Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721
Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York, to first-generation Italian immigrants Francis di Prima and Emma Mallozzi di Prima. In interviews and in autobiographical writings, she emphasizes the strict, conservative upbringing to which a young girl of Italian ancestry was subjected during the 1930’s, the years of the Great Depression. She credits her anarchist grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, with sowing the seeds for her subsequent rebellion against this confinement by taking her to anarchist rallies and reading the works of Dante to her. She began writing when she was seven years old and, by the age of fourteen, had already decided to become a poet. She enrolled at Swarthmore College in 1951, intending to major in theoretical physics. In 1953, she abandoned her academic career and moved to New York’s lower East Side, beginning her bohemian life as a poet and activist, and like her male counterparts, she freely experimented with sex and drugs. During this time, she met Ezra Pound, who—because of his public support for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini—had been institutionalized at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental institution in Washington, D.C., where she visited him several times. Pound found encouraging words for her fledgling attempts at poetry, and the two corresponded for some time.
A decisive factor in di Prima’s career was her introduction in 1957 to the founding members of the Beat generation, a group with whom she remained closely connected for the next decade. Indeed, di Prima is considered the most important female writer of the Beat generation and features prominently in every anthology of that group. In 1958, Totem Press (founded by Jones) published her first collection of poetry, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, the first of many works of poetry, prose, and drama.
During her years in Manhattan, di Prima published and edited several poetry magazines and newsletters and helped found the New York Poets Theatre in 1961. She married for the first time in 1962, to actor-director Alan Marlowe; they divorced in 1969. She married poet Grant Fisher in 1972, but they divorced in 1975. The two marriages resulted in five children (Jeanne, Dominique, Alexander, Tara, and Rudra), whom she raised, and her life as a single mother was strongly reflected in her poetry. In 1965, she moved to upstate New York and participated in Timothy Leary’s psychedelic community at Millbrook. At other times, she traversed the continent in a Volkswagen bus, in the style of the male Beat writers and the Merry Pranksters, reading her poetry in churches, prisons, and schools.
In 1969, di Prima moved to the West Coast, a more hospitable place for female writers, and became involved with the Diggers, a radical community action and guerrilla theater group that supplied free food, medical care, housing, and musical concerts for street people. The move to the West Coast signaled the beginning of di Prima’s gradual move away from the radical social-political emphasis of the Beat writers and toward a more contemplative life, including the study of Zen Buddhism, alchemy, and Sanskrit.
In the 1970’s, di Prima became an instructor at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado; in the same decade, as part of the Poetry in the Schools programs, she held workshops and residencies in Wyoming, Arizona, Montana, Minnesota, and elsewhere. During the 1980’s, she taught courses in the hermetic and esoteric traditions in poetry at the New College of California in San Francisco, and she has since taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Art Institute, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and Napa State Hospital. She was the cofounder of the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts, where she also taught from 1983 to 1991. In 1971, she started work on Loba, a long, visionary serial poem; parts 1-8 were published in 1978 and an expanded and revised version was published in 1998.
The deaths of many of the best-known male writers of the Beat generation led to a renewed interest in the women associated with this movement, resulting in a substantial number of autobiographies and memoirs, including di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman, which candidly chronicles her involvement with the Beat movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as well as her growing self-confidence and autonomy as a woman poet determined to shed the label of “Beat chick.”
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