I. Diane di Prima
Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn in 1934. By the age of 19 she was corresponding with Ezra Pound and at 21 she dropped out of Swarthmore to become a poet. She lived in Manhattan back when that was an option for poor people and she wrote about her life sharing cold water flats with fellow bohemian-types. She became associated with the Beat movement and eventually moved to San Francisco to teach poetry at the “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics” with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. She’s still alive and published a memoir in 2001.
That’s the Wikipedia summary of her life but the main thing you should know is that she is one of the most criminally neglected poet/writers of the post-war period. She’s easily one of the top five most crucial Beats, a movement that desperately needed female voices to balance Kerouac’s casual misogyny. I can’t help but think her critical neglect is a product of the sexist era in which she wrote.
I call her a poet/writer because her poetry often takes the form of prose vignettes. They tend to be somewhat plotless and seem maybe more like poetry than short stories. This technique was fairly unusual at the time and still feels pretty bold. She wrote how she wanted and let everyone else decide whether it was poetry or whatever.
In 1961 she published her groundbreaking collection “Dinners and Nightmares.” It’s brilliant in an unassuming way— Beat writing without all the show-offy histrionics of Kerouac, Ginsberg or Burroughs. It holds up remarkably well for a modern reader. Probably better than most of the work commonly associated with the Beat movement which can often seem a bit corny and self-regarding in retrospect. Here’s an excerpt:
I remember sitting there with this cat who was half cherokee with a spanish name, a beautiful cat with those cheekbones and lovely eyes, sitting there with him and ordering shrimp and wildrice in a cream sauce after first downstairs the martinis and the second one drunk in such a way that it was settled what we would do that night.
II. Megan Boyle
I think my first exposure to Megan Boyle was reading “Everyone I’ve Had Sex With" on Thought Catalog. Like anyone who reads it I was immediately enamored. Not just because it was titillating but because the manner in which it is written is so fresh and unabashed. I don’t think it’s possible to read that piece without kind of falling in love with Megan.
And as Megan continued to write leading up to the publication of “selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee" her voice sounded so distinctive. Most writers take a long time to develop, maybe using the voice of a writer they admire before they can create something new. But Megan appeared on the scene fully formed, a writer in complete command of her own uniquely endearing style.
Megan writes as if she is observing the world without preconception. She seems experimental not just as a writer but as a person; her childlike sense of wonder is always testing the boundaries of experience and social convention. But this apparent naïveté is belied by the wit and incisiveness of her observations. An undercurrent of sadness is almost (but not quite) buried beneath her indomitable sense of humor. In short, she’s quite charming.
And of course “selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee” turned out to be great. Like di Prima, Megan’s writing felt like poetry though often it was seemingly random slices of life. It had the offhand quality of di Prima and the same kind of straightforward, honest beauty.
i just read another 30 pages of ‘the easter parade’ in the bathtub. someone i sometimes have sex with text messaged me. i am never going to be the woman he wants and he is never going to be the man i want, but we will probably resemble ‘ultimate things we want in a mate’ to each other for awhile and may continue having casual sex.
Megan’s book was stylistically consistent with Muumuu House but not derivative. Much like di Prima was a Beat who didn’t try to out-Kerouac Kerouac, Boyle was a Muumuuvian who was cutting a complementary path instead of following Tao’s footsteps. This is when I really started viewing the Muumuu House scene as something profound, something I had been thinking about for a long time— the next great American literary movement.
III. Shitstorm Arnold
In its early days, Thought Catalog functioned as ground zero for the internet writing movement that would later become Alt Lit and Megan was publishing great piece, after great piece, after great piece. I’m actually nostalgic for this time which is weird because it was only a couple years ago. Going back and reading those articles, the comments sections are fascinating. Tao seemed like more of an active commenter back then, more like ‘one of the gang’ instead of its unassailable lodestar and many future Alt Lit notables were part of the conversation (STD, BSG, TWS, Castro, etc.).
Around this time there was an event dubbed “Shitstorm Arnold" occasioned by Jordan Castro posting an article on HTMLGiant reviewing every piece on the Muumuu House website. The comment section got pretty wild with a lot of the predictable "hipster bullshit" negativity and a lot of snark and half-serious debate. I posted a long comment comparing the Muumuu House writers to the Beats and specifically drawing a comparison between Megan Boyle and Diane di Prima (bonus: see Tao’s classic comment re: his fall out with Zachary German).
I didn’t get much response or ‘likes’ but I got a thrill from putting something out there. I didn’t think anyone would read my tl;dr comment anyway, especially not the writers I admired. But soon afterward, Megan published a new article titled “What Happened to Participants of “Shitstorm Arnold” Ten Minutes After They Commented" in which she wrote short, humorous blurbs about some of the HTMLGiant commenters. And she had included me (I’m under "Aaron" which was my disqus name at the time because… long story). I think this was the moment I tripped the line from someone interested in Muumuu House and the internet literary movement into someone who wanted to be involved with it somehow. Somehow!
And maybe that’s why I’m nostalgic for this time. My literary heroes were so close I could reach out and communicate with them and they cared enough to reply. I don’t know if they were just “nurturing their fan base” or whatever but it felt real. It was moving. Maybe the best way to sum up this feeling, a life-affirming connection that would only be possible for someone like me through the magic of internet communication, is to quote the poet laureate of this beautiful new world, Steve Roggenbuck:
i think it’s weird that it took me years to find any contemporary poets i like, because really, contemporary poets have great advantages over dead ones. if i’m inspired by walt whitman’s poetry, i can’t even tell him about it. i can’t send him a tweet, an email, or a comment about it. we can’t have an extended conversation about anything in his book. all i have is the static text from 150 years ago
living writers can offer a lot more than static texts.
While an aged Diane di Prima still lives in San Francisco, the Diane di Prima of 1961 is forever gone. But somewhere along the Eastern Seaboard Megan Boyle is at the peak of her powers writing her next brilliant collection. And she might even reply to your comment.
IV. Megan Boyle If You’re Out There
It’s not all a happy ending though. I commented on Megan’s piece letting her know how relevant it made me feel. I didn’t go back to the article after leaving my comment and I guess this was before disqus started emailing when people reply. But Megan eventually did reply and mentioned she had ordered a copy of “Dinners and Nightmares.” I finally came back to the article weeks later, saw her comment, and left a reply asking for her opinion of Diane di Prima. She responded that the book hadn’t arrived yet but asked for my email address so she could send me her thoughts.
I replied with my email address but never heard back. I’m still waiting for a message. What did she think of Diane di Prima? What did she think of Diane di Prima? So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.