NOT ON THE ROAD
The transcript of the meeting in the restaurant Amberjack
at Church & 16th Street in San Francisco, August
We didnít write down any specific questions, just some
notes for ourselves as a reminder... if youíre not interested in one topic,
then we move to the next one...
Next! Next! (Diane di Prima laughs).
Itís going to be very informal... and then we will
assemble the pieces... and translate them to Russian and maybe Italian.
If you get a Russian article, I have a sister-in-law.
She doesnít speak English, only Russian, she lives in New Jersey. You will
make her so happy... my brotherís third wifeÖ they are very happy,
very in loveÖ [when they met] she was without a car, and working twelve
hours a day for a very old man, taking care of him. In Ukraine she was
an aeronautics engineer. She is a very intelligent woman but never learned
English. And I would love the Italian version as well.
Do you know Italian?
Very little. When I was four or five, war was going to
start... my relatives were afraid to be in America, afraid to speak Italian...
I was born in 1934, but by 1938 they knew it would be war. I spoke to my
grandparents, when I was very small, then I had to stop. My parents transferred
fear to me... It was something forbidden... [Ö]
In addition, my family didnít want me to connect with
my relatives in Italy; they were very ambivalent about me because of my
lifestyle; they thought that my relatives would be very upset, so, I went
only two times to Sicily, both times to a poetry festival, and neither
time my mother ever gave me any addresses... [Ö]
All these family stories! My brother is very upset [about
di Primaís published memoir Recollections Of My Life As a Woman], and my
motherís younger sister wrote me a very angry letter. They feel that I
shouldnít tell family stories, family secrets. Thatís tough. Iím a writer,
thatís what I do. (laughs)
I will read from here... (apologetically) I have some
Itís OK to have notes! (Diane di Prima laughs)
I was thinking yesterday of the writers, of the poets
of the Beat generation. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Gregory
Corso, Philip Lamantia... was it an Italian wave? Any specific reason for
so many Italians?
I donít knowÖ Itís in the culture to be lyrical, they
are drawn to poetry, they are drawn to some flowery prose, to music...
everybody singsÖ itís in the culture, and I think itís very close in Sicily
to Middle Eastern song. To melody lines in Middle Eastern music. It influenced
me a lot.
Could it be that the immigrant flavor gave a flavor
for something different, for something new?
When I was four years old, my grandfather read me Dante,
and poetry, and opera. He loved opera. He influenced my mind, together
with political activismÖ Look at Corso, he had no [Italian] upbringing.
[And he is] much more musical than Ginsberg. A different kind of sound...
I met Ginsberg ten years ago in TurinÖ
Letís eat. We donít need to ruin our food for talking.
Letís talk while eating.
I met Ginsberg when he came to Turin. He was reading,
and Philip Glass was playing the pianoÖ Ginsberg gave a short lecture.
And I asked him: do you have any regrets in your life? And his answer was
a little bit aggressive. I was even taken aback. Yes, he said, I would
like to seduce one more boy. Did I ask something wrong?
Not wrong, but itís a strange way to look at your life
in terms of regret... maybe if you did something differently, your life
would be different. You canít predict.
What I meant was [that maybe he wanted] to study music
or... spend one year in India... or become a catholic priestÖ
That would be good for Ginsberg. He couldíve seduced one
more boy! (Diane di Prima laughs)
And how is Ferlinghetti?
He seems all right. At 86 he is allowed to be absent-minded...
If he is absent-minded, is it still possible to interview
He is very reclusive, he is only interested in his paintings,
[but] itís possible if you come to him and ask for a painting. He has a
gallery there... [he] has shows in Rome every year... he is not interested
in interviews as a poet...
He doesnít go to his bookstore, the City Lights?
SometimesÖ he might be in the office, but not by the counter.
Is he still the owner of the City Lights?
They made a foundationÖ When he dies, there will be a
foundation, so the store will continue... and the building is a historical
landmark, they wouldnít tear it down... he is supposed to do seminars,
classes; they even asked me if I want to teach there...
