City Lights 1961
Going there for the first time
it was so much smaller then
that crowded downstairs full of poetry
racks of tattered little mags against the wall
those rickety white tables where folks sat reading/writing
Vesuvio’s was like an adjunct office
Arriving again a year later, two kids in tow
Lawrence gave me a huge stack of his publications
“I’ve got books” he said “like other people have mice”
And North Beach never stopped being mysterious
when I moved out here in 1968
that publishing office on Filbert & Grant was a mecca
a place to meet up with my kids if we got separated
during one of those innumerable demonstrations
(tho Lawrence worried, told me I shd keep them
out of harm’s way, at home) I thought they shd learn
whatever it was we were learning—
Office right around the corner from the bead store
where I found myself daily, picking up supplies
How many late nights did we haunt the Store
buying scads of new poems from all corners of the earth
then head to the all-night Tower Records full of drag queens
& revolutionaries, to get a few songs
And dig it, City Lights still here, like some old lighthouse
though all the rest is gone,
the poetry’s moved upstairs, the publishing office
right there now too & crowds of people
one third my age or less still haunt the stacks
seeking out voices from all quarters
of the globe
From The Poetry Deal (City Lights Books, 2014) by Diane di Prima. Copyright © 2014 Diane di Prima. All rights reserved.
Diane di Prima
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 has authored more than thirty collections of poetry, as well as plays, short stories, novels, nonfiction, and more. She has 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.
Di Prima now lives in San Francisco, where she continues to write and teach.
The Poetry Deal (City Lights Publishers, 2014)
Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (City Lights Publishers, 1990)
Loba: Parts I-VIII (Wingbow Press, 1978)
Selected Poems: 1956-1976 (North Atlantic Books, 1977)
Poems for Freddie (Eidolon Editions, 1974)
Revolutionary Letters (City Lights Publishers, 1971)
The Book of Hours (Brownstone Press, 1970)
Earthsongs: Poems, 1957-1959 (Poets Press, 1968)
This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (Totem Press, 1958)
Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (Viking, 2001)
Memoirs of a Beatnik (Olympia Press, 1969)
Date Published: 2014-11-11
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/city-lights-1961