With the rise of the Beat movement and writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, women writers of the Beat Generation were often overlooked and ridiculed. But, in the conformist 50s, there was a group of women fighting against the constraints of family and culture as independent writers and artists. They wanted to step out from the shadow of men and share with society their individuality and talents.
As Brenda Knight wrote in Women of the Beat Generation, “In many ways, women of the Beat were cut from the same cloth as the men: fearless, angry, high risk, too smart, restless, highly irregular. They took chances, made mistakes, made poetry, made love, made history.”
Diane di Prima
Diane di Prima was born August 6th, 1934 in Brooklyn, New York. Here she began writing and became part of the emerging Beat movement.
In 1953, at the age of 19, di Prima began corresponding with the poet Ezra Pound. This relationship soon led to her literary correspondence with other poets like Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In 1957, di Prima finally met Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso in New York. In her novel, Memoirs of a Beatnik, she describes this period in her life. She even describes an orgy she had with Ginsberg, Kerouac and two others as “warm and friendly and very unsexy – like being in a bathtub with four other people.”
di Prima helped publish Yugen with LeRoi and Hettie Jones. She also founded The Floating Bear with LeRoi and in 1961 both were arrested for obscenity of the ninth issue of the newsletter. The case was later thrown out.
di Prima is a bridge figure between the east and west coast Beats, as she has lived and worked in both New York and San Francisco. She still lives in San Francisco and continues to teach writing.
Diane di Prima is considered to be the most important woman writer of the Beat movement. She co-founded the New York Poets Theatre, producing four seasons of one-act plays by poets, as well as founded the Poets Press, publishing the works of many writers of the period.
Her first book, This Kind Of Bird Flies Backwards, was published in 1958 by LeRoi and Hettie Jones’ Totem Press. Some of her other works include Loba, Dinners & Nightmares, Freddie Poems, and The Book of Hours.
Hettie Jones was born Hettie Cohen in Brooklyn, New York in 1934. She earned a BA in Drama at the University of Virginia and as Knight wrote in Women of the Beat Generation:
“Hettie Cohen made a choice to leave behind comfortable Long Island and the fifties’ ideal of a cookie-cutter marriage when she went to a women’s college in Virginia to study drama. There she explored the creative arts, discovered jazz, and realized there was no turning back.”
After graduating, she moved to New York City and worked part-time at The Record Changer, a jazz magazine. There she met LeRoi Jones and fell in love.
Jones left The Record Changer in 1957 to work at Partisan Review. At home, she and LeRoi founded Yugen, a magazine featuring the work of poets and writers of the new literary scene. The first issue featured LeRoi’s poetry and the writings of Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, and William S. Burroughs.
Hettie and LeRoi divorced in the 60s, but she kept his name as she continued to raise their children in Manhattan. Today, she continues to work and live in New York.
Jones’ works include How I Became Hettie Jones, Drive, Big Star Fallin’ Mama: Five Women in Black Music, and No Woman, No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley, a memoir she authored for Bob Marley’s widow, Rita.
Joanna McClure was born to Henry and Ramona Kinnison in the desert in the foothills of the Cataline Mountain Ridge near Oracle, Arizona in 1930.
She attended the University of Arizona, majoring in literature and history. After graduating, she married Albert Hall, a chemist, but it didn’t last long. She soon met and fell in love with Michael McClure, who also attended the University of Arizona and was a major figure in the Beat movement and San Francisco Renaissance.
For the daughter of a family of ranchers, “Michael was startlingly different. He had exciting ideas, and I was immediately drawn to him. He was a look at another universe.”
When her marriage to Hall collapsed in 1954, McClure moved to San Francisco and began working at Paul Elder’s Bookstore. She moved to North Beach, where Michael moved in with her.
McClure was there when Ginsberg read Howl at the Six Gallery. “Joanna attended the historical reading, heavily pregnant and very excited by this new, raw energy let loose by the readings of Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and Philip Whalen,” wrote Knight in Women of the Beat Generation.
Joanna and Michael moved out of North Beach to the Western Addition of San Francisco and had a daughter named Jane. They began Ark II/Moby I, a revival of the forties’ anarchist review Ark, in their basement.