They have a wonderful website tooÖ
There is [another] wonderful website. My daughter sent
it to meÖ [There was] an artist, a man in Russia. And he had a specially
equipped railroad car which was given to him by the last tsarÖ It had a
dark room, and he went before the Revolution taking photographs in color...
he invented color before [the appearance of color photographs] by doing
different filters... On this website you can see the most beautiful color
photography of those architectural places, which are not there anymore...
And I look at the churches, landscape, different regions*. Iím not interested
in literature. I feed my mind with images... Why would I look at information;
information doesnít make a poem... Painting makes a poem happen, music,
people, walking about the city... I donít need more head trips...
Talking about music. You wrote about the Billie Holiday
concert in Carnegie hall which you attended. She is great, and so is Maria
Yes, she is wonderful. My partner, he is a great aficionado
of all kinds of American music, gospel, blues, jazz, and so on, said that
America has no visual imagination. Why television is so boring...We have
genius for music, but not for eyes.
Last night we were at a concert where John Hammond Jr.
was singing Tom Waitsí song, Wicked Grin, and a group was so good! John
Sheppard, my partner, worked for him in 1967. Then we
saw him in the eighties, in the nineties... He is more grounded now as
I donít remember why this came up... the fact that American
music is the one thing we have here, really... we have also poets but few
people know us. We have great painters but very few.
My favoriteís Edward Hopper. Do you like him?
I like him ok, but I grew up with gestural work, with
abstract expressionism. I like kinesthetic work, work with a lot of movement,
body in it.
Do you know in person some abstract expressionists?
I knew de Kooning a little... He was close to Amiri Baraka,
when we were lovers... Iím a good friend of Mike Goldberg, who is the second
generation abstract expressionist. Frank OíHara wrote a very important
poem for Mikeís birthday. He goes to Italy in summer, he has a home there...
Alfred Leslie was an abstract expressionist, then later became a figure
painter... A lot of his abstract work was lost when his loft burned in
the late sixties; he lost all of his films. He made movies, too. Jamie
FreilicherÖ In the last ten years she had a show in the Guggenheim. I knew
Larry Rivers when I was still a New Yorker.
You donít like New York anymore?
Itís too difficult. I donít like the noise, itís rush-rush-rush.
I donít like Paris ó sorry! Even if you are there for a few days, itís
too noisy. Drives me crazy. And everybody is running. Why are they running?
My youngest daughter is having a baby. I couldnít get into a sleeper. Nobody
flies. So, I have to fly. Iím going in October. And all the trains were
full by July.
[In your memoir] you talked a lot about your
grandmother... now, once you are on the other side of the road, how do
you see it? What about your role as a matriarch?
I donít see much of any of them; I gave them everything
I could, and now they live their own life. I donít look over their shoulder;
we get together once per year for a family reunion in one of their houses,
and Michelangelo, my granddaughter, wants to be a poet. She is 22. She
is going to have a baby. Then we will be very close.
Do you enjoy yourself in the grandmotherís role?
Sure, I donít mind that Iím getting older; itís a natural
way of the world. Itís wonderful actually.
As long as the brain works... the body is important,
but the mind [especially]Ö
The body is important, too, if you can keep it going,
itís nice, since there are more options every day...
You have a beautiful message on your answering machine,
where you say: ďAmericans, my fellow Americans, we are pure and stupid.Ē
Thatís what they are. American people in general have
no intelligence; they are not in contact with world history at all. In
a way they are pure, even right-wingers. On the other hand, they have no
subtlety, no ability to see the whole tapestry of history, to see what
stage we are in, how we fit in, what we are doing in it... And the very
corrupt government, the most corrupt.
It was a beginning of the Afghan war; I was stuck in the
motel in New Jersey with my first watercolor showÖ We are sitting in this
hotel, nothing to do, and we watch news. Iím seeing Afghan people getting
out of their country with their backpacks. They are not so different from
Western Americans in terms of how we approach essentials. Take an urban
dweller in Sierra; there is a relation of how to survive [between us and
them]. But no relation to human history, and thatís why we are pure and
stupid. They canít recognize that we are the same, very much like them,
than like educated Parisian or Roman. We are much closer to these people,
whom we are bombing.
