Diane di Prima, Teacher – Part I

by Joan Marie Wood


All around the walls are revealed as doors: when she lifts her hand the black door opens outward, and the skylight, a once-low ceiling, when she looks up, has been filled with stars
            “The work is not to have a cushy life.”
            “Everything is shapely. Not every artist is an artist of this time.”
                               --Diane di Prima, Theory & Practice of Poetics, 2001           

I’m delighted to be part of this long overdue project of honoring Diane di Prima as Master Teacher. What follows is taken from notes I have made over the past few months about my ten years’ experience studying with Diane.

Sitting in the circle again this fall, after Diane’s two year break from teaching monthly winter classes, I am aware that each sentence, gesture, and even her silences, nudge me toward the poem. “Foundations Class is getting you out of what you think poetry and poetics is,” she says. I sit straighter, lean forward in our circle of fifteen.  Poetry matters to me. I think I know what it is. My idea of what it is matters to me.  Diane leans toward us too. “So you love this thing you call poetry,” she seems to whisper in my ear. “Exactly what is the nature of your commitment?”

It’s rigorous, the process of having one’s cup emptied of notions. But what a blessed thing, to encounter a teacher who helps me get out of my own way! In 2005 we were studying Charles Olson, and at the start I volunteered to read a villanelle I had written. “But I’m worried because I don’t know what this means,” I said. “It’s not your business what it means. You’re still trying to control a lot, that’s what your concern says,” she said. On another day she commented, “I can’t avoid my style. And whether you or other people like your style isn’t relevant. Most of the time we change a poem so that we look good. When we do this, we usually destroy our poem, because ego is not useful here. One’s opinion no matter what is just opinion. Go back to your sources. Let them make you up.”

My experience of Diane as a teacher is complex, and often I’m not sure how to sort out who she is as a teacher from who I am as her student.  However, the forms she uses are straightforward: monthly daylong (or half-day) classes in sequence; one-on-one consultations; and weekend retreats. Currently, her classes are held in San Francisco at a loft on Cesar Chavez St., and most retreats in the North Bay. I have participated in the nine-month Theory & Practice of Poetics classes from 2000 through 2007, in three summer Lyric Poem sequences from 2006 through 2008, and in many one-on-ones in which she responded to my poems, and in 2007-08 to study Homeric Greek, a mutual interest.
At the threshold, keeping one hand on the jamb, stepping out to where the light is sudden & sharp shadows run under cactus where the small feet dance
            “In actual writing, you really don’t know where it’s going. The writing itself leans towards revealment, of events, processes behind events.”
            “Can’t have genuineness in poem and not have genuineness in your daily life. The latter is like creating a little foyer to your house of poetry.”  
                                               --Diane di Prima, Theory & Practice, 2001, 2003

One must take some time learning how to learn from such a master poet and teacher, for the learning happens at many levels. In the Theory & Practice class, Diane offers copious information about a poet’s life and work, or a poetic form, through lectures, recordings of poets, and through sharing personal experiences of meetings with many 20th century poets. She reads her own work written along with us, conveying a sense of how poems come to be, and come to be in connection with others, poets especially, but also anyone working in any art. During the round robin she reads us work written while attending a jazz concert, a dance performance, or a reading, and my sense of the origins of the work and how we make ourselves available to these sources, expands. One day I remember holding my breath in wonder as she described how the sequence of poems ‘TimeBomb’ arrived, all during one night, in early September after Katrina, as she woke and dozed, and how there were wandering lines on the pages as she slept between poems.

