All Power To the Imagination
by Mark Chmiel
Have you ever tried to email chicken soup?
Diane di Prima
The Poetry Deal—It’s only 109 pages.
But Diane di Prima—poet, printer, feminist, Buddhist, anarchist, pacifist, cultural revolutionary— packs a lot of life into those pages.
In the late 50s and 60s di Prima lived in New York and California and worked in poetry and theatre circles as the counterculture was on the rise. She was friends with some of the Beat writers and was a literary collaborator of Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka). Starting in the mid-70s, she taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder. One of her brilliant and useful lectures from Naropa is entitled, “By Any Means Necessary,” on how to get your work out and circulating.
Now in her eighties, di Prima offers new and old readers this book, which is volume #5 in the San Francisco Poet Laureate Series, from City Lights Foundation. Herein, you will find many treasures from this committed poet.
Procrastinators (we are legion) will enjoy “Clearing the Desk,” an open letter to all those solicitors through the U.S. Postal Service whose entreaties have stacked up over time at her work space:
I’d love to send money (if only I had some) to
Nalanda Translation Committee
Project Open Hand
the San Francisco Jazz Fesitval
the Society to Lynch Newt Gingrich
& that new one: People Against Impermanence
(such a sweet idea)
Since the 60s, di Prima has penned several editions of “Revolutionary Letters” that deal with creating a new political sensibility and critiquing the old. In The Poetry Deal, she presents haikus that focus on Israel’s attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006:
don’t ask why I
have bad dreams
ask why if I don’t
Embracing a suggestion from Dear Abby to “take time to remember those brave souls who gave their lives for freedom,” di Prima writes a litany in “Memorial Day 2003” that includes:
Remember John Brown
Remember the slave revolts
Remember Huey and Little Bobby Hutton
Remember Tina Modotti
Remember Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph
Remember Amelia Earhart
Recently, I read her memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, which covered her life to the mid-Sixties. I often thought of Catholic Worker friends and their philosophy of personalism, which privileges the face to face, as I discovered how Diane and her friends engaged in spirited mutual aid throughout those tumultuous years. In a striking poem, “Where Are You,” she resists the current wave of new technologies (Skype) and social media (Facebook) and affirms that staying in touch
means when you’re home from the hospital
he brings you a casserole or soup for the freezer
or mops your floor, makes sure you can reach what you need…
it means one of us will stay with your three-year-old
if you have to stay overnight at the hospital
where you just had your second baby
In “Haiti, Chile, Tibet,” she gives eight suggestions for how to confront the tragedies of our times:
8. STOP ASKING WHAT OTHERS “BELIEVE”
just look in their eyes
& see we are the same, they are the same
as your most beloved child, yr dog, yr lover
What energizes me is di Prima’s voice: deep and nonchalant, exuberant and serene, celebratory and damn determined. In “Some Words about the Poem,” she states, “Poets speak truth when no one else can or will. That’s why the hunger for poetry grows when the world grows dark. When repression grows, when people speak in whispers or not at all, they turn to poetry to find what’s going on.”
You can read her book in an hour and a half or so.
And then be revved up to recognize, resist, and rejoice over what’s going on right where you are and even far, far away.