Diane di Prima (August 6, 1934-October 25, 2020) was a famous Beat Poet, political activist, esteemed editor and publisher within the artistic world. Her creative reach has impacted the lives of many. Publishing her first book, “This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards,” in 1958, di Prima solidified herself as a prolific writer through her candid and rhythmic style.
Throughout her impressive career, di Prima gave many avant-garde and female poets a platform to share their works. In the 1960s, she co-founded the New York Poets Theater, co-edited The Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and was a contributing editor for Yugen and Kulchur. During the late 70s, di Prima taught at the Poetics Program at the New College of San Francisco, and locally founded the Institute of Magical and Healing Arts.
In 1968, di Prima moved from New York to the west coast. This transition occurred during her time as both founder and editor of The Poets Press (1965-1969). During her venture at Poets Press, she encouraged “Huncke’s Journal,” a series of personal, unpublished poems by Beat poet and figure Herbert Huncke, as well as published poet and essayist Audre Lorde’s critically acclaimed first book, “The First Cities.” Five years later, she established Eidolon Editions (1974-1976). These two poetic houses specialized in publishing avant-garde poetry, as well as her own writings. Notable authors who have been published by di Prima include David Henderson, Herbert Hunke, Michael McClure, and Audre Lorde.
From her independent presses, Distinctive Collections houses di Prima’s “Hotel Albert: Poems” (1968) and “L.A Odyssey” (1969) respectively from The Poets Press, and “Loba Part II” (1974) from Eidolon Editions. All three of these publications are apt snapshots of di Prima’s style and motif. This includes her bicoastal journey, physical movement akin to her spiritual studies, and writing towards a hip, éctriture féminine that aimed to create a familiar dialogue around womanhood and feminine experience.
Hotel Albert: Poems (1968)
“Hotel Albert: Poems” was written on the cusp of Diane di Prima’s departure from Hotel Albert, located in the Greenwich Village Neighborhood, in New York City. The publication reflects upon her time spent in New York City, centered around the experiences and relationships she garnered at Hotel Albert. Poems include dedications for “Alan [Ginsberg], John, and Lee.”
Hotel Albert ebbed and flowed with the dips and rises of New York City, both economically and culturally. Founded in 1883, the hotel was focal to the art community. Great works were produced here, as well as rumination and tragedy. Di Prima’s time spent at Hotel Albert during the late 60s details the psychedelic rock and roll scene that took New York City by storm: at the time, Hotel Albert was at the centerfold of this new, cultural phenomenon.
“Hotel Albert: Poems” is a softcover and staple-bound book. No title accompanies this collection besides a large, ethereal image stamped in black ink over a crimson cover. Our copy, housed at Arizona State University, is one of 150 first edition copies published, numbered 116 with an authorial signature on its final page.
The table of contents is illustrated in the shape of a hotel. It pictures a nurturing, homey visage; each floor symbolizes the poems in this volume by order. While the top floor signifies the first poem in her book, the ground floor lets us know that the book is over. This hierarchical system is symbolic of her arrival and departure from Hotel Albert; she is closing this chapter of her life. It makes sense then, that di Prima is on the ground floor. Underneath Hotel Albert’s windows, simple comforts surround her: candles, flowers, and cats.
Only two works, “Zero” and “November” are not on the table contents and are inscribed on the inside of the back and front covers. “Zero” is photographed.
The poems within this collection are melancholy, mystical, grateful, filled with desire, and deeply reflective. Moreover, her poetics weave both symbol and word together in a way that gives a fresh, yet playful, perspective to her pieces. As an example, in “Fragment: For Alan and John,” di Prima mentions tarot card/raining Sunday. Although both words show in different verses of her poem, they are linked together through the drawing of a tarot card, and the image of rainfall underneath. Although an innocent drawing, it gives way to a surreal use of artwork and visual landscapes explored in future publications (especially “Loba”).
L.A Odyssey (1969)
Written between July 28-August 5(1969) and published by the Poet’s Press, only 100 original numbered copies of “L.A Odyssey” were a part of its first edition publication. Housed is a signed, original copy of “L.A Odyssey.” The typography is her authentic handwriting; stylistically, it is referential to many of her other works, a staple appearing in publications such as “Hotel Albert: Poems.” This text has familiarity akin to a journal, or personal diary with elements such as small doodles, including pentacles and moons. “L.A Odyssey” also touches base on loss, confessionals, environmental and political disarray; describing the expeditions and metal machines on the moon in “Aquarius New Moon: in Three Takes,” di Prima asks, “werewolf, where will you go now?” She juggles these topics with seriousness and whimsy.
Containing works reminiscent of voyeurism in L.A, spiritual Jazz and zodiac, modernism and femininity with a twist, the book possesses a modern, hip edge. Emphasis on the edge. Artwork plays a large role in how we consider her work: the cover, designed by George Herms, resembles a likeness to a playing card. The borders spell out LOVE.
