Puerto Rican Obituary: The Work of Pedro Pietri and New Book Selected Poetry

Pedro-Pietri pp
Pedro Pietri performing at the Poetry Project in New York City.

“There was no one in this country as ferocious as brilliant or as necessary as Pedro Pietri. In these days of growing inequality it is his rebel vision I turn to for hope and for strength. A towering poet, absolutely peerless, explosively talented, a pioneer, and iconoclast, and activist, to whom the entire spoken word movement owes a debt beyond calculation.”—Junot Diaz

Pedro Pietri was a poet known for redefining the standards of spoken wordThrough the 1970s and 80s his humorous yet hauntingly truthful performances awakened the souls of many Puerto Rican immigrants who had fallen asleep on unfulfilled dreams. Though many would have liked to have called New York their home, it is obvious from Pietri’s work that a warm welcome was never offered them.

His most well-known poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” offers this much. This footage, unearthed for the 40th anniversary of the Young Lords Party, which Pietri was a very active member, shows him reciting the poem at the height of this movement. He first read the poem at the Young Lords’ takeover of the First Methodist Church, back in December 28, 1969.

Pedro Pietri’s other work is noted for being often playfully absurd, which chronicle the joys and struggles of Nuyoricans—urban Puerto Ricans whose lives straddle the islands of Puerto Rico and Manhattan—and define the Latino experience in urban America. Angry, heartbreaking, and hopeful, his writings are imbued with a sense of pride and nationalism and were embraced by the generation of Latino poets that followed him.

Some, like the “Telephone Booth” poems from his book Out of Order negotiate this effortlessly, displaying a kind of playfulness and truth one can track line by line.

“Telephone Booth Number 905 1/2”

woke up this morning
feeling excellent,
picked up the telephone
dialed the number of
my equal opportunity employer
to inform him I will not
be into work today
Are you feeling sick?
the boss asked me
No Sir I replied:
I am feeling too good
to report to work today,
if I feel sick tomorrow
I will come in early

Pedro Pietri’s influence later led to the development of the Nuyorican Movement, a cultural and intellectual movement made up of poets, writers, musicians and artists of Puerto Rican descent who live in or near New York. Its purpose was to validate the Puerto Rican experience in New York during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and shed light on the discrimination and ostracism toward poor and working-class people.

In his lifetime, he published more than 20 books of poetry and plays. Pietri died in 2004 at the age of 59. Democracy Now! aired this obituary of their own soon after.

Pietri’s work is gathered in the new book from City Lights, Pedro Pietri: Selected Poetry, edited by the late Juan Flores and Pedro López Adorno. This book features the most enduring and treasured work among his published books, Puerto Rican Obituary, Traffic Violations, and Out of Order—and contains a generous selection of his previously unpublished works. Find it at citylights.com or ask for it at your local independent bookseller.

Mural of Pietri outside of El Museo del Barrio in New York City’s Upper East Side.

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