EVERY CHILD IS BORN A POET: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas

The Poems

The Film

Closeup of Piri Thomas’s profile as he looks away, head tilted upwards. In a representation of the story of “Dopey,” children gather around a young boy as he prepares to drink water that has collected in the gutters. Two adult men square-off in a still image from the film reenacting a tense moment between Piri and his brother.

“I thought, ‘God, I wanna get out of this hole. I promise if You help me climb out, I ain't gonna push the cover back on that cesspool. Please let me out and I'll push my arm back down there and help the others climb out.’”
 —Piri Thomas

Combining poetry, documentary and drama, EVERY CHILD IS BORN A POET explores the life and work of Piri Thomas, the 75-year-old Afro-Cuban-Puerto Rican poet and author of Down These Mean Streets. A landmark of modern American literature, this 1967 autobiographical novel continues to be taught in schools for its groundbreaking bilingual style and its realistic portrayal of youth, imprisonment and search for racial identity.

Archival photo of Piri Thomas as a child standing with his three brothers and sister in front of a car.
Piri Thomas (far left), age 15, with
his brothers and sister on Mother's Day

Like the novel, the film traces Thomas’ path from childhood to manhood in New York City’s Spanish Harlem from the 1930s to the 1960s: his home life during the Great Depression, membership in barrio youth gangs, travels as a teenage merchant marine, addiction to heroin, notorious armed robbery of a Greenwich Village nightclub, six years spent in prison and eventual emergence as a writer.

As the first writer of Puerto Rican ancestry to receive national recognition in the United States, Piri Thomas is not just a cultural icon, but also a community treasure. His poetry has inspired and influenced generations of students, artists and activists. But Thomas is not simply a writer. When he started on his own path towards self-reclamation and self-respect, he also made a commitment to help others do the same. Since his release from prison in 1956, Thomas has devoted himself to the development, health and well being of young adults. As a social worker, he pioneered violence prevention and drug treatment efforts. As an educator, he has promoted literacy and taught writing in order to stimulate artistic expression—not only as a means of human enrichment, but also as a tool of individual and community survival. And as a poet, Thomas’ rhythm and style pre-figured rap by decades.

Piri Thomas encourages a young Asian man to keep writing while incarcerated.

A stylized, genre-spanning production, EVERY CHILD IS BORN A POET includes a spellbinding collage of rare archival footage, still photographs and provocative mixed-media artwork, as it explores Thomas’ use of creativity as a means of overcoming violence and isolation. This coming-of-age story is counter-pointed with dramatizations, spoken word and vérité scenes of Thomas’ ongoing work as an educator and activist empowering marginalized and incarcerated youths. Pulsating with an original Latin jazz score, this is a riveting portrait of a life lived through struggle, self-discovery and transformation.

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Piri Thomas