Loba, Part 1

Loba, Part 1 by Diane di Prima

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    Loba, Part 1

    Loba represents an important turn in Diane di Prima’s poetics as well as in her practices of poetry, research, and spiritual study. Initiated in 1971—when the poet was in her late thirties and had already lived what seems like several lifetimes, including running a theater and a press, publishing seven books, and raising her five children—the Loba poems activate di Prima’s years-long engagement with the infinitely generative sacred female principle, distilled into a particularly canine archetypal form: the wolf goddess. Loba Part I was first gathered in 1973, in this chapbook published by Noel Young of Capra Press in collaboration with Robert Durand of Yes! Press. It would go through numerous published (and unpublished) iterations before culminating in a 1998 edition put out by Penguin Poets, Loba, with Parts I–XVI—over 300 pages long and representing decades di Prima spent in the presence of the wolf goddess. Loba is, in essence, a work ever in progress, an epic of indefinable limits. Indefinability was an essential part of the poem’s generation for di Prima, who set out to make a text that mirrored the human evolution of the sacred feminine and imaginatively responded to ancient traditions.

    Before setting off on the 27-year-long journey of writing and publishing Loba, di Prima had been through at least three major turns in her own evolution as a poet. She’d published a handful of collections of her early poetry and translations; she’d written a potboiler erotic novel, Memoirs of a Beatnik, which earned her both acclaim and notoriety; and she’d reached thousands of fellow activist-poets with her Revolutionary Letters, a series of anarchic-manifesto-epistolary poems distributed nationally through the Liberation News Service. The threads of mythological and spiritual tradition that di Prima brought together when she started composing Loba had been present in her life, however, since the 1950s. While living in New York’s East Village, di Prima had immersed herself in numerous metaphysical and hermetic texts. She worked at Larry Wallrich’s Phoenix Bookshop, a prime gathering place for poets in Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s, and frequented public libraries. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, the alchemical writings of Paracelsus, the Vedas, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, H.D.’s Helen in Egypt: di Prima studied these texts closely, learning their systems and formulating her own sense of the principles that undergirded them.

    Di Prima’s remarkable autodidacticism and rigor of engagement with diverse texts developed in the years leading up to the composition of the Loba poems. The practice of reading intuitively and then integrating knowledge from what she’d read into her own poetics would be essential to that work. In 1965, she agreed to write an introduction for a new two-volume edition of the 16th-century writings of German Renaissance physician and alchemist Paracelsus to be published by University Books, the press of communist activist Felix Morrow. In her memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman, di Prima writes of her early encounters with Paracelsus’ alchemical teachings:

    …there was a part of me that recognized even what was the most obscure in those pages as inevitable and true. It was the same organ of recognition that is at work when one’s whole being says “yes” to a painting, a piece of music, even though it’s like nothing we’ve known before…There is some infallible mechanism in us, something like a dowsing rod of the heart, and it moves in us sometimes—moves seldom, but with total authority.

    In the years that followed, di Prima further cultivated this “dowsing rod of the heart” that she experienced in her early encounters with the alchemical tradition, and she brought this receptivity to her studies of the traditions that compose the mythic vocabulary found in Loba. These include figures from pre-Christian European folklore, elements of Indigenous American mythology, and the female Hindu deity Kali, bringer of death, destruction, and divine liberation. In conceiving of her Loba figure, di Prima imagined a being that was at once eternally present and ever-changing, much like the ancient figures and stories she drew upon—a creature rooted in both flesh and spirit, an agent of simultaneous creation and destruction.

    Upon opening the 1973 edition of Loba, readers are met with a frontispiece drawn by artist Josie Grant: a naked woman with the head of a wolf, flying on the back of a stingray among craggy mountains beneath the phases of the moon. The same wolf-woman reappears in a drawing preceding the “Loba I” part of the book, this time beside a river. Head thrown back, she’s engaged in sexual ecstasy with a long-bodied centaur, among snakes and other part-animal, part-human creatures. These illustrations aid the visualization of the erotic principles of transformation at play in Loba. Indeed, throughout the poems in this chapbook, the erotic and the liminal or transformative are inextricable from each other. The erotic capacity of the Loba figure expands, however, to include a vast spectrum of female experience. The book’s opening pages interrogate a shape-shifting woman-wanderer: “with roving eyes do you wander / hot for quick love do you wander / weeping your dead // naked you walk…” The opening lyrics’ incantatory refrains allude again and again to the image of a woman who constantly changes forms as she wanders. This figure is cast as a witch (“shadows you are, that fall on the crossroads”), a mythic seductress (“you flick long cocks of satyrs with your tongue”), and as a beaten, hungry, or mourning woman (“mumbling and crying do you wander” and “battered by drunk men you wander”).

