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

The Poems

The Poet

In dramatic shadows, Piri Thomas, wearing a vest and sleeveless undershirt, stands in front of a blackboard and performs a poem with his arms outstretched towards the camera.

Young Piri Thomas in glasses and a button-down shirt walks though the streets of Spanish Harlem.

Piri Thomas was born in Harlem Hospital in 1928 and raised in New York City’s East Harlem. Considered one of the preeminent figures of Nuyorican, or New York Puerto Rican, literary culture, both Thomas’ career and fame as an author were launched in 1967 with his autobiographical novel Down These Mean Streets, which detailed his coming of age during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. One of the most important books on ethnic identity formation and urban issues in post-war America, Down These Mean Streets was cited by the New York Times as being one of “The 10 Best Books About New York.” The book’s Spanish-language edition was published recently by Vintage Español.

In addition to Down These Mean Streets, Thomas' writings include Seven Long Times, about his time in prison for armed robbery and attempted murder; Savior, Savior Hold My Hand, about his work with youth gangs in Harlem after his release from prison; and Stories from El Barrio, a collection of short stories. Thomas' writings have been included in many anthologies, including Prison Writings in Twentieth Century America, Growing Up Hispanic, The Latino Reader and Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe.

Thomas’ poetry, prose and performance style have influenced generations of writers and spoken word artists. Two collections of his “word songs,” Sounds of the Streets and No Mo' Barrio Blues, were recently released on CD. Thomas currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area and continues to travel across the United States, presenting dramatic readings and creative writing workshops in schools, universities, prisons and other institutions.

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Piri Thomas