Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters

I was reading Revolutionary Letters by Diane di Prima at the beginning of the pandemic. Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters were first distributed between 1968 and 1971 through the Liberation News Service, letter by letter, in two hundred newspapers across so-called Canada and USA.

I’ve been reading a PDF version put out by The Anarchist Library in 2014, published without permission. In the publisher’s note they write, “Anti-profit, anti-copyright. Revolutionary Letters has been out of print for many years, and we wanted to bring it back.” Available for download here, otherwise you might be able to procure a rare print copy for a cool $750 +$39 shipping.

When the stay-at-home order was issued in March, I found myself drawn over and over again to a particular poem by di Prima. In Revolutionary Letter # 3, di Prima writes: 

Store water: make it a point of filling your bathtub
at the first news of trouble: they turned off the water 
in the 4th ward for a whole day during the Newark riots;

and

store food — dry stuff like rice and beans stores best
goes farthest. SALT VERY IMPORTANT: it’s health and energy
healing too, keep a couple pounds
sea salt around

and

and help will arrive, until the day no help arrives
and then you’re on your own.

I filled milk jugs with water, bought an extra pound of salt, a ten pound bag of rice, some other dry stuff. I bought some cabbage and fermented it for longer storage. I bought herb and vegetable seeds not knowing where I’d plant them. I just wanted to get them started, which I did on a small window sill. I couldn’t find toilet paper for weeks but luckily had a few  on hand. I bought a tabo, a sort of ladle used for rinsing with water after going to the bathroom. I didn’t know when what would be available again, when what would not be available, if the power would go out, so yes I had some candles too, I watched a lot of survival skill videos on Youtube. 

While survival is not in itself revolutionary, I wonder whether I would have done all this had I not remembered the poem. It seemed to have awakened the lived memory—and ancestral memory—of all the ways I know how to survive. 

*

I’ve been living in isolation since mid March, living alone since late May, in a small college town in southwest Virginia where undergrads cosplay military men and, when we were still meeting in person last year, would shoot off cannons during poetry workshop. A lot of people here don’t believe the virus is real, or they believe that it’s not so bad. Sunnyside Pentecostal Holiness Church here in town suggests that “God sets us free from the need to wear masks.”

Shit could be worse. I have a graduate stipend nine months of the year, and a side gig, can pay my rent, utilities, and groceries, can throw a few bucks to this cause or that eviction/medical bill gofundme. 

Fuck that’s depressing. 

I’m reading and rereading Revolutionary Letters, I don’t know how to be revolutionary in isolation. Di prima has some thoughts on this. In Revolutionary Letter #2, she writes:

The value of an individual life a credo they taught us
to instill fear, and inaction, ‘you only live once’
a fog in our eyes, we are
endless as the sea, not separate, we die
a million times a day, we are born
a million times, each breath life and death

*

I’m rereading Revolutionary Letters, flipping to a page and pointing and sounding the words out loud, because I go days without talking to anyone—on the phone or in person. I’ve gone weeks without talking to anyone about anything other than work. It’s late summer—we’re only a few months in—and I am already fatigued by my own detritus—laundry, dishes, trash. By how much labor it takes to keep me alive. By how much more it feels when unshared, when I have no idea how long I should prepare to live like this.

Di Prima writes in Revolutionary Letter #10:

These are transitional years and the dues 
will be heavy.
Change is quick but revolution will take a while.
America has not even begun as yet.
The continent is seed.

*

From Revolutionary Letter #19:

if what you want is housing,
industry (G.E. on the Navaho reservation)
a car for everyone, garage, refrigerator,
TV, more plumbing, scientific
freeways, you are still
the enemy, you have chosen
to sacrifice the planet for a few years of some
science fiction Utopia..

Diane di Prima passed on October 25, 2020. That night, I stayed up late reading her work, thinking about election day, thinking about how every election is a lesser evil election (lesser evil for who?), thinking about how urgent everything always feels, how urgent and timeless di Prima’s poems are fifty years on.

Di Prima wasn’t prophetic. Her concerns with power, profit, extraction, environmental catastrophe, have been concerns for as long as we’ve endured settler colonialism and racial capitalism (di Prima would argue these concerns have existed from the onset of civilization). Revolutionary Letters reckon with that power and imagine otherwise—insist on otherwise— in spite of. Her letters are love letters to the people, to a people who are charged with the never-ending task of upending… this. Her letters invite us to imagine a life worth living, to write into it. They invite us to reckon not only with power but with our own complicity. I’ll leave you with the final stanza of Revolutionary Letter 19:

THEN YOU ARE STILL
THE ENEMY, you are selling
yourself short, remember
You can have what you ask for, ask for
everything

Katherinna Mar, tmr staff

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