At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.
When you enter the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on East 3rd Street, if you turn to your right just inside the door, you’ll see a striking poster, high up on the wall. It commands attention and anchors the space. The poster is from a movie called Piñero, and the artist who inspired that film was an enigmatic outlaw poet who brought lyricism and brutal truth to his work in verse, theater, and film. Along with fellow poets Pedro Pietri, Sandra María Esteves, and Miguel Algarín, Miguel Piñero helped launch the Nuyorican literary movement and its eponymous Cafe. Piñero and his colleagues won a place at the cultural table for artists of color whose work exists outside the mainstream.
Photograph by Tatiana Breslow
Mikey Piñero possessed a heightened creative fervor and he blazed a memorable trail through New York City’s cultural scene. He was a complicated man, and he came up through challenging circumstances. Mikey entered the welfare system, the gang system, and the prison system at an early age. His landmark play Short Eyes was composed while he served a term in Sing-Sing.
But in the face of hardship, Piñero developed a willingness to subvert literary convention and dodge the constraints of the entertainment industry. The literary scene of the early 1970s was not a welcoming place for Latino poets or playwrights, especially those outside the academic sphere. But Piñero helped to bring the rhythms of street life and elements of Latino identity into the mainstream cultural consciousness.
His work depicted brutal realities of urban existence. In one of his best-known poems, Piñero praised the Lower East Side’s “fancy cars and pimp’s bars and juke saloons and greasy spoons”, as well as the neighborhood’s “stabbing shooting gambling fighting & unnatural dying & new birth crying.”
The Lower East Side of 2013 is not the neighborhood that Mikey Piñero knew. To love the LES during Piñero’s time was to love a hard-scrabble, drug-saturated landscape that nonetheless bled culture and birthed magnificent works of art. Gone are many grassroots fixtures of Piñero’s East Village, as well as its drug dens and violent reputation. Yet the mix of cultural and artistic influences that Piñero embodied remains a consistent subtext of the neighborhood, and of New York City as a whole.
Piñero’s art spoke to the conflicts and harmonies inherent in dual identity. The works he wrote about the interplay between Puerto Rican and New York City culture continue to resonate with artists and audiences who dwell at the intersection of multiple communities.
Mikey and the other founders of the Nuyorican literary movement broadened the field of poetry—they expanded the art form’s reach, diversity, complexity, and accessibility. Mikey Piñero showed us that art not only survives but flourishes in difficult conditions, and that a Latino poet raised in poverty can take his place among the pantheon of celebrated literary figures.
Many authors live on through their written work, long after they themselves have passed. Piñero lives on through the verse, energy, ferocity, and pride of New York City’s performance poets, as well as through artists in hip hop and theater who have embraced the raw immediacy of his verse and playwriting.
Just as that poster stares down from the wall of the Cafe, inspiring and challenging each poet who stands on our stage, so the body of Piñero’s work stands above the contemporary poetic scene as a reminder and a promise.
Today’s spoken word artists have learned from Piñero’s legacy the potential of verse to elevate, to motivate, and to illuminate. We at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe are grateful that the Empire State Center for the Book and the New York Writers Hall of Fame have chosen to honor one of our founders, Miguel Piñero.
Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker
Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen
Dan Barry on Alice McDermott