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Piñero & the Poet’s Life
Michael Salinger interviews Dahveed Ben Israel
 More of this Feature
• “The Bowery,” a poem by Linda Lerner
 Join the Discussion
•  & the Poet’s Life
“Have any of you seen this film? What do you think it says about the relation between suffering & creativity, the poet’s life, Piñero as a role model, and the need for poetic communities...”
   --Margy Snyder, Poetry Guide
 Elsewhere on the Web
• The Last Poets online
• Piñero at Slant magazine
• Article on Piñero’s work & the making of the film by Don Shewey
• Miguel Algarín’s account of Piñero’s funeral at SoundPortraits.org
• Michael Salinger’s Web site

I am a poet in Cleveland, Ohio. For the opening run of the film Piñero I was asked to perform some of Miguel Piñero’s work before a screening. Also performing the work of the Nuyorican Poets Café co-founder was Dahveed Ben Israel, formerly known as David Nelson -- one of the founding members of the Last Poets, the seminal performance troupe that were birthed on the anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday in 1968.

As interesting as the movie were Dahveed’s comments afterwards, and he accepted my request for a short interview.

Michael Salinger

Michael Salinger: First off, what did you think of Piñero, the film?

Dahveed Ben Israel: I thought Piñero was a well done film and it was successful in bringing a poetic cinema experience to the story of a poet’s life. It went a little beyond flattery in its mimicking of some of The Last Poets’ film Right On, and I think the filmmaker was a little too intent on making us aware that this was a poetic tale of a poet’s life. Perhaps he was trying to establish his premise partially through style: A tortured life leads to poetic expression.

In watching the film I had to wonder, was Miguel Piñero’s lifestyle a necessary component in the creative process for him? If he had been able to “clean up” do you think his art would have dried up?

You raise a very interesting point. I believe that there are forces in this society, controlling forces, that want us to live under the illusion that all art flows from tortured artists. For Piñero, I would guess that idea would hold true. If he changed his lifestyle he probably would have experienced a period of dryness in terms of his perception of his creativity. I believe that every artist must face the challenge of discovering the creative life source of his art, if he is to live to become a mature and a great artist. Piñero died before he discovered his truly life-affirming art.

Piñero was one of the founders of the Nuyorican Poets Café. How important is it for writers to have a community such as the Nuyorican? What are the advantages of having a peer group of artists with a common social background, and does this outweigh the self-imposed segregation of such groups?

The issue of life affirmation is key in terms of this question. A group of “victims” protesting their victimization is not a good idea of community. Likewise, neither is a group of hedonists with a social consciousness that elevates carnal vices to folk status. Shooting heroin, drinking, or indulging in sex as a kind of narcotic may seem like the only way to survive an oppressive society, but in really it is a trick that the evil oppressive forces use to maintain control. The Nuyorican Café is a part of a post-60s trend in poetry that has lost social consciousness and holds hedonism as its central value. Surely the narrow interest of such groups, with its lowering of values, far outweighs any positivity that might accrue from the peer support.

Everybody seems to love a tragedy, whether it is the artist’s life cut short by a liver shutting down due to substance abuse, as in Piñero’s case, or the gunning down of Tupac Shakur. Would you agree that today’s Western media- driven society glorifies self-abuse and violence?

You struck a chord once again. You hit the nail on the head. This world is under the influence of cultural forces that glorify sex and violence in every form of expression. Sado-masochism is big business. There is a line from a character in a poem by one of my fellow Last Poets that goes, “Where’s my wine, I’ve got to ease my mind.” The character is killing his liver, shortening his life, and abusing himself, in exchange for a momentary escape from the suffering of his oppressive existence. This society encourages that type of behavior. Notice the churches and liquor stores side by side on every corner of the ghetto.

What lesson would you hope a young writer, or activist, would walk away with after seeing the film Piñero?

Piñero as neither a writer nor an activist. If we set standards for writers as having to do with studying and learning a craft that is then used to communicate significant truth concerning society, Piñero would fail to qualify. There is very little in his legacy that shows him to be an activist and so he has essentially negative learnings to offer these two groups. Don’t be like Piñero! If you aspire to be a writer/activist, you must first of all plan to live. You must escape the hedonism of this society and live a humble life of discipline and service. You must find true values, life-affirming values to serve as the foundation of your art. There are always predators waiting to victimize those disposed to serve as victims. We need poetry that affirms the coming of a new world based upon eternal holy values.
I hope seeing Piñero will inspire a few poets to step forward and write the poetry of the new world. After all somebody has to save the rain forests, heal the ozone, bring families together, put food, real food in our markets, clean up the water and the air, and stop the steady stream of violence and destruction from menacing our lives. Seeing Piñero reaffirmed that for me. I hope it does the same for you.

To read Miguel Piñero’s work:

(Arte Público Press, 2002) The only collection of Piñero’s poetry in print, just out from Arte Público, the brilliant publisher of Hispanic literature at the University of Houston.
Short Eyes
(Noonday Press, 1975) The prison play for which Piñero is best known, first produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1975.
The Sun Always Shines for the Cool/Midnight Moon at the Greasy Spoon/Eulogy for a Small Time Thief
(Arte Público Press, 1984) Three of Piñero’s plays, trips through Loisaida Nuyorican streets, also from Arte Público Press.
Outrageous One Act Plays
(Players Press, 1987) A collection of his short stage pieces.

For more about Dahveed Ben Israel and The Last Poets: On a Mission, The Last Poets: Selected Poems and a History of the Last Poets (Owlet, 1996) -- but first of all, listen to The Last Poets’ recordings: Time Has Come (Mouth Almighty, 1997), Freedom Express (UK: Charly, 1989), Holy Terror (Rykodisc, 1995), Real Rap (UK: Recall, 1999), The 1st Album (Fuel 2000 Records, 2002).

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Michael Salinger is a poet, performer, and instigator of literacy and creative writing through workshops which he presents across the country. His book Neon (Bottom Dog Press, 2002) is available through Bottom Dog Press, Collinwoodmedia.org, or by order from any bookstore.

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