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Two New Diane di Prima Books Capture the Brilliance of a San Francisco Treasure

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Diane di Prima at her swearing in as San Francisco Poet Laureate at the San Francisco Public Library. di Prima served in the role from 2009 to 2011.
Diane di Prima at her swearing in as San Francisco Poet Laureate at the San Francisco Public Library. di Prima served in the role from 2009 to 2011.  (© Steve Wilson 2010)

I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life

— “Revolutionary Letter #1,” Diane DiPrima

In 1968, after a tumultuous move to San Francisco from the East Coast, the poet and radical Diane di Prima began writing her Revolutionary Letters. As part of the open-ended project, which di Prima worked on until her death in October 2020, individual letters were published and distributed nationwide by the Liberation News Service. In 1971, a collection was published by City Lights Books as No. 27 in the Pocket Poets series. A slim volume at the time, multiple subsequent editions continued to expand—outward and inward—a perpetually “unfinished” work.

Now, on the 50-year anniversary of the original Pocket Poet publication, City Lights Books has released what will probably be its final revision—a manuscript that’s been a lifetime in the making.

Like her great, open-ended epic Loba, di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters kept evolving as it grew, speaking specifically to the times as time flowed forward. As di Prima’s longtime assistant, the poet Sara Larsen, attests, di Prima kept a record of newer poems to add to subsequent editions, resulting in a work that now includes 114 Revolutionary Letters, plus a handful of closely associated poems.

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“This is a Revolutionary Letter,” she would say to Larsen as she added to the file, including “Revolutionary Letter #104,” a poem found in her 2014 collection The Poetry Deal as “Haiti, Chile, Tibet,” and “Revolutionary Letter #108,” written about the Occupy movement. Poems speak out loud to the immediate concerns of a population under pressure, and provide them with a “roadmap” for revolution.

The 50th Anniversary Edition of 'Revolutionary Letters' (L) and 'Spring and Autumn Annals' (R), by Diane di Prima.
The 50th Anniversary Edition of ‘Revolutionary Letters’ (L) and ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ (R), by Diane di Prima. (City Lights)

Revolutionary Letters…are really like manuals for protest and civil disobedience,” Garrett Caples, the book’s editor at City Lights, echoes. “Tackling the problems that are still the pressing problems of our day. Everything from climate change to…civil rights. Black Lives Matter, it’s all there.”

Emphasizing the immediacy of the work, Caples describes a relatively long editorial process starting sometime around 2018, seven years after di Prima’s term as San Francisco’s poet laureate, from 2009-2011. Slowed down by di Prima’s increasingly faltering health and her own meticulous editing process (supported and annotated by Larsen), the finalized manuscript took years longer than projected, pushing what had been a proposed 50-year anniversary of the first mimeographed poems from 1968 to a 50-year anniversary celebration of the first Pocket Poets version published in 2021. That its publication also happens to mark the one-year anniversary of di Prima’s death makes what could’ve been a vagary of timing an opportunity to celebrate more than just the book, but the life that instigated it.

In the same month, City Lights is also publishing a quietly remarkable book of di Prima’s prose. Entitled Spring and Autumn Annals, the book was written over the course of 365 days following the tragically unexpected death of her friend Fred “Freddie” Herko. Describing her process in a letter, di Prima writes that she would light a stick of incense each afternoon and write to Freddie until it burned itself out, “about 40 minutes” every day for a year, tracking the seasons and the ebb and flow of her own grief. Although finished in October 1965, the manuscript has never been published before now.

Last Gasp founder Ron Turner 'swears in' Diane di Prima in a mock ceremony, with her hand on a volume of Keats, in 2009 in the old Sears building in the Mission DIstrict of an Francisco.
Last Gasp founder Ron Turner ‘swears in’ Diane di Prima in a mock ceremony, with her hand on a volume of Keats, in 2009 in the old Sears building in the Mission District of an Francisco. (© Michael R. Aldrich 2009)

Ammiel Alcalay, founder of “Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative” at City University of New York, says he first came into contact with the manuscript around 2014. A close friend of di Prima’s, he’d already published many of her lectures on topics such as Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound.” Determined, as he puts it, to “make it known that Diane was a thinker about poetics, and a very profound one,” Alcalay also wanted to challenge the Beat poet label so often applied to di Prima, as if she’d stopped writing in the 1960s. What struck him immediately about Annals was its “deceptively simple” unadorned prose style.

“I read it one night,” Alcalay says. “Just as a piece of prose, it was one of the most powerful things I’ve read in a very long time.” Shimmering with vitality and raw emotion, Annals focuses tightly on di Prima’s then-microcosm of artist friends, her publishing and theatre projects, her young children, and a season of mourning and of healing.

But di Prima’s original vision for the published work was that it would be a record not just of her own grief, but of the specific place and time that held it. A portrait of the life artistic, documented on the page in text and photos collected during that time, perhaps as many as one hundred photos. While the resulting book with its scant handful of photos (including some of Herko dancing poignantly alone on a bare stage) is perhaps less visually striking than the one she initially envisioned, the spare beauty of her prose shines through on every page.

The proposed site of Diane di Prima Park at Page and Laguna in San Francisco. (Nicole Gluckstern)

While di Prima lived in several locations in San Francisco over the years, one of her regular haunts was the Zen Center on Page and Laguna, where she studied from 1968 on. She also lived on Laguna Street for almost 20 years while studying Zen and writing in the nearby minipark which (according to her son Rudi di Prima) she may have had a hand in founding. Currently a quiet, shaded oasis with unfinished walkways and a hodgepodge of flowering plants, it’s easy to imagine di Prima here among the birdsong and rustling leaves, notebook in hand. So it seems especially fitting to learn that Rudi di Prima is in the community-building and petitioning phase to officially change the name of what is currently known as the Page and Laguna minipark to “Diane di Prima Park.”

It’s a petition with much precedent. In San Francisco, there are already parks named for poets George Sterling and Ina Coolbrith. And in 1988, twelve small streets and alleyways scattered around San Francisco were named for artists and authors, a proposal brought forward by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books. But considering that San Francisco has been a known literary hub almost since its inception, the fact that there aren’t more streets and landmarks named for authors (and instead named for politicians, civil engineers, and city planners) is a disappointment—albeit a correctable one. Renaming a park for di Prima feels both appropriately commemorative and eminently achievable. (The proposal and petition can be found here, and a public group dedicated to the project can be found on Facebook.)

Diane di Prima with Michael McClure.
Diane di Prima with Michael McClure. (© Michael R. Aldrich 2009)

“One of the things that Diane taught was that…we’re in this living community of artists of writers, of filmmakers, of musicians,” Larsen reminisces about her longtime mentor and friend. “But we’re also in the long community of history…So the people who weren’t even alive anymore, poets, writers, are still people we’re communicating with…and it’s this conversation that’s happening on this other level.”

With Revolutionary Letters and Spring and Autumn Annals, di Prima’s conversations are continuing apace—a one-two punch of radical imagination and luminous language; memoir and mobilization.

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A memorial tribute to Diane di Prima takes place Wednesday, Oct. 27, online via Zoom, with speakers Hanif Abdurraqib, Garrett Caples, Cedar Sigo, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Wendy Trevino, and more; details here. A book release event for ‘Spring and Autumn Annals,’ with Ammiel Alcalay, Amber Tamblyn, and Ana Božičević, takes place Saturday, Oct. 30, online via Zoom; details here.

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