Interview with Piri Thomas - Part 3
Of Prisons, Wordsongs, Self-determination and Laughter
Piri Thomas, poet, writer and storyteller, is the author of the sixties classic Down These Mean Streets and many other books including Stories from El Barrio, and Seven Long Times. Piri Thomas also has recorded two CD's of wordsongs. This interview, conducted in his home in the San Francisco Bay Area is divided into three sections. The first two sections are an in-depth response to the first question which deals with the Piri Thomas's inspiration to start writing, and specifically the inspiration for Down These Mean Streets. Interview and photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: You visit a lot of prisons still. Why do you do that?
Piri Thomas: That I can stand there with the grace of God (and God to me is spelt g-o-o-d). If you ever say the word you can open up the prison of the mind. I want to give those brothers hope. Because they can look at me, and a lot of them have read the books. They look at me and they say, "Man if you can do it, I can do it too." But the thing is we can be our worst enemies. Once we find out we are our worst enemies then it is time to be friends. Do you realize that I actually shook hands with myself in prison. So I could become my friend. I tried everything bro.
In Motion Magazine: What do the prisoners say to you when you talk to them?
Piri Thomas: We read each other's poetry. We discuss with each other life. I said I don't know where you are going but when you are getting there, be your selves. I told them what I had done. Not to serve time, but to have time serve you. To educate your mind, not to eradicate it. It don't take much to die, it doesn't take much to kill. An eighth of an ounce of pressure on a trigger and you can blow somebody away. Those bullets get bigger and bigger. They got Uzis. They were listening because I was telling my own experience. I ain't saying nothing to them that I had read in a book. I am saying what I have lived. I am a book. A living book, just like you. Volumes of life, pages of experiences. That's you. That's what I am reading.
In Motion Magazine: What are some of the reactions you get?
Piri Thomas: Well, for example, in the Trenton State Prison, New Jersey. I went there. I spoke to these brothers from my heart. They were so strong these brothers, grrrrrrr. And the wardens recorded it on video. (They call themselves supervisors now. They don't want to be called wardens anymore - politically correct, you know.) A week later I got news from the prison that they had taken that videotape out and showed it to the whole population. There was a quiet you could hear a pin drop. A brother was saying, "Who's that?" "A brother named Piri. He talks his flows."
Sincerity cannot be simulated. An actor simulates a role, but you being the artist you are the role. You're not pretending. We're living it, constantly. But not with the same attitude I had before. The system had taught me to think of myself as a less-than.
I tell the brothers in prison, and I tell the sisters in prison, you are not a less-than. That's what the word minority means. It's another word for less-than. Another word for niggers and spics. You can say minority, if you are talking about a political office, but not about a human being. We are not minorities, we are each one a majority of one. Similar to each other, but like fingerprints not the same. That was my sense of dignity they could not take away. Papa said no one can take away your sense of dignity, no matter how much they beat you. Only you can give it away. Or sell it.
Some of the people I've met recently in prison, they don't have a concept of what they have done. It's all shoot 'em up. This was the way to live. I did it. The strong survive.
It's hard to go into prisons. I have to really prepare myself because I have to ask the spirit to help the brothers forget that there are bars all around us. That's what we do, we create a place without bars. When they go back to their cells they got food for thought.
In Motion Magazine: Why do they let you go into prisons?
Piri Thomas: I go in as a writer. I go as a poet. And besides that I've earned my rights back. I had Bobby Kennedy and others sign so I could get my rights re-instated. They couldn't pardon me completely for the armed robberies, but they re-installed all my rights so I could vote, I could do this. I earned my way back working with gang kids in New York City right out of prison.
In Motion Magazine: Do you do a lot of readings and talks?
Piri Thomas: I do quite a bit. I do universities, the colleges, libraries, literacy programs, whatever is there. Political prisoners. Brothers and sisters imprisoned for sixty, seventy years for advocating the independence of Puerto Rico. A lot from the '50s and some new ones too.
In Motion Magazine: How would you compare the conversations you have in the prisons to the ones you have at Rutgers?
Piri Thomas: Not much different because I ain't looking at those brothers and sisters in those prisons as inmates. They are human beings to me, man. They are just in a different kind of school. The school of hard knocks. The school of do right.
In the school they are asking what it's like in the prisons. But in the prisons they already know what it's like. What they are looking for is something beyond that they can do. I'm telling them that part of the thing that they can do when they go back to their cells is not be doing instant reaction replays but educate their minds, and come out better than when you went in. You got so much time You are really wealthy in time you guys. You are locked in that 8 by 9 by 10 cell for 10, 15 hours sometimes. When I would write the hours would go, the days would go.
In Motion Magazine: You mentioned Puerto Rico. What is the status of self-determination for Puerto Rico?
