BY Iris Cushing in Books , Opinion | 02 NOV 20

Diane di Prima’s Guidebook to Revolution

The prolific Beat poet, who died aged 86 on 25 October, left behind a powerful and ever-urgent call to action in her Revolutionary Letters

BY Iris Cushing in Books , Opinion | 02 NOV 20

Poetry, for Diane di Prima, was a living thing. Poetry lived in myths, histories and obscure hermetic texts as much as it lived in the cadences and rhythms of daily life: meals, homes, children, friends, contemporary happenings. Nowhere is this orientation toward poetry as a living entity more prominent than in di Prima’s books. In her 86 years, di Prima published over 40 books and wrote many more. Revolutionary Letters, one of di Prima’s best-known, most-loved collections of writing, was founded on a particularly di Prima-esque premise of aliveness: that the numbered series of letter-poems in the collection would be ongoing, always expanding, never closed. She began writing her Revolutionary Letters in 1968, soon after she moved to San Francisco to work with The Diggers, an activist-performance troupe who distributed free food around the Bay Area. Di Prima read these early ‘letters – numbered poems combining elements of lyric, epistle, memoir and practical instruction in the arts of revolution – on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, offering them to passing officials as an urgent performance. She sent the letters as she wrote them to the Liberation News Service, an underground organisation that distributed them to over 200 free and independent newspapers across the US and Canada, where they were read by thousands of people. Revolutionary Letters was first collected and published as a book in 1971; the book saw five expanded printings between 1974 and 2007. Di Prima continued to write revolutionary letters – in response to oppression, corruption, war and the human potential for spiritual courage – for the rest of her life.

For di Prima, revolution – like poetry – was a living entity, a state of being in direct contact with the most essential aspects of life, and a fearlessly expedition into unknown physical or spiritual territory. ‘I have just realized that the stakes are myself,’ begins ‘Revolutionary Letter #1’. ‘I have no other/ ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life.’ Di Prima dedicated the collection to Bob Dylan and her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, an Italian Anarchist who emigrated to the US in the early years of the 20th century. Some of di Prima’s earliest memories were of reading Dante and Giordano Bruno with Mallozzi, a skilled tailor by trade who was friends with Carlo Tresca and Emma Goldman and often spoke at anarchist gatherings in the Bronx. The fierceness and joy of Italian Anarchism runs throughout Revolutionary Letters, bursting forth in lyrics, chants and declarations: ‘Even the poorest of us/ will have to give up something/ to live free’ (‘Revolutionary Letter #17’).


Diane Di Prima, Revolutionary Letters, 2021, book cover. Courtesy: City Lights Books, San Francisco

A good deal of the Revolutionary Letters’ timelessness resides in their pragmatism. Throughout the collection, practical instructions on how to thrive in the midst of revolution abound. Letter #3 is about how to stock your pantry; Letter #5 is about how to build a home pharmacy, and how to be sparing with your use of drugs: ‘ginseng tea, ginger compresses, sea salt,/ prayer and love/ are better healers, easier to come by, save the others/ for life and death trips, you will know/ when you see one.’ Di Prima’s fluency with how to prepare outwardly for revolution carries over into clear-eyed directives for how to prepare inwardly. Letter #75, also known as ‘RANT,’ exists as a revolutionary’s handbook for the protection of the imagination. ‘THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION/ ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT,’ she writes, clearing away unnecessary posturing and cutting right to the heart. She continues: ‘The imagination is not only holy, it is precise/ it is not only fierce, it is practical.’

Over the years, Revolutionary Letters grew until they surpassed their various formal designations – direct address, performance, instruction, memoir, commentary, song – and simply became di Prima’s own mode of responding to the world. The language and vision in these letters make for an ever-expanding understanding of revolution itself, which is something we need very much right now, as we head into a new phase of systemic oppression and chaos. City Lights Books will publish the most recent collection of di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters in 2021, which includes her letters written in response to the conditions of the last decade. We no longer have Diane di Prima in our midst, but we have in these letters evidence of her courageous mind and heart.

Main Image: Amiri Baraka with Diane di Prima at Cedar Tavern, 1960. Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah

Iris Cushing is a poet, scholar and editor living in the rural Western Catskill mountains, USA.