Piri Thomas, Poet And Novelist, Remembered

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Piri Thomas gave voice to generations of Latino Americans across the U.S. He died Monday at the age of 83. His acclaimed 1967 autobiography, Down These Mean Streets, chronicled his life growing up in New York's Spanish Harlem, and the poverty and racism that he and his community experienced there.

NEAL CONAN, host: Writer and poet Piri Thomas died this week at his home in El Cerrito, California, at the age of 83. As a young man, he robbed people on the streets of New York, used and sold drugs and served seven years in prison. After he got out, he wrote a memoir called "Down These Mean Streets," first published in 1967. It described growing up in what was then called Spanish Harlem in vivid, angry language that continues to be taught in universities today. In 2004, he recalled a bit of his earlier life as he introduced his poem "Born Anew at Each A.M."


PIRI THOMAS: As a young age, I found out that poetry was a way of communicating. I could put what was happening in my words, in my flows, either prose, poetry, whatever. And so when I wrote something, I was putting a chronicle history of what it was like growing up in barrio, el barrio, the barrio. Barrio is the name for a place. The barrio is a place.

The street's got its kicks like a bargain shelf. In fact, cool breeze, it's got love like anyplace else. It's got high-powered salesmen who push mucho junk, hustlers who can swallow you up in a chunk. It's got lights that shine up the dark and make the scene like new. It sells what you don't sell, and never lets you forget what you blew. It's got our children living in all kinds of hell, hoping to survive and making it well, swinging together in misty darkness with all their love to share, smiling a Christ-like forgiveness that only a ghetto cross could bear. Oh, yeah. The streets got life, like a young tender sun's, and gentleness like a long awaited dream to come. For all children are beauty, with the right to be born not to face racist scorn. All children are beauty with the right to be born, born anew at each A.M. Child out of twilight, flying toward sunlight. Born anew at each A.M. (Spanish spoken) Hey, check it out.

CONAN: Poet and novelist Piri Thomas, best remembered for "Down These Mean Streets." He died Monday at the age of 83. On Monday, Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro will join us to talk, not about movies this time, but about the latest in the trilogy of books, "The Stain," "The Fall," and now "The Night Eternal." Join us for that.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll join you again on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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