Interview with Diane di PrimaBy Joseph Matheny
March 09, 2010
Since I was a lad I’ve admired beat literature and its developers. My young mind was taken with the romantic image of Kerouac roaming the interior of the body politic, a mad sweating virus on the loose in the highway vein of Amerika, Ginsberg holy maniac,chanting, praying, exorcising a generation ruined by madness, Burroughs and Gysin, pushing the envelope, rubbing out the word, and di Prima, conjuring, straddling the magick/dream line, throwing us bits of tasty metamorsels and sumptuous subconscious feasts from the other side.
Diane di Prima is a San Francisco writer and poet who also works in healing, Magick, and Alchemy .some of here recent books are: Recollections of My Life as a Woman The New York Years, Pieces of a Song -Collected Poems, Zip Code, and Seminary Poems. See a complete list here.
I spoke to Diane in her cozy book lined San Francisco apartment. We spoke of rebellion, liberty, conditioning, and on being a women in the beat generation.This is a transcript of our recorded conversation.
JM: When you started out as a writer in the 50’s, were there a lot of control systems set up to punish anyone who tried to break out the consensus mold?
DD: It was a weird time. Especially for women. Rebellion was kind of expected of men.
JM: When men rebelled they were romantic, free. Women who rebelled were categorized as being nuts.
DD: Yes. Nuts or a whore, or something. Yes.
JM: Do you feel it’s any different now?
DD: Not much. I think there’s been a lot of lip service paid to how much women have managed to advance. The younger women that I know are behaving pretty much like women have always behaved. Maybe they don’t have so much of the middle class housewife dream, but they’ll still be the one to get a job, while the man does the writing or the painting or whatever. I can think of example after example of this. I think that the internal control systems that have been put in place for women haven’t been dented. It’s such a big step forward to single mom, but so much more could be going on besides that.
JM: That’s where the most effective censorship and control systems reside, inside ourselves, our head!
DD: Yes! How it gets there is interesting too.
JM: How do you think they get there?
DD: I would guess that it starts in the womb. Getting imprinted with the language pattern that’s around you. The way people move, the way they hold themselves. To break it you’d have to do some really deliberate debriefing, on every level. The place where I was lucky in my own life was that I had a grandfather who was an anarchist. I didn’t see much of him after I was 7 because my parents thought he was bad for me, but from 3 to 7 I saw a lot of him. I was still malleable enough so some debriefing occurred there. He would tell me these really weird fables about the world. He would read Dante to me and take me to the old peoples anarchist rallies, and all this showed me these other possibilities.
JM: So you had an early imprint of a kind of… anti-authority, authority figure. (laughs)
DD: (laughing) Yes! Aside from being an anti-authority authority figure, the imprint that I got from him and my grandmother as well, was of two people who weren’t afraid, at least from my child’s point of perspective. They would just go ahead and do what they believed in. In all the other years of my early life I never encountered anyone else who wasn’t afraid. I think kids today may be a little better off in that they encounter a few people who either aren’t afraid, or who will go ahead and try something anyway, whatever it is. There’s a possibility of that model, but during my childhood that was a very unusual model.
I was born in 1934, during the Depression, and everyone seemed to be frozenwithterror. We…..will….do… what….we….are….told! (laughs) and I don’t think it’s changed that much. Every day people are told that they should be afraid of not having health insurance, they’re going to die in the gutter, and to be afraid of all these things that aren’t threats at the moment. Of course there are present threats but nobody’s paying attention to those.
JM: It seems to me that rebellion itself has become a commodity, the media has co-opted rebellions like rock-n-roll, Dada, Surrealism, poetry, the rebel figure. Do you feel that this co-opting has succeeded in making rebellion somewhat ineffectual?