Where were you on September 11?
My daughter called me up, at 6:30, when I was sleeping.
She lives in Astoria, in New York; she bought that apartment with a view
of Manhattan skyline. She was going to work and stopped by a shop run by
Egyptian; he was very excited. She couldnít understand why he was so excited.
And the first tower was coming down. And she called me, ďMom, blah, blah,
blah.Ē And I asked her, ďWhat are they doing it for?Ē
We finished talking, and I turned the TV. And it was the
second tower coming down... Between you and me, what did we expect? How
can they be so stupid [not to expect it], if all this is happening everywhere
Did these events changed your way of seeing life?
Not the events, the way we respond to the events. I donít
want to be in an airport: Iím not afraid of terrorism, [but] I donít want
to see the police state shoved under my nose everyday. Iím not on the road
anymore! And I used to go about four months a yearÖ And then I stopped
usual readings, lectures, panels. Now the only reason Iím going is because
my daughter is having a baby.
Isnít it somehow letting somebody else to decide for
Itís wonderful. The less I do the happier I am. Iím 68;
Iíd rather be at home, Iíd rather paint. It was a part of my income...
Now I do a one third less. Iíve never made much money; now I donít buy
many books; I go to the library instead of the bookstore. Iím much happier
now than on the road. I did it also because I thought I had to... [Because
I thought that] somehow I could be of use to somebody who tries to become
and an artist or a writer. But I canít do it at the expense of my cheerfulness...
I donít want to pretend that the world is sane. They are
going to put troops in airports, every kind of uniforms, every kind of
guns. World is not sane. Here, [at the restaurant, there are] beautiful
flowers, a nice girl, not too much money. I would prefer where itís sane.
Here is sane. My friend Michael McClure and I were here yesterday. He just
came back from being on the road. He is 70. He was grouchy. He said: ďIím
not doing what I want; Iím doing things for my career.Ē And I said to him:
ďMichael, you are 70. Do what you want. You have a choice.Ē I can see where
Iím not going. A lot of choices that way. I canít be pushed by the material
Iím not teaching at Universities, colleges; I teach privately.
I rent a space from an artist on Cesar Chavez and Mission. She charges
me very little. And I teach classes. I have no faculty meetings; I have
no papers to grade; I donít have stupid people running my department; Iím
lucky. Not so many people are registering, but itís OK... Itís nice to
have 30 [students], but 20-25 is good. Once a year I have to get them,
and then itís for nine months.
You met Ezra PoundÖHe is controversial in Italy because
of his connections with fascism. The American government put him into a
mental institution to save him...
Thatís right; he was going to be killed for treason. And
they declared him insane. Then it took ten-twelve years to take him out.
And then he went back to Italy. I remember that time a little bit; I was
so young. I was born in 1934, and it was in 1956. When I went to see him,
he was there eight years or so.
Do you have a special memory of him?
I wrote about it. I loved him and I still really do.
He was pure and stupid?
Politically, in some ways, he was stupid but not economically;
he talked a lot about manipulation of exchange rate, worldwide, how people
were getting rich. He talked about money expiring every thirty days: you
get them in the mail, itís for necessities... it goes in thirty days: you
canít save it, canít use it for power... you canít spend them after thirty
And Pound... in terms of writing poetry techniques, nobodyís
caught up with CantosÖCharles Olson tried to emulate... he went farther
in some ways, and in some ways he couldnít catch... Because in certain
ways Pound had a lot of hermetic knowledge of Europe in those Cantos. Olson
was innocent of this knowledge.
East, the Tantra, Hindu Tantra texts, so, he was trying
to fill that in. Pound had nothing of the East, except that he accepted
China. Olson didnít get any of it. Another person I was reading and was
fascinated by her... Sheri Martinelli. She disappeared...
