On Recollections of My Life as a Woman:
The New York Years

Diane di Prima: An Appreciation

by Maria Mazziotti Gillan


Diane di Prima begins her memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, by first warning us in her author’s note about the difficulty of capturing the past and memory. In her author’s note she says:

“Close as I can, this is how I remember it. I could be wrong about some things. Most everybody is.”

Even in that one line, Diane di Prima’s commitment to truth and accuracy is evident, though she makes it clear that her memories of the past are filtered through her vision. She also allows us a glimpse of her sense of humor and wry wit, qualities that will be evident in the pages of this remarkable book.

Recollections opens with these lines:   “My earliest sense of what it means to be a woman was learned from my grandmother Antoinette Mallozzi, at her knee….She smelled of lemons and olive oil, garlic and waxes and mysterious herbs. I loved to touch her skin.” It is from her grandmother that di Prima gets her sense that it is women who attend to all the “practical aspects of life(p.2)”  Women are grounded and while they may be visionary as well, they must keep things going on an everyday level.
The other early influence on di Prima was her grandfather, Dominic Mallozzi, who teaches her to love opera, to admire Dante, to be passionate about life. He took her with him to anarchist rallies where he would speak and di Prima understood that giving yourself over to an ideal, that willingness to fight and sacrifice for a set of beliefs, was more important than anything else.

Her own father, in contrast to Antoinette and Domenic and the lives they led and believed in, is a bitter, angry, closed-up person who thinks his wife’s father is crazy and wants di Prima to learn to toe the line, to be the traditional Italian woman he wants her to be.

One of the intriguing things about the technique she uses in this book is that she slips easily back and forth in time so we meet in a few pages the Diane di Prima who is a grown woman herself who has raised her children and nurtured her art and her spirit. In those same pages we meet her mother as a young mother and later as an 82 year old woman who reveals bits of her past that she had previously kept hidden. In these moments  di Prima sees that her mother has some of the same yearnings to see everything and experience everything that she herself has,  but that her mother had pushed back against those yearnings, had hidden them even from herself.

Through the fluid motion of time, we come to understand di Prima’s escape from the tight confines of her life in her parent’s house and  into a world much more original, freer, larger, more open to art and the spirit. We see the courage it took for her to leap into a totally different life from the one her parents wanted for her.

Di Prima’s world expands when she’s admitted to and attends Hunter High School where she is exposed to the life of the  mind, and where she is able to fully explore her strong intellectual abilities and talents. Here she falls in love with poetry and the Romantic poets in particular and with beauty and sound of language. She decides that she will be a poet and that she will dedicate her life to poetry for she sees in poetry the passionate intensity she has always felt within herself and was never permitted to express in her life at home. In these years she is deeply influenced by the strong women who taught her at Hunter High school. When she goes on to study at Swarthmore she is disappointed by the narrowness of the education offered to her and decides to drop out of college and to live in the NYC. In order to accomplish this, she forgoes the emotional and financial support of her parents. They are furious at her decision and she is on her own. In the next  few years she works at various jobs while going to school at night and working on her poetry. She takes courses at several NY universities because she is hungry for knowledge and not interested in getting a degree. To be what she wants to be, a poet, she decides she does not need a degree. She feeds her mind at museums and at the NY Public library and by building a circle of friends with interests in the various forms of art. She immerses herself in learning dance and finds in this physical exploration of her body, the perfect corollary to her intellectual and creative explorations.

In this period she breaks away from the constricted world of her upbringing and engages freely in sexual relationships.  She reads Ginsberg’s Howl and begins a correspondence with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She sent him her poems, and he wrote back to her. He also introduced her to Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Peter Orlovsky, who came to visit her in Manhattan and all of whom became close friends. At the same time she decided that she needed to have a child, though she did not want a man involved in making decisions about rearing the child. She did get pregnant and have her first child. Many of her friends thought the pregnancy and the child would keep her from being the poet she felt she was destined to be, but she was determined to have children and her art. In getting her first book ready for the publisher, she learns a great deal about preparing camera-ready copy and then when the press is going out of business, they show her how to finish putting together the book and printing it. Meanwhile, she met LeRoi Jones ( Amiri Baraka) and learned he was starting Totem Press, but he had no book ready to go to press; she had a book ready to go but no press. They decided to join forces; thus, her first book was published by Le Roi Jones’ Totem Press.

In  Recollections of My Life as a Woman, di Prima explores her various loves, female and male, her widening circle of friends including Jones, Ginsberg, Rexroth. Robert Creeley. and Philip Whalen, but she also recognizes that as a woman and a mother, her  choices have to be balanced against the needs of her children and of friends who helped her by babysitting  This balancing of needs led to a deepening of her decision to be a poet and gave additional dimension to her work. Of all of her lovers and the people she marries or has children with,  she never gives up her ideals about art and poetry.

What becomes very clear in the book is what a fine writer di Prima is.   Recollections of My Life as a Woman  is beautifully written and executed. Her poems are polished and glittering and risky and varied. This volume shows a young di Prima  fully engaged in creating work and promoting poetry and theater, a Beat writer who was recognized as a Beat yet who does not seem to have been given the respect she deserved from other Beats writers .

Recollections of My Life as a Woman is a fascinating book that gives us a poet’s insight into the very male dominated world of the Beats. It is a  also a testament to di Prima’s writing—lyrical, eloquent, passionate, moving, true.  In  ii she offers us an unflinching portrait of the life of a Beat woman writer of the 1950’s and early 1960”s. She not only brings the era alive for us in these pages, but she comes alive in her search for her life’s meaning and her dedication to the strong, female life force  represented by a philosophy  in which the mind and body are not separate and in which art is fed by openness to all aspects of life.