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Beat the Devil: Poet Diane di Prima published her life story at a corporate press--but she did it her way.

Beating the Odds

Poet Diane di Prima tells what it was like to be a Beat--and a woman

By Jonah Raskin

THE DEVIL always gets his due in America, especially in big-time publishing. Jack Kerouac found that out, and he came to hate the fame that accompanied his career as a bestselling author. Allen Ginsberg felt the same way. "I feel like a prisoner of Allen Ginsberg," he once complained.

Diane di Prima--probably the best-known woman writer of the Beat Generation--has always been wary of publishing with the Devil. But probably she'll survive her current skirmish with fame better than her Beat brothers, if only because she has never needed big-time literary attention.

Recollections of My Life as a Woman (Viking; cloth; $29.95), di Prima's 34th book in the last 40 or so years, is her first work to appear under the imprint of a corporate publishing house. All her previous books, including Revolutionary Letters and This Kind of Bird Flies Backward--a title that suggests her own cultural flight back in time to 19th-century bohemianism--were published by small, alternative presses like City Lights and Totem.

At the height of the 1960s rebellion, her poems appeared in underground newspapers, and they derived much of their power from the fact that di Prima belonged to the counterculture itself, spoke its outlaw language and shared its magical rituals.

Even Recollections appeared, in its first incarnation, in a feminist newsletter called Mama Bear's News and Notes published in Berkeley in the 1980s. "I wrote it initially for my own daughters," di Prima explains. "I wanted to describe the stupid things I did as a woman who bought into the macho-feminist myths and the Italian-American myths."

It's a chilly afternoon in San Francisco, and we're chatting in a coffeehouse on Mission Street, not far from di Prima's home. Wearing sneakers, slacks and a sweater, she doesn't look much like a beatnik, though she was for years the icon of "the beatnik chick."

I've been reading her work ever since I wrote for underground newspapers in the 1960s, and I've been waiting for Recollections of My Life as a Woman for almost a decade. Now that it's finally here, di Prima has a lot to say about the odd turns that the book has taken on its way into the world.

"My contract with Viking goes back to 1993," she explains. "One of the first things they asked me to do was stop publishing in Mama Bear News and Notes. After that, it took two and a half years to finish the first draft; along the way I did some therapy, especially when I felt I was breaking taboos or sharing family secrets.

"The book's first editor, David Stanford, took six months to read it and turned my vernacular into smooth, regular English," she continues. "That made me mad. He destroyed the physical rhythms of my prose."

In between writing her own poetry and teaching poetry to students, di Prima undid Stanford's editorial damage and then learned that he had been replaced by Paul Slovak, her current editor.

After Stanford's departure, di Prima's next encounter was with Viking's legal team.

"They wanted to know all the people who were alive and all the people who were dead," she says. "They were afraid of invasion of privacy and libel suits. I went through the manuscript with two magic markers--green, for people who were alive and could sue, yellow for dead people who couldn't."

Then she made changes that satisfied the lawyers. "We ironed things out," she says. "And I was sworn to silence."

SILENCE IS AN ODD CHOICE for di Prima. Then, again, so is writing for money. "I never wrote for money before this," she says. "I've always written for the joy of it, and one of the joys has been to talk about taboo topics and make it possible for others to write about them, too."

In one way or another, di Prima has been writing about taboo topics for most of her life. In Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), her fictionalized autobiography, she described her own sex life in graphic detail, and how she became a bohemian poet in the 1950s.

"I came from Brooklyn," she wrote in Memoirs. "My parents were first-generation Americans, my grandparents Italian." In short order, she goes on in Memoirs to recount how she and her friends "made art, smoked dope, dug the new jazz and spoke a bastardization of the black argot."

Now, in Recollections of My Life as a Woman, she tells her story again. This time there are far more details about her Italian family and far more talk--all of it welcome--about the cultural and political connections between the Cold War and the beatnik scene.

Moreover, di Prima pays far less attention to her sexuality and to her body, too, and that's understandable. Memoirs not only appeared in 1969, but also endorsed what might be called promiscuity. Now it's the 21st century and, given the AIDS epidemic, advocating freewheeling sexuality might be viewed as irresponsible and di Prima doesn't want that.