I was corresponding with her in the 70s; she became a
recluse because, she said, she lost her beauty. She was a very beautiful
woman. She lost all her beauty. So what? Big deal! She moved East, she
was still with a man Pound told her to marry.... He would arrange people
to marry... They moved back to Carolina, I found it after she died. She
died in the late 80s, early 90s, a wonderful painterÖ there is a book of
her work or more than one produced in Italy with Poundís help.
Was she really American Italian?
She was American, or American Italian, or thatís her ex-husbandís
name. She was married and left her husband. And then moved to New York
and became a fashion model, and got in touch with Ezra Pound. Anyway, visiting
Pound was very inspiring to me, I was learning about poetry while reading
Are you more of a prose writer?
The memoirs are fun to do, but Iím a poet...
Floating Bear, the legendary magazine you were publishingÖ
In your memoir you write that you came up with this name. LeRoi Jones,
who would later become Amiri Baraka, didnít like your idea at first but
then you explained that ďFloating BearĒ was the name of Winnie the Poohís
ship. At that time you were raising your little daughter, reading her childrenís
books ó thatís why this reference to Milneís character. You said to LeRoi
that the magazine would float or drown, because for Winnie the Pooh all
his travels were successful adventure or a disaster. And then LeRoi agreed.
You didnít sell Floating Bear in stores ó you were sending it by mail to
writers, painters and musicians asking them for donations. The magazine
ó or, letís say, a leaflet ó was made on the mimeograph, before the God
Xerox appeared. There you published Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, John Ashbery,
Hubert Selby, Frank OíHara, Allen Ginsberg and other celebrities. Now Floating
Bear is a bibliographic rarity, and one issue would cost you at least 50
bucks. And the whole collection of these ďbearsĒ ó all issues published
in the period from 1961 to 1971 ó cost around three thousand dollars. Would
you like to place it on the Web?
Iím not interested in the Web. See, people write me and
say: ďdo a little literary magazine on the Web.Ē Iím not interested. I
print my e-mails. I donít read off the screen.
In your memoirs, you complained that you wasted a lot
of time pasting and mailing...
Maybe you think I wasted my time, but I didnít waste it.
Sorry, I meant that you had to do many manual thingsÖ
I love manual things... Iím doing it right now: we are
making a little book, itís going to be a peace reading, me and David Meltzer,
poet, and less known Clive Matson. He wrote a poem ďTowers Down.Ē Very
ambiguous: ďIím crying, Iím celebrating. Iím crying for all the people.
It isnít enough. Iím writing about towers, itís not enough.Ē He expressed
the ambivalence of being a radical-minded poet but at the same time being
American. I wrote a poem called Notes. Toward a poem of Revolution. Itís
thirteen short poems. Iím putting it together, itís a chapbook. Iím going
to sell it at the peace reading.
In Italy nobody is afraid of sex as hereÖ
I remember my mother and her sisters sitting around and
telling stories about their marriages and giggling about it... laugh, laugh,
Itís not changingÖ
Not, itís not. Nothing is changing. Womenís lib didnít
happen. Repression of sex is as much as ever. They worry what would happen
to kids... One of my husbands was worrying [because] we were living on
the edge of the canyon, and he was worrying [that] they are going to fall,
they are going to fallÖ And you have to figure that they have as much sense,
kids, as kittens and puppies. Any animal has some sense. Relax! People
are insane here.
We have a lesbian friend who always says ďwomonĒ or
ďwomynĒ and has a real problem with menÖIsnít it sexism the other way around?
Oh yeah... it takes a while to find a balance... itís
just silly, but what can you do? Itís like an ethnic group who gets a privilege
and then gets arrogant for a while...
Now everybody talks about PC [politically correct].
Itís not another conformism?
Itís so stupid, so what? (disinterested) So what?
Freedom is also freedom to say things that people donít
like... I donít mind if people say Italians are with the mafia. Itís OK,
part true, part not true, I donít care... As long as I am entitled to say
what other ethnicities are... I believe in freedom.
Well, this freedom passed a certain point. There was so
much racism in this country, against Blacks, ChineseÖ There should be a
little bit more care that you would take... more Chinese people were lynched
in California than Blacks in the South. Did you know that? American history
Stinks of blood. You should take this into account too.