In 1959, the McClure’s moved briefly to New York, where they quickly fell in with the New York Beats, including LeRoi and Hettie Jones, Diane di Prima, and Frank O’Hara.
They soon returned to the West Coast because of lack of finances and the difficulty of raising their daughter in the city. Joanne and Michael later divorced, but she remained in San Francisco.
ruth weiss was born in Berlin in 1928. Her Jewish family escaped to Vienna in 1933 and in 1939 fled to Holland on the last train allowed to cross the Austrian border and boarded a ship for the United States. Much of weiss’ extended family died in the Nazi concentration camps.
Once in New York, weiss was placed in a children’s home to prevent her from wandering the streets alone, since her parents were forced to work long hours. She wrote her first poem at the age of five.
Eventually, the family moved to Chicago. In 1946, they returned to Germany. weiss spent two years in Switzerland at the College of Neuchatel and hitchhiked through the countryside. Her family returned to Chicago in 1948. Here, weiss moved into the Art Circle, a rooming house for artists on the Near North Shore, where she gave her first reading to jazz in 1949.
In 1952, she hitchhiked from Chicago to San Francisco’s North Beach, moving into an apartment that was later occupied by Allen Ginsberg. She wrote poetry and began to hang out in the Black Cat, a bar two blocks away, the Fillmore at Bop City and Jackson’s Nook.
weiss published in the majority of the early issues of Beatitude, one of the first magazines to give voice to the Beat Generation.
weiss’ first marriage was to artist Mel Weitsman in 1957. They split up in 1963. Her second marriage was to sculptor Roy Isbell in 1966, but less than a year later, Roy, imprisoned on a drug charge, was murdered in prison by guards. She met her life partner, artist Paul Blake, in North Beach in 1967.
weiss spells her name in lowercase as a protest against “law and order,” since in her birthplace of Germany all nouns are spelled capitalized.
She has run various poetry series in San Francisco, including Minnie’s Can-Do Club, Intersection, and a poetry theatre, Surprise Voyage, at the Old Spaghetti Factory. Some of her written works include Steps, South Pacific, Light, and other poems and 13 Haiku.
Denise Levertov was born Oct. 24, 1923 in Essex, England. The daughter of an Anglican priest, she was privately educated by her mother.
When Levertov was 12, she sent several of her poems to T.S. Eliot. “Far from thinking her cheeky, the great poet wrote back two pages of ‘excellent advice’ and encouragement to continue writing based on what he deemed to be great promise,” Knight wrote in Women of the Beat Generation.
At 17, Levertov was published for the first time in Poetry Quarterly.
During World War II, Levertov spent three years in London rehabilitating war veterans. At night, after working in the hospital, she would write poems and, in 1946, she published her first book of poetry, The Double Image.
In 1948, Denise married American writer Mitchell Goodman and moved to the United States and the couple lived mainly in New York City.
In the fifties, Robert Creeley began to publish Levertov’s work in the Black Mountain Review and Origin. In 1957, she made a trip to San Francisco just as the hype of Ginsberg’s Howl was hitting the city.
Levertov and Goodman divorced in 1972. She died Dec. 20, 1997 at the age of 74.
Denise Levertov is one of the most acclaimed and highly awarded poets in literature. She has taught at a number of institutions, including Drew University, CCNY, Vassar, UC California, Stanford, and Tufts University. Her poems are part of many poetry curricula in America.
Some of her works include Here and Now, Life at War, Footprints, Candles in Babylon, Breathing the Water, and The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes.
Joanne Kyger was born Nov. 19, 1934. At five, she published her first poem in the literary and news magazine of Naples Elementary School in Long Beach, California.
As a young woman, Kyger went to the University of California, where she studied poetry and philosophy.
“In 1957, she moved north to San Francisco, where the ‘Howl’ obscenity trial was in full swing. She became immediately immersed in the city’s blooming poetry community, meeting, among others, Gary Snyder,” wrote Knight in Women of the Beat Generation.
Kyger married Gary Snyder in Japan in 1960. She lived in Kyoto for four years, writing poetry and practicing Zen Buddhism. In 1964, she returned to San Francisco and participated in the Berkeley Poetry Conference. In 1965, her first book of poems, The Tapestry and the Web, was published.
Her other works include Places to Go, Desecheo Notebook, Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964, and The Dharma Committee.