“Whose Eyes Shall Bless Now the Truth of My Pain?”: Recovering Diane di Prima’s Feminist Rhetoric
Author(s): C.C. Hendricks
C.C. Hendricks is an Assistant Professor and Director of First-Year Writing in the Communication Arts & Sciences department and core faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies department at the University of New Hampshire. She is a mom and feminist rhetorician. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in composition, English education, and professional and technical writing. Her work has appeared in Across the Disciplines and The WAC Journal.
Abstract: In this article, the author argues for Beat poet and activist Diane di Prima’s recovery as a feminist rhetor. Drawing from feminist historiography, the author analyzes di Prima’s published memoirs, poems, personal correspondence, and unpublished manuscripts. From this analysis, the author identifies di Prima’s feminist rhetorical strategies, most predominantly her use of critical subjectivity to resist patriarchal and heteronormative gender conventions of the 1950s and 1960s. The author also briefly explores di Prima’s circulation of feminist rhetoric. The article concludes by articulating the contributions of di Prima’s recovery to feminist rhetorical studies and Beat history.Tags: Recovery; feminist rhetoric; feminist historiography; archival research; critical subjectivity; memoir
I slipped out of my daze in time to hear, “We’re closing in fifteen minutes.” Staring at the now-black screen, I tried to recall what induced this trance, but it wasn’t until I had made my way back on the highway that I remembered. Over the previous eight hours in the archive, I developed a robotic rhythm, flipping through documents, taking pictures, and making notes. Suddenly, I was painfully aware of how intrusive it felt to thumb through someone’s personal effects for my scholarly purposes. I pulled into my driveway with the same feeling of lost time, as the three-hour drive seemed a blur. This feeling lingered, as the research I collected from the archive sat untouched for years, until now.
I was first drawn to the Beat writers in my early twenties. As I read Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, I recurrently asked myself: where are the women? Years later, in a master’s course in feminist rhetorics, I began to pursue this question in earnest.
Italian American poet, painter, and activist Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934 and was the granddaughter of Italian immigrants and well-known anarchist, Domenico Mallozzi (“Diane di Prima”). di Prima dropped out of Swarthmore College to pursue writing. Shortly after, she began performing her poetry within a bohemian community of writers, artists, and activists in Greenwich Village, which included well-known Beat authors. The mother of five children, she wrote two memoirs and over thirty poetry collections. Some of her most renowned works include This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958), Dinners and Nightmares (1961), Revolutionary Letters (1971), Loba (1978), and Pieces of a Song (1990). Before relocating to San Francisco in 1968, di Prima co-founded the New York Poets Theatre, a newsletter called The Floating Bear, and the Poets Press, which published Audre Lorde’s premier volume, The First Cities (1968). di Prima taught creative writing at the New College of California, California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco Art Institute, California Institute of Integral Studies, and co-founded the Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Politics. di Prima worked as a mixed-media artist since the 1960s and had several solo art shows in California (“Diane di Prima”). She also studied Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, which exert a palpable influence over her work in the 1970s and 80s. di Prima died on October 25th, 2020, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease and Sjogren’s Syndrome (Genzlinger).
Poet and novelist Daniella Gioseffi best captures the singular and multifaceted nature of di Prima’s work, describing her as:
a learned humorous bohemian, classically educated, and twentieth-century radical, [whose] writing, informed by Buddhist equanimity, is exemplary in imagist, political, and mystical modes. A great woman poet in [the] second half of American century, she broke barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity. (308)
Working across genres, di Prima offers readers critical narratives of her and other women’s experiences that model alternative ways of being for the marginalized.
As a reader, I was taken with di Prima’s mobilization of memory and reflection towards an unapologetic critique of gender and sexual norms. Yet, as I began pursuing a doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition, I was once again frustrated by her absence from feminist rhetorical canons. Galvanized by this frustration, I set out to recover her work.
The narrative that begins this article recalls my first experience with archival research in the Diane Di Prima Papers collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014. This first trip left me victim to archive fever (Ramsey et al. 3). Overwhelmed by the materials and my feelings, I found it “difficult to envision a project out of ‘the lot’” (Ramsey et al. 3). Since then, I have visited di Prima’s papers in the Syracuse University special collections and completed several graduate seminar papers and conference presentations on her work. Yet, I remained reluctant to publish, as my archive fever lingered. I continued to work on this article sporadically over my doctoral studies but still never felt right about submitting it for publication. With di Prima’s recent passing, the feelings I experienced years ago in the archives resurfaced. The sense of responsibility that once gave me pause now fueled my resolve to share how her work had sparked my love for feminist rhetoric.
In this article, I recover di Prima as a feminist rhetor and argue for her recognition in the field. When recognized in historical accounts of the Beat literary movement, women are often relegated to flat characterizations of the wife, girlfriend, or lover of their male counterparts. However, many of the male Beat authors’ spouses were prolific and published writers, including Hettie Jones, Carolyn Cassady, Joanne Kyger, and Joyce Johnson. The recovery of women Beat authors is a rich, decades-long literary project (e.g., Carden, Women Writers; Knight; Grace and Johnson). However, these women, and di Prima, have yet to be recognized as feminist rhetors.
To begin this work, I analyze di Prima’s feminist rhetorical strategies: her critical subjectivity, critique of patriarchal gender roles, subversion of sexual norms, and circulation of feminist rhetoric. I analyze these strategies as evidence of di Prima’s feminist rhetoric to support my argument for her recognition in the field. I do not subscribe to a static definition of feminist rhetoric. Instead, common characteristics and themes of feminist rhetoric, as recognized by scholars in the field, inform my identification and analysis of these particular strategies. I use the term, critical subjectivity, for instance, to capture di Prima’s use of her own narrative to critique patriarchal and heteronormative structures. This strategy resonates with Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie’s characterization of feminist rhetoric as “challeng[ing] dominant epistemologies” and “assert[ing] new topoi/contexts from which to argue” (11). In addition, the field has long recognized the power of autobiography and storytelling as modes of critique, and more broadly, the subjective as a vehicle for feminist rhetors to enact agency. For instance, Jacqueline Jones Royster cites how African American women rhetors of the nineteenth century employed the subjective form of essay writing (31). Through storytelling and reflection, di Prima amplifies previously neglected voices, expressions, and representations. In this way, her narrative serves as a catalyst to shock, intrigue, and seduce readers into considering an alternative history of the Beats.
I draw from feminist rhetorical methodologies of recovery and regendering (Glenn, Rhetoric Retold; Ratcliffe; Lunsford) to analyze her published memoirs and poems, personal correspondence, and unpublished manuscripts. Informed by the greater move within feminist historiography to broaden the notion of the archive (i.e., Gaillett; Glenn and Enoch; Kirsch and Rohan; Morris and Rawson), I analyze artifacts that traverse traditional categorizations of genre, audience, and authorship. In a 2013 letter included in the SU archive, di Prima articulates the value of engaging with archival material that defies neat categorization:
These journals are each an “art work” in and of themselves…. at the time that I began them, I conceived of them as an entirely different form of journal: one where I would experiment a lot more with images, and where I would abandon the recording of the daily event …. I would want to guarantee access to this archive to myself, my children and grandchildren (so much of their history is in it), and of course to scholars. (di Prima, Letter)
She positions her work, even the most personal of her writing, as worthy of scholarly study and circulation. In doing so, di Prima directly recognizes the rhetorical significance and power of her subjectivity.
I intersperse reflections on my archival experiences throughout this analysis to evoke the many interruptions of my nebulous, years-long writing process. In doing so, I aim to reciprocate di Prima’s vulnerability and honesty in sharing her thoughts, feelings, desires, and failures. My reflections help me to center my interpretive power (Royster 281) and reflect the complicated affective processes of this project.
In recovering di Prima’s feminist rhetoric, I contribute to an ongoing “transform[ation of] the discipline of rhetoric through gender analysis, critique, and reformulation” (Buchanan and Ryan xiii). This recovery broadens the history and resonance of Beat literature, while also offering a methodology for recovering the often-neglected rhetorical contributions of women to other literary and social movements. Most importantly, this project contributes to the longstanding tradition of feminist historiography in the field, as it works to expand and complicate what we identify as feminist rhetoric. Recovering di Prima’s feminist rhetoric also builds upon previous scholars’ calls to expand, complicate, and disrupt how we study and canonize feminist rhetors (i.e., Hallenbeck; Ratcliffe; Rawson). As such, this work helps us to reflect on how we can reflexively avoid canonization and citational practices that reify the very exclusion the field was founded on resisting.
I return to the archival materials I collected years ago and old feelings of paralysis flood back. With frustration, I ask myself why I should pursue this project and who I am serving with this work. Around this time, I find an unpublished, undated poem in one of di Prima’s journals, titled “Bohemia,” in which she writes: “Whose eyes shall bless now the truth of my pain? They are fled who could bear witness to my tale, their blundering time to another.” I continue searching and reading with lots of questions and a renewed energy.
di Prima rejected the patriarchal norms of both the 1950s milieu and a male-dominated literary community. She shares her narrative and critically reflects on her experiences to engage in feminist critique. As opposed to the male-authored representations of women common in popular Beat literature, di Prima offers readers a transparent representation of a woman writer’s struggle to love, live, and work within oppressive structures. Her feminist resistance is most evident in her enactment of a critical subjectivity, in which her (and her characters’) experiences act as parodies, reflections, and criticisms of oppressive norms. In identifying her critical subjectivity as a feminist rhetorical strategy, I draw from Laura Micciche’s definition of feminist critique as “question[ing] what passes as ordinary, often as a cover for maintaining the assumed value of intellectual inheritance, in order to unsettle the ground upon which norms hold sway” (176). di Prima shares the material realities of her own marginalization and reflects on her internalization of patriarchal systems to indict their repression of women’s lived experiences. di Prima’s feminist critique originates from her experiences and is enacted through sharing them unabashedly, even (and especially when) they exist outside of decorum, norms, and, in some cases, legality. di Prima offers readers alternatives to these norms, modeling pathways to agency, expression, and self-determination not afforded to women in the same frequency or breadth as their male peers.
In her memoir, Recollections of My Life As a Woman (2001), di Prima shares stories, memories, and journal entries from throughout her life to chronicle her journey of self-discovery. Throughout these stories, she reflects on her successes and failures in finding her voice. After characterizing the adult relationships she grew up around with a series of vignettes, she articulates the broader agency and social critique that her reflection affords:
It is power I am talking about now, no right and wrong. No cloudy issues of “neglect” or passion. Simply, who held the power in our lives? How did we speak with them, how did they treat us? A pluralism. There are bonds and groupings of power, within each group a kind of hierarchy, never spoken but fully acknowledged. And then there were different groupings, separate and more or less equal. Ward politics. The Church. City Hall. The cops. International relations I learned in the kitchen. (Recollections 57)
di Prima identifies the implications of the messages women receive about love, power, and relationships in the home. She draws attention to the processes by which women internalize family power dynamics. For instance, when questioning why she relented to pressures to have an abortion, she asks: “What could I expect? Had I ever seen a woman treated well? Treated as she should be? Not in my home, certainly, not among my parents, or their relatives, or their friends. Not among my own friends, in their various modes of coupling. No room to speak truth. For the woman to speak her truth and be heard. And be safe” (Recollections 237). di Prima centers her own narrative within a broader indictment of systemic inequality. Her feminist rhetoric encourages us to reflect on the power dynamics in which we were raised as a strategy for recognizing and fighting against the oppressive power structures of social and cultural institutions.
di Prima enacts a critical subjectivity that “places material experience…at the center of knowledge formation” (Ronald and Ritchie 11). For instance, di Prima reflects on her own experiences with marriage and polyamorous relationships to criticize the patriarchal institution of marriage. She describes her marriage as a “contractual marriage” she was forced to agree to out of necessity (Recollections 336). She reflects on the sacrifices she made to conform to the wife role:
I had figured into that equation some acknowledgement of the freedoms I’d given up. Some respect for the woman/artist I was, and some gratitude for coming to meet this man halfway. None of these things was forthcoming, and I knew better than to feel sorry for myself. I had hardly been married two months before I knew I had made a mistake—shouldn’t have gotten into this at all. (di Prima, Recollections 336)
In these realizations, di Prima claims an agency not afforded to her in the moments she reflects on. She offers readers of the day a rare glimpse into the processes by which patriarchy becomes ingrained in women’s lives, hearts, and minds.
Her memories serve as conduits for her feminist resistance. This is a common characteristic of feminist rhetoric, in that “knowledge based in the personal, in lived experience, [is] valued and accepted as important and significant” (Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford 59). di Prima’s narrative is in itself a feminist rhetorical strategy, in that she uses it to intervene within normative narratives of womanhood and the nuclear family. In an analysis of di Prima’s memoirs, Roseanne Quinn identifies her most important feminist act as “dar[ing] to write about herself in the first place” (176). Upon reading the book, critic Grace Paley described Recollections as “about a woman who really retained her own powers, a woman determined to live the way she wanted to live—and that was it” (qtd. in di Prima, Recollections, “Praise for Recollections of My Life as a Woman”). As feminist rhetorical scholars have long acknowledged, for women rhetors, the act of self-expression is an act of resistance. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell describes feminist rhetoric as a “process of persuading listeners that they can act effectively in the world” (86). di Prima employs her subjective experience to claim a self-authored identity and way of being free from the patriarchal and heteronormative gender constructs of the 1950s and ’60s.
For example, di Prima ruminates on her decision to defy dominant beauty standards and expectations of femininity. She cites her sexual and creative exploration as enabling her to identify and resist society’s attempts to regulate her voice and body. She writes:
It was about this time I made what I thought of as my decision not to be beautiful…. I had watched the burden that beauty was for the women and girls around me…. Watched how they were watched, both by friends and lovers, so that they were not seen, not truly presences, but the painting, movie, statue of someone’s dreams. A piece of the furnishings…. no matter how truly they were loved, there were truly never loved. (Recollections 114-15)
In writing through her experiences and observations, di Prima offers a broader critique of the male gaze and how it impacts every aspect of women’s lives. She draws attention to this issue while also modeling strategies for enacting self-authored beauty standards. This critical subjectivity is also evident in her reflections on becoming a mother. di Prima builds upon her own struggles with balancing the demands of motherhood and work to indict the lack of support available to working and single mothers: “The woman who is charged with manslaughter when she leaves her child alone to go to work, to go to the store or the doctor and the house burns down, is doing what she has done a thousand times before, what she has had to do, in a world, a society that leaves her no options. I saw this now. It was the beginning, for me, of a new kind of radicalization” (Recollections 178). In both examples, di Prima uses her experiences as a platform for feminist critique of the social and political structures that stifle women’s agency. This theme of the impossible choice with which women are presented—to conform and surrender autonomy or to resist and be alienated from the power structures that often determine women’s well-being and success—recurs throughout di Prima’s work and illustrates her engagement with critical subjectivity as a feminist rhetorical strategy.
Within the first few scenes of Recollections, she articulates the feminist motivations of her work: “I write this book to try to understand what messages I got about being a woman. What that is. How to do it. Or get through it. Or bear it. Or sparkle like ice underfoot” (26-7). di Prima recognizes her personal experience as a vehicle for feminist critique and rhetorical agency. She dwells in her subjectivity as space for critical thought, and potentially social action. In their foundational essay, Lisa Ede, Cheryl Glenn, and Andrea Lunsford identify the mobilization of memory towards critique as a characteristic of feminist rhetoric:
From a feminist vantage point, however, it is impossible to take the subjectivity of the rhetor for granted, impossible not to locate that subjectivity within the larger context of personal, social, economic, cultural, and ideological forces, impossible not to notice not only the context itself, but also who is absent from this context as well as what exclusionary forces are at work there. (59)
Similarly, di Prima’s work centers her subjectivity as her primary rhetorical strategy for engaging in feminist critique. By sharing her experiences trying to reconcile what it means to be a woman, what is expected of her, and how she can thwart such expectations, di Prima locates a pathway to agency.
Rewriting Patriarchal Gender Roles
If di Prima has taught me anything, it’s that things are always more complex than they seem. Every time I think I have a certain claim, I read something that contradicts it. My impulse is frustration, but I realize how pompous that is. This impulse becomes something I must remember to store in the locker with my other belongings before entering the archives.
di Prima’s feminist rhetoric constellates around her reflections on her development as a woman and the obstacles she faced in shedding the expectations of femininity and submissiveness ingrained in her as a child. In Recollections, she writes:
Part of the bind was/is that it is “wrong” for women to control. To try to control, though the instinct is biological. To get a little peace. “Don’t be teacheretical” my parents would say. “You want everything your way.” When I got older, what I heard from lovers, was that I was a controlling or castrating bitch. But—the assault was universal and ceaseless. You would have had to be dead not to try to stop it for a minute. (di Prima 41)
di Prima describes her experiences fighting against the common stereotypes often ascribed to strong, outspoken women. She offers a glimpse into the complicated and impossible choices women are faced with when fighting to write their own narratives. A key element of di Prima’s expose of the material realities of women’s inescapable “bind” is her subversion of the dutiful wife role women were largely expected to fill in the 1950s and ’60s.
As established, di Prima rejected the patriarchal institution of marriage, positing the wife role as stifling and inauthentic to true agency (Mortenson 36). She channels the Beat individualism and her own narrative to depict women as more than merely an extension of their male counterparts. Characterizing marriage as a mechanism of the patriarchy, di Prima narrativizes the material and affective experiences of women subjected to oppressive gender roles in her poem, “City Winter” (1975). She describes marriage as a jail cell:
I know I am trapped here
in my high, little room
behind the shadow of my husband
and his lovers
taking their ease in the front room
playing the phonograph
I am held here by the shouts of the children
the baby. (192)
As the narrator, di Prima assumes the wife role, describing her prison to the reader in first person. She breaks the illusions of domestic bliss with which marriage is often colored in the 1950s and ’60s. She pushes readers to experience the narrator’s feelings, mobilizing affect into feminist critique.
In “Learn to Drive Blues” (1975), di Prima criticizes normative expectations of the wife’s role in a more upbeat and playful tone. As the narrator, she embodies a female character who refuses to be subservient to her husband; a character that encourages other women to also avoid the oppressive nature of unequal marriages. She talks directly to the reader, “Well, if you ever get an old man who won’t let you sing & shout / Baby then you’ll find out, just what the blues is all about / Well, I love you babe, but I ain’t gonna sell my soul” (303). In addition to highlighting the consequences of domesticity, she showcases women characters who refuse to relent and live within the constraints of gender norms. In both poems, and across her work, di Prima crafts an alternative to conventional marriage, one in which the woman can both love and be loved, can be both a loving partner and a self-determined woman.
A central characteristic of di Prima’s feminist rhetoric is the complexity with which she frames this alternative. In addition to imagining women characters that both do and do not resist patriarchal subjugation, di Prima shares memories of real women living and loving alternatively. After reflecting on the problematic messages she received about women’s power growing up, she points to women she met once leaving home as models for the autonomous lifestyle she longed for and later actualized. In the introductory scenes of Recollections, she reflects on what those women meant to her:
I thought of deep gratitude of some of the women I met when I first left home at the age of eighteen: those beautiful, soft, and strong women of middle age with their young daughters who made me welcome in their various homes…. These women, by now mostly dead I suppose, were great pioneers. They are nameless to me, nameless and brief friends I encountered along the way who showed me something else was possible besides what I had seen at home. (di Prima 5)
Later in the memoir, she refers to these women as those who “didn’t dream of marriage, or a dinette set, [who] gave their love where they wished, with no hidden agenda” (Recollections 265). Throughout her critique of marriage, and more broadly of restrictive gender roles, di Prima does not prescribe to one representation of what agency or empowerment looks like. In this, she continues to enact the feminist rhetorical agenda to revise normative narratives of women’s lived experiences.
Authentic/Alternative Sexual Representations
One of the most recognized aspects of di Prima’s feminist critique is her celebration of alternative sexualities. In writing about sex with the same abandon as the male Beats, di Prima rebels against the post-WWII generation’s grief and preoccupation with the nuclear family. Her sexual experiences afford her an outlet for self-authored agency. di Prima’s disruptive style is palpable in her poem, “To the Patriarchs” (1971), in which she personifies female sexuality as a wrathful, goddess-like entity who threatens the reader:
haven & fort
place where I stand
& from which I fight
My cunt a bomb exploding
yr Christian conscience
The shock waves of my pleasure
all future shock forever. (317)
di Prima uses her sexuality to shock readers. She repurposes the mysterious and sometimes dangerous representations of women’s sexuality as a source of revision and empowerment. In the world she creates, a woman’s sexuality is generative and galvanizing, rather than dangerous or submissive.
Similarly, in Recollections, di Prima shares her homosexual and polyamorous experiences as a social commentary on the oppressive systems that prevented her and her peers from expressing their authentic sexual identities. She blends her memories with social critique that reminds the reader of the inherent risks she and her peers endured to live and love freely. In fact, she explicitly recognizes her alternative lifestyle as a broader act of resistance to the status quo, writing:
…there was no reason, per se, to obey the laws of the land. We simply assumed we were being lied to again. The laws of the land were a hodgepodge of prejudice, fear, and bigotry. That much was clear. Homosexuality was illegal. It was illegal in many states to experiment in your own bed with your own ‘legal’ partner…. The dance we had all performed to keep parents and the law from ganging up on us when we were teenagers had not been lost on us. Nor had we forgotten the many friends who had disappeared: madhouses, deportation. (Recollections 203)
She acknowledges her writing as a critical rhetorical act that exposes the material realities of sexist and heteronormative logics. In contextualizing her rebellion, di Prima employs her feminist critique to “(re)write the past and the present…[and] to draw attention to gendered actions, biases and assumptions as well as the accompanying inequities of power” (Ratcliffe 7). Her seemingly personal narratives, in this way, become outlets for a political consciousness that gives way to feminist critique.
di Prima’s resistance to dominant characterizations of a woman’s sexuality as dangerous or perverse is most evident in her erotic memoir, Memoirs of a Beatnik. She begins Memoirs by reflecting on her first time having intercourse as a sort of awakening, as she “enter[ed] the world of the living” (22). In the remainder of the book, she describes her sexual experiences with men and women over the course of a year while living in the “pad,” a commune living-style apartment in New York City. An intertextual mix of memory and fiction, Memoirs defies genre conventions (Carden, “‘What You”). di Prima plays with fact and fiction to deconstruct and circumvent readers’ expectations of how a woman should write about sex. In other words, she mobilizes the stereotype of promiscuity often associated with women like her to enact her rhetorical agency. di Prima’s explicit language and style “violate oppressive conventions of the feminine,” which dictated that “conventional women, good girls, are not supposed to hear or speak these words” (Johnson 103). In both the content and form of Memoirs, she blurs normative boundaries between the public and private, enacting a feminist rhetoric that reflects “the material embodiment of the relationships among self, text, and world” (Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford 64). Considering the common stigmatization of women’s sexuality at the time, narrating sex from a woman’s perspective was—and still is—a feminist rhetorical act. Roseanne Quinn recognizes this, identifying Memoirs as “an early example from the women’s movement of…a sex-positive narrative” (189). di Prima goes beyond just talking about sex from a woman’s perspective to use her critical subjectivity to reveal and indict the patriarchal systems that repress women’s nonheteronormative sexual expressions.
In reflecting on her time at the “pad,” she lists the benefits of her polyamorous approach to sex and love: “light and freedom, air and laughter, the outside world—outside of the stuffy incestuous atmosphere of her ‘family life’…. laughter, the silliness and glee unscrutinized, one’s blood running strong and red in ones’ own veins, not drawn to feed the uneradicable grief of the preceding generation” (di Prima, Memoirs 72). di Prima posits sexual freedom as a conduit for her agency, much like many women’s liberation rhetorics at the time. Feminist critic Estelle Freedman notes that during this time, “explorations of female passion proliferated as feminists attempted to redefine sexual empowerment” (xvii-iii). She claims her autonomy as a woman in control of her alternative sexuality. Furthermore, di Prima presents sexual liberation as an exercise in collective resistance, a unity in difference, in a refusal to love according to social prescriptions. Her representation of a woman’s self-determined sexuality is a cornerstone of her feminist rhetoric. In fact, she has often been identified as one of the “heroic precursors” of the women’s liberation movement (Libby 46). Sharing realistic representations of a woman’s sexuality enabled di Prima to both critique sexual norms and carve a place for feminist rhetorical elements within male centric Beat literature. By bringing her own sexuality and sexual experiences to the forefront, di Prima espouses a feminist rhetoric that is meant to disrupt social conventions that portray female sexuality as bad, dirty, or wrong. She positions herself as a woman who possesses “an actual body, with body parts, and bodily functions and pleasures” (Quinn 178-179). In claiming her own “sexual power,” di Prima exposes readers to depictions of women as sexual beings (Memoirs 33). She flips the tropes common in male-authored sex scenes to center a woman’s affective experience and control.
In claiming a space for her own sexual expression, di Prima also draws attention to the biased nature with which women’s sexually explicit work is received. Memoirs was poorly received and branded as vulgar upon its initial release because of its explicit content and style. Unlike the sexually explicit, male-authored Beat novels, di Prima received much criticism for Memoirs. Some criticized the book as “pornographic” and as having “too many sex scenes” (McNamara qtd. in Dumaine). One reviewer cited the openness of di Prima’s sexual expression to invalidate feminist movements of the time. For instance, literary critic Steve Haines wrote, “If you read it, you’ll probably wonder if most of the members of the Women’s Liberation Movement would really like to be as uninhibited as Diane di Prima” (qtd. in Dumaine). One of the most common responses to Memoirs was criticism of di Prima’s fictionalization of sexual scenes and partners (Carden, “‘What You”), something she makes explicit in the book with section titles like, “A Night by the Fire: What You Would Like to Hear” (148) followed by “A Night by the Fire: What Actually Happened” (150). While male Beat authors, like Kerouac, were praised for their blending of memory and fiction, di Prima’s credibility and perspective were questioned for employing the same artistic freedoms. Her male lovers are objects of her desire and in her dominance over them, she counters male-authored representations of women’s sexuality. Literary critic, Michael Davidson describes di Prima’s confrontational style as “appropriating the coercive rhetoric of the masculine tradition and using it against itself” (qtd. in Charters 359). di Prima uses her disruptive style as a feminist rhetorical strategy (Campbell; Ede, Glenn, Lunsford) to chronicle her affective journey to sexual liberation. By sharing this journey, her narrative communicates the potential for fulfillment through alternative and self-determined sexualities that fall outside of accepted norms. The Beat movement is often associated with sexual freedom and the defiance of gender norms. Yet, di Prima’s work—and its reception—highlights the one-dimensional, and often misogynistic, representation of sexual expression within its canon.
Embracing the multiplicity of experience that feminist rhetoric affords, di Prima depicts her path to self-awareness through sex as a complicated process punctuated with moments of uncertainty. She shares experiences in which she succumbed to unwanted sexual advances and relented to the sexual roles to which her male lovers expected her to conform. di Prima describes her sexuality as simultaneously empowering and objectifying. For example, interwoven within free sex vignettes, she describes being sexually assaulted:
But he was too quick, and caught me around the waist at the same time jerking my pants, which he had unzipped while I was sleeping, down around my legs. I struggled silently to free myself, all the time thinking unbelievingly that this was rape, that I was about to be raped… And my fear and horror seemed ridiculous. This was Serge…who never got to screw his wife, and if he wanted to throw a fuck into me, why I might as well let him…. Anyway, it didn’t seem that I had much choice. (Memoirs 68)
In sharing this experience, di Prima resists creating her own tropes of sexual freedom removed from gendered power dynamics. She reminds the reader that, even within this alternative and open atmosphere she and her peers build together at the “pad,” sexual violence and women’s subjugation is ever present. Later in Memoirs, she reflects on how the patriarchy bled into even the most alternative of her relationships. While in a polyamorous relationship with two men, di Prima finds herself relegated to normative gender roles: “I lost myself in my new-found woman’s role, the position defined and revealed by my sex: the baking and mending, the mothering and fucking, the girls’ parts in the plays—and I was content. But slowly, imperceptibly, the days began to shorten, the grass turned brown” (Memoirs 110). Unsure at the time what caused her malaise, di Prima reclaims an agency in this reflection, as she narrates the constant struggle to resist gender norms. She reminds us that resistance to patriarchy and heteronormativity is a recursive and complex process.
Throughout Memoirs, di Prima interweaves asides and social critiques between erotic scenes. She breaks narration with the section titled, “Fuck the Pill: A Digression,” in which she criticizes the common perception of the birth control pill as granting women sexual freedom. Contradicting many feminists at the time, she describes the pill as another impossible choice with which sexually active women are faced. Sharing her and her women friends’ experiences with the hormonal effects of the pill, including a reduced libido, di Prima identifies it as another tool of control over women’s sexuality. As she puts, the pill made “women who finally achieved the full freedom to fuck, much less likely to want to fuck” (di Prima, Memoirs 105). di Prima recenters the narrative of the pill through women’s lived experiences. In “Goodbye, ‘Post-pill Paradise:’ Texturing Feminist Public Memories of Women’s Reproductive and Rhetorical Agency,” Heather Adams analyzes “non-nuanced…retrospectives on the emergence of the pill,” calling for more complex histories of the pill authored by women (391). Adams identifies narratives like di Prima’s as “feminist interventions” that “trouble and texture remembrance to enrich feminism’s stories of agency and liberation” (411). di Prima counters dominant representations of the pill, therein contributing to a more multi-faceted representation of women’s sexuality. The complexity with which di Prima represents women’s sexual freedom is often overlooked in critical and scholarly receptions of Memoirs. The explicitness with which di Prima describes the erotic scenes is an important means by which she resists sexual norms and enacts rhetorical agency. However, her feminist rhetoric is most palpable in her representation of women’s sexual freedom as a perpetual negotiation between personal desire and societal expectations.
Through both her writing and participation in activist networks, di Prima engages circulation as a feminist rhetorical strategy to raise consciousness of women’s rhetorics and disseminate rhetorics of social change. A common theme across her work is the woman artist’s affective struggle for rhetorical agency. For example, in Recollections, she recalls an epiphany she experienced after taking part in a women’s writing retreat:
For the first time, I saw the chaos in the actual process manifesting, and I questioned whether indeed [the creative process] was “crazy” or only a particular part of our dilemma as women artists. If one persisted, what to do with the work? How to carve a niche for it, if one doesn’t have access to galleries, to publishing houses? How to make a place if one doesn’t speak the language of the critic? (di Prima 198)
Through kinship with fellow women writers, she achieves a critical subjectivity that she then mobilizes towards criticism of women’s exclusion from public platforms. She models a rhetorical agency and feminist resistance possible through subjective expression. She offers affective solidarity to fellow women and feminist rhetors (Hemmings, “Affective”), contributing to the social circulation of their work and writing processes (Royster and Kirsch).