Piri Thomas: We've had that going on and on. There's a percentage that are for statehood, they want to be part of the United States. Even though Hawai'i has told them please don't become a state. They are suffering in Hawai'i. They are going to do a plebiscite again. Every time they do it people want to stay with the status quo, which is a commonwealth. I disagree because a commonwealth means just that: common for the people and wealth for the carpet-baggers. They make the money and pull it out of Puerto Rico.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think Puerto Rico should be independent?
Piri Thomas: I think that the same independence that the colonies fought to gain from England ... . We want our independence too. What's wrong with a small island having it's independence? It was an island nation when the same General Miles that was responsible for Wounded Knee came and began to kill more Indians in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
In Motion Magazine: Why do you think such a small percentage votes for independence?
Because of the food coupons people are dependent on the U.S. They are afraid that without Uncle Sam they will not be able to exist. Here we have an island where if you go to places like Cabo Rojo you have flat fertile land to grow enough food for the island. You've got a whole sea full of fish and lobsters. Yet we've got no fishing fleet. We used to grow our sugar, but the sugar goes straight to America where they sell it at another price. The only ones who want to deal are the business people that have tied their fortunes to America - so they want statehood. Me, I just believe in the right to self-determination.
People ask me what are you doing worrying about Puerto Rico when you were born in Harlem Hospital, New York City? I say justice is for all isn't it?
I have my own opinion.
I saw the aftermath of places like Dachau and Auschwitz when I was a kid. I've looked into the eyes of a skeleton riding on a bicycle. His eyes and mine caught. This man with numbers on him, that's how close we were.
In Motion Magazine: Where were you?
Piri Thomas: I went to France as a sailor. I saw this man look at me and I looked at him and somewhere in me I said "Coño, if whites can do that to whites, what will they do to us?" Inside my heart another voice said to me, "What have they not already done?" But the dictators come in all colors.
Wisdom comes from not repeating the errors that you have made. If you keep repeating the errors that you have made then you have learned nothing. I learned I was never going to do this again. As soon as that bullet hit me I already knew I was rehabilitated. They didn't have to send me to no jail. but they did anyway.
In Motion Magazine: To go back to your work. Do you see your two wordsong CDs as a logical extension of your writing?
Piri Thomas: Of course. Everything is creative, whatever media you use. I'm also doing it with film. We're working a documentary that I'm going to show you. For years, people have said to me you need lyrics to go with music but prose is poetry is lyrics also. I believed we could have a marriage of poetry with music.We call them wordsongs. It works. Other people have done it over the years too. What I did was I asked the musicians to listen to me say the flow, without no music. Then the rhythm of my words became musical notes to these musicians. They were creating with it. We were together in that flow.
Creations without hesitations. After they heard the rhythm we were able to do eight straight takes without one retake. Then the ninth we had to do over again because the electrical plug came out from the bass. Otherwise - home run. Musical people practice that - they call it dada. Creations without hesitations. We all tune in, everyone tunes in and we become as one. That's when you have magic on-stage doing jazz. Chord not in discord. People call it prayer, meditation. I say it's a flow. I've got so much to learn, but I'm way ahead of where I used to be. I keep on going. In seven months I will be 70 years old. My second mother, my spiritual mother, a week before she made her transition, I asked how long did I have, she said till 83. I said you mean this year, because it was 1983, she said no, no, when you are 83. I said to myself, in that case I'm going to ask for an extension. I'm going to reach a hundred and then I'm going to retire and be a playboy for the next fifty years. And I laughed and laughed.
My father, even during the depression used to laugh a lot. He told me this joke. He was coming home from work. He had a shift where when he came back the trains were practically empty. He was on a subway train, sitting at one end, and at the other end was another man. He said he watched this man and this man would sit quietly and then burst out laughing. Sit quietly and burst out laughing. So he went to the man and said what is it that you are doing? Sometimes you sit, and shake your head and don't say nothing. And other times you burst out in laughter. "Oh" the man said "I'm telling myself jokes. When I go like this (shakes his head) it's that I've heard them before. And when I laugh - they are brand new."
A silly little thing like that it brings you laughter. Can you see the secret that laughter heals?
In Motion Magazine: You were saying you wrote Down These Mean Steets twice?
When I finally got that manuscript in prison to the point that it looked like a monk had put the artwork into the writing, well that's the one that when I came out of prison, by accident it was tossed, without a copy, into the incinerator. All of it. When I found out what had happened tears jumped into my eyes. It was like they had killed a child of me. I was crying. I said, "Hey man, you wrote it once, you can do it again." Out of that was born the final "Down These Mean Streets." Most of the stuff came back to me. I had it in me, I didn't realize that I could repeat it.
Published in In Motion Magazine, January 21, 1998
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