My teacher and friend. I found her little ad in Poetry Flash and sent her a stack of writing to be considered for her workshop. “But I only accept 10 so if you don’t hear from me, you didn’t make it this time.” I didn’t expect to make it, but a week later I got a phone call. It was Diane, inviting me to come. I met her at the old Sears’ building in San Francisco, a loft where we made tea and snacks; sitting in a circle, writing, talking, creating word boxes to change up our boring old word habits. She was sweet and salty, impatient but grounded. Her long hair in braids, her robust body once a shape shifter *sacrificed to art* then a soft shelf for babies; now a vessel of memory. Always enthusiastic and clever in her conversation, you felt held, hugged, but also keenly aware of her hard-ass ways.
Going to her home in the far out Mission, a block from the pink and grey house where I was conceived. I never came to that part of town – who knew she was sequestered away there in this modest midcentury house. In her living room was a large table, stacks of books strewn about.. a sofa somewhere. As she sat in her easy chair with her granny square blanket and her small, socked feet propped up, I would flesh out a mediocre poem for her to read. As she dug into it, furrowed brow over glasses, I listened to the radiator: a tiny flamenco dancer tapping out a reverie in the far corner.
I told her about the person I lost, when he was only 20, how I dreamt about him – his naked body floating outside my window. I sat up in bed and saw him there, tapping on the glass. He pressed his face close and mouthed “I’m sorry” there was no steam from his breath. I buried my face into the pillow until he was gone. She pulled out a book of Buddhist writings and told me how to speak to ghosts. I felt believed and cared for.
Thank you Diane, for taking your time with me, for sharing your craft, for honoring my hard work as an under-appreciated modern dancer and bonding with me in our similar journeys. So many walks through the East Village, to Mary Anthony’s studio, and upward to Alvin Ailey – we walked those paths with the same lust but at different times.
Dear Diane, I remember the night you were speaking at the Exit Theatre and I was performing on the stage next door. As I made my way to the wings to enter, I felt such a sad frustration that you were but a mere wall away from me and I could not see you. I tried to send a telepathic message in the dark: “don’t leave until I’m done!” But I knew you would, because you hated dust and other people’s perfume and your health was already fragile. By the time I left the stage you were gone. I have missed you for a long time and probably always will. You will not be forgotten.
From City Lights:
“Diane di Prima (August 6, 1934 – October 25, 2020) It is with much sadness that City Lights notes the passing of one of the greatest and most characteristically revolutionary poets associated with our press, Diane di Prima. Diane died yesterday due to never-resolved complications stemming from a fall a few years ago. She began her work as a poet in New York City, where she started publishing the stapled mimeo magazine The Floating Bear with co-editor LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) in 1961, the same year she co-founded the New York Poets Theatre. She would go on to attain notoriety with her Olympia Press novel, Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), a fictionalized account of her bohemian life in Manhattan at the turn of the ’60s. Relocating to San Francisco and becoming a stalwart member of the late ’60s counterculture, Diana published her signature volume Revolutionary Letters in 1971 as part of the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. She would continue to add to this volume—part poetic manifesto, part how-to guide to rabble-rousing and avoiding arrest—for the rest of her life. Her later work with City Lights included such volumes as Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (1980) and The Poetry Deal (2014), a book commemorating her tenure as San Francisco Poet Laureate. Other important works include her ongoing serial poem Loba, published as one volume by Penguin in 1978, and Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), a de-fictionalized account of the period first chronicled by Memoirs of a Beatnik. Diane’s distinctive voice and all-around toughness will be sorely missed during these trying times. A fiery personality, Diane could excoriate the powers of systemic oppression in this country like no one else, but we also wish to acknowledge her penchant for enchantment and wonder, as seen in “Revolutionary Letter #46”: And as you learn the magic, learn to believe it Don’t be “surprised” when it works, you undercut your power. City Lights sends our love to her husband Shep and her entire family.”
Diane was a dancer in New York before becoming known as a writer. Strangely enough, we had the same dance teacher but at different times. Mary Anthony, who was older than the Redwoods *in dancer years* still in the same studio on Broadway near 8th. The place was dark and old NYC vibes. When you walked into the space and stood before the mirror it was like being catapulted back to 1958. Mary had some eyes, and she embraced lines, beauty, anything that shone. I felt touched to be there.
Diane knew what it was like to be a spirited young artist and lose friends. These excerpts capture that –
Diane met Freddie Herko in 1954 as he sat on a bench in the rain in Washington Square Park. He was “crying because autumn always made him sad.”
“FORMAL BIRTHDAY POEM: February 23, 1964”
dear Freddie, it’s your birthday & you are crazy
really gone now, crazy like any other old queen
showing off your naked limbs a little withered
making fairy tales into not very good ballets
I remember you sat on the edge of the bed & Joan cried
you sat wrapped in a blanket night after night by the fire
you sat by the fire & cried, you played the piano
you were truly lovely then, but a little fat
how spoiled we all were! we ate hundreds of english muffins
and never thought once about white flour, or bread lines
or calories, or what vitamins we were getting
I guess old junkies just have to be more careful
yes, now you are 28, you are shooting A
you are getting evicted & there is another coldwave
you are worried about your costumes – can you take them
with you & to where? you are late a lot for performance
and not very good, although you are sure you are perfect.
yes, somebody said you thought you were martha graham
and it is a little like that. but blood is thicker
than water, & I am angry
when I am angry, because you’ve disgraced the familyDiane di Prima
another old whore on the streets, another mouth
to feed in emergencies, and we think a lot
about keeping you away from jail & the madhouse
Herko’s career as a dancer unfortunately ended in 1964. His final dance performance took place on October 27, 1964 when he danced out of the window of Johnny Dodd’s apartment. Dodd was a friend of Herko who did the lights at the Caffe Cino, the Theatre Genesis, and some of the productions at the Judson Church. (SB112/164) (Dodd, who was also a friend of Billy Name – as was Herko – was filmed by Warhol for Kiss and one of the Haircut films.) Herko’s final dance – and a memorial ceremony after his death at Diane di Prima’s apartment – is described in Popism:
“A few days later, on October 27, he [Herko] turned up at an apartment on Cornelia Street that belonged to Johnny Dodd, who did the lighting for the Judson Church concerts… What Freddy did when he got inside was go and take a bath… After his bath, Freddy put Mozart’s Coronation Mass on the hi-fi. He said he had a new ballet to do and he needed to be alone. He herded the people there out of the room. As the record got to the ‘Sanctus,’ he danced out the open window with a leap so huge he was carried halfway down the block onto Cornelia Street five stories below.
Afterwards, Di Prima went to Deborah Lee’s apartment where some of Herko’s things were stored. “She and I went through it together. Black velvet was everywhere. Many shards of mirrors. Magick wands made out of old bedposts. Feathers. Lace. Broken statuary. Scraps of fabric, or carpet. Everything thick with some dark energy. There was one whole attaché case of male pornography carefully cut out of magazines, as if for use in collage. On the floor in his room there was a book by Mary Renault open at the page where the king leaps into the sea. Where the ritual to renew the world is described. It was the closest we found to a suicide note.”
For the twenty-six nights following Freddy’s death, the group at Diane di Prima’s apartment met formally to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The ritual involved making sacrifices, and most people pulled out a few of their hairs and burned them.
Diane loved Freddie so much, even though he fucked her husband. She didn’t have any ownership of Alan. People often confuse love with slavery.
Freddie dancing at Judson church.
May they dance together again now.