Interview with Diane de Prima by Billy Klüver, San Francisco, November 17, 1992

In 1988 Billy Klüver and I published Kiki’s Paris, a profusely illustrated social art history of the artists’ community in Montparnasse in Paris from 1880 to 1930. For our next project, Billy chose what he called another great period of artistic innovation and sense of community: New York from 1945 to 1965, focusing on activities from the mid to late 1950s and into the mid 1960s, much of which Billy had been part of. We focused on the lives and works of artists born in 1925 and after. Billy had the idea to interview as many members of the community as possible -- artists, dealers, critics, writers, etc. -- the great variety of people who participated in making the life of the art community so rich and exciting. These interviews would guide us in choosing what people, events, and activities were most important in these twenty years. We soon realized we could not limit our interviews only to those living and working in New York, since during this period, New York became the city everyone wanted to come to, to either visit or settle in permanently. So we extended our interviews to cities around the US and Europe.

During a trip to San Francisco in 1992, Billy reached out to Diane de Prima and requested an interview. He had studied at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1954 to 1958, before settling permanently in New Jersey just outside New York City, and had followed art, film and publishing activities on both coasts. He was familiar with di Prima’s work, and had in his archive numerous issues of The Floating Bear, the newsletter/magazine that she co-published from 1961 to 1969.

When I read of di Prima’s death on October 25th, I remembered the interview, and I was very pleased to accept the invitation of Jacob Kirkegaard, to prepare the 30-year-old tape of the interview and release it on his group’s artists website TOPOS.

TOPOS is releasing this interview made in 1992 with leading American writer, poet, and artist, Diane di Prima, who died on October 25, 2020. Di Prima was a prominent active participant in the Beat literary generation in the late 1950s, and she has over her long life in New York and on the West Coast published some 50 books of poetry and other writings including the fictional Memoirs of a Beatnik, and a later memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman. The interview invites the listener into the rich world of this extraordinary poet, as she negotiated the world as writer, activist and independent woman.
This interview is the the latest in the TOPOS digital series.

Julie Martin, New Jersey, November 2020


Short Biography of Diane di Prima

Poet, novelist, teacher, activist, Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. She attended Swarthmore College, before dropping out to pursue her writing independently in New York City, becoming part of the literary and theatrical activities during the 1950s and early 1960s, a period marked by the emerging Beat movement. Her first book of poetry, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, was published in 1958 by Totem Press with an introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and she became an important part of the literary community in New York.

In 1961 she co-founded the New York Poets Theater with choreographers James Waring and Fred Herko, actor Alan Marlowe, and poet LeRoi Jones, who later adopted the name Amiri Baraka. For the next several years, the Poets Theater works by poets, writers, dancers, and artists working in the East Village and Lower East Side.

The same year she became the co-editor of The Floating Bear with poet LeRoi Jones, a mimeograph newsletter that published new and avant garde writers, including both Beat authors and New York School poets. In 1963 di Prima took over sole editorship, expanding the focus and reach of the publication. In 1964, di Prima and Alan Marlowe, founded the Poets Press, which published the work of many new writers of the period.

In 1965 she moved to upstate New York where she participated in Timothy Leary's psychedelic community at Millbrook. She moved to San Francisco in 1968 where she joined the activities of the Diggers, a community-action group and street theater artists who operated from 1966 to 1968 in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. She also studied with Shunryu Suzuki, and embraced Buddhism. She co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. A dedicated teacher, she was one of the seminal poets teaching at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, from 1974 to 1996 along with Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. She also taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts, and in the Masters-in-Poetics program at the New College of California.

Di Prima published more than thirty collections of poetry, as well as plays, short stories, novels, and nonfiction. Her poetry collections include the long multi-part poem, Loba, hailed by many as the great female counterpart to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl when the first half appeared in 1978. that she added to and revised for decades, the final version appearing in 1998; Revolutionary Letters, a series of anarchic-manifesto-epistolary poems distributed nationally through the Liberation News Service; and Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (2001). She is also the author of the short story collection Dinners and Nightmares (1960), the semi-autobiographical novel Memoirs of a Beatnik (1968), and the memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (2001). Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages. In 2009, she was named the poet laureate of San Francisco.

This section from Revolutionary Letter #2, one of the group of poems she wrote in the 1970 giving voice to her life-long devotion to poetry, justice, revolution, tenderness and living life as a complete woman:

       an organism, one flesh, breathing joy as the stars
       breathe destiny down on us, get
       going, join hands, see to business, thousands of sons
       will see to it when you fall, you will grow
       a thousands times in the bellies of your sisters

Released on November 17th, 2020, as part of the TOPOS digital series.
Catalogue number Topos-201118
Courtesy Klüver / Martin archive, 2020 - All rights reserved.