Diane di Prima, Poet of the Beat Era and Beyond, Dies at 86


Ms. di Prima often spoke of the influence of her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, a tailor and ardent anarchist who had immigrated from Italy. He was, she wrote in her 2001 memoir, “regarded somewhat as a family treasure: a powerful and erratic kind of lightning generator, a kind of Tesla experiment, we for some reason kept in the house.”

Her collection “Revolutionary Letters” (she wrote a series of poems under that title) included a poem about him, “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa,” that began this way:

Today is your
birthday and I have tried
writing these things before,
but now
in the gathering madness, I want to
thank you
for telling me what to expect
for pulling
no punches, back there in that scrubbed Bronx parlor

Yet, she wrote, her maternal grandmother, Antoinette, and the other women in the household where she grew up taught her the practicalities of survival. “It was at my grandmother’s side,” she wrote, “in that scrubbed and waxed apartment, that I received my first communications about the specialness and the relative uselessness of men.”

Her mother imparted an early appreciation of poetry. “Our household was extremely verbal,” Frank DiPrima said in a phone interview. “My mother would speak verse every day of my life.”

Ms. di Prima attended Hunter College High School and stayed three semesters at Swarthmore College before leaving to join the Greenwich Village scene. In 1961 she was a founder of the New York Poets Theater, which staged works by poets and avant-garde writers. She produced a literary newsletter, The Floating Bear — at first with her lover, the poet LeRoi Jones, who later adopted the name Amiri Baraka, and then on her own.

But she grew disillusioned with New York and in 1968 made her way to San Francisco to work with the Diggers, a collective known for street theater and for passing out free food and leaflets.

“I was writing ‘Revolutionary Letters’ at a fast clip and mailing them to Liberation News Service on a regular basis; from there they went to over 200 free newspapers all over the U.S. and Canada,” she said in a written version of her poet laureate talk. “I also performed them, sometimes with guitar accompaniment by Peter Coyote, on the steps of City Hall, while my comrades handed out the Digger Papers and tried to persuade startled office workers on their way to lunch that they should drop out and join the revolution.”


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