Recollections seems to reflect the stormy road it has taken to see the light of day. Sometimes it feels as if it's rooted in Mama Bear's News and Notes, the Berkeley newsletter for feminists, and sometimes it feels more like The New York Review of Books.

"Civilization is saved by a few, by people photographing, or copying by hand," di Prima writes, as though she belongs to a cultural elite.

At other times her language is right off the gritty streets of Manhattan. "I had the hots," she writes about one occasion when she's sexually aroused. Or when she sees similarities between herself and the 19th-century romantic poets she adored, she exclaims, "I flashed on Mary Shelley in Italy."

Then, too, Recollections seems like an odd mixture of candor and concealment. At times, di Prima opens up and explores herself--her "unreasoning love and loyalty," for example, or her "struggle for control over my own life."

At other times, she draws a curtain across the rooms of her private life. Sometimes she isn't sure what did happen to her or why. "I didn't know the real reasons for what I was doing. Don't know some of them to this day," she writes in a chapter about her unconventional marriage to Alan Marlowe, a man she didn't love--a man who threw away her letters and journals soon after they met. One might wonder why a poet would marry a man who literally discards her work, but di Prima doesn't say.

She doesn't shed new light, either, on her old affair with Le Roi Jones, a.k.a. Amiri Baraka, the fiery African American poet, playwright and political gadfly--and that's also disappointing.

"I thought of myself as Jones' mistress in the European bohemian tradition," di Prima tells me during our interview. "I had lovers before him, but I didn't fall in love until I met him, and after him I didn't fall in love for a long, long time. He had political commitment and passion. The relationship was creative and inspiring for both of us."

Jones/Baraka has written about the affair with di Prima in his story "Going Down Slow." His ex-wife has also written about the whole episode in her memoir How I Became Hettie Jones, and, as you'd expect, the passages about di Prima aren't flattering.

In Recollections, di Prima describes her artistic ventures with Jones. She also recounts her decision to become pregnant by him and give birth to their daughter--against his wishes. But she doesn't explain her choices.

CAVEATS AND CRITICISM aside, I'd still say that Recollections is di Prima's best nonfiction work, in large part because she emerges from her protective shell, albeit imperfectly, to meet the world at large.

There are sensitively drawn portraits of women: her Italian grandmother, Antoinette; her mother, Emma; as well as women lovers and friends. But it's the men who get under di Prima's skin, and it's in her relationships with men that her art seems to come alive.

Her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, an Italian-born anarchist and atheist, casts a large shadow across her life; and Marlowe, her husband, is also a haunting presence. Di Prima's descriptions of domestic life with Marlowe in Manhattan and in Topanga Canyon in the early 1960s make for one of the saddest portraits of a marriage I have ever read. Isolated, alone, unable to drive and without money, she survived on the generosity of her mother, who made sure that Altadena delivered fresh dairy products every week.

When she's at her best, di Prima doesn't hide from the mirror image, even when it shows her to be a prisoner of conventionality, not the free woman she'd like to be. What's inspiring here is her ongoing commitment to her work, despite the fact that she was often excluded from male literary circles--from poetry readings and poetry anthologies. "I was a poet," she writes. "I had work to do. It has carried me all these years." Indeed it has.

Whether Viking and di Prima will survive their sometimes stormy encounter and go on working together on volume two of her memoirs is uncertain. "I'm still not sure if I'll do it again," di Prima says.

Much to Viking's disappointment, she won't read in chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders when she's on tour this spring.

"There are things I will not do," she says. "I won't stay in New York City anymore, either. I don't like the speed, noise and high pressure of Manhattan. I've been West Coasticized."

Despite the New York publisher and the close encounters with editors and lawyers, di Prima is still a rebel in the spirit of the 1960s, and in the spirit, too, of her Italian, anarchist grandfather Domenico Mallozzi.

"I'm still mad in terms of politics," she says. "I just don't take it personally anymore. And I'm still optimistic about our ability to survive as a species. It may take 500 years to deconstruct the capitalist/communist systems and the governments that hold them in place, but I think we can do it."

Jonah Raskin is a professor of communications at Sonoma State University and the author of 'For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman.'

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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