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Dossier: Meet The City’s New Revolutionary Laureate

By Julissa James

Tongo Eisen-Martin
Tongo Eisen-Martin

There’s a picture of San Francisco’s new poet laureate, Tongo Eisen-Martin, from his days at Meadows-Livingstone School in the early ’80s. In it, he and three classmates are holding up a sign that says: “We don’t want your bombs or millis [sic].” His elementary school was one of only a few invited to celebrate the docking of an aircraft carrier in San Francisco, an event that was advertised as “fun” — but Eisen- Martin and his crew pulled a guerrilla move and showed up with anti-war posters. “Some people are raised in the church,” he tells the Gazette. “I was definitely raised at the rallies, raised at the protests.”

Eisen-Martin is the author of the critically acclaimed Heaven Is All Goodbyes (2017), someone’s dead already (2015) and the forthcoming Blood on the Fog, which he calls “the best book I ever wrote in my life,” due out in the fall. He’s also co-founder of Black Freighter Press, whose mission is to publish revolutionary books by Black and brown writers. He caught up with the Gazette to talk about old San Francisco, the experiences that inform his work, and poetry as a revolutionary act.

Growing up. Eisen-Martin was seemingly never not engaged in movement efforts. It was an upbringing that provided him with an “immune system” and compass, he says. “I was made aware that raising consciousness and contributing to a struggle, even when nobody else is, was just duty.” He describes his mother, longtime activist and author Arlene Eisen, as someone “who takes the world’s oppression personally and then takes that compassion and empathy and makes it kinetic.”

Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Eisen- Martin left San Francisco at 18 to attend Columbia University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in African American studies. But his education as a poet came from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side, where he looked to legends and up-and-comers for inspiration. “There were poets like Sarah Jones, like muMs the Schemer, like Saul Williams, who really were pushing themselves to the edge of their psyches, to the edge of their energies,” he recalls.

Baseline. Eisen-Martin has been a youth educator for years in schools and detention centers around the country, and his curriculum We Charge Genocide Again! — based on Operation Ghetto Storm, his mother’s 2012 report of more than 300 extrajudicial killings of Black people — has been taught across the nation. He sees his background as an educator as the baseline for his poetry, an art that he believes is a kind of education itself.

“When you take 100 million anonymous walks through this city, when you’ve been just the random 12-year-old on the back of the bus, when you’re just a small creature of the material realities of San Francisco, to end up with this kind of public incarnation — it is a trippy pit stop.”

Poetry’s role. Cultural work and the arts are an important part of facilitating change, Eisen-Martin believes. Poets, he says, are the “most susceptible to transformations of mass consciousness because we’re right there subtitling the human imagination.” In a February episode of the San Francisco Public Press podcast “Civic,” host Laura Wenus asks Eisen-Martin, “Should we call you San Francisco’s revolutionary laureate?” He lets out a loud, hoarse laugh before responding: “Yes, immediately!”

Reflections. Poetry has been in the nation’s — and especially California’s — collective consciousness this year with the death of City Lights legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti and L.A. native Amanda Gorman’s reading at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. “Her dynamic grasp of language has a maturity,” Eisen- Martin says of Gorman.

Advice to young poets. Even the most celebrated poet in the world can achieve only so much, Eisen-Martin says, frankly. His advice to those coming after him? “It would be irresponsible of me to tell the next generation to orient themselves around anything other than complete social transformation,” Eisen-Martin says. “But if there’s any insight that’s useful to know, that’s useful to your humanity in general, it is to just have a critical relationship to your craft.”

Poet laureate. “There’s no other public opportunity like [it],” Eisen-Martin says of getting the gig. “The library might be the only true institutional triumph of the people.” One of the beautiful things about being named poet laureate has been the opportunity to make the people he grew up with proud, Eisen-Martin says. “When you take 100 million anonymous walks through this city, when you’ve been just the random 12-year-old on the back of the bus, when you’re just a small creature of the material realities of San Francisco, to end up with this kind of public incarnation — it is a trippy pit stop.”

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