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Dale Smith Considers the Voice of Diane Di Prima for the LA Review of Books
Dale Smith begins his lengthy essay on Diane Di Prima with an acknowledgement of this “78-year-old Beat legend”s recent serious health problems–including Parkinson’s disease, as well as efforts by numerous individuals and institutions to raise funds for her continued treatment. But Smith’s interest in Di Prima goes beyond these important but relatively recent aspects of her life to something, as he puts it, “more personal”:
She’s not considered to be a relevant force on the literary scene now, nor is she particularly a household name. But her presence in contemporary poetry and culture remains significant because she has shown so many younger writers how to participate in a literary life, one that is devised to achieve artistic integrity, if not institutional success.
We’re grateful that Smith’s essay focuses so specifically on the gendered aspects of Di Prima’s relationship to artistic and social contexts. As he notes, “It can be easy to take for granted di Prima’s determination to bring a woman’s voice into a mostly male-dominated subculture.” Di Prima’s poetry and autobiographical writing take up questions of motherhood and artistic practice in a way that remains sharply relevant to our contemporary late-Feminist (or is it post-Feminist?) moment. Smith’s description of how Di Prima helped him navigate his role as a young male writer encountering Feminist-discourses is illuminating:
Di Prima’s experience of the risks and violence of the period are augmented by a scrappy enthusiasm for her role as a poet. She certainly helped me understand my obligations as a writer at a time when I was trying to figure it all out. More than a decade ago, I was working with my wife, Hoa Nguyen, to publish a small magazine from our home in Austin, Texas. We had been corresponding with di Prima about the publication of Floating Bear. We shared an affinity for animal totems, naming our small, stapled zine Skanky Possum. Di Prima had invited us to dinner one evening while we were visiting San Francisco. I had reviewed a recently published edition of Loba for a small journal in Lawrence, Kansas. The epic poem’s concern for the many manifested forms of the Great Mother resonated with my own interests in poetry, religion, and anthropology. Not since Robert Graves’s poetic investigation of the feminine figures of the imagination in The White Goddess had I encountered such a provocative and complex engagement with the archaic spirit of poetry. Di Prima’s concern for “these faces before the Face” connected the mythic relationships of Cerridwen, Brigit, Io, Artemis, Isis: all were representative aspects of feminine energies and powers not always articulated in contemporary cultural discussions of poetry. Di Prima’s knack for retrieving significant formations of a feminine psyche seemed pertinent for better understanding the rich emergence of feminist discourses I encountered as a young man making my way in the world of poetry.
The full essay is available online in the Los Angeles Review of Books.