DD: No. What you’re seeing is an old problem in the arts. Everything is always co-opted, and as soon as possible. As Cocteau used to talk about, you have to be a kind of acrobat or a tightrope walker. Stay 3 jumps ahead of what they can figure out about what you’re doing, so by the time the media figures out that your writing, say, women and wolves, your on to finishing your Alchemical poems or something. It’s not just a point of view of rebellion or outdoing them, or anything like that. It’s more a point of view of how long can you stay with one thing. Where do you want to go? You don’t want to do anything you already know or that you’ve already figured out. So it comes naturally to the artist to keep making those jumps, that is, if they don’t fall into the old “jeez, I still don’t own a new microwave” programs.
JM: Reminds me of a story about Aldous Huxley. When asked if he had read all the books in his quite impressive library he replied, “God no! Who would want a library full of books that they had already read?”
DD: (laughs) It is true that rebellion is co opted, but then it always gets out of their hands, it slithers in some other direction. Then they go “oh, how can we make this part of the system?” Like rap. OK, they are co-opting all this regular rap, but now this surreal rap is starting, native tongue, surreal imagery, spiritual anarchism rap, it’s not about girls or politics or race and it’s starting to happen.
JM: Is this something your daughter brings to your attention?
DD: Yes, I go over once in awhile and catch up on what’s going on. You see as soon as something is defined, it wiggles off in another direction. I don’t think that it’s such a big problem in the sense of reaching a lot of people. How does the artist reach a large audience? The people that know are always going to find the new edge, but the mainstream are not that smart or the guy making a top 40 record is not that smart. It often takes them a long time to figure it out. Now that is a problem, because we don’t have the time. We need to reach everybody, right away, because we have to stop the system dead in its tracks. It’s no longer a question of dismantling the system. There isn’t enough time to take it apart, we just have to stop it.
JM: Do you feel that there’s a somewhat centralized or conscious attempt to defuse radical art or rebellion through co-option, or is it just “the nature of the beast”, so to speak?
DD: I think it goes back and forth. There are times when it’s conscious, but not a single hierarchical conspiracy but rather a hydra-headed conspiracy. Then there are other times that it doesn’t need to be conscious anymore, because that’s the mold, that pattern has been set, so everyone goes right on doing things that way. I’m not quite sure which point we’re at right now in history. It’s so transitional and crazy that I wouldn’t hazard a guess. Just check your COINTELPRO history to see an example of a conscious conspiracy to stop us. Other times it was just a repetition of what has gone on before. Like the ants going back to where the garbage used to be. (laughs)
JM: Robotic functioning.
DD: Yes, and it’s all in place when the next so called conspiracy comes along, which is very handy, isn’t it? I Wonder how we’ve made this monster we have here?
JM: OK. Say we stop it dead in its tracks. What then?
DD: It would be nice to say it’s unimaginable, wouldn’t that be great. That would be my hope! (laughs) For one thing, we’d have to use the same tables, wear the same shoes longer, read a lot of the same books, maybe for the next few hundred years. Dumps would become valuable places to mine!
JM: They already are to me!
DD: To some people, yes, but not to enough people. Screeching to a halt seems like the only possible solution and I’m not even sure how you would go about it. Of course the good old general strike would be a nice start.
JM: As long as we’re on the subject of deconstructing, how do you feel about the predominant intellectual fad of postmodernism, deconstruction, and the nihilism implicit in these systems?
DD: Well, when I read that stuff, it’s so frustrating. Western thought always keeps stopping on the brink. It never really makes that extra step. It could really do with an infusion of Buddhist logic. At least 4-fold logic and then what’s beyond that. It seems that although it’s dressed up in new language, nothing really new has happened in philosophy in the 20th century. Well, maybe not since Wittgenstein. It seems like the same old thing. You know, sometimes when people ask me for poems now, I’ll send out poems that have been lying around for years, I don’t always have new poems lying around everywhere, and these things that I wrote as cut-up stuff, cutting up each others’ dreams in workshops and such. I’ll send these out. Everyone seems to be taking them very seriously and publishing them. They think I’m working off of some language theory when actually these are just things I did for fun.
JM: What are you doing now?
