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Diane di Prima

Diane di Prima was born Diane Rose DiPrima on 6 August 1934 in Brooklyn, New York. She was the only daughter and eldest of three children born to Francis and Emma DiPrima. According to her brother Frank, she added a space and adjusted the ‘d’ to lower case in the spelling of her family name to bring it closer to her Italian ancestry. Her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, an Italian tailor and anarchist, was an important influence on her political and poetic sensibilities and introduced the writings of Dante Alighieri and Giordano Bruno to her at a young age.

Di Prima attended Hunter College High School, a public school for gifted students  in New York City. She committed herself to poetry at the age of fourteen, encouraged by her friendships with her fellow students including Audre Lorde, with whom she skipped classes to read poetry and hold seances to summon the spirits of dead poets. In 1951, di Prima went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, but dropped out two years later at the age of nineteen to return to New York.

In the bohemian community of Greenwich Village, di Prima became involved in the Beat movement and developed friendships with John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Denise Levertov, Merce Cunningham and Frank O’Hara, among others. She would later document her experiences within Beat culture in 1950s New York in Memoirs of a Beatnik. During those years, she gave birth to the first of her five children and wrote prolifically, publishing her first collection of poetry, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, in 1958.

In 1961, di Prima co-founded and edited The Floating Bear poetry newsletter with Amiri Baraka, with whom she also had a child. With Fred Herko, George Herms and James Waring, she created the New York Poets Theatre and staged one-act plays throughout the early 1960s She also founded and edited the Poets Press throughout the 1960s, and founded Eidolon Editions and the Poets Institute.

After spending some time at Millbrook, Timothy Leary’s psychedelic community in upstate New York in 1966, di Prima moved to California for good. In San Francisco, she became involved with the Diggers, a radical community activist group, and began writing and publishing her revolutionary ‘letters’ in 1968. She taught poetry and Western esotericism in literature for several decades, including at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, from 1974.

Named Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 2009, di Prima was awarded the National Poetry Association’s Lifetime Service Award and the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement. She died of cancer, aged eighty-six, on 25 October 2020 in San Francisco.

At the time of her death, di Prima had published almost fifty books including the poetry collections This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (1958), Revolutionary Letters (1968), Loba (1978) and Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (2001). She is also the author of the short story collection Dinners and Nightmares (1960), the semi-autobiographical Memoirs of a Beatnik (1968) and the memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (2001). In 2021, City Lights published Spring and Autumn Annals for the first time.