'Every Child is Born a Poet' - Piri ThomasPeople keep getting born, so there must be some who haven't heard yet of Piri Thomas. Most people find out about him when they're about 14. A sensitive teacher turns them on, or another kids says, "Hey! You godda read this book!"
The book, of course, is Down These Mean Streets, which Piri started to write as a teenager when he was in prison for a botched holdup. That was before he took his mother's nickname for him as his pen name (his prison record says "John Thomas"). The book was his way of transforming himself from a confused, violent, self-disgusted kid into the poet and performer he is today. Born to a Cuban-Puerto Rican couple in Harlem in 1928, saved from total self-destruction from drugs or violence by prison, he went back to Harlem and to other communities like that to awaken pride and a sense of possibility in other young men.
Now, one of the other kids touched by his story -- Jonathan Robinson, now grown up to be a filmmaker -- has finally finished his 10-year movie-making collaboration with Piri, to show his life, his performances of some of his poems and stories (including a hilarious presentation of "La Peseta," in which Piri takes all the parts -- Mama, Poppi, and naughty little Piri), and some of Piri's work with juvenile offenders in a California prison. I caught it, and had a chance to meet the jovial, life-affirming poet, at Anthology Film Archives the other night. "Every Child is Born a Poet" is supposed to be shown on public television in April, and should appear in other venues. Watch for it.
Piri Thomas' web site. If you click on "Reviews," you'll find a quote from my book Hispanic Nation.