Rebels Across History

Diana di Prima

The Beat movement of the late 1950s/early '60s was a time of social upheaval, during which a cast of writers and poets took drugs, talked philosophy, and immortalized each other in their own books. Unfortunately the radicalism of the time extended mostly to men. The Beat women were either wives of gay men or minor characters struggling to get their writings published while the men in the circle enjoyed great success with their works. One glaring exception is that of Diana di Prima.

Born in 1934 to Italian parents with an anarchist ancestry,  di Prima began writing at an early age, and by 14 was committed to becoming a poet. She dropped out of Swarthmore College in Brooklyn, and moved to Manhattan where she became a fixture on the Beat scene. Her first book of poetry was published when she was eighteen, called This Kind of Bird Flies Backward. She supported herself with nude modeling jobs. In 1961, she began editing the literary newsletter, The Floating Bear with the father of one of her children, LeRoi Jones (pictured below), and wrote some of the newsletters's most memorable poems. During this time she co-founded the New York Poets Theatre, and founded the Poets Press, which published the work of many new writers of the period.

di Prima bore several children through this time, all of different paternity. She considered the archetype of the father as an anachronistic myth. As always, she straddled the line between masculine and feminine. She wore non-sexual men's shirts and Levis and sported a red cropped haircut, yet lived a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, even penning the cult classic, Memoirs of a Beatnik. Mostly fictional, the book contains an stunning number of orgy scenes.

As the Beat's popularity dwindled, diPrima moved on to participate in Timothy Leary’s psychedelic community at Millbrook in upstate New York. She then settled in San Fransisco, where she studied Eastern philosophy and religion, taught writing classes, and wrote the remainder of her 43 published works.

Diana di Prima managed to do what few could in the Beat era. She balanced family with independence, poetry with self-indulgence. Of the many casualties of the Beats, she has also been able to keep it together and stay alive (See Jackson Pollock, Lenny Bruce, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac who all died young and wasted). All as a woman and a minority, in a movement that was made up of white men and was largely homosexual. Wrote fellow Beatnik poet, Allen Ginsberg, "[di Prima was] a great woman poet in second half of American century, she broke barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity."



  1. I want to go read that book now! I love learning about new amazing women on this blog. Although sometiems I feel lame for not already knowing their greatness!


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