Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters Implore Us to Ask for More

Diane di Prima’s political poetry took on America’s oppressive power structures while her activism made her a target for the FBI. A new edition of her work shows that we are still fighting the same battles as di Prima.

American poet Diane di Prima (1934–2020) gives a reading onstage in Berkeley, California, March 1976. (Janet Fries / Getty Images)

Reading political poems from another era can sometimes feel like stumbling upon a vintage porn magazine in the park: embarrassingly analog, inexplicit, naive. Passion distilled in a different time.

Not so with Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, which has been reissued as a fiftieth anniversary edition with a new introduction by the feminist scholar Sophie Lewis. “Over the last ten years, the Letters have circulated via text message and social media,” Lewis writes, “like Diane’s cocaine-laced joints.” The struggles that di Prima wrestled with in these lyrical tirades remain our own half a century on.

Letter #16 begins, “we are eating up the planet,” before explaining how industrial poisons contaminate the world’s ecologies for future generations. Letter #61, a response to the 1973 energy crisis, exposes the vulnerability of a scarce economy under capitalism: the “grim austerity consciousness / empty shelves and stiff upper lip.”

War is everywhere and the military-industrial complex swells. Sometimes inciting riots against capitalism and its factories, sometimes instructing blueprints for the new model commune, and sometimes ranting toward an anarchafeminist utopia of free love and free everything, Revolutionary Letters are dispersed fragments of militant, sacred zeal.

Revolutionary Love

While her fellow poets Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs premised their beatnik antiestablishment credentials on a shoulder flex of unfettered masculinity, di Prima’s more coherent revolutionary vision was frequently sidelined. Excluded from Donald Allen’s landmark The New American Poetry anthology, di Prima continued to do the work of editor and publisher of her own poems. At the same time, she shouldered the emotional and physical labor of child-rearing and parenting that many male poets of the time saw as an obstacle to their creative production.

Di Prima refused to let the sexism of the literary community consume her writing and the time demarcated to write. Instead, she saw this in some ways as a feminine strength, viewing herself as one of many women who manifested revolutionary ideas and who “liberate / out of our knowledge, labor, sucking babes, we / liberate, and nourish, as the earth.” In all senses of the word, di Prima, who would go on to have five children, did the labor of community building.

Di Prima was deeply influenced by the political work of her grandfather, and by his lifelong contribution to Italian American radicalism. Domenico Mallozzi, a fierce anti-fascist and atheist, named di Prima’s mother after Emma Goldman. Alongside Bob Dylan, Revolutionary Letters is dedicated to him.

The book’s inscription celebrates Domenico as the “friend of the great anarchist dreamers of his time,” among whom were Sacco and Vanzetti, as well as the famous labor organizer Carlo Tresca, who once led the Industrial Workers of the World syndicate, and was killed by mobsters in 1943. In “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa,” the inaugural lyric of the reissue, di Prima recalls scrubbed Bronx parlors in which her grandfather would read her Dante at the age of four, as well as nights listening to opera, revolutionary rallies, and his embrace of strangers off the street and into their home:

young men with light in their faces / at my table, talking love, talking revolution / which is love, spelled backwards.

For di Prima, unconditional hospitality was a precondition for her political project. Any revolution without love was not to be entertained, whether in her poetry or at her dining table.

Inspired by her grandfather’s generosity, di Prima made a virtue out of hiding people and running them across borders, whether they were Black Panthers, Hell’s Angels, dissident writers from Yugoslavia, or wanted Chinese and Indian drug dealers. She hid fugitives from the CIA under the floorboards. “The laws of hospitality are older than the laws of the United States of America!” she once shouted at stone-faced FBI agents who turned up, as they routinely did, to her cold-water walk-up in Manhattan.

Constellations Downtown

It wasn’t as though di Prima had much to give, either. She formed part of a band of drifters and drug users who wanted only, in her own words, to “get welfare, quit working, stay home, stay stoned and fuck.” The poverty endured by this generation was real: they slept in concrete hallways through bitterly cold midwinters, burning old benches stolen from construction sites as firewood. The lofts and tenements were infested with cockroaches.

However, each one served as an essential open house for a febrile constellation of around forty or fifty poets and artists

who raced about in Levis and work shirts, made art, smoked dope, dug the new jazz, and spoke a bastardization of the black argot . . . we looked to each other for comfort, for praise, for love, and shut out the rest of the world.

