Friday, April 3, 2009

Diane DiPrima's Acceptance Speech at PEN Oakland Awards December 2008

Thank you very much. And thank you, Michael, for your introduction. I am truly honored to be here, and especially in view of the great folks who have received this Award—now the Reginald Lockett Award—from PEN Oakland before me.

As a Buddhist, I know that I am a part of an vast interdependent web of being which sustains each of us, and so thanking others is correctly and righteously an endless act. However, I have seven to ten minutes, and will perforce be brief.

First of all I want to thank my elders and teachers: the long line of artists stretching thru time, who kept me on the planet when as a teenager, with a teen's hubris, I thought I was too disgusted to stay: thanks, everyone from Sappho to Baudelaire, Cocteau; thanks to the great woman blues singers, women like Ida Cox & Sara Martin, as well as those more remembered like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey; Thanks, Rilke and Thank you to Garcia Lorca. thanks to my first mentor, John Keats, whom I found at fourteen, whose guiding words remained true throughout my life: I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affection and the truth of the imagination.

I want to thank the great spiritual guides who have been there to give me a shove whenever as a so-called grown-up I went too far off-track: Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and my loved teacher for the past 16 years: Lama Tharchin Rinpoche. And the many Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu masters from the past whose words and life-stories have kept me going. Just as an example I think often these days of the words of the Zen master Hakuin:

What remains to be sought? Nirvana is here before me.

This very place the Lotus Paradise, this very body the Buddha.

And a big thank you to all the great social and political seekers who informed my path in the world: my maternal grandfather, the anarchist Domenico Mallozzi, who named my mother for his friend, Emma Goldman, back through the age of great political writing: Mutual Aid, ABC of Anarchism etc. thru the great heretics Giordano Bruno and all the way to the Zoroaster and the I Ching.

But it is my peers and contemporaries I find myself thinking of today. Artists and writers like Phil Whalen, Michael McClure, Audre Lorde, Freddie Herko, Amiri Baraka, Victor Cruz, George Herms, Cecil Taylor -- the list is blessedly and truly endless. I think what our generation had the good fortune to rediscover and what kept us going, kept us truly alive, is the power of community.

When I was little, and my parents had not yet decided that my Italian anarchist grandfather was a bad influence on me, he and I spent a lot of time together. One of the many teachings he gave me then went something like this: If you are hungry, and have one piece of bread, and you eat it, you'll still be hungry. If you sit down with a friend, and break it in half and you both eat, you will both be full. A law of nature

From the time I first left home and college at 18 I found myself living in what we later in the sixties called a commune. In NY there were (among others) the roommates I invited, and the runaways from NJ whom I found at my door. Later there would be a more deliberate household consisting of another writer, a painter, and a dancer. Actor Ben Carruthers joined us for a while, and we all feasted off food he stole for us from the refrigerators of more well-known actors.

When I started New York Poets Theater with Amiri Baraka, my husband Alan Marlowe, composer John McDowell, choreographer James Waring, Alan and I soon learned that running a theatre meant taking in the stage manager and her baby, the drop-out before his time from Canada who became our electrician and trouble-shooter, and half the cast when necessary. One stove, one cook-pot, got us through many lean days.

Amiri Baraka and I put out the Floating Bear every two weeks with the help of Cecil Taylor running the mimeo machine, James Waring proof reading and dancer Fred Herko sticking on mail labels and three-cent stamps (except that he would throw out labels addressed to people he didn't "know", and I'd have to dig in the wastebasket later to add them to the pile). Even Thomas Merton, to whom we sent the Bear, wrote to say he had no $$$ but he was contributing some postage stamps he just stolen from the monastery office. Even after Amiri moved uptown to do the Black Arts movement in Harlem, he and folk would come by my place to use the mimeograph machine for their paper, In Formation.

The Poets Press, which consisted at first of just of an offset press in a $40/month store front, began because 12 Abstract Expressionists whom I phoned each pitched in to buy the $1200 (astronomical figure in those days) Fairchild Davidson and one week of lessons for me. The press did first books of Audre Lode, Herbert Huncke, David Henderson, Clive Matson, and many others. I remember that sculptor Richard Lippold who liked to remain anonymous would have us station a member of our troupe in front of Gem Spa so that he could come by in a taxi and stick his hand out the window with an envelope in it with cash to keep the theatre going.

When I left NYC I lived for six months at Timothy Leary's community at Millbrook New York. Tim's idea was to gather a LOT of creative people in one place, provide whatever they required and a lot of psychedelics, and see what happened. He'd get huge sums for going on the road, and when he left on a trip we'd be told essentially, sign my name to any contracts that come in, deposit any checks that come in, and here's the checkbook for whatever you guys need.

When I came west for good in 1968, I was coming to commune heaven. I came because I had fallen in love with San Francisco in 61 when I first came to visit Michael McClure; I came because I had begun to study with Shunryu Suzuki in 62, at Sokokuji on Bush Street and craved a practice community (sangha); I came to join in with the Diggers and put my shoulder to the wheel. By various forms of wheeling and dealing I had moved 14 grownups (so-called) and all our children typewriters dogs and rifles to the San Francisco. Our house at 1915 Oak Street held on average about 14 of us not counting the kids or the people crashing in the dining room on sheepskins. We were responsible for delivering the free food three times a week, in my VW bus which I'd acquired by means I won't go into here, just before we all left NY. Two times a week we delivered vegetables to 25 communes and two free stores. One time a week we delivered fish. BUT the food was donated by very upstanding merchants and citizens. . .

There was the Free Bank, which various people held. We were in charge of it for a while. It was a shoe box which sat on our refrigerator. People—rock musicians, dope dealers, and others--would come by and put their excess money in and others would come by and take money out as needed. No one kept books and it ran for almost a year, before the cash requirements of some folks' various addictions caused it to die of exhaustion.

When my mother came west to visit me in Marshall (population 50, elevation 15 feet) in 1974, she told me a story. I was born in 1934 in the worst year of the Depression. My father was still making something like $10-12 a week, as a beginning lawyer. He had put himself through law school by working as a janitor. Mom told me that in those years of the Depression he gave a chunk of the food budget to his mother—his parents had a small apartment on Butler St. not for from us—and she and dad and baby me would join his family for dinner every night, to stretch the dollars; feed more people. This was shameful in her eyes—something about the American ideal of independence, but to me it was a story of resourcefulness and common sense. I'm telling it now, because it seems utterly relevant to our present circumstance.

The point of this rambling talk is the power of COMMUNITY. I remember Mr. Natural used to say "Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope." Nowadays the Un-Phun Party has been in power so long that we have neither. But COMMUNITY will get us through times of no dope and no money. And a whole lot more.

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