This evening Just Buffalo Literary Center's BIG NIGHT series features a program very close to the heart, the mission, and the origins of the organization, and to successive generations of the Buffalo poetry community.
Poet Dale Smith--a key contributor to the forward-thinking poetry portal Big Bridge--who has lived in San Francisco and Austin, Texas, and now teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto, returns to Buffalo to join with the Buffalo Poets Theater, under the direction of its founder, David Hadbawnik (with the assistance of Just Buffalo publicist Robin Brox) to present a special fund-raising tribute to poet Diane di Prima, featuring a performance of di Prima's 1960 absurdist play "Murder Cake."
Di Prima, the Brooklyn native who rose to prominence as perhaps the leading female voice of the Beat generation of writers before moving to San Francisco in the late 1970's, is now 78 years old and in too poor health to travel. She has incurred tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills in recent years that preclude her seeking additional treatment.
Last year actress-poet Amber Tamblyn established a fund to assist di Prima defray these mounting debts, and now Hadbawnik, a poet, publisher of Habenicht Press, and a medieval scholar finishing his Ph.D. dissertation at the University at Buffalo who studied with di Prima while living in San Francisco nearly a decade ago, has joined in the effort along with his wife, Tina Zigon, also a Ph.D. candidate in English at U.B., who wrote a portion of her M.A. thesis on di Prima while a graduate student at Texas State University.
Just Buffalo Literary Center, which owes a portion of its early history to the goodwill generated by di Prima on behalf of the organization at its inception, has lent its participation to the effort.
Thirty-seven years ago Just Buffalo founder Debora Ott invited Diane di Prima to Buffalo for a now legendary reading in what was then called the Allentown Community Center, on Elmwood Avenue, just a few steps north of the intersection with Allen Street. People came: not just people who specifically identified with the Beat movement, or feminists, or self-styled "bohemians," or academics, or people interested in di Prima's activist politics, but an entire roomful of people (there were never enough folding wooden chairs!) from diverse backgrounds who seemed not to fit into any easily-pigeonholed demographic category at all.
You could argue that Debora Ott organized a single poetry reading, and discovered--perhaps even "invented" is not too strong a word--a literary community here in Buffalo in the process. That reading by di Prima became the first official event in the history (and indeed the "her-story") of a fledgling arts organization that would become known as Just Buffalo Literary Center.
How important was the fact that it was Diane di Prima who read on that first night? I'll confess I wasn't there that evening. I was a college sophomore in 1975 and a philosophy major at the University at Buffalo. My head was all tangled up in Spinoza. (It would get worse by the time I reached graduate school, and washed up on the shores of Wittgenstein and Derrida.) But everything I've heard about that night in 1975 parsed through four decades of Buffalo literary lore suggests that di Prima was a uniquely galvanizing figure, and gave a reading that is still widely-remembered and remarked upon.
That reading would become a template for the early history of Just Buffalo. By the time I started attending readings at the Allentown Community Center regularly in the late 1970's, the organization already had a credibility that far exceeded its meager, shoestring budget within the artists' and writers' communities, with writing teachers and professional educators, with academics and community activists, and especially with the diaspora of Black Mountain College and experimental thinkers of all description who followed Charles Olson and Robert Creeley here to Buffalo in the late 1960's.
As Hegel once wrote, "The Owl of Minerva takes flight by midnight," meaning that wisdom is a quality that usually attributed in hindsight, but if you happened to be starting out a fledgling literary organization in Buffalo, New York in 1975 that would draw its support from not only the enormously rich talent pool of poets, writers and idiosyncratic critics recruited by Al Cook to the UB English Department of that era, but also and equally from from the Rust Belt, blue collar ethos and integral grittiness that characterized Buffalo then and now, then there was no better poet in America to invite to give your inaugural reading than Diane di Prima.
Di Prima, the co-founder of the New York Poets Theater and onetime co-editor (with Leroi Jones, later Amiri Baraka) of the radical newspaper The Floating Bear, is the author of over forty collections of poetry and prose, the best known of which are her 1958 debut collection "This Kind of Bird Flies Backward" (Totem Press), "Memoirs of a Beatnik" (Olympia Press, 1969), "Revolutionary Letters" (City Lights Books, 1971), her career-spanning, serial, epic poem "Loba, [Parts 1 - 16, Books I & II]" (Penguin Books, 1998) and "Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years" (Viking Press, NY, 2001). In recent years, she has published titles with several smaller, independent presses, including "The Ones I Used to Laugh With" (Habenicht Press, 2003) and "TimeBomb" (Eidolon Editions, 2006).
In addition to teaching poetry at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado from 1974 to 1997, di Prima has also taught at the New College of California, the San Francisco Art Institute, and Columbia College in Chicago. During the course of her nearly sixty year career, she has been the recipient of numerous awards, including two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and the honor of being named poet laureate of San Francisco for 2008 and 2009.
Tonight's Just Buffalo Tribute to Diane di Prima begins at 8 p.m., with the performance of di Prima's "Murder Cake" featuring Buffalo area poets Adam Drury as "Richard Lovelace," Alison Fraser as "Dante," director David Hadbawnik as "Mr. Knightley," Soma Feldmar as "Olympia," Sandy Dedo as "Childe Harold," and Emily Anderson as "Emma." A special live video performance by San Francisco Poets Theater founder Kevin Killian and novelist, “New Narrative” author, and editor Dodie Bellamy via Skype from San Francisco will follow, along with Dale Smith's live in-house tribute.
As with all BIG NIGHT events, the culinary creations of BlazeVox Books publisher and gourmet chef Geoffrey Gatza will be featured prominently and consumed ravenously. The festivities begin at 8 p.m. at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk St.). Admission is $5, $4 for students, Just Buffalo members, and members of Just Buffalo's affiliate organizations. The sponsors and participants in tonight's Tribute to Diane di Prima urge those planning to attend to consider a separate donation to the Diane di Prima medical relief fund via the Give Forward website, or via check this evening.
--R. D. Pohl