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Diane di Prima and the Dream of the East Village Avant-Garde

The poet’s recently released memoir of the 1960s, Spring and Autumn Annals, is an essential document in the history of New York’s downtown art scene.

By Lynne Feeley

The Nation

NOVEMBER 24, 2021


Diane by Daniel Entin

Diane Di Prima. (Photo by Daniel Entin)


Freddie was running late. He was supposed to be in the East Village at the Poets

 Theatre, where his closest friend, the poet Diane di Prima, was hosting a night of dance performances. Recently, the friends had lost one of their number, to drugs or suicide, they weren’t sure which. Freddie was going to dance in their memory. As the audience waited, di Prima paced the lobby, worried that something similarly awful had happened to Freddie; she could tell amphetamines were starting to unravel him. But then he appeared, in black tights, a black leotard, toe shoes, and a mask painted on his face. “Kill all the lights,” he told di Prima. It was the spring of 1964, and the dance, For Sergio, had begun.

In silence except for his labored breathing and the sound of his shoes scraping the floor, Freddie Herko held a candle up to a mirror and walked en pointe down one aisle, across the front of the theater, up the other aisle, then out of the building, vanishing into the night. “It was a rite of mourning,” di Prima wrote in her 2001 memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman. Soon after, Freddie Herko would die by leaping—in a perfect jeté, according to the sole witness—from a fifth-story Greenwich Village window. Di Prima’s friendship with him and his death at age 28 were defining experiences of her life, and he has been the focus of several of her books, including Freddie Poems (1974) and Recollections. (He also appeared, lightly fictionalized, as the character of Leslie in her 1969 Memoirs of a Beatnik.) A new book by di Prima, who died last year at the age of 86, offers another view of Herko and the downtown bohemian scene of early 1960s New York of which they were a part. Composed the year following his death but unpublished until now, Spring and Autumn Annals: A Celebration of the Seasons for Freddie takes the reader through di Prima’s own rite of mourning—for her friend, for the changing milieu of their scene, and for a city that, without Freddie, could no longer hold her.

Di Prima is often labeled a Beat writer, and the formative years of her long career were indeed spent in the downtown haunts (bookstores, lofts, cafes) of Manhattan in the late 1950s. She moved among not just the Beats but the New York School, Black Mountain, and the Warholians, too. In fact, she was central to all these communities. With LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Alan Marlowe, James Waring, and Herko, she cofounded the Poets Theatre, which staged experimental one-act plays by poets, including several of her own. In partnership with Jones, she created The Floating Bear in 1961, a mimeographed newsletter of poetry, prose, and art that connected the artists of the avant-garde and disseminated its multifarious styles. Charles Olson, Barbara Guest, Robert Creeley, and many others appeared in its pages; troupes of artists, including the jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who ran the mimeograph machine for the early issues, participated in its assemblage. In 1964, she bought a Fairchild-Davidson offset press, took a free week-long course on how to use it, and founded the Poets Press. Under its imprint, di Prima put out the first books of A.B. Spellman, Herbert Huncke, and Audre Lorde.

Spring and Autumn Annals gives a diaristic account of many of these events and personalities, and it shows how strongly linked they were to di Prima’s friendship with Herko. After his death in October 1964, di Prima began the daily practice of lighting incense and writing to her departed friend until it burned out. The book’s four parts are structured around the seasons, starting with the fall after his death, and each section conjures seasonal memories of the time the friends spent together after their chance meeting in Washington Square Park in 1954, such that the fall section roves around 10 different falls, the winter around 10 different winters. The sections dwell especially on di Prima’s memories of Freddie from the final trip he took around the sun, 1963–64, and on her grief during the first trip she took without him.

The year that followed Herko’s death was a year of many endings. As a work of documentary history, Annals follows the shuttering of the Poets Theatre, the dissolution of di Prima’s marriage to Alan Marlowe, and her dislocation from New York, an “exile” that spurred two years of nom1adic wandering before she settled permanently in San Francisco. It is clear that by 1964, di Prima felt that something had changed: “I am not, as I was, among friends,” she writes. In retrospect, her memoir documents the moment when the bohemianism of 1950s New York merged, sometimes dissonantly, into the counterculture of the 1960s, when the Beats met the hippies. It is a shift that di Prima feels but cannot name, experienced mostly as the sense that everything seemed to be getting harder and realer: the drugs, the poverty, the politics. It manifests in the memoir’s inklings of what will come next for di Prima, her acid experiments with Timothy Leary at Millbrook and her further politicization in San Francisco. “The time has come to put a stop to it, war and the memory of war,” she writes: “I shall print a thousand Stop America Now signs, in red ink.” Annals shows that this evolution initially felt like loss for di Prima as much as growth. In mourning Freddie, she mourns their moment: “The tribe will meet again in another aeon.”