Emerging out of an Italian émigré community of activists and trade unionists, di Prima became a poetic inspiration for several social movements adjacent to the nonconformist American left, with an expansive definition of what constitutes the public in the United States. Di Prima was able to move across — and, when the writing was successful, unite — disparate crowds at mid-century, from the smug anti-Stalinist left to the beatnik spiritualists, from the esoteric Wiccans to heard-headed grassroots organizers.

It’s true that not all of these revolutionary poems land, partly because of how they manage to speak to, and in some ways represent, so many constituencies. Everyone is welcome at the table. However, di Prima’s experimental verve maneuvers in such a way as to fall flat between, infrequently but just enough, the divergent spheres of dharmic celestial visions and the spit-and-sawdust of urban class warfare. The poems straddle both, and their coked-up energy sometimes dances harder than the idea.

Sacred Work

In 1961, di Prima set up the “semimonthly” Floating Bear magazine with her collaborator and lover LeRoi Jones, the radical poet who would establish the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem upon the murder of Malcolm X in 1965, and later renamed himself Amiri Baraka as a black nationalist. The poets ran Floating Bear out of the Phoenix Book Shop in Greenwich Village, taking the title from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, which di Prima was then reading to her baby daughter, Jeanne.

Floating Bear featured an eccentric who’s who of a bristling New York avant-garde at the height of its self-confidence. Jack Collom translated Bertolt Brecht, Frank O’Hara wrote about beer for breakfast, and Marian Zazeela produced some of the most compelling and prescient art writing going.

The willingness of di Prima and Jones to publish poems and essays that frankly addressed sex, drug use, and leftist insurrection naturally got them into trouble with the authorities. Before long, come the ninth issue later that year, the pair were arrested for printing William Burroughs’s Roosevelt After Inauguration — or, as the court saw it, circulating obscene material.

Jones persuaded the grand jury to acquit them after citing free speech and the precedent of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was accused of depicting a perverse orgasm in The Little Review in 1921. Floating Bear continued to publish until 1969, without a subscription rate and without losing money, printing works by Trotskyists, dilettante hustlers, and stoners.

While “anything that had the tag ‘The Work’ attached to it was sacred,” di Prima later mused, her creative partnership with Jones was shaped — marred, you might say — by the temper of sexual dissidence that characterized mid-century bohemia on the Lower East Side. Di Prima vocally balked at the idea of preventative birth control and wrote a section of her Memoirs of a Beatnik entitled “Fuck the Pill.” She was soon pregnant with Jones’s baby.

This time, Jones forced di Prima to go through with an abortion (although they would go on to have a child together, Dominique, in 1961). Di Prima advocated for universal abortion access, calling it “our woman-right,” but felt conflicted about the toll placed on the female body and the emotional costs of termination. This ambivalence was premised on the fact that, for all women, every moment of intimacy was conditioned by the vulnerability and risk entailed by opening up oneself to another.

As she wrote in her autobiography, Recollections of My Life as a Woman:

For me, I had always gone to bed with any lover knowing I could become pregnant, knowing I could die, over the encounter . . . however casual the immediate feeling . . . I felt it was the only way one could look at love. . . . Everytime you made love you risked your life. Or risked changing the rest of your life. And here it was.

Calls to Action

For di Prima as for Baraka, whom she affectionately called “Roi,” the revolutionary letter must always be a call to action, not merely a mode of poetic experimentation. It’s always a manifesto. Always a rant. Yet even in this nonconformist space, her work was often neglected:

I was often not invited to literary events, though I published with everyone in the usual places, worked side-by-side with the men putting out the magazines and books, read here and there with them on the East Side or in the Village. As a woman, I was invisible. I took that as a matter of course.

In 1968, di Prima moved from the Lower East Side to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. According to Recollections, this decision was spurred by attending a stuffy party of the New York literary elite, where she concluded that if she didn’t get out, she might “wind up on that couch like Marianne Moore in a little black silk hat.”

On New Year’s Eve that year, di Prima wrote to her high school friend and fellow poet Audre Lorde, enclosing the first drafts of what would become her life’s work, Revolutionary Letters. The di Prima–Lorde correspondence is among the most expressive and vibrant in American letters, and it deserves to be published in full.

Armed with a Gestetner mimeograph machine and a used Fairchild Davidson offset press, di Prima distributed the letters far and wide: to the Liberation News Service, and to two hundred free newspapers across the United States and Canada, while also sometimes performing them to music on the steps of city hall. Comrades leafleted stiff passersby, telling them to resign from their drab office jobs and sign up for the revolution.

