Leslie Scalapino was born in Santa Barbara, California, on July 25, 1947, to Robert Anthony Scalapino and Dee Jessen Scalapino. Her father was a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and her mother performed as a singer. While growing up in Berkeley, Scalapino had the opportunity to travel with her family throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. She was exhilarated by these travels to other parts of the world. Scalapino was less at ease when she was at home, which troubled her teachers. She experienced a freedom away from home that allowed her to grow as a creative individual. The restlessness that can be experienced in her writing found its origin in her childhood travels with her family. She grew to appreciate diverse cultures and to not be tied to Western thought.
She attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she received a B.A. in medieval and nineteenth century French poetry in 1966. She closely studied the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. Through her father, an expert in Asian political science and cultures, she was introduced to Eastern philosophies. She was influenced by Zen Buddhism and incorporated much of Buddhist thought into her approach to the creative process. After her studies were finished at Reed College, she entered a graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a M.A. in English. During her graduate studies, Scalapino became radicalized. For her, the academic setting was a stifling experience. Out of this experience, she resolved that she would find the necessary tools to shatter any and all social constructs that existed merely to enslave women and minorities.
After graduation, Scalapino taught at various academic institutions, including the College of Marin, New College of California, San Francisco State University, San Francisco Art Institute, Mills College, Bard College, and the University of California, San Diego. In 1986, she started the publishing company O Books. She was married to Wesley St. John from 1968 until the mid-1970’s. In 1987, Scalapino married biochemist Tom White. She died of cancer in 2010.