Interview: Diane di Prima
So, an interesting, completely unverified anecdote I’ve heard is that more business partnerships fail than marriages, and given that marriages often fail about 50 percent of the time, that’s a pretty discouraging number. You had an interesting relationship with LeRoi Jones [now known as Amiri Baraka] when publishing The Floating Bear in the ‘60s, because you were both business partners and lovers.
We weren’t business partners because there wasn’t any money to be made. Nobody paid for it; you couldn’t buy it if you wanted to.
“Partners-in-crime” might be a better way to put it.
We were collaborators on an artistic project, is what you’d have to say — which is different than business partners.
I would think there’s that dynamic, though — the fact that you were creative partners, publishing together, it would seem that a bit of the business dynamic would exist.
I would disagree with you on that. The aim is completely different. If you know you want to make money, if there’s something in it for you, that’s one thing — there was nothing particular in it for either of us. It was, “Let’s get these guys’ work out.” I’m sure you’ve experienced that; you do that a lot.
Sometimes you disagree about what you think is good work — what we would do is we would trust the other one’s judgment. So if I liked something and Roi didn’t, it went in. If he liked something and I didn’t, it went in. It was usually “quid pro quo.” Most of it was an aesthetic that we both agreed on…sometimes, you know, I’d think, Oh, this is a little too dry and macho for my tastes. But I wouldn’t even say that; I’d say, “Oh, okay.” I would trust that his aesthetic was sound, because I’d known it long enough, and vice versa. Since we had nothing to lose–
And nothing really to gain, either.
–and nothing to gain, so that I don’t know that it was that kind of dynamic.
Well, my main question is what do you find more difficult: maintaining a civil partnership in love, or in creative collaborations?
Creative collaborations are never a problem. Neither are — for me — relationships, because when they don’t work, you stop — unless you have a very clear reason why it’s important to keep going.
You have a very pragmatic, cut-and-dry approach to both.
Yeah. I’ve been with Sheppard Powell for 31 years. Again, it works by trusting each other. If one of us only wants to eat yogurt for two months and the other misses hot meals, the other either cooks or goes out and has a hot meal! It’s the same with everything else — one of us is very messy, and the other one is very neat. You know, it spills over — one of us gets a little messier, the gets a little neater. If the relationship at its core is working, why would these things be a problem? They’re just things. It’s just the superficialities of daily life. Nobody that I’ve ever been with, [never] have we ever been concerned about money — not that we have any — but I’ve never been unable to find shelter and a meal. So I don’t worry! I think a lot of the relationship “stuff” that doesn’t work comes around the issues of money and time, because these become power issues for the other one.
If you’re doing an artistic collaboration, you’re doing it for the joy of it. If there’s not joy, stop! If you’re in a relationship, you’re doing it for the love and for the joy of it — and, sometimes there is a practical [element] there, like if you have a kid together. You stay as long as it seems to be necessary — which is really never as long as most people seem to think it is…
What sparked me to ask that question in the first place is twofold — one, pulling from my own experiences in publishing Verbicide, where some collaborations just don’t seem to work out — there can be power struggles–
Power struggles in the sense of what gets published?
In the sense of what gets published, artwork, overall vision and direction — there can be jealousy over who gets credit for certain things–
See, I’ve never crossed paths with that stuff — I don’t know where I would’ve run into it…in the theater, when I had a theater, no. That just didn’t happen.
Well, you stated in Recollections, for instance, that it was “uncool” in your youth to feel romantic jealousy, but there seemed to be a hint of jealousy in terms of LeRoi getting more credit for The Floating Bear than you.
No, there wasn’t; that was years and years later that it even occurred to me that I did all the work — ha ha! (laughter) I’m putting that out there for a good reason; I’m putting it out there so young women who are thinking they’re liberated take a good look at their situation. I didn’t really mind doing all the work; I was home. He was out. I had a kid — not his, but I had a kid and I was home. I had time and I love to type. Unfortunately, it has made me have incredible arthritis at the age of 75 in my thumbs, but what can I do? I might’ve gotten that even if I didn’t type!
