Diane di Prima, Teacher Part II

A Tribute to Diane di Prima

by Jo Kaufman


Brilliant. Inspirational. Compassionate.  Caring.  Insightful.  Playful.  These are just a few words to describe Diane di Prima, but – alas – this smattering of lofty adjectives can’t begin to give an accurate picture of this larger-than-life woman/poet who, for over 10 years, has been a teacher, mentor, and  friend. 

Take the moment, just 6 months ago, when a small group of friends, family and various political and literary luminaries gathered at San Francisco’s Richmond District Branch Library to learn that Diane had been selected to be the city’s newest poet laureate. Never mind that the choice of venue seemed an odd one, (we later learned that Mayor Gavin Newsom wanted not only to welcome Diane but had to be on hand for the ribbon-cutting and hoop-la that accompanied the grand re-opening of a neighborhood library) Diane was gracious as she posed for photos and read, if only briefly, from her own work.  But there was something else, something quite extraordinary when you stop to realize that here is a woman who has not only published countless volumes of poetry and influenced hundreds of fledgling poets and writers, but who is, in no uncertain terms, a legend.  There was, is, a complete lack of conceit.  Language – its art, energy and passion – is Diane’s currency; the celebrity that comes with it is, if anything, frosting in the form of a wink from the universe.   I never knew Diane as a child, but on the day that Newsom officially announced her selection, it wasn’t hard to imagine the feisty auburn-haired child she once was blushing at all the attention.  Well-deserved, I might add.  Long over-due, everyone agrees.   But given that poetry is so integral to Diane’s life and thoughts, the acclaim, the accolades, while lovely, are merely a culmination of a lifetime of writing. As Robert Creeley wrote about Diane in the Foreward to “Pieces of a Song,” (1990) “Growing up in the fifties, you had to figure it out for yourself – which she did, and stayed open – as a woman, uninterested in any possibility of static investment or solution.  Her search for human center is among the most moving I have witnessed – and she took her friends with her, though often it would have been simpler indeed to have gone alone.  God bless her toughness and the deep gentleness of her hand.” 

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  I met Diane in the spring of 1999, when I was just finishing up a 2 year MFA program at the University of San Francisco, where I’d gone – I thought – to focus on short fiction.  Aaron Shurin changed all that:  Poetry it was.  When it came time to find a thesis advisor for the final project, (a book length collection of poems) I was riddled with anxiety and a bad case of the “I’m not good enoughs.”  I’d heard Diane read from Loba and was immediately drawn to her , not only because of the depth and scope of the Loba poems, but because of the woman herself.  Candid, funny, irreverent, I loved hearing her read, loved the way she interacted with the audience.  But I was a neophtye, a piker in the world of poetry; there was no way was  an icon like Diane di Prima going to take me on as a student – even for a summer.  I’m still not sure why she did, anymore than I’m sure what it was about our work together that paved the way for years of subsequent study and friendship.  

Diane is a small woman.  She dresses comfortably in sweats and t-shirts.   She drinks herbal teas and has the uncanny ability to size up the state of your psyche by looking into your eyes. (Among her other talents is that of a Tarot Card reader)  In other words, there was nothing to be afraid of, but that didn’t stop me from being nervous during those first few meetings.  (What was Aaron thinking, I wondered, when he said that Diane and I would be a “good match?”  How could I – Queen of Glitter and Shopping – be a good match with a woman who didn’t, as far as I could tell, own a tube of lipstick?)  The truth was, being so new to poetry, I really didn’t know how I felt about working with certain forms; I didn’t know what direction I wanted my work to take.   It was only under Diane’s tutelage that these questions began to make sense, that I began to take myself, and my poetry, seriously.  Like all great teachers, Diane doesn’t mold you in her image; on the contrary, she wants each student to find her own center, her own truths; and it is these truths that will make the work sing. I’ve seen it time and time again through the years:   She meets students at their level, regardless of their past experience. All she asks for in return is honesty.  And commitment.  That’s crucial.

