Remembering Artist Piri Thomas

Posted on October 25, 2011

Piri Thomas — the subject of ITVS’s Every Child is Born a Poet (2004), passed away last week. ITVS veteran Richard Saiz remembers the writer and poet.


Piri Thomas, the subject of Every Child is Born a Poet, the ITVS documentary that aired on Independent Lens in 2004, was a writer, performer and poet who drew his inspiration from the tough, unforgiving streets of Spanish Harlem in upper Manhattan during the middle of the last century. Drugs, street gangs, crime, and eventually imprisonment consumed Thomas’ evolution from youth to adulthood.  Writing probably saved his life when his autobiography, Down These Mean Streets was published in 1967 to critical praise.

He became the first Puerto Rican writer to reach such prominence in the literary world at that time. Thomas’ distinctive poetic style was the precursor to the youth poetry slams that exploded in the 1990s. Director, Jonathan Robinson, beautifully captures his voice, infused with a syncopated, rhythmic style, in the documentary. But as significant as his artistic life was, his fervent commitment and involvement with young people, especially minority youth was just as important.  

He dedicated much of his life to working with them both in New York and later in the Bay Area. I’ll never forget the day I met Piri, at a community youth center. It was remarkable that in spite of the adversity he had endured through so much of his life, he displayed such playfulness with everyone and was so attuned to the kids at the center who clearly loved him! The poetic child in Piri was very much alive.    


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