Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The War Against the Imagination

Trevor Carolan talks to Diane di Prima

Revolutionary Letters. Diane Di Prima. Last Gasp Editions, 2007.

Thursday, Oct. 11 was a good night to be in San Francisco. All around, the city’s annual LitQuake Festival was in full bloom and at City Lights Books in North Beach, Diane di Prima’s reading from her new edition of Revolutionary Letters demonstrated her working at the top of her poetic form. Warm, wry, compassionate, di Prima read from her politically charged work-in-progress that has endured through five published incarnations through 40 years. The current edition with 21 new letter-poems is published by Last Gasp Press.

di Prima began with an explanation, noting that she first read her revolutionary poems in New York from the back of a truck driven by Sam Abrams. These early poems, she said, were structured using “street form”—quick, one-shot takes that could be read on street-corners before heading off to the next location. The much anthologized “Rant From A Cool Place” is archetypal: “We are in the middle of a bloody, heartrending revolution / Called America, called the Protestant reformation, called / Western man / Called individual consciousness, meaning I need a refrigerator / and a car / And milk and meat for the kids…”

Given the violence and vengeful nature of those stormy times, mobility and poetic shape-shifting were no small thing. As di Prima reminds in Letter #8, “Everytime you pick the spot for a be-in / a demonstration, a march, a rally, you are choosing the ground / for a potential battle…” Plenty of the names who made political waves during the stormy sixties and who ended up dead are honoured in this collection. di Prima was no lightweight activist herself and Revolutionary Letters still kicks ass, hard. These are the rants, incantations and prophetic warnings of a bard-seer on the run, ducking and dodging her way as aesthete, mother, creative artist, and all-around dissenting American citizen who’s been pissed off with the high-level hooliganism of the U.S. ruling elite since she was old enough to absorb her Italian grandfather’s own revolutionary teaching.

The book’s dedication offers useful perspective: “…to Bob Dylan / and to my grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi / friend of the great anarchist dreamers of his time / who read me Dante at the age of four / & named my mother after Emma Goldman.”

Who with a scrap of human dignity wouldn’t love Revolutionary Letter #29?

beware of those
who say we are the beautiful losers
who stand in their long hair and wait to be punished
who weep on the beaches for our isolation

we are not alone: we have brothers in all the hills
we have sisters in the jingles and in the ozarks
we even have brothers on the frozen tundra
they sit by their fires, they sing, they gather arms
they multiply : they will reclaim the earth

nowhere we can go but they are waiting for us
no exile where we will not hear welcome home
‘good morning brother, let me work with you
goodmorning sister, let me
fight by your side.’

It gets wilder. Precise instructions for basic revolutionary activity; how to respond to martial force from the authorities, how to hide, set up neighbourhood action plans, what foods and provisions are needed during a siege, fundamental strategies of every underground liberation force. Given the way things have been drifting, maybe it’s timely advice.

The image on this latest cover of Revolutionary Letters shows that memorable in-your-face Italian beauty known to the world through her eternally hip Memoirs of a Beatnik. But as some poems age, so do poets. di Prima’s reputation as a beloved elder of North America’s literary community is secure, but with an experiential wisdom shared by comparatively few other ranking American poets, she now projects the subdued aura and physicality of an eternally hip Queen Victoria, a poetic nobility earned through fire and having been there. Her later revolutionary poems may not be as volatile as earlier works, but they possess rich spiritual depth, reflecting a long evolving concern with ecological issues that entwine with even deeper yearnings for peace: “The dance of the I Ching is the dance of the star tide / Mathematics of the Zend Avesta / Geometries of Ife / The golden ikon of the Black Virgin / stands at the stone gateway of Tashkent / The flowering valleys of Shambhala / haunt our dreaming / What skeletons stalk there?” (Letter #77)

What we get is a poet who’s walked the walk. There’s no airy-fairy, self-conscious art-making fluff in this gutsy book, yet there is a constant sense of awareness, of poetic intent. di Prima explains that while the poems in the series were hastily composed, in the moment, “After the first three or four I saw that the poems were being written for performance,” she says. And indeed there is a sense of dialogue with her audience here, like words from a wise old friend we suddenly realize we need to hear from. “You can see in ‘Canticle of St. Joan’ that it is not a street poem,” she says. Dedicated to Robert Duncan, the alchemical four-part mystic exploration of the ecstasy of St. Joan of Arc is anything but street poetics.

Regarding her optimism and ability as an activist poet to face up to grim U.S. politics di Prima speaks with the candour of a neighbourhood big sister: “I’m hopeful because every one of us, in a Buddhist sense, is intrinsically already past all the bullshit…the wars, Iraq—I’m hopeful.”

Has she ever been afraid to say anything? “Of course! Why? Because I’m afraid. Why else do you think I’d want to say these things. But as a poet you have to speak out. What have you got to lose anyway? At this point in my life I try not to get other people arrested…I’m working now on the second volume of my autobiography and I wish there were—there ought to be—a statute of limitations regarding what you can say about some things, some incidents, and some people who’ve affected your life.”

Readers of di Prima become familiar with the Buddha dharma that runs throughout her poetry. The question of finding reconciliation, however, between the demands of the compassionate views it encourages and the anger that frequently accompanies political action is a central point of tension in her work.

“Most of the poems in Revolutionary Poems aren’t written from anger,” she clarifies. “The beauty and the joy and the possibilities of living and of celebrating life are enormous. In the same breath, you have to remember the Buddhist idea of Wrathfulness—that whatever opposes compassion is a demonic form and an incitement to become mindfully wrathful. The difference here is that when you take it all personally, when you invest ego in it, then anger can arise. I remember Allen Ginsberg in the sixties getting working up about the anti-war situation—and there was a lot to get worked up about in those times—he shouted one time ‘I will personally stop the war in Vietnam!’ When you take it to that level it gets pretty intense.

“You know, I was asked once after making an appearance in another city, I think it was for the Liberation News Service that used to provide news to hundreds of alternative publications throughout North America, I was asked ‘What is your plan for the City of San Francisco?’ I was absolutely stopped in my tracks. My plan for what? I thought, ‘Well, I can tell you what my plan is for the immediate week ahead, or maybe what the elderly Italian lady down the hall might think about prices in the bakery or the market, and if we talked to the black lady nearby we could probably come up with a plan like, for the block, but that just isn’t how I was thinking—that big. Maybe that’s what men do. Women are different because we’re mothers—we deal with issues right here in front of us, on the ground. Maybe all of us old grannies ought to get together and just rip the world apart and change it. Pain or death don’t matter to us anymore.”

If defiance runs through the early revolutionary poems, it gives way to the long view of compassion even in the face of war in the more recent works. Fear though, di Prima relates, was a motivating factor in the earlier pieces.

“The generation of today feels that is scared, but we were the most scared people in the universe during the writing of these early poems. Coming out of the 1950s, the Cold War, we were scared. We didn’t talk but to the 20 people we trusted. With the Neocons I see that scaredness coming back, but it ain’t worth it. There’s plenty to be scared of because there are maniacs running the universe, but I tell young people especially, It Isn’t Worth It. When the time came for me, I went out on the streets and said what I had to say. Before that, we holed up and just talked about it among ourselves. Remember, in the late Fifties there were maybe hundreds of us that could network across the nation; that’s all, hundreds. Yet, we could make things happen and it changed the world. With the internet, with all the new technologies that younger people have at their disposal, the opportunities for networking and sharing information and ideas there’s so much more that can happen now. So we’ve got to be hopeful. I’m optimistic.”

Trevor Carolan is the international editor of PRRB.