Born 6 August 1934, Brooklyn, New York
Daughter of Francis and Emma Mallozzi DiPrima; married Alan S. Marlowe, 1962 (divorced); Grant Fisher, 1972 (divorced); children: Jeanne, Dominique, Alexander, Tara, Rudra
Since the late 1950s, Diane DiPrima has earned recognition for writings marked by a spirit of rebellion and countercultural exploration. Perhaps best known as a poet and editor, she has also published novels, plays, and translations. Her early writing chronicles the experiences of the Beat Generation, with special attention to the female dimensions of this culture. Together with LeRoi Jones (Imiri Baraka), DiPrima coedited the Floating Bear (1961-69), a monthly poetry newsletter that became one of the most influential publications of its kind, featuring many important Beat writers. In all her work, she has maintained a strong consciousness of her identity as a woman writer, depicting through personal relationships, political tensions, and mythological images a particularly female experience or truth.
DiPrima was born in Brooklyn, New York, a second generation American of Italian descent. She began writing at the age of seven and had decided to become a poet by the age of fourteen. Enrolling in Swarthmore College at seventeen, DiPrima dropped out two years later and returned to New York, to Greenwich Village and the emerging Beat scene there. She published her first book of poems, This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards, with LeRoi Jones's Totem Press in 1958. These poems make generous use of the Beat idiom, in such lines as "Like man don't flip, I'm hip you /cooled this scene." The book also reveals DiPrima's early interest in myths and fables, which become central motives in Loba: Parts I-VII (1973), one of her major works of poetry.
DiPrima's autobiographical novel Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) describes her experience among the Beats. Some critics consider her "female" experience circumscribed in comparison to the rambling adventures of such male Beats as Jack Kerouac. Others see DiPrima's work as adding an important dimension to our understanding of the Beat world, reminding us, George Butterick notes, "that the generation spent as much time in urban 'pads' as it did 'on the road,' and that one can travel as far by human relationships as by thumb."
Along with the Floating Bear, DiPrima worked with several other influential poetry journals of the time, including Kulchur and Yugen. She and husband Alan Marlowe founded the Poets Press (1964-69) and the New York Poets Theatre (1961-65), which produced plays by Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, James Schuyler, and others. Her own plays were performed at the Living Theater in New York. In 1965 DiPrima moved to upstate New York, where she joined Timothy Leary's psychedelic community at Millbrook. She continued to write and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1973 and 1979.
DiPrima's poetry is often highly accessible in language and emotion, revealing "a willingness to trust language with deep feelings even if it is to declare more than explore those feelings." Her most challenging poems use a complex symbolism that is both idiosyncratic and archetypal. These poems, Butterick writes, "represent private feelings revealed in the tradition of symbolism, if not in traditional symbols themselves." In "The Waiting Room" (The New Handbook of Heaven, 1963) she writes: "Every human skull /uncovered, is one more home /for the spirits of darkness. /I leave the dice at the rat hole every night /no one keeps score."
In Loba, DiPrima turns her symbolizing to the task of creating an epic of the female principle. "Loba" is a protean character, transforming from spirit to beast to human, alternately representing a Lilithand an Eve-figure. This mythic persona embodies female power in a variety of forms, as in these first lines: "O lost moon sisters /crescent in hair, sea underfoot do you wander /in blue veil, in green leaf, in tattered shawl do you wander /with goldleaf skin, with flaming hair do you wander /on Avenue A, on Bleecker Street do you wander." The full 16 parts of Loba were published for the first time in 1998 to critical acclaim. Reviewer William Gargon noted that the strength of this epic poem "lies in DiPrima's ability to 'make it new'—to synthesize mythological elements from a wide range of cultures into a unique vision based on Navajo wolf mythology."
Critic Armand Schwerner argues that DiPrima's verse is not always equal to her task: that "in the attempt to particularize within the context of 'the life of mankind,"' her language "sometimes falls into banality." Yet, he acknowledges, "the attempt, the order of inclusiveness, the mythopoetic reach are a contribution to that profound ongoing process of poetry which…continues the self-transformative aims of our alchemical fathers."
For the past 20 years, DiPrima has lived in Northern California, where she has written, taught, and practiced Buddhism and healing arts. From 1980 to 1986 she taught hermetic and esoteric traditions in poetry at New College of California's short lived but important program. She now resides in San Francisco, where she is a cofounder and teacher at the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. Her works in progress currently include a book on Percy Bysshe Shelley as both poet and magician; a satire of life in California titled Not Quite Buffalo Stew, whose narrator is a drug smuggler named Lynx; and an autobiographical memoir called Recollections of My Life as a Woman.
Murder Cake (1960). Like (1960). Paideuma (1960). The Discontent of a Russian Prince (1961). Dinners and Nightmares (1961, reprints 1974, 1977). The Monster (1961). Poets Vaudeville (1964). Like (1964). Combination Theater Poem and Birthday Poem for 10 People (1965). Spring and Autumn Annals (1966). Some Haiku (1966). Haiku (1967). Earthsong: Poems, 1957-1959 (1968). Audre Lord, The First Cities (1968). Monuments (1968). Hotel Albert: Poems (1968). New Mexico Poems, June-July 1967 (1968). War Poems (1968). RevolutionaryLetters (1969). L.A. Odyssey (1969). Notes on a Summer Solstice (1969). The Book of Hours (1970). Kerhonkson Journal 1966 (1971). New As 1966 (1971). Prayer to the Mothers (1971). So Fine (1971). XV Dedications: Poems (1971). The Calculus of Variation (1972). Discovery of America (1972). Freddie: Poems (1974). North Country Medicine (1974). Brass Furnace Going Out: Song after an Abortion (1975). Whale Honey (1975). Selected Poems, 1956-1975 (1975). Loba as Eve (1975). Loba, Part 2 (1976). Revolutionary Letters, etc. (1979). Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (1989). Zipcode: The Collected Plays of Diane DiPrima (1992).
Manuscripts of Diane DiPrima are housed in the Manuscript Collection of the Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, Illinois.
Knight, A. W., ed., The Beat Road (1984).
CANR (1984). CP (1980, 1991). DLB (1980, 1983). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
American Book Review 2 (May 1980, June/July 1991). LJ (Aug. 1998). MELUS (Fall-Winter 1987). NYTM (5 Nov. 1995). Rocky Ledge (Feb.-Mar. 1981). VV (13 June 1974, 9 May 1989).
"Diane DiPrima Interview," available online at http://www.rahul.net/joem/works/i-DiPrima.html (22 Sept. 1993).
UPDATED BY LEAH J. SPARKS