When I was in high school, I was unsuccessful at memorizing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I tried to commit the first part of the poem, about seven minutes worth of speaking, to memory and recite it as part of speech competition. I gave up eventually, unable to fully comprehend what the poet was talking about. I didn’t have a connection with the experience. I was 16 in the year 2000. What did I know about angel-headed hipsters? Nothing. I only knew I craved to know more about those kinds of things, the things that inspire that kind of writing.
What finding out about “Howl” and Allen Ginsberg had done for me was introduce me to the Beats, and, ultimately, to Diane di Prima. When I began reading Diane’s writing, I found a way in. A bisexual writer, a woman, who was trying to find her way in a world where the men were celebrated, the women byproducts. She wrote about life in a way that wasn’t so specific to the moment. Her writing, in her memoirs and her poetry, is timeless in the way that you can’t try for, that just happens. I found something in her work that resonated in a way I’d desperately wanted “Howl” to. I wanted to understand. I felt that understanding in Diane.
In San Francisco this spring, I went to the Beat Museum, greeted by the large mural of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Inside the history of the movement is spread throughout walls and tables, mostly black and white photos and book covers or art inspired by the men who wrote words about cities and road trips and drugs and sex. I carefully surveyed every piece of memorabilia searching for a sign of Diane or her female counterparts, even if they were in the background of a reading with someone like Allen front and center. I have searched for her in movies made about the time, only to be disappointed so I had an idea of what to expect in the museum. I had hope, though, because Diane has lived and had such a presence in San Francisco. She was the poet laureate of the city in 1999.
Then I found her, among a handful of other women. Upstairs on the second floor in the far left corner, there is a piece of white poster board like I used in junior high for displaying school projects, things hastily cut and glued. The poster board was called “Worthy Beat Women,” and the photocopies of the women writers are stuck on it with some of the sides coming up, threatening to peel off. The title is unintentionally mocking, but I suppose its aesthetically pleasing and that’s why the man who put it together chose it. At least half of the photos have men in them, as if their presence is necessary to validate the women at all. One is of Diane at the microphone next to Allen Ginsberg. She has her own small tribute next to the poster board with a bio that reads of how she was considered “important” in the movement.
There were only a few others in the museum at the time, so I could linger in this section as long as I wanted without interruption. I felt like it was the reason I came, that I should savor it a little more. But most of the pictures I’d seen in books or on the internet, and their actual work wasn’t represented outside of the posterboard. There was no real sense of who they were, especially to someone that might just happen upon them.
Downstairs I found a signed copy of Pieces of a Song, noticeably priced lower than some of the other autographed books around it. I asked the young man behind the counter if there was anything else about Diane I might have missed.
“She’s been in here, she’s a nice lady,” he said. “But she doesn’t come around much.”
We talked about how we’d read she’d been ill, that fans had quietly tried to raise funds to help with her medical expenses. We both expressed we hoped she’d improve. I looked through postcards for one with her on it, and didn’t find one.
I was leaving San Francisco just days before the Contemporary Jewish Museum was opening its Allen Ginsberg exhibit of his personal photos. I would have gone but it might have been a similar experience for me, spending my time searching for a reflection of myself in the prints. Maybe that’s a selfish pursuit, but I came home and reminded myself of the kinds of things Diane considered important in such self-exploration.
I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life
my spirit measured out, in bits, spread over
the roulette table, I recoup what I can
nothing else to shove under the nose of the maitre de jeu
nothing to thrust out the window, no white flag
this flesh all I have to offer, to make the play with
this immediate head, what it comes up with, my move
as we slither over this go board, stepping always
(we hope) between the lines