    Throughout these poems, di Prima emphasizes the process of becoming: a state of active change, of being in between forms. The opening section concludes with a chant: “I am you / and I must become you / I have been you / and I must become you / I am always you / and I must become you.” The poems offer cosmic yet visceral descriptions of liminal experience, as in Loba’s beginning pages: “You kill on steel tables / you birth in black beds / fetus you tore out stiffens in snow / it rises like new moon / you moan in your sleep.” The chapbook contains numerous moments such as this, where di Prima poses a self who is creator and killer, a living manifestation of the voracious wolf-mother. But her primary mode of address to Loba in these poems is one of questioning. She wonders aloud about the archetype she envisions, or poses possibilities (“If you do not come apart like bread / in her hands, she falls / like steel on your heart”) without foreclosing on definitive answers. This method constitutes a poetics of indeterminacy that is crucial for di Prima. The poet’s habit of asking (as opposed to claiming) allows the Loba figure to remain in continuous flux.

    The interrogative refrains in Loba carry over into a kind of incantation, a performative calling-into-being of the wolf goddess. Repetition (of phrases, images, questions) is an essential element of the incantation di Prima presents in Loba, suggesting attunement of the poet to signals from the ancient world, and from sources of knowledge invisible to the rational mind. Toward the middle of this chapbook, di Prima writes, “Signals. Does she stream, in / wind, her nose riding channels / of the seven rays…” Just as the wolf-goddess uses her nose to receive signals from the wind, the poet possesses an uncanny sense for messages from other realms. Di Prima’s focus on the reception of signals calls to mind the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote, “The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.” The decidedly female oracular presence that speaks in Loba operates in just this way: refusing fixed meanings, listening with pricked ears for signs of her ancient self living among us in the present.

    The two sections of Loba Part I (the introductory “Ave” and “Loba Part I”) presented in this chapbook would open each of the many published iterations of Loba over the years, including the “final” Penguin Poets edition in 1998. As she expanded her kaleidoscopic meditation on the wolf goddess, di Prima returned again and again to the processes of transformation laid out in these initial sections. Her conception of the canine feminine divine in Loba grew into the most sustained body of poetry di Prima has produced in her life, and this chapbook reveals the origins of a visionary, epic work.

    —Iris Cushing


    Iris Cushing is a poet, scholar, educator, and founding editor for Argos Books, an independent poetry press. Her poems have appeared in the Boston Review, Fence, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day series, and her poetry collection Wyoming won the 2013 Furniture Press Poetry Prize. She was a recipient of the Diane di Prima Fellowship from the Center for the Humanities from 2016–2018 and edited two chapbooks for Lost & Found Series VI: Bobbie Louise Hawkins: The Sounding Word and Judy Grahn: Selections from Blood, Bread and Roses. A doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, Cushing is currently at work on a biographical dissertation, titled "Pierce and Pine: Diane di Prima, Mary Norbert Korte and the Question of Matter and Spirit." She teaches writing at Eugene Lang/The New School and lives in the Western Catskill mountains.

     

    Sarah Ruth Jacobs, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, contributed to the conception of this project, as part of a joint program with the CUNY Graduate Center.

     

    Author
    Diane di Prima

    A prominent Beat poet, Diane di Prima has shaped and transcended literary movements over the course of six decades and more than 50 genre-bending books of poetry and prose. As an activist, small press publisher, and founder of the New York Poets Theatre, she helped build essential countercultural communities on two coasts, first in New York City in the 1950s and 60s, and then in San Francisco. Throughout her writing and her life, di Prima has denounced injustice, defied conformity, and broken down barriers of gender and patriarchal norms. She has redefined the political poem, the epic poem, and the literary memoir, and her feminist, visionary writing continues to find new forms for exploring our evolving cultural moment and imagining new possibilities for liberation.

    Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn in 1934. A second-generation Italian-American, di Prima’s early poetic sensibility was nurtured by her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi; Mallozzi, an anarchist and friend of Emma Goldman and Carlo Tresca, introduced his granddaughter to Dante and Verdi. Di Prima began writing her own poems as a child and studied the Romantic poets while a student at Hunter College High School. She and the poet Audre Lorde were fellow students and friends at Hunter, and the two poets would remain friends for the rest of Lorde's life. After high school, di Prima briefly attended Swarthmore College but left academia to embark on an independent life in New York City among artists, dancers, and poets.

    Formative influences for di Prima included the work of H.D., as well as Ezra Pound, whom she spent several weeks visiting at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., in 1955. During her time in New York, di Prima befriended many poets and writers, including New York School poets, such as Frank O’Hara, and poets associated with the Black Arts Movement, including LeRoi Jones, who would later change his name to Amiri Baraka. She also encountered Beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Other important collaborators included Judson Dance Theater founding member Fred Herko and dancer and choreographer James Waring. In 1958, her debut poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, was published as the first title of Totem Press, started by Baraka with his then wife Hettie Jones.

    Di Prima played a hugely consequential role as a culture producer, not only through her own work, but also as a publisher and presenter of the works of other poets. Together with Baraka, di Prima co-founded and edited The Floating Bear, a mimeographed newsletter of poetry and prose. Di Prima and Jones were arrested in 1961 by the FBI on obscenity charges for content printed in the newsletter, though the charges were dismissed. The Bear, which ran until 1971, was instrumental in distributing the work of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, John Weiners, and many others. Concurrent to The Floating Bear, di Prima formed Poets Press, publishing the first books of Audre Lorde, David Henderson, and Herbert Huncke, and New York Poets Theatre, staging one-act plays written by poets including Michael McClure, Frank O’Hara, and di Prima herself.

    In the wake of Fred Herko’s suicide in 1964, di Prima began to withdraw from New York City and seek other spiritual and activist paths that would inform her writing. She participated in Timothy Leary’s experimental LSD community in Millbrook, NY, started reading the 16th-century writings of German Renaissance physician and alchemist Paracelsus, and studied Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. In the late 60s, she moved with her children to San Francisco and became a student of Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, while working with Peter Coyote and the Haight-Ashbury activist group The Diggers to distribute free food to activists and artists in the Bay Area. By 1969, she was a highly visible figure of the Beat poetry scene with several published poetry collections and works of translation, as well as the semi-autobiographical novel Memoirs of a Beatnik, a notorious recounting of sexual and artistic experimentation in 1950s New York City. The epistolary poems known as Revolutionary Letters, one of di Prima’s most influential bodies of work, came into being during this time. A fusion of utopian anarchism and protest—against war, sexism, ecological devastation, and a repressive state—these poems were syndicated to underground publications nationwide through the Liberation News Service and first published as a book by City Lights in 1971; several subsequent editions have been released, each time with new material.

    Her intensive study of global spiritual traditions, alchemy, and mythology would play a part in the evolution of her radical poetics. Di Prima began composing her epic poem Loba in the early 1970s, and Capra Press would publish Part I as a chapbook in 1973. In 1978, a full-length collection of Loba, featuring Parts I–VIII, was published by Wingbow Press. Loba grew to 16 parts, divided into Books I and II, and was published as one edition by Penguin in 1998.

    While remaining true to a countercultural position as a poet and literary citizen, di Prima has been a driving force in establishing alternative, experimental programs for the study of poetry and other arts. She was a founding faculty member of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa College, established by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974. Di Prima also helped found the Poetics Program at the New College of California in 1980, where she taught for seven years. Additionally, she co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts in 1983, teaching courses on pre-Christian Western spiritual traditions until 1992.

