A Conversation with Tongo Eisen-Martin
Our Editor-in-Chief Micaela Merryman had the privilege of speaking to the current Poet Laureate of San Francisco, Tongo-Eisen Martin. The African-American poet and activist is the author of someone's dead already (Bootstrap Press, 2015), which was nominated for a California Book Award, Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights Publishers, 2017), which received the California Book Award and an American Book Award, and Blood on the Fog (City Lights Publishers, 2021), which the NY Times named as one of the best poetry books of 2021. His work as an activist has shifted the curriculum and education on the extrajudicial killings of black people across the nation.
I wanted to ask how, if at all, as a San Francisco native, your poetry is a critique of the city you grew up in?
The Bay Area is one of the modern empire’s crown jewels and therefore the peculiar gift that keeps giving material. And also an interesting canary in that San Francisco is evidence that domestic colonies of color cannot exist in imperialists’ crack at a post-post-industrial future. This west coast genocide is also interesting in that we have a history of radical cultural production for the boneyard these corporate playgrounds are built on top of. Poetry, among a million metaphors for human theater, is a play about the convergence of social forces (past, present and future); and San Francisco is a relatively interesting seven-way intersection in the so-called United States.
Who were early influences to you as a poet and lyricist?
I’d say my earliest influence was Nina Simone. My mother played her a lot. She provided the standard for the amount of and sophistication of energy that someone could facilitate through art. Also, walking with me through my formative years were the words of Malcolm X. Another standard bearer for the praxis of humanization as the only human activity as long as there are oppressors. Langston Hughes was the first poet the village introduced me to and Gil Scott-Heron was in a comfortable rotation very early. Along the way, almost creating a second childhood for me was Roque Dalton and Audre Lorde.
This country is emerging from a period of intense social and political strife–not to suggest that strife isn’t incessant in this country and we are completely out of the woods yet. How did this period of time in our history inspire your works? Are there any specific moments from the last four years that you would say impacted you significantly in that way?
I think the various movement implosions and deficiencies of a continuity into the day in day out life of people has struck me the most. While masses in general have shown a growing militancy and are suffering from a growing and more violent alienation, I fear that those who would be revolutionaries have not put together organizations for people to join in a daily revolutionary praxis. When this anxiety bounces back on me, it leapfrogs the poetry and challenges the entirety of my day. And so, I am constantly trying to figure out how I can make my entire praxis more scientifically responsible and more internally peaceful (the two most major obstacles for me as someone committed to revolutionary transformation).
The Griffin Poetry Trust in their citation describes your work as a “chorus of other voices”. How has your body work been affected by your experiences teaching at prisons and researching the extrajudicial killings of black people in America?
What the work on jail education and extrajudicial killing of Black people gave me a strong orientation to craft in that positioning your intelligence from the realities of an anonymous toiler is a path to insight and a protection from the interference in craft from the individualism we have all internalized. The mental habits and guiding ideological objectives that political work and education grew in me provided the perfect skeleton of psyche to build poems on. To animate the millions of choruses that produce and are produced by reality.
Tell me about the varying different creative processes for your three books; someone’s dead already, Heaven is all Goodbyes, and Blood on The Fog? What did you learn about yourself and your work writing each one? How do you think your work has evolved between each publication?
I got lucky in that someone’s dead already was written in the spirit of pure experimentation of craft while my life was full of the amplified energy of both loss (of loved ones) and construction (of a life as a 24-7 organizer). This co-submersion created poems that were not even written with personal accomplishment in mind and gave me a new basics of writing that I frequently return to. Heaven Is All Goodbyes was written in a time when these energies were subsiding, but these new basics were maturing; growing almost self-aware in their output. Blood on the Fog came from a return of heavier energies of pain coupled with the first truly new addition to the pedagogy that began with someone’s dead already; which is to apply the meditation techniques to writing that I have been applying to reciting for what is becoming years.
Your work is as inciteful as it is insightful, and you’ve been described for your work as a modern day revolutionary. What kind of revolution in your community do you hope your work incites?
I hope, write and struggle for the day when masses enter a revolutionary praxis finding all species of oppression unacceptable. I am ready for a complete reimagining and production of all processes and structures (economic, educational, military, medical etc.). The cultural healing of hegemonic values we have internalized. And a return to oneness with each other and the rest of the biosphere. And I believe we only get there through revolutionary organizations of people who have committed to daily, (dare I impose) hourly tasks and habits of revolutionary praxis.
Poetry and the way it is delivered to the public has been transformed in recent years since the rise of social media. For a lot of poets it seems easy to fade into relative obscurity and have your work swallowed by hundreds of thousands of others in the digital space. What advice do you have for new, young poets eager to say something to the world at large?
Firstly, you have to make sure that your life and the way you relate to life dances with the true bigger picture of social reality. If you believe you are having an individual adventure in a vacuum apart from the children of asylum seekers that the United States locks in glorified dog kennels (for example), your intelligence will only give you a fraction of what it is capable of producing. You want to be writing for at least two or more hours a day to live at and expand the edge of your craft. You want to collectively take responsibility for the way art is engaged (i.e. the formation of writing groups, and readings, and presses). Study the greats of other disciplines of art as well as those of poetry to gain strategies with your own craft. And constantly be learning about other facets, sciences, histories, cosmologies (etc.) of reality.
You can follow Tongo on Instagram here, and purchase his latest collection of poetry here.