Coins and Coffins, 1962
Discrepancies and Apparitions, 1966
The George Washington Poems, 1967
Inside the Blood Factory, 1968
The Moon Has a Complicated Geography, 1969
The Magellanic Clouds, 1970
The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, 1971
Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, 1973
Looking for the King of Spain, 1974
Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands, 1975
Waiting for the King of Spain, 1976
The Man Who Shook Hands, 1978
Cap of Darkness, 1980
The Magician’s Feastletters, 1982
The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13, 1984 (part 1 pb. in 1968)
The Rings of Saturn, 1986
Emerald Ice: Selected Poems, 1962-1987, 1988
Medea the Sorceress, 1991
Jason the Sailor, 1993
The Emerald City of Las Vegas, 1995
Argonaut Rose, 1998
The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems, Including “Greed: Part 14,” 2000
Creating a Personal Mythology, 1975
Toward a New Poetry, 1980
Diane Wakoski has become well known for the “personal mythology” she has woven by imaginatively reworking her own history into mythic poem-stories. Born in the small California town of Whittier, Wakoski endured a childhood marked by poverty, separation from her father, and feelings of disassociation from her family and community. When she was fifteen months old, her father joined the Navy, and from then on she saw him only on his brief visits home, while his marriage to her mother came apart. Wakoski’s feelings of abandonment from this early experience played a large role in her later life and influenced her writing. She began writing poems when she was seven years old. Later, attending Fullerton High School, she was encouraged in her writing by her teachers. She also belonged to a poetry club that met after school, and she haunted the school library.
Wakoski attended the University of California at Berkeley, where her teachers included poets Thomas Parkinson, Thom Gunn, and Josephine Miles. Writers who strongly influenced her at this stage of her career included Wallace Stevens, Federico García Lorca, and Gertrude Stein. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1960, she moved to New York City with composer La Monte Young; there she worked in a bookstore, acquired a temporary teaching credential, and taught in a junior high school. Throughout this time she wrote prolifically. Her first book, Coins and Coffins, which contains a number of dramatic narrative poems, was published in 1962. In 1965 she married a photographer, S. Shepard Sherbell; they were later divorced, and she married Michael Watterland in 1973.
Although Wakoski has been given the label “confessional poet,” she has several times stated her dislike for the term, which to her implies that using one’s personal experience in writing is wrong, that the experiences described are neurotic, and that imagination plays no role in transforming such experience into poetry with larger implications. She began creating her own personal mythology when she was still in college, after falling in love with Greek tragedy and with the long story poems of California writer Robinson Jeffers.
She makes reference in some poems to having borne two children out of wedlock, and in a long autobiographical essay published in 1984 she describes giving this son and daughter up for adoption. However, many other characters who appear in Wakoski’s poems (including “the King of Spain,” “the Blue Moon Cowboy,” “George Washington,” and others) are either fictitious or are very loosely based on people the poet has known. Even the “Dianes” who turn up from work to work are often just aspects of the writer’s self, creatures who change personality from poem to poem.
Much of Wakoski’s work has been sparked by the failure of various relationships with men, and her most commercially successful book, The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, came as the result of her breakup with motorcycle racer Tony Weinberger. The book is dedicated “to all those men who betrayed me at one time or another, in hopes they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks.”
Wakoski was for a number of years an itinerant poet, giving as many as eighty readings a year and teaching occasional writing workshops. In the early 1970’s she held posts at colleges and universities throughout the United States and won National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships while continuing to write voluminously. In 1975 she began an affiliation with Michigan State University in East Lansing, where she eventually became a permanent faculty member in the English department. In 1983 she married photographer Robert Turney, her third husband. Throughout her career she has won a large following of readers, but she received little critical honor until 1989, when she was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award for Emerald Ice.
Much of Wakoski’s work draws heavily on place. California, her early home, recurs throughout her poems, as does Las Vegas, where she has often been a visiting writer. Las Vegas plays a large role in her thirteen-part poem Greed, which was published in small segments beginning in 1968 and gathered under one cover in 1984. A fourteenth part was published in The Butcher’s Apron in 2000.
The author of more than forty books of poetry, Wakoski has long been one of the most prolific of contemporary American poets. Her work revolves around a quest for beauty and for love, sex, and romance. She seldom writes in established poetic forms but rather lets each poem find its own form organically. Wakoski’s poems are often extraordinarily beautiful in their juxtaposition of everyday objects and philosophical ideas.