I read Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters for the first time this summer. It is a wonder that I’ve only just recently arrived to her work. “The mail has been slow,” as Ishmael Reed would say (the latter being a running gag in his book Mumbo Jumbo). The mail and the male. Revolutionary Letters has become part of my education. Students and I read it together earlier this month. I’ve been reading and responding to several students who wrote about the book for the midterm paper in my course “Literatures of Rebellion.” Friends and I have been mourning her passing since learning the other day of her death. We’ve been sharing works of hers that move us. Along comes “Rant” where she proclaims, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All other wars are subsumed in it.”
Di Prima refers to life as a game of “multidimensional chess played with divination and strategy.” She says that what we find out is what we select “out of an infinite sea of possibility.” Let us respond imaginatively in word and act. Perform a close reading. She begins by noting that with every line of writing we project a cosmology and cosmogony. We’re the ones keeping ourselves out of paradise. Joy is ours if we imagine it. Why are so many of the texts that we’re reading this semester about travel north? That’s the trajectory of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But Silko also traveled north to write Ceremony.
I prepare a series of video mini-lectures on Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, Julius Lester’s telling of “Stagolee,” and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. Along the way I glimpse the famous white patron of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechen, as depicted by the Jazz Age artist Florine Stettheimer in her 1920 painting Asbury Park South.
Van Vechen remains a controversial figure, in part due to his 1926 novel, the title of which I don’t wish to repeat (though it appears that Langston Hughes was one of the book’s defenders). Countee Cullen and W.E.B. Du Bois regarded it as an “affront to the hospitality of black folks.” Ralph Ellison condemned Van Vechen — as did Reed, given that he modeled Mumbo Jumbo‘s villain Hinckle Von Vampton after him.
Di Prima was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. Her maternal grandfather was an active anarchist — a friend and confidant, in fact, of another author I’m teaching this semester, Emma Goldman. Like her fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, Di Prima grew and evolved over the course of her long career alongside the leading countercultural movements of her time. She protested the Vietnam War; she experimented with free love and lived communally with others; she promoted mind expansion through use of psychedelics. After editing a newsletter called The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Di Prima spent much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew of utopian psychonauts and psychedelic spiritualists at Millbrook. Her Poets Press published the first two editions of Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers in Spring 1966.
I’m planning to teach Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (or excerpts therefrom, not the book in its entirety) in my course this fall. The work is a serial poem begun by Di Prima in 1968. It was published as part of the famed Pocket Poets Series from City Lights Books — the same series that released the original iconic edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems a decade earlier. Di Prima lived for much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew in upstate New York on the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook.