Diane di Prima was born August 6, 1934, in Brooklyn, New York, the only daughter and eldest child of Francis and Emma di Prima.
Di Prima attended Hunter College High School in New York City, where she began writing. In 1951, she went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, but dropped out two years later to join the bohemian community in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where she became a member of the Beat movement and developed friendships with John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Denise Levertov, and Frank O’Hara, among others. She would later document her experiences with Beat culture in 1950s New York in her well-known—and controversial—Memoirs of a Beatnik (Penguin, 1969).
In 1958, di Prima published her first book of poetry, This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (Totem Press). Three years later, di Prima cofounded the New York Poets Theatre and became the coeditor of the mimeograph newsletter The Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). She remained the editor of the newsletter until 1969.
Di Prima, who frankly wrote about sexuality, feminism, class, and various aspects of the counterculture, was regularly targeted by the authorities for her radical content; in 1961, she was arrested by the FBI on the charge of publishing two allegedly obscene poems in The Floating Bear. The case was dismissed by a grand jury.
Ginsberg openly praised this same radical bent in di Prima’s work: “Diane di Prima, revolutionary activist of the 1960s Beat literary renaissance, heroic in life and poetics: a learned humorous bohemian, classically educated and twentieth-century radical, her writing, informed by Buddhist equanimity, is exemplary in imagist, political and mystical modes. … She broke barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity.”
In 1964, di Prima, along with her first husband Alan Marlowe, founded the Poets Press, which published books by David Henderson, Clive Matson, Herbert Huncke, and Audre Lorde, who had gone to high school with di Prima.
In 1968, di Prima moved to California, where she taught at the New College of California, California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco Art Institute, and California Institute of Integral Studies. She was also one of the poets seminal in the founding of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
Di Prima authored more than thirty collections of poetry, as well as plays, short stories, novels, nonfiction, and more. She received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her work has been translated into more than twenty languages. In 2009, she was named the poet laureate of San Francisco.
She died on October 25, 2020, in San Francisco.