At the end of that summer spent studying with Diane one-on-one,  it was clear – to both of us – that our “real” work was only beginning. In late fall of 1999, I joined one of her workshops –  The Theory and Practice of Poetics – having no idea at the time that I was in store for one of the most stimulating, challenging, and, frankly. life-altering commitments ever undertaken.   We met in a loft at the old Sears Building one Sunday a month from 10 – 6.    That may not sound like much in terms of class time, but when you stop to consider the staggering amount of information Diane offered in her lectures, coupled with the insular intensity of the class –  suffice it to say that it was enough to keep us as busy as we were inspired.  Part history, part religious studies (which Diane taught at New College) and part language, it was like a graduate seminar in World Civilization with an emphasis on poetry and poetics.  I took the class (if you can call it that; it more like a way of life) for 8 years, and immersed myself in such wide-ranging poets and thinkers as Ezra Pound, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara, Gertrude Stein and Jack Spicer.  To name a few.  But Diane could be demanding too.  I remember one Sunday, it must have been in 2004 or ‘05, when none of us showed up with much to read for the Round Robin.  “I’ve been noticing it for a while,” she said, “we’re all getting a little stale.  For next month’s meeting, I’d like everyone to bring in a Sestina they’ve written.  If you’ve written them before, do a new one.”  We groaned, grumbled to ourselves, but Diane was right.  Writing outside our comfort zone forced us all to take a hard look at our own work, at the ways we had, collectively, been writing what was easy, familiar. 

With so much information to process,  I also distinctly remember feeling “spent” at the end of many of those Sundays; so much so that when it came time for an in-class writing exercise, I immediately bolted out of my chair and started fussing around in the loft’s kitchen.  Making coffee, clearing the dishes we’d used during the pot-luck lunch.  And it was always the same: I felt  Diane’s hand on my shoulder.  “You’re not a hostess.  You’re a writer.  Write.”  

Everyone who knows Diane is aware that one of her favorite forms of communication is the postcard.  It’s her way of keeping in touch, and she keeps hundreds  of them stacked up on her desk, each waiting for the right person, the right moment.

 “Have been thinking about the poem we worked on last time you were here.  Think it’s ready to go out into the world.  Let’s talk about that next time I see you. Love, D.”

Thanks for the Meyer Lemons you brought me.  I squeeze them into my tea every morning.  DE-licious.  Love, D.” 

“Looking forward to our play-date.  It’s been ages.” 

The postcards need not be profound, and yet, in their own way, they are, all told, among the most profound correspondences I’ve ever received. With all the demands on her time, not to mention working on new poems and the second volume of her memoir – Recollections On My Life As a Woman –  keeping up with her painting, I wonder how she keeps up, how she has the energy.   Therein lies the difference between Diane di Prima and the rest of us.  She finds the time, creates the space.  She is a woman who reads Proust “for fun,” but also worries about what to plant in her garden. 

What many people might not know about Diane is how playful is.  How silly and goofy.   Over the years, particular since the Poetics workshop took a hiatus in 2007, I’ve had the good fortune of continuing to see Diane on a regular basis.  She was the one who said we needed “play-dates” to rejuvenate ourselves. We usually meet at a museum, but as often as not, we’ll have lunch and just mosey down whatever street we happen to be on, usually ending up in some stationery or card store buying small gifts for her grand – and great-grand – children.  On one particularly balmy day, we met at the Conservatory of Flowers; on another day, not long ago, I accompanied her to buy a new pair of shoes for her son’s wedding.  It doesn’t matter where we go, really, just that we’re out and about, exploring, enjoying each other’s company.  Sometimes the talk turns serious, sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s no secret that Diane doesn’t like to shop (save for the Museum gift shops, where we can spent insane amounts of time) anymore than it’s a secret that I was, in the words of some awful post-it “born to shop.”  I enjoy being her “guide,” for a change, even through something as mundane as a mall. 

 Our birthdays fall within 3 days of each other’s and it’s our custom to find a date, usually within a month of the birthday blitz – to spend together.  This year we met at the Meditation Room in the Asian Museum, one of our favorite places to sit, to enjoy the quiet.  “Think the guard will mind if we open our gifts here?”  I asked. “What can he say?”  Typically, I’m the one who’s always looking over my shoulder, making sure that I’m being a “good” girl, not breaking rules, making waves.   Suffice it to say that Diane has taught me about the need to take risks.  Not only in writing but in life.   Years ago, while I was spinning my wheels teaching Expository Writing at USF,  Diane sat me down and asked me why.   It wasn’t an easy conversation but it was an essential one in that it forced me to admit that I’d gone along with the teaching job for ego’s sake, not because I was enjoying it.  (From Revolutionary Letter #55:  It takes courage to say no) At moment’s like these, Diane is more than a teacher, more than a friend.  She is a nurturer, a mother, a therapist and spiritual advisor.  

Little did I know of the ways in which  my life would change on that foggy morning when I appeared on Diane’s doorstep for the first time.  Little did I know that behind the legend, behind the talent and drive, is a woman whose very presence exudes the sort of contagious warmth that inspires us all to return to our notebooks, to discover and discover again the poetry that is our collective life-line.