The Poetry Deal,” was published in 2014 by City Lights. She is survived by her partner of 42 years, Sheppard Powell, two brothers, five children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. According to the L.A. Times, Di Prima continued to write until weeks before her death, though her arthritis forced her to use a stylus on a cellphone to write. Sometimes, Powell said, she’d dictate her verse, often to him. She may, at last, experience that “healing [she] cannot name.”
Gary Carr is a playwright and publicist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He interviewed Diane di Prima in 2007 for EXIT Theatre publications.