The letters envisioned a future in which we would all be liberated from the structural conditions of basic need. In Letter #15, after narrating what must happen after seizing “Columbia,” “Paris,” the “power stations,” and “a campus” — di Prima was acerbic about the soft liberal academy — she reminded the reader that they were fighting a war, on which the good fighters should aim to win, and not “wait for [Lyndon B.] Johnson or / [Hubert] Humphrey or [Nelson R.] Rockefeller, to agree to your terms.” Instead, “take what you need, “it’s free / because it’s yours.”

Di Prima was committed to the grinding work of mutual aid, advancing the material conditions of the Haight-Ashbury community, helping to build the egalitarian future she manifested in her poems. However, that was not the limit of what she thought the task of politics should be. Di Prima herself was criticized for her blistering admonishment of a gradualist approach to material development that fell short of total revolution.

Letter #19 begins, “if what you want is jobs / for everyone, you are still the enemy.” Di Prima went on to address the same message to those who simply wanted “schools / where all our kids are pushed into one shape” or “clinics” or “free psychiatric care.” These were, after all, revolutionary letters. This was her parting shot to the reader: “you are selling / yourself short, remember you can have what you ask for, ask for / everything.”

Free and Fearless

Di Prima was not sympathetic to those who tried to fix the structural problems of American society with palliative reforms. She was a constant target for surveillance and harassment by the FBI because of her public support for the Black Power movement, as well as her record of hiding fugitives. She campaigned for racial justice throughout her life and composed many of the letters in support of the Black Panther Party.

Letter #20 is addressed to Huey Newton, who crafted the party’s ten-point manifesto with Bobby Seale in 1966. It begins with a resolute statement:

I will not rest / till we walk free & fearless on this earth / each doing in the manner of his blood / & tribe, peaceful in the free air.

In San Francisco, di Prima fell in with the Diggers, a group named after the dissident agrarian socialists of the English Civil War, who ran thirty-five communal houses that provided free clothing and sustenance for the impoverished local community. Letter #10 recalls one of the thrice-weekly drives in her beat-up VW bus distributing “free Digger meat”: on this occasion, a journey along the San Joaquin Valley with the poet Kirby Doyle on the way to the Free City Convention, a communal event where “people can meet, can sit / and talk to each other, warm and close / no TV image flickering / between them.”

Di Prima insisted on the importance of food, shelter, and childcare as necessary but insufficient provisions for the revolution she articulated here. However, she believed that world would be left wanting if barriers to intimacy were not also brought crashing down: “the war that matters is the war against the imagination / all other wars are subsumed in it.” For all the militancy that she uncompromisingly lived and the programmatical tone of Revolutionary Letters, di Prima recognized that she did not have a monopoly on the revolutionary future she envisaged. It was down to all of us:

no one way works, it will take all of us
shoving at the thing from all sides
to bring it down.

Revolutionary Letters spliced together the public and private spheres of American life, but it blurred the firm separation of one from the other and emphasized the revolutionary spaces of women’s work, its overlooked domestic labor, and the practice of cleaning and mending that di Prima weaves into the task of writing poetry. In Letter #75, speaking of the real and all-consuming work of a poetic project, di Prima writes: “there is no part of yourself you can separate out . . . it is whole, it is a whole, it always was whole / you do not ‘make’ it so.”

Times to Come

Di Prima continued writing feverish letters right up until her death in October 2020. One letter is quick to identify disillusionment with Barack Obama’s presidential promises. With Obama “living / in the enemy’s house,” di Prima demanded answers: “No matter what you believed / how much wd you / do?” Letter #108 (subtitled “yet another rev letter”) confronts Wall Street, “the establishment,” and “that 1%” by calling for a full occupation of the planet: “Occupy your breath / Your Body & remember / We are one Body / Occupy with Love.”

Another Letter narrates a night-terror “dream” after the Christchurch mosque shootings in which we would all “Walk into / Dark Futures.” For all their materialist vigor, the letters repeatedly draw on fictive utopian cosmologies that looked to totally reorientate our relationship with the passing of time. “You cannot write a single line w / out a cosmology / a cosmogony,” she began Letter #75. Di Prima’s cosmologies might have been constructed from the grubby materiality of everyday life, but so many of them travelled from the language of earthly injustice to interstellar times to come.

These poems are visionary in the sense that they never tire of imagining what might still be possible, against all the losses of progressive political projects of the past half century. We cannot help but be seduced by Letter #59’s “secret celebration of ancient season feasts & moons” and its final command to “rewrite the calendar.” Revolutionary futures are still possible. We just need to ask for everything.

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Matthew Holman is an associate lecturer in English at University College London. His first book, In Favor of One’s Time: Frank O’Hara and the American Century, is in preparation.

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