Dead [Women] Poets Society Blog

Geneviève L. Walsh resurrects Diane di Prima

On 31 August 2021, Geneviève L. Walsh resurrected US Beat poet Diane di Prima alongside Charlotte Wetton, who communed with Irish poet Ellen Taylor, at an online event [Not] in Halifax. You can watch the whole event back here, and read Geneviève's resurrection and poems in response to di Prima below.

I’ll be resurrecting the feminist, activist, rabble-rousing Beat poet Diane di Prima.


She’d probably think it was too soon to resurrect her as she only died last year. “I’m 87, Gen, let me have a rest”. However, one thing I’ve taken away from her life and work is the notion that the best poets cause a lot of inconvenience.


Just for a little background: Diane di Prima was born in 1934 in Brooklyn, New York. After two years at college she moved to Greenwich Village, at the heart of the Beat movement, where she gained friendships and professional alliances with the prominent Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Denise Levertov.


The Beat movement was, essentially, born out of the ashes of World War II, and the poets within this movement were exploring the landscape everyone had been left with. They questioned everything that the pre- and mid-war West had become complacent about and comfortable with, be it politics, culture, sexuality, religion, class, or just the day-to-day attitude of everyone who survived that worldwide tragedy. They were explicit, forthright and raw in their subject matter, and their approach to form was one that stepped on conventional approaches to rhyme and metre, in favour of a stream-of-consciousness approach.


Di Prima released her first collection This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, published her own work and that of her contemporaries through The Poets Press and The Floating Bear (which she co-ran with Amiri Baraka) and before her death last year, she released an enormous forty collections. This séance will explore a few aspects of her work that will positively haunt us for countless years to come; non-conformity, intertextuality, wildness, and the complexity of both poems and the human body.


Let’s start with the rather broad term, non-conformist. Di Prima was born into a world war and grew up in the aftershock, when the terms and conditions of being an American, a woman, a worker, a mother, a lover, a friend and a writer were undergoing gargantuan changes.


Her Revolutionary Letters, which she began writing at the tail-end of the 60s, were concerned heavily with the social and political changes that the post-WW2 world was experiencing.


Read Revolutionary Letter #4, 1971, in which di Prima provides a snapshot of the Beatnik family/friend living dynamic wherein people ‘grow their hair’, ‘share blankets, dope and children’ and ‘babes toddle barefoot thru the cities of the universe’.


This is my Covid-era reboot of this poem, and it’s about as cheerful as you’re expecting it to be. The last 18 months have seen the people of our country fetishising the war into which di Prima was born, while simultaneously losing their minds just because they couldn’t go for a pint or a day at the beach.


*


Reverse Evolution #1

by Geneviève L. Walsh


We were left to ourselves, and we fucked it up.

Our follicles screamed ‘don’t touch,

put the rusty, blunt scissors and the vodka down,

back off’

and we clicked ‘ignore’.


Shoes, dope, sex and sleep; we stared at them on TV

with dribbling, raw nostalgia. We

were Pavlov’s hounds of hate,

scratching marks on walls in comfy prisons,

We were left to ourselves,

and forgot how to love.


We screamed instead for sea, for grass,

for the fall of leaves and the speech

that on reflection

wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.


We were left to ourselves, and Self

became paramount.

We were left to ourselves, and the world

turned Right.


We were left to ourselves, and now

the babes born into lockdown

train themselves to smile at strangers,

toddle through a universe

of spite.


*


So, while the human race seems to be taking a turn for the worse, how can those of us with compassion and empathy attempt to make things better? One way, and I’m sure di Prima would agree with this, is to put one of intersectional feminism’s main ideals into practice, and to make space for those who need it.


I should start with a disclaimer, regarding how I’m about to talk about gender. I will frequently use a word that di Prima probably never used, as she was from Brooklyn rather than Brighouse, and that word is ‘bloke’. It’s a specific type of man: cisgender, white, and utterly convinced that the world belongs to him. We’ve all worked with him, gone to school with him, been stuck with him in some situation we can’t avoid, and we’ve definitely all met him at a poetry night. He’s been utterly surprised that you can pick up a pen by yourself, let alone write poems.


The Beat movement, like a depressing amount of poetry movements, was very Bloke-heavy. To this day you’ll meet people who carry their love of Ginsberg and Kerouac like it’s the insulin they need to keep their creative personality alive.


Di Prima was someone focussed on making space for people who aren’t blokes; women (be they Trans or Cis), and non-binary/genderfluid/agender people, especially those of us who dance awkwardly in the arena of Queerness. The Poets Press, which she operated in the mid-to-late ‘60s, and the literary journal The Floating Bear, were just two examples of when she used her status as a white, Cis woman to draw attention to LGBTQ writers. Danielle Dumaine eloquently referred to this as ‘a form of Queer family-making’, which is something I think we’d all like to see more of in the modern poetry community. It’s this way of operating that made me approach my publisher, Flapjack Press, and why I joined the Stirred collective in Manchester, so I find di Prima’s ethos extremely relatable.


