As It Happens

Beat poet Diane di Prima taught her kids to question authority and believe in their own creativity

Diane di Prima's messages about non-conformity and the importance of imagination are more important than ever, says her daughter.

Di Prima, one of the few women writers from the Beat Generation, has died at the age of 86

Diane di Prima, a lifelong poet and activist, died Oct. 25 at a hospital in San Francisco. She was 86. (Estate of Diane di Prima)

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Diane di Prima's messages about non-conformity and the importance of imagination are more important than ever, says her daughter.

Di Prima, a longtime feminist activist and poet, died in hospital Sunday in San Francisco. She had Parkinson's disease and the autoimmune disorder Sjogren's syndrome. She was 86.

She was one of the few women writers from the Beat Generation, a '50s/'60s counter-culture literary movement. And her poetry has gained a new resonance in recent years as a new generation of activists takes to the streets to protest racism, fascism and police brutality. 

Di Prima is survived by her five children, including L.A. radio host Dominique di Prima, who spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about her mother's life and legacy. Here is part of their conversation.

[Your mother] is regarded to have been a beat poet, part of the Beat Generation. It's hard to imagine, though, because the more I think of [writers] Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, it's a very, very chauvinist male world.... How did she fit into that?

I was too little to probably know how she fit in with Jack Kerouac. But I know this: My mom fit in anywhere she went. She was unafraid and she wouldn't hesitate to tell someone they were a bore, which is more what she would be likely say than "a sexist" is "You're a bore." And that's so, like, corny.

Ginsberg, I mean, I do remember him well. You know, he was one of my babysitters as a child, and someone that I looked up to coming up. I don't know. That just wasn't my perspective on him. I mean, I guess he's a man and he was a gay man, so he was around other men. But I never experienced him to be sexist or sort of in that boys' club mentality. He was a good friend to my mom.

Di Prima's work has gained new appreciation among activists today. (Estate of Diane di Prima)

I'm trying to imagine your childhood, because your mom had five kids from different relationships. She had a lot of loves, and a lot of love in her life. And she moved a few times with kids with her, and always found space, I guess, for them with Allen Ginsberg as your babysitter. I mean, what was it like to have her as a mom?

Certainly it's not an upbringing that I've ever seen portrayed anywhere else that I look. But, you know, I think we had a lot of strengths.

We were exposed to a lot of different things — to more poetry by the time you were seven than most people probably experience in their whole lives. And we'd have The Living Theatre coming crashing at the house. And now we're at a commune. Now we're in a bus driving somewhere, you know, up to Canada. Actually, we did go in a bus one time, a Volkswagen bus. And we were at demonstrations, and we were [at] festivals and teach-ins and backstage at concerts. And so we went with her mostly. [Having Ginsberg as a] babysitter meant, you know, "He's staying with you while I go on stage and read."

I think it made us strong. All of us are able to talk to just about anybody. All of us believe in our own creativity and imagination as the most important thing. All of us have been taught to question authority and look underneath the surface of everything, and not just go along to get along.

Is there a special memory you have? I'm sure there's many. But is there anything in particular you'd share with us that would, you think, tell us about your mom?

I am African-American. My father is Amiri Baraka, the poet. And I'm the only kid they had together.

Kids at school used to ask me if I was adopted. At that time, I was going to a primarily white school out in the country ... and they kept asking me if I was adopted because my mom was white, and I was Black.

So she marches up to school hollering, you know, "Don't they know that Black people and white people can have sex and have babies, and they grow up to be children in families? And why would you keep asking my daughter if she's adopted?"

Of course, I was mortified. This was like the end of the world. "My life is over now." But in hindsight, I think, you know, here we are in a small, relatively hick town; my mom's a single mom, and she's just going to go up there and tell them about themselves. And, you know, that's just how she was. She was never going to back down.

What a great story. I'm sure you know that over the spring and summer, the protests, Black Lives Matter, and the voice against the police brutality, anti-Black racism [are] sweeping your country, sweeping the continent. And lots of people turned to your mother's Revolutionary Letters ... and posting quotations from them online. Was she aware of how many people were discovering or rediscovering her work?

I don't know that she knew the scope of it. But I do know that a lot of those folks showed up when my mom was at the nursing home, when she was in the hospital, even when she was in her apartment and she needed stuff.

We had a birthday party for her when she turned 80 and there were, you know, punk rockers and, you know, trans people and old hippies and beatniks and little teenagers.

It was the most diverse group of people. And it made me smile because it showed me that the people that my mom meant something to, they showed up for her. And she was happy to embrace them. I had a trans woman tell me my mom was the first person to give her a pair of earrings. I had an old hippie telling me that my mom was one of the elders that never sold out.

I tried to tell her about Instagram. I'd be like, "Hey, mom, I posted something and you have 300 likes" and she'd be like, "OK." I mean, she was happy, but that wasn't really her world, you know?

But I know the love reached her because the people literally would physically show up.

Is there a line of poetry you found yourself thinking about these last couple of days?

I think about the poem Rant, you know. The war is the war of the imagination, right?

Because I think about what's happening in our country with the election and everything, and how we have a president who's lied at least 20,000 times since he's been in office, and how he has perverted the American imagination into division and darkness and boorishness and lack of character, and how we can take that back with our own mindset and our own imagination, our own thoughts.

When you talk about the protests and everything here and around the world, you know, that's what we were raised to do as children of Di Primas, as children of Barakas, to be part of that change. And it is about re-imagining. I mean, if you listen to Black Lives Matter and if you listen to poets, it's about re-imagining what we think we live like, what we think people interact like ... and what we think policing is going to be. 

For me right now, you know, missing my mom a lot and stuff, I just think that her honing in on the power and the importance of our imaginations, not allowing ourselves to be controlled by any sort of mind-thought, mindframe, media or fear, is just a very important message right now.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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