DD: I’m working on 2 prose books. One is called “Recollections of My Life as a Women”. I’m 120 pages into it and I’m still 8 years old. I’m still dealing with how the conditioning happened. In my generation a lot of it happened with battering, you got hit a lot, and screaming. Your basic conditioning came through abuse, not really different from concentration camps or anything else. I think someday we’re going to look back on how we’re handling kids at this point in history and wonder how we could treat them such. Like when people say “How could women stand it when people did such and such?” We’ll be saying that about the way children are treated. [Note- Since this interview this book has been completed and published ]
JM: What’s the other book?
DD: The other prose book is called “Not Quite Buffalo Stew”. It’s just a rollicking, fun, surreal novel about life in California. It’s in the first person, and in the 2nd or 3rd chapter in I found out that the “I” that was the narrator was a man, so that breaks a lot of rules already. The “I” is a drug smuggler named Lynx. There isn’t a whole lot of continuity, just whatever scenes wanted to write themselves.
JM: Are you using any kind or random/divination systems, i.e., cut-ups, grab bag, I Ching, Tarot, coin tossing, etc.?
DD: Not with this one. This one dictates itself. The system I guess I’m using is that I can’t write it at home. It won’t happen anywhere that’s familiar turf and it likes to happen while I’m driving. So I’ll probably head for Nevada at some point and finish it.
JM: What do you see in the future for poetry and literature?
DD: I would like to see authors really use Magick to reach themes. I’d like to see more work coming out of visioning and trance. I’m really tired of reading about human beings! There’s all these other beings, I’d like to see a real dimensional jump and I’d like to see people working on the technical problems. Like when you come back from trance or visioning, or drugs, and what you can write down about it at that moment. What you can make into an actual piece, we haven’t figured it out yet. Yeats certainly didn’t figure it out. It’s more than needing a new language. There are actual forms we need to find or the forms have to find us, that will hold all that material without trying to make it reductive. The attempts at visionary painting in the 60’s and Yeats’ last poems show how vision didn’t translate into these old artistic forms. Of course taking the raw material and presenting that as a piece doesn’t work either. Maybe a blending of vision, word, and sounds can achieve something. We haven’t really had time to think about what the computer is. Most of us still think of it as a typewriter, or a calculator. We don’t think of it as its own dimension. It has its own medium, possibilities, to bring this kind of material across. I also think about deliberate invocation to find the plane or thing you want to write about.
JM: Do you see us as heading into a post-literate society?
DD: Yes, we might be. I don’t think that will stop poetry, in fact it won’t stop any of the arts at all. Even if it’s oral there may be a split like there was in Europe when there was the written literature in Latin and then there was the oral poems of the singers in the Vulgate. We have that to a degree already with the poetry of the great songwriters. Really though, I don’t think literate or post-literate really matters. Were cave paintings literate or pre-literate? Did they read those paintings or just look at them? (laughs) Of course the only reason a completely literate society was developed was for thought control, and now that thought control can be done via TV, etc., it’s not really needed anymore. They don’t want everyone reading Schoepenhauer!
Everyone needs to remember that they can buy a small press or laser writer, or copy machine, and go home and do what the fuck they please and it will take a very long time for anyone to catch up with them all! No one seems to remember about a few years ago in Czechoslovakia, without access to all this technology like we have here, even with every one of their typewriters registered to the police, they still managed to publish their work! In order to do this they would they would type it with 10 carbon papers to make 10 copies! We are in a situation here in the US where no one can register all the computers, no one can figure out where all the copy machines are. Get one now! Remember we can do it without government money. Government money is poison, take it when you need it, but don’t get hooked. We can say what we want. They can’t possibly keep up with us all. Real decentralization!
JM: That’s great, helping people to find their true desires, but do you think that we’re so full of false, spectacle manufactured desires that we can no longer identify our true desires?
DD: I think it doesn’t take that long to deprogram false desires. Anyone who knows that they have the desire to know that about themselves, what their true desires are, will find the tools to do it. Drugs, auto-hypnosis, you could also do it by following the false desires until they lead to a dead end like Blake recommended…
JM: Hmmm… somehow that seems… very American…
DD: Hmmm. You’re right.