When it came to carving her own niche in a predominantly blokey world, di Prima didn’t make sweeping statements in her work, she attacked the history of patriarchal ideas from within, tearing them apart and re-writing them. She responded to the most familiar religious Bloke Tale, wherein Eve deprives Adam of his all-access pass to paradise, line-by-line from the Gospel of Eve. This segment of said gospel appears just before the poems:

I am Thou & Thou art I and where Thou art I am and in all things I am dispersed and from wherever Thou willst Thou gatherest Me but in gathering Me Thou gatherest Thyself

Read ‘and where Thou art I am’ and ‘and in all things I am dispersed’ from Loba As Eve (1977), which are based on lines 2 and 3 of the gospel above.


These poems are an example of something di Prima was an absolute expert in; using intertextuality to rip literature apart and explore all-new meanings, and that’s something she does a lot of in Loba. She was a feminist with an astute knowledge of worldwide faiths and spiritualities, this was how she filled in the gaps in this familiar story.


I’m far from an expert on religion, I’m just your average godless Goth who has never left room for Jesus when they dance, but I’m also a feminist who has grown to find atheists of the Bloke variety utterly despicable. So, my exercise in feminist intertextuality has taken almost the opposite route and it based on a nauseating article by atheist author Christopher Hitchens, entitled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. There’s a part of it where he describes using humour to make yourself appear attractive:

‘If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth ... well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.’ – Vanity Fair, 2006.

My response to this is as follows.


*


Loba and the Punchline

by Geneviève L. Walsh

(...real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open) I plunge into my guts to halt the twist of the rusty screw that is the thought of my cub running, agape, into a trap like you. Let her howl in schadenfreude's arms, not strain her lungs to rasp at the walls of a cage made of your expectations. Let her jaw remain so tightly shut no keeper can unlock them, no space for a pound shop treat or a sleeping pill. (...the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth) no cheesy good-luck symbols will be found in my feral first-born's mouth, just rough snow peaks and shards of broken pottery left bare from falls from tree houses, from rugby scrums, from Life. her mouth will be a single magpie sat under a ladder, teeth that taste of shattered mirrors. (...involuntary, full, and deep-throated) every sound from my little wolf's lungs will come with conviction, she will feign interest in domestication, volunteer her gums for inspection, a sophisticated ruse no longer than an 80s jingle. Bite. Just one. And she could make a meal of you, but she’ll leave you for the crows.


*


Reading di Prima’s poems aloud is a strange experience, because, broadly speaking, of how she wrote them; it took a great deal of practise to work out how to make them spring off the page from my unavoidably British mouth. It’s always a jarring experience, reading somebody else’s poems, as you immediately bounce off their use of line breaks, punctuation and white space, and hers was completely different to mine, sometimes utterly off the wall.


One of di Prima’s contemporaries, Denise Levertov, once said that ‘every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to a poem’s life.’ Going with this as a guide, I can only conclude that di Prima’s perception of the body was one standing in a hall of mirrors.


Here is a poem where this interpretation seems apparent. Read 'The Window', from di Prima’s This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (1958), which contains the title of the collection and provides an off-kilter representation of the human body in both form and subject matter.


This final poem I’ve written in response to di Prima’s work is based on an anecdote in an obituary by the writer Amber Tamblyn, who had been her close friend for many years, who said that di Prima used to give her slips of paper with short segments of poetry on them when she left her house, which she referred to as ‘feathers’. Tamblyn was one of the founders of the Time’s Up movement, and the same article (in The New Yorker, November 2020) makes it clear that di Prima played a key part in her development as a feminist. This is a poem about bodies, about harassment and about poetry.


Featherless Birds

by Geneviève L. Walsh


We shed feathers

in the street, in the office, in the bar, on the train,

lines of verse

drop away

to the dirt,

leave tarmac-hot dry skin and writer’s block

we quench

with nicotine, trash TV and gin.


Feathers

iridescent

in their turn of phrase, feathers

full of lurid rage, feathers

all the colours of the bleeding country,

feathers

blacker than that meaning of black,

plucked

and never given back.


Feathers limp away

in a Joop-stink wind down the motorway,

unheard,

unseen,

feathers meet their end

on the buffed windscreens of death machines,

feathers

smack

on the dress shoes

of the pigs who gorge on decency.


This kind of bird learns how to fly

with stealth,

with trepidation,

with blind spots and shadows as their ‘you are here’ marks on maps,

with minimal stops to rest our wings.


This kind of bird

eats mistrust, drinks

from a bath of deprecation,

flies to the page and the stage

where we can spread our feathers wide,

hover with precision over vehicles of matricide

and shit on their windscreens

in broad daylight.


*


These poems and this feature were commissioned as part of Geneviève L. Walsh's resurrection of Diane di Prima, for a séance [Not] in Halifax on 31 August 2021, on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour 2019-21. At the same séance, Charlotte Wetton resurrected Irish poet and washerwoman Ellen Taylor - find her poem in response to Taylor here, and watch an edited recording of the event below.

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This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.