    In the new millennium, di Prima has continued to produce significant works of poetry and prose. In 2001, Viking Press published Recollections of My Life as a Woman, di Prima’s memoir of the first 30 years of her life, including her early years as a poet and single mother. More recent books include The Poetry Deal (City Lights, 2014). In 2019, City Lights will publish Spring and Autumn Annals, di Prima’s account of the year following Fred Herko’s death, as well as a new, expanded edition of Revolutionary Letters. Diane di Prima continues to live in San Francisco—where she served as Poet Laureate in 2009—and her influence can be felt nationwide across generations of writers.

    —Co-written by Poets House with Iris Cushing. Initial research contributed by Sarah Ruth Jacobs. 


    Iris Cushing was a recipient of the Diane di Prima Fellowship from the Center for the Humanities from 2016–2018. A doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, Cushing is currently at work on a biographical dissertation, titled "Pierce and Pine: Diane di Prima, Mary Norbert Korte and the Question of Matter and Spirit."

    Sarah Ruth Jacobs was a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint program with the CUNY Graduate Center.

    Publisher
    Capra Press

    Established in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969, Capra Press made a name for itself as an influential independent publisher of avant-garde writing, including work by Diane di Prima, Raymond Carver, Henry Miller, Ray Bradbury, and Anaïs Nin. Noel Young—a poet, fiction writer, printer, and book designer—founded Capra and brought his literary and design acumen to more than 300 titles. The press’s design quality, the range of its list, and Young’s commitment to both writers of stature and emerging talents made Capra a standout in California’s vibrant small press scene during the Mimeo Revolution. Young’s daughter Hilary Young Brodey, who acquired the press in 2011, characterized her father’s vision this way: “to keep the human touch as much as possible in the environment of mechanization and to retain the mantra of a small independent trade publisher.”

    Born in San Francisco on December 25 in 1922, Noel Young majored in journalism at Stanford with dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent. When World War II broke out, he served in the Army Air Corp in the Philippines. After the war, Young settled in Santa Barbara, where he would work as commercial printer and learn book design. He eventually printed and designed titles for independent publishers, including Black Sparrow Press, Scrimshaw, Oyez, Something Else Press, Christopher’s Books, and Unicorn Press. Young also began to design and print his own books, starting in 1969 with Journey, a poetry collection by his friend Gordon Grant.

    At a rate of ten to 15 titles per year, Capra Press printed the poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction of many famous and lesser-known writers, as well as eclectic general-interest books about such topics as wine-making and hot tubs. Young reportedly started the press with the following strategy: “Approach writers you admired, acquire book rights to their shorter and offbeat works and turn them into books.” He drove to the Big Sur home of Henry Miller in 1959, befriended the writer, and went on to publish a number of works by him. Among the press’s most recognized literary titles is Four Visions of America (1977), which features essays by Erica Jong, Henry Miller, Thomas Sanchez, and Kay Boyle. Young also released emerging authors who would go on to be household names; Capra published the first Raymond Carver short story to appear in book form.

    Capra used the book and chapbook form to innovative ends. An essay by Miller, "On Turning Eighty," was turned into the first in a series of 41 chapbooks written by different authors in the 1970s. Diane di Prima’s chapbook Loba, Part I, the tenth in this series, was a collaboration between Robert Durand of Yes! Press, who edited the chapbook, and Noel Young, who designed and printed it. In the next decade, Capra published a “Back-to-Back” series of two-sided books, each featuring a well-known writer paired with a lesser-known name; the writing of one author could be read one way, then flipping the book over brought the words of the other writer forward, with the texts meeting in the middle.

    When Young’s health declined, Capra Press was sold to Robert Bason, an antiquarian book dealer, in 2001. Young passed away in his home in Santa Barbara in 2002 at the age of 79. In 2011, the press was purchased by Hilary Young Brodey and three other family members and friends, with the intention of continuing Capra’s legacy of publishing noteworthy, artfully crafted titles in the spirit of the independent small press. Noel Young’s commitment to producing beautifully designed books and chapbooks by writers of both large and small reputation made Capra Press an essential force of the Mimeo Revolution.

    —Co-written by Poets House and Sarah Ruth Jacobs, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint program with the CUNY Graduate Center.

     

    Video
    Diane di Prima reads Loba, Part 1

    Diane di Prima reads the entirety of the Loba, Part I chapbook. Recorded in 1999 by Alexander Marlowe. Used with the permission of Diane di Prima. 

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