Sure, itís OK up to a point, but itís inappropriate to joke around and
to say to Chinese: ďyou are chink.Ē You canít do it yet, itís too much
history and itís too ugly... I hope that we are going to be more mixed
up in terms of race... (laughs)
Italians are mandolina, mafia, pizza. I donít know
how many times you were labeled like this.
No, not me. My friend, Rachel Guido, wrote a book ďHow
to Sing to a Dago.Ē [Dago is] one of those slur words for Italians, like
wop or ginney... Iím so tired of people saying, what is your ethnicity?
Do you have a writerís block? What is writing block
for Diana di Prima?
In 1968 I moved to California from New York and began
sitting every morning at the Zen center. It was a major change at that
time... It takes a long time for my subconscious to catch up where I am.
Never had to worry about the writing block. It starts again when it wants
to. I donít sit down every morning and try to write. Poems come when they
need to come. There is always overload. And if nothing comes at all, when
I was younger... I would do translations, translate from Latin a lot; I
learned it in high school, four years of Latin, I just bought Catullus
again, I want some Ovid, MetamorphosesÖ Always journals, letters... Itís
not like Iím afraid of a pen or piece of paper... You canít get a block,
when you have so many writing jobs, letters... Itís usually when itís a
big change... Then it takes time... sometimes itís half a year...
What about your creative writing seminars? Any interesting
Sometimes you get wonderful people and sometimes they
are not so good. I do something that I call theory and study of poetics.
We are going to study essays by Robert Creeley about line breaks, what
he says about syncopation. We do Creeley for two months, and then look
at Burroughs, then the book The Third Mind by Burroughs. About random techniques,
he wrote it with Brion Gysin. In the beginning class there is a lot of
random work. They also work with each otherís images; they trade off vocabulary
Is it true that editing part is more difficult than
Very little editingÖ When I was a young poet, I did a
lot of rewriting, thatís how I learned my craft... poems come clear, sometimes
I just hear them and write them out, very little change. Sometimes when
it gets stuck, I maybe take a few words out. My editor at Viking edited
something by taking Italian syntax out of my EnglishÖ and she made a mess...
I readjusted it again; she didnít know what she was doing. Pain in the
Did your Italian help you with English?
I wanted my Italian kind of rhythms to be seen through
my English, especially in the early parts of the book. I started my phrases
with ďbutsĒ or ďandsĒ; I would leave extra words in... and he wanted it
to be school English. I think thatís why so many books people should be
interested in sound the same. Editors make them sound the same. I tried
to read a memoirs from a poet from Hawaii, Garrett Hongo ó it sounds the
same. Letís take black English, there is really a rhythmÖ or take Gary
Thomas, Spanish writer from the East Bay. He is Puerto-Rican, his English
is from the streets, and now editors take it outÖThey make all the work
like it went through a blender... like processed cheese...
Why Zen and Buddhism were such an influence on Beat
There is a book on that. Beneath a Single Moon. Itís a
beat anthology of mostly beat poets and poetry related to Buddhism. Gary
Snyder wrote an introduction. I wrote an essay explaining some stuff...
A sentence in your book really hit me. You were writing
about the diseases of terror and an attempt to control, when you talked
about physical diseases and how they were related to emotional part...
Was it in my memoir? I donít remember. What was I talking
About physical illnesses in your life, how they were
related to your psyche, how they were related to your psychic involvement
into various life situations...
I think my parents were afraid of everything, so, they
lived in complete terror... it made me crazy, since itís not my nature.
Now I feel that there is disease and terror everywhere, everything is crazy;
everything is about destruction. It comes from an attempt to control. But
how much insurance can you buy...
And through Zen you could control better?
No, opposite, you shouldnít have any control... Think
about painting, Japanese painting, no control, but enormous amount of discipline
went to the place that you had to control... thatís what Iím saying of
not doing poems... not to have to edit much... The Japanese painter Hokusai:
when he was seventy, he finally knew how to make a dot... he said, if I
can live for some ten more years, I can do a line...
* The person Diane di Prima talks about is probably the
photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944).