The letters on the cover are fragmented from one another. They rest on each end of the borders; the separation of the concept of “love” is thereby produced, becoming a lens of experiencing and observing the darker underbelly of ecstasy within di Prima’s “L.A Odyssey.” The title font on the cover of “L.A Odyssey” also feels brutal, like a violent fury of ink. Objects, which create the cover’s blooming centerfold, are discarded: a shoe, a screw in the shape of a pentacle, a funneled object, unrecognizable metal. Again, this juxtaposition highlights darker language within “L.A Odyssey,” such as “destruction, deadly, shriek.” Words bring us to a seedier, yet necessary, understanding of L.A voyeurism. In “Rooftop Hollywood,” for instance, di Prima writes how a thirst for blood is as natural as breathing. An excerpt: “continual shriek of metal in agony taking revenge, assaulting the roots of my life…”
“L.A Odyssey” details the difficulties of finding home, as well as an aimless wandering, a protagonist’s quest to return to where she belongs. In every sense of the word, di Prima’s odyssey from New York City (where she was born and raised) to a new, uncharted, and unfamiliar territory– and culture– into L.A, and the making of a new home, is at the crux of this book.
“L.A Odyssey is an offset lithograph, and dedicated to Bob Kaufman and “Grant.”
Loba Part II (1976)
Di Prima began expanding on her initial poem, “Loba,” a vision of the woman as a wolf-goddess, when she found herself unable to put her pen down. Di Prima felt as if she couldn’t stop writing– the poem seemed to “pour out of her.” Although “Loba” was written over several years, it is an epic poem contained by a single thread of crucial narrative: feminine tragedy, love, continuity, and mystical power. Comprising sixteen separate parts, “Loba” was completed and finally published in 1978.
“Loba Part II” engages in an éctricture féminine. The term, first coined by Helen Ciouxs’ seminal 1975 essay, “The Laugh of Medusa,” equates éctricture féminine as a form of women’s writing, unique to the feminine experience. The categorization of this particular style is noted through divergences from traditional masculine writing: some distinctions include style, form, colloquialisms, vocabulary, and subject. “Loba Part II” is canon to éctricture féminine through mythologizing the physical and emotionally intimate aspects of womanhood. In “Loba Part II,” this eternal figure of femininity is symbolized by the wolf-goddess, Loba.
“Loba Part II” was published by Eidolon Editions. A total of 550 copies were printed: housed at Arizona State University, we hold the 24th Printing from the Independent Presses of Kathmandu in our repositories. The illustrations for this book were done by Josie Grant. The cover to “Loba Part II” features mountainous valleys, rugged textures, and ruptures in the surreal scene. On the cover, night seems to break into day, or almost bleed into the sky. Stylistically, this is displayed in a serene, yet surreal manner.
Although the narrative takes dips and turns, di Prima’s wolf goddess is headstrong and resilient. Moreover, visualized, anthropomorphic unity between animal and woman, as well as a unity between different bodies and landscapes, is pivotal to this text. Such enmeshing is shown through Grant’s artwork and di Prima’s verse.
Both type and texture of paper aids in our reading of the narrative. Because the paper is translucent, the reader gets a glimpse of either the next page, or an illustration yet to be revealed. di Prima’s poetic verse is wildly placed throughout the page. There is no uniformity in structure. This gives the illusion that the actual poetic verses aren’t only obscured through the sheet of paper, but through their pattern and organization on the subsequent (and prior) page. This beckons to an overall unity of ink and image.
Curiously, you might press a little against the silk, translucent page to reveal future verses and illustrations. Traces of the coming pages are shown, but not completely visible. In fact, when reading “Loba Part II,” the visual as well as the tactile are both equal contributors to the overall experience. Heightened texture mimics the multifaceted nature of womanhood. The page appears rougher at first glance, yet is soft to the touch.
Note the progression of narrative in the three, sequential pages above. In “Loba Part II,” the next page of poetic verse, and story of the Loba, is always at your fingertips. In the first photo, the typography is reminiscent of smoke or clouds. As the images in this text are aerial and cerebral, mirroring the smoky, yet dreamy, language of di Prima, the text reveals itself as multidimensional. It is as if with each page we turn, we delve deeper into di Prima’s creative mind. This type of spatial, textual, and visual arrangement is a staple within “Loba Part II,” encouraging a one-of-a-kind interaction with the physical text and poetics inside.
All three publications mentioned in this post are courtesy of Distinctive Collections Rare Books and Manuscripts at Arizona State University. If interested in viewing any of the aforementioned publications or works of a similar genre, go to https://askalibrarian.asu.edu/askanarchivist to schedule an appointment.
- Alexa Nino, Distinctive Collections