By Brynn Saito, Program Coordinator for the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
Last Tuesday, San Francisco’s Poet Laureate, Diane di Prima—literary light from the Beat movement and former educator in CIIS’ Women’s Spirituality department—gave the 5th annual inaugural address titled “Poetry and Spirituality” in the Koret Auditorium of SF’s Main Library. Mostly, di Prima spoke of her past: her early theater work in Manhattan, her decision to leave New York, becoming a mother, becoming an activist, and her arrival to San Francisco in the 1960s—“city of sunlight, city of kindness” (a far cry from cold, cramped quarters of The East).
When a young woman asked di Prima how poetry is related to spirituality, she recalled her days at CIIS: “I asked my students, What is spirituality? And no one could give me an answer!” she said in her candid New York accent. After much discussion, the class reached a consensus: spirituality is a feeling of connectedness—to the earth, to a struggle, to a community, or to another person.
I began to think of my recent relocation from NYC to this “city of sunlight,” and my relationship, as a poet, to all things spiritual. Though much like di Prima, I was itching to flee an eastern hardness for the western sky, I’ll always be grateful to NYC for its lessons in grit and beauty: New York, with its sheer concentration of artists and art events, showed me that poetry had the power to create communities, sharpen the mind, and deepen the spirit. Or, as CIIS Professor Robert McDermott put it at an artists’ salon last semester, “putting the right words in the right order is a spiritual practice.” It requires your whole heart, your whole mind, and usually a very still body.
It also requires faith. Waiting for the muse is a little like waiting for God, and therefore requires the audacity to keep showing up to the writing desk (or the blank easel, or the empty stage), knowing full well that the muse might not appear at all. But if art-making is your life's work, and you can't help but make art, and you need art to survive, then you have no choice but to keep showing up.
As a poet, I’ve learned to let go. When I write, I'm deeply inside the mysterious and uncertain world of memory and emotion; in some sense, I'm utterly lost. But being lost is about the unfamiliar appearing or, as the writer Rebecca Solnit says, "once you get lost, the world has become larger than your knowledge of it."
How exciting. Perhaps the truest spiritual practice doesn't teach you how to avoid mystery—which is really only a poetic word for anxiety and uncertainty—but teaches you how to be at home in it, to the point where you can learn from it, harness it, and let it change you.
“I don’t feel comfortable on a day I haven’t written,” said Diane di Prima. “I don’t know what I’m up to that day.” When di Prima writes, she is “touching down” on the deepest part of her soul—the part of her that discloses her connectedness to the world around her—and what she is “up to” is revealed.