Post Number: 47
|Posted on Wednesday, February 03, 2010 - 11:41 am: ||
DIANE DI PRIMA’S INAUGURAL ADDRESS AS POET LAUREATE OF SAN FRANCISCO
Koret Auditorium in San Francisco’s main library was packed last night. Diane di Prima—a transplant from New York City whose voice still bears traces of her early time—has many admirers in this cool, gray city of love. She is a marvelous poet, and her whole life has been one of social activism. Jewelle Gomez, who introduced her, pointed out that, in addition to her poetry, di Prima had given birth to five children—and remarked that such a reflection would not have been made about previous male laureates such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Jack Hirschman. “But,” said Gomez, accurately, “it is often the woman’s job to raise the kids.” (Di Prima herself referred to her conscious decision to take responsibility for her children, to be “a single mom.”)
Her latest book is a re-issuing, with new poems, of Revolutionary Letters, a Bible for many in the 1960s. In a way, her inaugural speech was a reflection upon the Great Expectations of that book, which begins with an assurance to her long-dead Italian anarchist grandfather that “we are / involved in it now, revolution, up to our / knees and the tide is rising.” Di Prima’s work has always centered on the possibility of a new world in which the heart’s desires would be met—a world transformed by love, compassion, and poetry in which, she tells her grandfather lightly, “all street lights would be purple” for Oscar Wilde. “How / you would love us all,” she says, “would thunder your anarchist wisdom / at us, would thunder Dante, and Giordano Bruno…we do it for you, and your ilk.” Her inaugural speech was a looking back at her whole career—a life given over almost entirely to poetry and to “this transformation / by the Inward Fire.” (Her Joan of Arc cries out, “I am not in the flame, I am the flame.”) She read this poem from Revolutionary Letters:
Left to themselves people
grow their hair.
Left to themselves they
take off their shoes.
Left to themselves they make love
share blankets, dope & children
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own: touch of love
on the brain, the ear.
We return with the sea, the tides
we return as often as leaves, as numerous
as grass, gentle, insistent, we remember
our babes toddle barefoot thru the cities of the universe.
Whitman’s dream merged with the dream of the 60s—and the dream of Shelley, of her grandfather, and of so many others. “Reality,” she remarked, “is no obstacle.”
Her speech listed the many wonders, civic and personal, of a city which seemed, when she moved to San Francisco in 1968, to be—unlike New York—well on the way to realizing that dream.
And then, in a surprising and heartbreaking moment, she cried out, in a voice nearly sobbing, “What happened?” How was the dream derailed?—not even, in Langston Hughes’ phrase, “deferred.” Derailed. It was a moment in which we felt the intense “derailment”—the failure—of so many of our own dreams. Di Prima sat there momentarily as the voice of all loss, all heartbreak. What happened? Was “reality” an “obstacle” after all? She went on to talk about the current San Francisco—about a law which stated that you couldn’t be evicted while your children were in school but could be once school ended. “Hooray, school’s out,” she said—and then added, “Oh oh…What kind of human being would make a law like that!”
This high point of her speech was followed by a listing of some of the things she would do as Poet Laureate of San Francisco. She spoke of poetry as the building of community: despite the loneliness of the poet’s solitary task, the poet spoke to “everyone—not just to friends but to everyone.” The solitary act of writing was, paradoxically, an act of communion with others. She spoke of her intention to introduce all kinds of people to poetry—young, old, and particularly the “just people” who had been kept from poetry by “an over-emphasis on theory perhaps.” She mentioned as well that she wished to end her speech early so that there would be time for questions and answers from the audience. She said she wished to hear from us, to get our ideas.
Various questions followed, most of them having to do with her, but there was one which struck me as particularly interesting. Di Prima had been talking about giving poetry classes to people of different ages. The questioner suggested that we unfairly separate the ages and wondered about giving a poetry class for people of all ages. “You mean,” she said, “a class for people from 8 to 80? You do it.” I thought the man had a real point. We do separate people of different ages from another. Wouldn’t it be possible to have a class in which both young and old experienced poetry as a common ground? Couldn’t we have poetry, as we frequently say about movies, “for the whole family”? It seemed to me that di Prima answered the man like a politician faced with a question s/he hasn’t previously thought about. She didn’t acknowledge his point: she just blew him away. “You do it.” She went on to say something about having different teaching techniques for people of different ages—as if it wouldn’t be possible to do what he suggested. But I’m not at all sure that that’s so. Wasn’t this precisely the sort of thing she was asking for—a point of view that wasn’t hers? She might have at least considered what the man was saying; instead, she made what he said into a kind of joke, dismissing it.
I don’t mean to go on about this moment. It was only a brief incident in an event which was filled with the marvelous life history of a person who has put herself on the line for change many times over. And who, in this particular speech, made us feel the terrible abyss between the dream of a good and gracious world and the world we have. Further: I may well have been the only person in that packed house who had any quarrel with di Prima’s handling of the question the man put to her. Nonetheless, I found the incident disturbing. What happened? If someone as well-meaning and intelligent and talented—and spiritually gifted—as Diane di Prima could blow somebody away like that, whom can we look to? Or is it that no one—not even the much-loved, much deserving current Poet Laureate of San Francisco—is perfect? If we really wish change to happen, we must have heroines and heroes, surely, but we mustn’t overly idealize them; we mustn’t forget that they are just people. Di Prima was right after all. How does change happen, even at as bad a time as this one? You do it.