As a work of nonfiction, Annals adds to a cluster of memoirs by the women of the Beat Generation.

 Most prominent among these are Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters (1983), Hettie Jones’s How I Became Hettie Jones (1990), and Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road (1990). All three relate the women’s artistic becoming in the context of their tumultuous relationships with their now-famous male partners: Jack Kerouac, LeRoi Jones, and Neal Cassady. They share in the sense that their authors were both inside and outside the male-dominated movement, both present at key moments and relegated to the background, often torn between pursuing their own literary careers and supporting those of their more famous male counterparts (often literally, in the form of providing money, meals, and a place to live). Di Prima’s own Recollections of My Life as Woman similarly presents these pressures, particularly those around raising children while making a life as an artist. But Annals is a different kind of book in its in-the-moment-ness. Unlike memoirs written decades after the fact, where events are shaded with the wisdom gained in the intervening years, Annals understands much less about the significance of its events. It is raw, immediate, and vulnerable.


Yet to treat Annals purely as documentation would be to diminish its literary dimensions. As a work of prose, the famous names and places of cultural history give way to a greater thematic arc: It is the story of an artist who, in the wake of her friend’s death, trades the ephemeral, communal space of the theater for the more solid, solitary work of the printing press. After Herko dies, di Prima feels her life “split in two. Cleft. By the leap.” She holds the “present and future in one hand, the past in the other, patiently, endlessly trying to mesh the edges,” but failing. In the past, there’s her husband, Alan; her lover, LeRoi; and the theater they built together, a place for Freddie to dance. “Having made the theatre, red satin, a place for you, we are leaving it,” di Prima writes to Freddie. As the first anniversary of his death approaches, she rents a storefront to run her press, “the shop I cannot help feeling that you gave me.” As if the ephemerality of Freddie’s art and life had been a cue, it is here that she begins to take the work of her friends and set it down, with some permanence, in print. “I cling to my press, it weighs 900 pounds,” she writes: “And I hope that is enough to weigh me down.”

There is a similar impulse in Annals to commit Herko to writing, to materialize him. Given the fleeting nature of his art form, dance, so much of his work cannot be accessed directly. Accounts from the period present a figure who was both at the center of the postmodern dance revolution and yet somehow out of step with it. Herko was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theatre, a crucible of the avant-garde known for ushering minimalism and everyday movement into the field of modern dance. He was a student of the choreographer James Waring, and among his Judson cofounders was Yvonne Rainer, whose minimalism has become iconic and now defines the movement. But Herko was no minimalist: His style was baroque—“ornamental,” in the words of the queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. He was a dancer of “expressive exuberance,” who did not “conform with the aesthetic codes that dominated the movements of which he was a part,” Muñoz writes in Cruising Utopia. Di Prima’s book is itself ornamented with her friend’s exuberance: the velvet capes and “schmatta” he was in the habit of wearing toward the end of his life (the neighborhood kids took to calling him Zorro), the copy of Gertrude Stein’s Portraits and Prayers he gave to di Prima, the amphetamine he always had on hand to add to their morning cups of coffee together, and his final apartment on Ridge Street, which the two named “the Opulent Tower.”

Muñoz exalts Herko’s “excessively campy, neoromantic style,” his untimely queerness. He sees him as a utopian figure whose life and career did not abide the demands of capitalist production or compulsory heterosexuality, and whose jeté out the window was a final, culminating performance of his excessive style. The incandescent Herko is present in Annals, particularly in di Prima’s descriptions of his performances. “Discarded clean line, exclusion of emotion, old rags and shawls taken from whatever closets,” she writes of The Palace of the Dragon Prince: “The beauty and grace of your self-abnegation.” Yet, after visiting the scene of Herko’s death, Muñoz concludes on a slightly different note: “This stroll made me think about the abstraction of writing about a suicide ‘as performance’ and how that misses something.” It obfuscates, Muñoz writes, what Herko’s death “symbolize[d] for a larger collectivity.” Annals, a book that mourns as much as it exalts, fills in this picture. For di Prima, Freddie Herko’s death symbolized the end of an era, and “that unquestionably youth was past, and thoughtlessness.”


Lynne Feeleyis a writer based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in the L.A. Review of BooksBoston Review, and Lapham’s Quarterly.


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