But there was none of that then at all, and when there was jealousy it was kind of a “communal jealousy.” I’ll give you an example: when I was married to my youngest kid’s dad, he was having an affair with a woman who became, consequently, one of my very best friends. And we would go to the baths together, she and I, every Sunday morning, leaving him with the kids. We would giggle for hours about the faux pas he made, in and out of bed. Like, one time he stopped by her door and rang the bell on the way home from my house, and he made this stupid remark: “Did you know that your house is exactly halfway between the bar and Diane’s?” Well, that gave us hours of giggles! (laughter) I mean, guys are just — excuse me, I know you’re a guy, but we’ll just say, “guys in those days” — guys in those days were just stupid! (laughter) Like, when LeRoi’s male lover — which we all knew who he was, George Stanley — was going back to the West Coast, all of us mistresses of Roi’s got together and gave him a farewell party. One made the salad, one made the soup, and we giggled over it a lot.
Switching gears, what are some of your experiences working with a major publishing house as opposed to working with independent publishers, or self-publishing?
[When you work with a large publisher] you can reach a lot of people, and that is the only good thing because you lose a lot of control.
I’ve heard that when you work with a big publisher they will pretty much take control of [certain artistic aspects], like the cover — for instance, the cover of Recollections is a photo of you reading. Did you have any input on that?
Oh, that photo on Recollections, I didn’t mind that. That’s a photo that was taken at Gaslight in ’58, because I had just put out This Kind of Bird Flies Backward; it was made by an old friend, there was no problem. The one I really fought them about was the cover of Loba…which I think sucks.
Do they ever relent and consider your viewpoint?
The first cover they sent me was even worse. I said no, and they said, “Oh, we’ll just keep going until we find something you like,” but then when I said no again they said, “Look, we’re out of time, you have to make up your mind.” I said, “I can make a wonderful cover out here.” I knew they didn’t want a handmade collage in this day and age — I thought I’d go over to Michael McClure’s wife’s house; she designs books for a living, she’s a sculptor. And I knew what I wanted, and we would just do it on the computer and send it to them. They said, “No, we have to use our own stable of artists.” Stable. So then they sent me these god-awful looking wolves, and I said, “Um…you guys don’t know how to draw a wolf!” And they said, “Oh no, we only use clipart.” (laughter) This is a stable of artists?
I suggested to put in the blue rose behind [the wolf head] — at least the cover is blue; at least it made it jump out at you. But now everybody thinks it’s a horror book! There’s this clipart wolf with staring eyes in front of a blue, abstracted rose! (laughter)
That’s pretty funny. Well, it’s sad and funny.
Yeah, that’s why one avoids New York. (laughter)
So you’ve had experiences with major publishers, you’ve had experiences with small publishers, and you’ve been a publisher. If you had to choose only one, what is most rewarding: seeing a book of your own writing professionally published, or being the publisher of and vessel through which other authors who you deem to be important become seen?
Those are two different things; I can’t say one is better than the other. I really can’t.
You have an obligation to your work to get it out. It’s like you have to kick your kids out the door; it’s the same thing. It doesn’t want to be your work, it doesn’t want to sit in your house. It’s very rewarding to get it out, but I would always try now — if I could — to get it out through friends. There are very big advantages to getting it out through Penguin, which is that more people get to see it. But unless I had more control I would never do that [again], and I would definitely never take an advance, because then you have a deadline — and deadlines just don’t work for me! (laughter) I have to finish things when I finish them.
You don’t want to impose that kind of [pressure] on creative output.
Right. But on the other hand, doing a press is a very big pleasure, not only for the people [whose work] you’re getting out, but it also creates a community — and that in itself is very important.
Back in 2002, I interviewed a man named Henry Rollins who is best known as a punk and hard rock musician and television host on IFC; however, he is also a publisher, avid reader and writer, and is very well-known for frequent public speaking engagements. Anyway, in 2002 he and I were discussing literature, and he told me how he had published spoken word albums and gone on a reading tour with Hubert Selby, Jr., who he described as an incredibly sweet, gentle person, whose actual character completely belied the brutal nature of his writing. I found it interesting that you, too, described Selby in such flattering terms.