“Lean into the sharp points,” said Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist master, one of several Buddhist teachers with whom Diane has studied since the ‘60s.  She nudges me toward my learning edges, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, again and again. We work with Pound’s melo-, phano-, and logopoesis; Burroughs’ cut-ups; Creeley’s exquisite turning of the line; Whalen’s ‘moving graph of the mind.’ “Trust your own reading,” Diane says. “Never forget there’s more than one way to read. We don’t aim to be consistent. No special value in being original.” I read and read and read. Olson’s Maximus. Yeats’ Collected Works. Spicer’s books, Dickinson’s opus. I am overwhelmed yet cannot get enough: Blake. Duncan. Zukovsky. Above all, H.D.: The Trilogy, Helen in Egypt, The Gift, End of Torment, Hermetic Definitions. Each poet, each perspective on the process of making the poem, leads to further inquiry, further reading. Alongside this, almost without knowing it, I begin to write in new ways. I am familiar with letting words come freely onto the page, and during morning writing in my notebook I continue to do this, but now there is an added aspect of intensity, as if something in me opens towards the fullest possible presence with the words as they come.

I practice the prose poem. “I still don’t know what a prose poem is,” says Diane, “but it evokes a world and invites the surreal.” Then I commit to writing a sonnet a day for a month. I don’t quite make it, but I learn sonnet forms. “There are many ways to move into the poem,” Diane says, “yet all align with the poetics of unfoldment, not manipulating . . . but what we most often want to do is go with persona, not go with how the poem wants to reveal itself.”

Who knows from how many kinds of sources poems spring? “Art often happens in ‘groupness,’ Diane has said. ‘More than a dialogue, it’s a constellation, arises from deeper than consciousness.”  Working with Diane I feel her support of what’s between us as well as of the work of individuals. She encourages us to connect in whatever ways fit our temperaments and situations. She curates reading series for students and friends, and occasionally publishes homemade editions of class work. During her two-year break from teaching Theory & Practice of Poetics, she helped us maintain our class community through a sweet and rewarding project in which we mailed poems on postcards regularly to each other. Her mentoring has nurtured a large community of poets and artists, whose work is wildly diverse, in the Bay Area and beyond.

Settling feet on the red earth, letting shapes of the rooms recede: now the clear-edged moon sings along lines that turn with the breath
            “You can’t always tell when you’ve broken into speech how far you’ve come.”
            “When you are learning your craft, writing and revising everyday, you have to                               cut, revise, impose yourself. Later on you have all that craft and whatever                                 comes through uses it all.”
                                           --Diane di Prima, Theory & Practice, 2006, 2007      

Hanging out with Diane I often feel in touch with something vast and unsettling. There is a unique quality to her teaching that involves—how else to say this?—a sense of my being aligned with (carried along beside?) a potentiated will. I don’t know what I’m talking about here, but I’ll follow it.  When an invisible door opens, I feel invigorated, curious, and aware of previously unperceived possibilities, and this happens alongside any body pains, sleepiness, restlessness, or inner critical voices.  At a certain point I feel a pull—almost magnetic—to move into poem-making. I feel simultaneously supported and catapulted forward.

In December 2004 we had our third class on Robert Duncan.  Diane invited a friend of Duncan’s, Susan Thackrey, and the class met at Jo Kaufman’s house.  Sitting in Jo’s living room I could see north over a wild ravine to the Bay waters. We read aloud ‘My Mother Would be a Falconress,’ and Diane and Susan shared stories of hanging out with Duncan, talking about making poems, and that Robert spoke of “thoroughgoing composition,” a multiplicity of relationships, visual, sound, not a “single dance;” and that anyone can enter it, this dance of making poems, in their own way.

By mid-afternoon, after we’d eaten a lunch of quiche and one of Jo’s splendid salads, the energy in the room had spiraled to a soft center. “Write, using Duncan’s words if you wish,” said Diane. I opened his Selected Poems at random, my finger falling on the line “the honey is burnd into the rock” (from ‘Structure of Rime XVI’). What happened next—image, phrase, line—arrived whole in my notebook. The space Diane held for us had opened a link for me, intimate, powerful, and just this side of frightening, with Duncan, whose prophetic call to the heart moved me beyond myself, and whose presence I felt with us until we concluded the class.