Interview with Poet Diane Di Prima

by Alisha Casey

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Diane di Prima reading from The Poetry Deal at the SF Public Library earlier this Fall.

Diane di Prima, legendary feminist Beat writer, has just released her latest book of poetry, The Poetry Deal, the fifth volume in City Light’s San Francisco Poet Laureate Series. Her last collection with City Lights, Revolutionary Letters, was published back in 1971; now, at eighty-years old, this new collection is her first book of new poetry in decades. Recently, di Prima sat down with reporter Jonah Raskin at SF Gate to discuss her latest work.

Considered by Raskin as the “Queen of the Beat Generation” (should Kerouac be “the king”), di Prima was named San Francisco Poet Laureate in 2009. When asked about this title, Prima explained, “Poetry is my life, my commitment. I accept it unconditionally. I’ve never wanted fame and I’ve never willingly compromised my poetry.”

A self-proclaimed “artist, painter, anarchist,” Prima still writes nearly ever day, so often, in fact, that it’s known to wake her up in the morning and carry her through to the night. “The poems were calling to me,” she said. “I couldn’t silence them.”

A portion of the interview appears below. Go here for the full interview.

Q: In Memoirs of a Beatnik, first published in 1969, you urge readers to resist monogamy, but you’ve lived with your husband for 36 years.

A: We don’t tell one another what to do. I don’t force my will on him and he doesn’t force his will on me. That would be bad karma. I still feel that humans ought to live in tribes and not nuclear families.

Q: What’s the meaning of the title The Poetry Deal?

A: Poetry is my life, my commitment. I accept it unconditionally. I’ve never wanted fame and I’ve never willingly compromised my poetry. I’ve never compromised my kids, either.

Q: Of all the people you knew, who do you miss the most?

A: Dear friends who died in the AIDS epidemic. I miss William Burroughs, too. He was very loving. We’d hang out and tell one another stories.

Q: You’ve met a new generation of young people, haven’t you?

A: I’m old and need help. I have Parkinson’s and Sjøgren’s syndrome. Someone comes here and types for me, someone else shops. I give them books and tell them stories. I’m learning the wisdom of the young.

Q: As you’ve aged, have you lost memories of your own girlhood?

A: I remember our house in Brooklyn. I was inside a lot because my Italian father thought girls shouldn’t go out. At 13, that changed. I went to high school in Manhattan. Eight of us wrote poetry together before class. I’ve never forgotten that experience.

After decades in the business, Prima remains a San Franciscan poet through and through; though the city has changed substantially in her lifetime, she recalls the past fondly and holds hope for the future. “Poetry is contagious here,” she told Raskin. “My mantras are: ‘Keep making art’ and ‘If you make a big mistake, forgive yourself.’ I don’t try to make anything into something other than what it is. The world is perfect as it is. You are perfect as you are, though you have to get back to work to reactivate that perfection.”

The Poetry Deal is available today at City Lights Book Store for a 30% discount or wherever books are sold. The book features her SF Poet Laureate inaugural speech in its entirety.

 

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