Post Number: 1
|Posted on Wednesday, February 03, 2010 - 08:40 pm: ||
Yes, as Joey Brown says at the end of SOME LIKE IT HOT, No one's perfect. But Diane di Prima's inaugural address was a hair's breadth away from being just that. Not only was it a tremendous joy to see her sitting on that stage, it was a transformational experience to hear her describing, in one continuous stream, the old San Francisco I grew up in, what it could have become and what it is in its current state. As Di Prima's tears flowed, so did ours. Before bringing up the topic of immigration laws, she mentioned reading in the S.F. Chronicle that aid to Haiti would cease until a source of money to support that aid could be identified. Children are dying: "What kind of human being...?" indeed. Di Prima is someone who would never claim perfection, but if last night's talk is any indication of the energy and service she will bring to San Francisco, I'll say now what I heard more than one person say last night: "I would sit at her feet." San Francisco, this time, got it right.
Post Number: 49
|Posted on Wednesday, February 03, 2010 - 09:30 pm: ||
It's Joe E. Brown, not "Joey Brown," Katherine. A great if somewhat forgotten comedian.
Raising the question of whether someone is or isn't "perfect" always elicits the response: Well, of course no one is perfect--and so the issue is dropped.
That wasn't what I meant to do.
It seemed to me that in not considering what the man was saying to her, di Prima was doing something akin to what the people she is against might do: squelching (or at least trivializing) an opinion which was not shared by the person in power (in this case, di Prima). I wouldn't claim that she always does that--or even that she does it most of the time. As she said about her grandfather, "Who knows." (Nor would I deny that she is primarily and wonderfully a force for the good.) But last night she elicited opinions different from her own and when one came, she simply dismissed it without any kind of discussion or consideration. "You do it." I found that disturbing. And it was even more disturbing that no one I spoke to about it seemed to think that she had done anything objectionable. I agree that the speech--if not "a hair's breadth away" from "perfection" (was her speech more "perfect" than she herself?)--was in other respects quite wonderful, and I tried to say that in my piece. Do you remember Brecht's Galileo? "Unhappy is the land that breeds a hero" is answered by "Unhappy is the land that needs a hero."
But perhaps we all need heroes and heroines--people to idealize, people at whose feet we would be willing to sit. But what a burden such feelings put upon anyone. And does that mean that such people are beyond criticism?
Post Number: 2
|Posted on Wednesday, February 03, 2010 - 09:41 pm: ||
Of course not.
And of course it's "Joe E. Brown," too. A dead brain cell passing by. Thanks for the correction.
Post Number: 50
|Posted on Thursday, February 04, 2010 - 12:47 am: ||
Francisco Alarcon asked me to post this for him:
Dear Jack: Your column is an insightful account of the event. Yes, nobody is perfect. And San
Francisco is neither perfect and has never been really perfect. I, for one, was a victim of its
overzealous Police and crazy Prosecutors. I wrote once on a poem for children: "San Francisco /is
the city / where people / become bridges / to each other." But San Francisco is also the city
where people of color were often nailed to a cross of intolerance, snobbery, and neglect. Just
take a walk any day along Cesar Chávez Boulevard to Mission Street and stand on the shoes of
those Latino men standing on the corners hungry for any opportunity to feed their families. The
City is mostly indifferent to their plight. This is not new, just enter the old Mission Dolores buried
on their grounds and you will feel the heavy sorrow of the thousand of natives buried on their
grounds, victims to diseases and an exploitive religion. Last night I wrote on Roberto Vargas's
Facebook note the following: "I just came back home from the Inaugural Addree by the new Poet
Laureate of San Francisco. Tonight's event at the Koret Auditorium in the San Francisco Main
Library was packed with people and spirit. Diane di Prima was a true magician of the word. Her
inaugural address was grounded on the Earth, Life, and common human experiences, and yet it
soared really high, at one point, encompassing all of San Francisco, and beyond. For me, it was
nourishment to the soul, a testimony of the moving power of poetry, a true Poetic Manifesto of a
poet committed to make a difference. I hope we will soon be able to read all of her words, for
they can make poets feel less lonely and somehow more connected to the collective endeavor we
call Poetry." Abrazos, Francisco Alarcon
...Thank you for this eloquent statement, Francisco.
Post Number: 51
|Posted on Thursday, February 04, 2010 - 08:47 am: ||
This was sent to me by Alabama poet Jake Berry:
First thing that came to mind as I read this was: Congratulations Diane! This is welcome, wonderful news. She not only deserves the honor, but she's probably up to the task.
Then at the point of "derailed": She is asking what we are all asking and answering various ways. I think some of the answers might be suggested in Adam Curtis's THE TRAP. But there is also a collective lack of will. Changing the culture in a radical way, even a radically benevolent way is always almost impossible. The majority of the people are entrenched in their lives. They have found a way to survive and it is difficult to persuade them that change with uncertain outcome will be better than the life they have, even if the life they have is difficult and unfair. I also thought of lines written by a fellow Californian in 1975, Jackson Browne, from his song "The Pretender" as he perceived the spirit of the movement waning:
I want to know what became of the changes
We waited for love to bring
Were they only the fitful dreams
Of some greater awakening?
I've been aware of the time going by
They say in the end it's the wink of an eye
When the morning light comes streaming in
You'll get up and do it again
Regarding di Prima's dismissal of the question about poetry classes for everyone together. It did sound utterly like a politician, though she was I'm sure speaking to the difficulty of finding a way to talk about poetry that would satisfy such a diverse range of ages. She probably should have taken the time to respond in that way, but instead, in the heat and glory of the moment, she dismissed the question with a joke.
Your conclusion at the end goes directly to the heart of the issue. We wonder what happened and we try to blame others, but as Karl Wallinger sang back in the 80s when so many were raving against Reagan for a million good reasons:
If you want a revolution baby, there's nothing like your own.