Oh, it wasn’t flattering — he was a really good friend. He was a really, really staunch, good, loyal, gentle, quiet friend.
It was interesting to read this in your book, especially as your recollections take place decades before Rollins knew him.
Yeah, it was right around the time that I think he’d just finished Last Exit To Brooklyn. There was some uproar about some story, maybe it was in The Chicago Review or something — some place had been censored for a story of his. So yes, it was early on, very early on. I was hanging with him around ’58, ’59.
Who else in your life, in terms of authors and artists, have you known who’ve created works — or public personas — that would lead readers or observers to perhaps inaccurate, misleading assumptions of the creator?
William Burroughs. Oh, Burroughs was the sweetest man. And [he also had] a great interest in magic, and a lot of other things he stopped talking about when others came into the room, but he would talk about with me. His love of animals was so amazing, and tender. He told me he wanted to drive to Duke University to adopt a lemur; they had lemurs that were extra to their work. But he said he was so old and it would outlive him, and it was such a great responsibility — he didn’t feel like he could do that to a lemur. And he really wanted to! He was a very tender man. Very, very giving. But you had to not be looking… It was because I didn’t want anything from him. All I wanted was to be his friend — and I could see how lonely he was.
We had such lovely times, and then other people would walk in the room and that drawl and that “tough” look would come out, and he’d start clowning around and putting on different hats — you know, it was the same person, but he was just protecting himself. So that’s one who comes quickly to mind. I’m sure there are tons.
The feelings I have for Charles Olson are immense and very loving. I don’t see at all the person that most people see — men, I think, are a little afraid of him because they either have to relate to him has a father, or they don’t know how. He was a very dear friend, as well as a man full of so much information — I tripped with him in Gloucester in ’66 or ’67. He was wonderful, I just love him!
If you’re a woman, you have the disadvantage [that] you’re a woman and nobody pays attention to you. But the ones who do, who see through that… In those days, women thought they were going to find or nab an artist or a writer who was going to get famous later, and then they would have everything: they’d have the artistic life and they’d have the bourgeois life. I didn’t want either of those things; I could give myself an artistic life and I wasn’t interested in the bourgeois life — in fact, it would send me screaming out the door! When they realized there’s nothing going on there that they need to protect themselves from…I’ve had incredibly wonderful relationships with some guys. The ones I name are just some of them — Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeths [Hospital] handing us the food he stole off the lunch table so that he, I, and the woman I came down with (who was also a writer) and the people we were staying with in DC could eat. He’d say, “Line those stomachs! Artists have to eat!” And he handed us all this canned fruit salad and cold sausages and things from the madhouse lunch.
Regardless of gender, I think anytime anyone lets down their mask — however thick it may be — if you can find something rewarding inside of them and connect, you’re lucky.
I think it starts with you not putting them on a pedestal — one, not wanting anything; two, not putting them on a pedestal, but just seeing who they are. I mean, they’re just people, and often the most famous people in our kind of world are the loneliest. Everybody’s made up an idea before they meet them.
At the age of 75, you’ve seen and accomplished so much. I’ve often heard that a key to a long, happy life is to continue to dream and set goals throughout. The question that I’m trying to frame is what wishes and dreams do you have in your life? I’m not asking about regrets of things that are done or undone, but rather things you realistically could do, or want to do — what do you want to accomplish? What do you look forward to?
“Accomplish” and “look forward to” are not always the same! (laughter) I would like to get my work in some kind of order; I have more books unpublished than I have out in the world, by far. I’d like to get my work in some kind of order, my papers in some kind of order, so that people can make some sense of things. I tend to have a habit of writing a poem wherever I am on whatever I’ve got, like in the back of whatever book I’m reading. I’d like to be able to help people find those later. I’d like to get my work in order, and aside from that, make sure that whatever — if anything — arrives from it in the way of [money] goes to my sweetie and my kids. I love to paint — but I have no ambitions for it. If I had my druthers in this world right now, I would be doing nothing except writing, typing up the writing I’ve got, painting, and meditating.