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No. 7

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Diane di Prima  

in conversation with Margarita Meklina and Andrew Meklin  

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NOT ON THE ROAD

The transcript of the meeting in the restaurant Amberjack Sushi, 
at Church & 16th Street in San Francisco, August 2002
 

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 notesÖ

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 him?

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 Callas.

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 HammondÖ 

Sheppard, my partner, worked for him in 1967. Then we saw him in the eighties, in the nineties... He is more grounded now as a musician. 

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 elseÖ

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 you?

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 need. 

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 days passed.

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 his book. 

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, 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 just stinks.

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 people there?

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 cards...

Is it true that editing part is more difficult than writing itself?

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 neck!

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 poets?

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?

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).
 

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