Some of the most notable of this work includes her time with the Diggers, a group of activist artists that supported homeless youth in San Francisco (Fitzpatrick); her co-founding of the Poets Press, which published writers like Audre Lorde; and her engagement in Vietnam War protests (“In Memoriam”). From 1961-1971, di Prima served as co-editor of The Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka). The Bear was a newsletter that published editorials, socially critical poems, short stories, and more, and was shared with authors and activists selected by the editors. di Prima was arrested in 1961 on a “trafficking in obscene matter” charge after publishing Issue #9 of The Floating Bear, which contained homoerotic material. Issue #20 of The Floating Bear (1962) includes an editorial, in which di Prima and Jones reaffirm their decision to protect the homosexual identities of mailing list members when pressed by the FBI during trial (di Prima and Jones). Included in the SU archives is a 1961 press release authored by di Prima and Jones just after their arrest, in which they state:
It has long been the contention of artists and intellectuals that neither the government nor any of its agencies are qualified to judge what is literature or art and what is pornography…. [our case is] a defense of the artist’s sovereignty…. If The Bear loses this case, it is not fantastic to say that there will be repercussions throughout the literary world. It would be an ugly precedent that would affect not only an entire generation of writers just breaking into print, but a great many other writers whose works a rust now being published in this country because of older censorship laws. This must not happen. (Jones and di Prima)
di Prima commits to freedom of expression in both her writing and actions. She models rhetorical agency in her work while fighting for marginalized artists’ access to public platforms, furthering the circulation of feminist and social justice rhetorics. Her critique of censorship is also seen in a 1990 memo she wrote to the Interface Holistic Education Center, in which di Prima defends her women students’ writing and criticizes the institution’s harassment policy, which “forbode sexual language.” She writes: “Having myself grown up in a period where the refusal to sign a loyalty oath was an inflammatory matter, I find myself perhaps super-sensitive to this kind of thing…. But I find the list of verbally forbidden material to be somewhat inhibitory, and am certain I do not want to subject any students of mine to such considerations” (di Prima, Memo). In these examples, di Prima both engages in and defends feminist critique. As established, writing about alternative sexualities during this time was an act of feminist critique. In addition, di Prima calls out the structures that perpetuate—and the consequences of—the censorship of feminist rhetoric. These artifacts only begin to demonstrate di Prima’s participation in activist networks, as they do not capture her work in coalition building for a myriad of civil and equal rights issues throughout her lifetime. Yet, they serve as evidence of her engagement in feminist circulation, and her ethos as a feminist rhetor deserving of recovery and recognition.
With di Prima’s passing, the original frustration that fueled my recovery of her work burns hotter. Even with all she accomplished, she remains in the shadow of male authors. The first line of her New York Times obituary reads: “She traveled in the circles of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti” (Genzlinger). This infuriates me.
In concluding this article, old feelings of paralysis and doubt return, as I recall the many artifacts and claims I have not included. I overcome this feeling by thinking of the countless images from my time at the archives that wait patiently in a desktop folder for my return and the archives I have yet to visit. It goes without saying that a recovery project like this warrants much more than an article-length inquiry. di Prima’s reflection on her Italian American heritage, for instance, is a key element of her feminist critique that I do not adequately address in this article and that I hope to investigate further. For example, Quinn identifies the intersectional nature of di Prima’s work (Crenshaw): “The strength of di Prima’s voice is the way in which she persists in offering an ongoing feminist analysis of her sense of Italian American femaleness which began amid reaction to family, and was reinforced by both anti-Italian social sentiment and enduring patriarchal intrusion” (187). In this way, her work draws attention to the fact that a struggle against the patriarchy is also one against racism and white supremacy. In centering her Italian American heritage, di Prima complicates one-dimensional narratives of women’s lived experiences. More broadly, this project raises questions about other perspectives excluded from the Beat canon and the value in recovering their contributions to a widely celebrated and studied literary movement predicated on the appropriation of Black culture.
di Prima’s recovery as a feminist rhetor is important work. Yet, the contributions of this project go beyond recovery alone. For instance, di Prima’s unique blending of memory, fiction, and social commentary offer innovative lenses for studying genre-meshing social movement rhetorics. Her recovery also provides opportunities to reflect on who is and is not recognized in our rhetorical canons, contributing to what Charlotte Hogg describes as a “reflexivity and clarification as to what and whom we represent” (182). In Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Cheryl Glenn identifies the field of feminist rhetoric as in “a constate state of response, reassessment, and self-correction” (4). I contribute to this recursive enterprise by extrapolating di Prima’s feminist rhetorical strategies (Ratcliffe), which, in turn, expands the field’s definition of what feminist rhetoric is and the positionalities, histories, and epistemologies to which we subscribe.
My anger feels generative now; there is much work to be done.
di Prima’s last name is often capitalized and without spaces, DiPrima, as that is her family’s legal name. She adopted the lower case “di” and added a space to honor her Italian ancestry (Genzlinger).
 My use of the term circulation is most informed by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s concept of social circulation presented in Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies.
For instance, see Dworkin, Hemmings’ Why Stories Matter, and Segal. Also see feminist rhetorical studies that position memoir and autobiography as methodologies for expanding patriarchal, Eurocentric models of ethos (Foss and Foss, Reynolds, Ryan, Myers, and Jones’ Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric, and Richtie and Ronald’s Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s)). Queer rhetorical studies have also recognized memoir, autobiography, and narrative as vehicles of rhetorical agency (i.e., Bechdel, Cvetkovich, Muñoz, and Sedgewick).
 In Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Royster and Kirsch describe the process of “tacking in and out” as imperative when conducting ethical rhetorical studies. “Tacking out” encourages the researcher to take a step back from the work to “broaden…viewpoints in anticipation of what might become more visible from a longer or broader view” (72). I model this approach in the conclusion by identifying the areas I have not sufficiently covered in this article, how my research might evolve moving forward, and the contributions of my project to the field of feminist rhetorical studies and other disciplines.
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