Visit Diane’s Website at http://www.dianediprima.com
Great interview, Joe. As you know, my editor for “Random Obsessions” wrote “Women of the Beat Generation.” She’s shared many stories with me. She recently read at a function honoring Jan Kerouac.
An old friend of mine in Vegas bought a Diane di Prima book for me. “Memoirs of a Beatnick.” She had given a lecture. She signed it, “To Mick.” Of course, you know that’s not my name. Wasn’t di Prima’s fault. Easy mix up. I eventually gave it away to someone who said they were destined to meet a Mick.
Brenda Knight? That was a great book. I use it as research every time I write something about the women of the Beat Generation.
I randomly found a di Prima book in Korea. I was surprised, to say the least. Someone had written “To Mick” inside it… Just kidding.
I’m calling you “Mick” from now on. 😀
Jerk! hahahaha… Do it. I could use a new name. Something M-ish.
BTW, I like what she says about getting your work out there. I’ve done it with an issue of magazine (crazy experiment) and a novel (great experiment). And with a Twitter novel (Small Places was an awesome experiment: http://www.twitter.com/smallplaces) and and soon with “The Media Book Project” where I’m going to attempt to serialize an entire novel on mostly news sites…
Any new literary renaissance requires utilizing technology, media, and the power of the Internet and people power…
Indeed! BTW, anything you want to run on Alterati, mi casa su casa.
How so? Explain, good sir.
If you want to publish a piece of your Media Book Project there or we could do a podcast about it, etc. It’s all about Transmedia Storytelling these says.
Oh heck yeah! I will include on my list. Would be proud to have you on board in any way possible!
This was great, Joe.
What a great experience to be able to hang out with this woman. It’s nice to see you roaming these halls.
Thanks Megan. Nice to be here.
I like this, especially your probing at the subject of the hijacking of rebellion and rebellious icons by popular culture. This is something I give a lot of thought to, the idea that individuality is kind of dead out of the gate due to the nature of corporate culture. Deep thoughts…too deep for a mere comment board…but nice work.
I agree with you Brian. One of the last lines of my Twitter novel was “In these endless grey cubicles in cities across an American wasteland of product-driven dreams, people search for individuality.” (LINK: http://twitter.com/smallplaces/status/10198947034)
Thanks Brian. It’s a subject I think about a lot. In an age where the rebel is a “brand” how does one rebel?
“You are not your khakis.” 😉
Hmmm…that gives me an idea…maybe to rebel we need to go pant-less…but then we will be Brand No Pants…shit…the rabbit hole is deep on this one…
Always look for the “maybe” when faced with a binary choice. It was the choice Neo should have made. When offered the binary choice of red pants or blue pants, he should have chosen no pants.
I can’t wait for David Wills to see this.
More later, JM. I’m a bit mad at the moment.
Wait. Had David Wills already commented when I wrote the above? I am fucking brain dead. I have an excuse in the form of my frequent visitor, the common cold. That’s what I meant by “mad.”
Meanwhile, I’m embarrassed to admit that these are the first words I’ve read from Diane di Prima, except maybe for an anecdote or two from Kerouac biographies, and I don’t seem to recall her ever being directly quoted, as opposed to being cited, in any of them. She certainly lives up to her rep, though, huh? Amazing to think that a woman born in 1934 can talk about the direction of hip-hop!
Fascinating stuff. Really dug this, Joe – and it’s given me some more names for my ever-growing list of things to read.
Di Prima is so underrated. What a great writer. Thanks for this interview. I had never really thought about how much abuse shapes a woman’s life, but looking back on my own, I see just how accurate she is about that. Something I will ruminate.
Glad everyone liked it. Cheers. More coming out of the old archives soon.
[…] Matheny writes of his interview with Di Prima: “Conjuring, straddling the magick/dream line, throwing us bits of tasty […]
[…] Matheny writes of his interview with Di Prima: “Conjuring, straddling the magick/dream line, throwing us bits of tasty […]