Diane di Prima and Poets Theater

by David Hadbawnik


[this piece originally appeared on kenningeditions.com – in response to Kenning Editions’ The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985]

Diane di Prima founded New York Poets Theater in 1961 with James Waring, John Herbert McDowell, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Alan Marlowe (Fred Herko, another key figure, was not among the official “board” of the nonprofit corporation). Over the next several years, the theater staged a number of important one-act plays by Jones, di Prima, John Weiners, Frank O’Hara, Michael McClure, and Robert Duncan, among others, with artists like George Herms often designing the sets. It’s a testament to the age that Marlowe, at the time di Prima’s husband and driving force behind the enterprise, insisted on incorporating because he felt there was money to be made with poets theater, as di Prima recalls in her 2001 book Recollections of My Life as a Woman. She adds that the police were frequent visitors over the first few weeks’ performances, and the cast and crew were constantly worried about plain-clothes cops in the audience. (Jones had recently been arrested for material that had appeared in The Floating Bear, the magazine he co-edited with di Prima.)

It seems to have been a remarkably creative moment, when the Poets Theater acted as a living analog to the artistic “cross-pollination,” as di Prima puts it, that took shape in the Bear. Not only were different disciplines brought together—in addition to important artists like Herms, dancers from Merce Cunningham’s troupe often took part—but poets from various backgrounds mingled, contributed, and acted in each other’s plays. To me, that’s the essence of what Poets Theater can do; it’s what I find so magical about the still-thriving events in San Francisco, a space in which temporal, geographical, and aesthetic differences are temporarily dissolved, and poetry is enacted as both confrontation and entertainment, in ways that break the bounds of the traditional journal or reading format. As di Prima writes, there was something more immediate about the theater: “… the bump and grind of George Herms’ set for Michael McClure’s Blossom up against Frank O’Hara’s aesthetic—none of that waited on our readiness, it came when it came, and none of it was terribly comfortable.”

Di Prima’s 1961 play Rain Fur reflects this exuberance and immediacy. Despite—perhaps because of—the fact that it was a “throwaway” according to di Prima that was rescued from the trash by Waring (an anecdote that the author relates in the end note to the play), it also encapsulates in miniature many of the central concerns that continue to drive her creative output to this day. The first clue to these concerns is the names of the characters themselves—“A,” “A-PRIME,” and “A-SUB-ONE”—which recall mathematical figures; di Prima was a math whiz who initially majored in advanced calculus in college, and this motif would recur in her 1972 book The Calculus of Variation, which refers to the complex field of functional mathematics that shares that name.

Another feature is the formal innovation and wordplay that permeate di Prima’s work, and which she’s rarely given credit for (“PRIME-A” is also clearly a pun on her name, brought to the surface when that character repeats the sound “di di di” early in the play). The immediate influences here would seem to be Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, who offer models of a fragmented, collage approach to language, which di Prima infuses with a surrealist wit. Stein seems present not only in lines such as “achoo / only a rose I bring you,” but the recurrent naming of domestic things and foodstuffs—as di Prima writes, “After all, why refrain from these things: red socks, peanut butter, a gold star …”—unbound or split apart from their ordinary meanings and set forth as language in all their strangeness. Pound is given a more direct shout-out: “free Ezra Pound!”; di Prima had corresponded and visited with Pound at St. Elizabeths, from which he’d already been freed in 1958. But it’s Stein, especially the Stein whose play Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights would recast the old story as one of “gender trouble” and the anxiety-inducing threat of female sexuality, who really seems the guiding spirit of the play. As the editors note, the play “burns with anger right under its lovely surface. Had Minos been a woman, di Prima suggests, the archeologists would have just risen up and moved away in droves, for nothing in a woman’s civilization is worth preserving or restoring.”

In this way it also anticipates the writing of Kathy Acker. Right after a “Doctor” has ominously asked, “Ether anyone?”, a “Tree” responds, “how ambitious to be in labor / to run a news stand / how ambitious / how ambitious to get on a bus.” These lines remind me of the famous opening of Acker’s novel Don Quixote: “When she was finally crazy because she was about to have an abortion, she conceived of the most insane idea that any woman can think of. Which is to love.” Death, madness, conception, love; these elements hover as well in di Prima’s surrealist narrative, only the logic is inverted, more hopeful somehow, even as the stakes seem every bit as high. For di Prima—and we must also recall one of the most incendiary interludes in her most famous book, Memoirs of a Beatnik, “Fuck the Pill”—childbirth itself is a choice and a risk that’s part of being human precisely as a woman, one that’s “ambitious” but not impossible. There’s a power in being woman that, again, strikes me as hopeful, even exuberant:

I shall be known as the woman par excellence.
O I can feel the flowers that stir in my flesh
the snakes, the earthquakes, the white
racing cars.
I am the tides.
I shall be heard of, in song.

Lines such as these look forward to di Prima’s long, ongoing Loba project, which revisits the question of what it means to be a woman in terms more overtly mythical and, obviously, poetic. It’s a deeper, more mature project; but as I argue, so much of the incredibly varied formal tropes and thematic elements that di Prima would later develop can be found here in germinal form.

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