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Pedro Pietri, the great Nuyorican poet, is very ill

Posted to WritersAndGenres

Pedro Pietri, the innovative, humorous, activist poet of Nuyorican Poet fame, is very ill. Some of you may already know this. I just found out yesterday in the NY Times (article pasted below).

Pietri's "Puerto Rican Obituary" is a modern classic, though sadly hard to locate.

The Times article:

When Life Is Art, Dying Is Simply Not an Option

Published: January 27, 2004

Whatever snowy winter grace that fluttered to earth had already deserted Sedgwick Avenue, where the sidewalk was a slippery gray washboard of ice and dirt. Six flights up, Pedro Pietri sat in a room where the hiss of a radiator gave way to warmer thoughts of the islands - in his case, Manhattan and Puerto Rico.

Those two places - one within view across the 207th Street Bridge, the other just as vivid in his soul - have been his touchstones as a poet chronicling the contradiction of tropical people living in urban wastelands. In the late 1960's, fresh from Vietnam, he enlisted in another battle, this time alongside artists, writers and activists who resolved the paradox of migration by embracing their identity as Nuyoricans, celebrating their dual existence as both Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers.

Few did that better than Mr. Pietri, who captured the absurdities, the heartbreak and the hope of his parents' generation in "Puerto Rican Obituary." An epic elegy for his fellow migrants who turned their backs on their heritage to chase what he saw as an elusive American dream, it won him international acclaim and inspired the Nuyorican cultural movement.

As he produced a nonstop barrage of poems, plays and other performance pieces, Mr. Pietri helped found and nurture the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side, which remains a mecca for performance poets who had not even been born 31 years ago when he published his meditation on a people's lonely spiritual death.

But now, the poet himself is dying. At least that is what doctors told him when they said he had inoperable stomach cancer. Mr. Pietri, weeks shy of 60, has another opinion, a poetic prerogative shared by those who have dared to dream of a Nuyorican utopia. They have rallied around him, exchanging e-mail messages and staging poetry readings to help him raise much of the $30,000 he needs for holistic treatment in Mexico.

"The hospital gave up, but my friends and family will not let me give up," he said at his sister's Bronx apartment shortly before he left for Mexico last week. "Being a poet can be very complicated and a very lonely experience. We have this attitude that we are the only ones, this misconception. But we are not alone."

Always dressed in black and wearing a floppy applejack cap, Mr. Pietri cut a memorable - if sometimes hard-partying or misunderstood - figure. He called himself El Reverendo, presiding over his Church of Our Lady of the Tomatoes, carrying a briefcase filled with condoms that he tossed out at readings.

Black was as much a political choice as it was a fashion statement for Mr. Pietri, who adopted it after serving with a light-infantry brigade in Vietnam.

"I realized who the real enemy was, and it was not the Vietcong in their black pajamas, but the mercenaries who invaded their country," he said. "This is in mourning for that person who died in Vietnam."

The person he became was a poet, who burst upon the scene in 1973 with the book "Puerto Rican Obituary," a collection that has since been translated into Spanish, Italian and German, even though it is difficult to find a copy in the original English.

The title poem is a dirge for the dashed dreams of Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga and Manuel, who never questioned, never complained and died waiting for raises that never came or bickering over who spoke better broken English.

Its power provoked tears and anger among thousands of Puerto Ricans who saw their families in the five. More important, it expressed his credo that to survive in the broken-promise land, they should look at their roots and revel in their culture. Small wonder, it ends on a note of love.

It was, to many, a revelation.

"He captured that social death and the hope that there is recourse to humanity in the Puerto Rican culture that people had cut themselves off from," said Juan Flores, a professor at Hunter College who is helping Mr. Pietri compile an anthology of his work. "It was not just about the poverty, but about the crass materialist culture that leads us all into illusions about ourselves."

Martin Espada, a poet and English professor at the University of Massachusetts, said "Puerto Rican Obituary" inspired him at a time when washing dishes was looming as a career choice.