Tongo Eisen-Martin ’04 is Bringing Poetry to the People

Tongo Eisen-Martin
San Francisco native Tongo Eisen-Martin ’04, GSAS’05 recently became the city’s eighth poet laureate, with a plan to build a cultural movement in the rapidly changing city. Eisen-Martin, who describes his poetry as his “cosmic book report,” is the author of the poetry collections someone’s dead already (2015) and Heaven Is All Goodbyes (2017); his third book will be released this fall. He also developed the curriculum We Charge Genocide Again!, which focuses on the extrajudicial killing of Black Americans; it has been used by educators nationwide since its 2012 creation.

In her remarks announcing his appointment, mayor London Breed said, “[I] look forward to seeing what he will accomplish in this role. His work on racial justice and equity, along with his commitment to promoting social and cultural change, comes at such a critical time for our city and our country.” CCT spoke with Eisen-Martin soon after his appointment; the below is an excerpt from our conversation:

What does it mean to you to be chosen as your hometown’s poet laureate?

I am absolutely a product of San Francisco; I don’t exist at all as from somewhere else. So it is a beautiful full circle to be able to grow on behalf of a revolutionary San Francisco. It is kind of a groovy walk of 1,000 steps to go from young sponge to that kind of platform, especially with the radical potential that San Francisco always has. The opportunity to ride the bebop proletariat contingents of San Francisco is an honor.

What exactly does the post entail? And what are your plans for your year in the role?

I think every laureate reinvents it. That’s not to say I’m departing from what previous poet laureates of San Francisco have done, but my obsession is with cultural work — with poetry programs, getting workshops going that run through all strata of the village and just moving the cultural landscape deeper into our neighborhoods, getting them away from the ivory towers. The objective is to take the neighborhood libraries and make them cultural hubs for learning circles, performances and whatever other kind of cultural practices that we can organize. Working with the San Francisco Library, which the laureate [position] runs through, is a beautiful opportunity. If you’re wondering where all the good people went to hide in late-stage imperialism, they went to hide in the library, they went and got jobs in the library. The San Francisco Library already engages with youths, adults and seniors, so I’m just lending whatever worthy hand I’m able to offer.

Speaking of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, many long-time residents have been priced out of the city in the last few years as tech companies have moved in and rents have skyrocketed. How can poetry reach communities in a city that’s changing so rapidly?

As pronounced and ostentatious as this modern ruling class throne of tech is, the skeleton of San Francisco is still here. There are still a lot of people who have revolutionary potential, who are not going to go without a fight, who have plenty of musings on their minds and plenty of stories to tell. So it’s about building [a] movement, one conversation at a time, one learning circle at a time.

Poetry is having a powerful moment in American culture right now, thanks to America’s youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s stirring reading at President Biden’s Inauguration. What are your thoughts on this?

This is a really interesting time. As the tides of certain forces of hegemony withdraw, you see more of the rocks on the shore, so artists are going to be more of a focal point. But in this society, there’s no telling. Imperialists consolidate power so quickly; we could be back in an anti-intellectual status quo any day now.

How does your racial justice and equity work inform your poetry?

The primary generator of reality in the United States is a monopoly of violence employed to suppress Black and Indigenous resistance. From this relationship of violence flows the rest of the institutional realities of the U.S. and the resulting consciousness that we conform our psyches to in order to play along. So all of my poetry is tethered to realities of oppression. I can find the cosmos in there as well, but my craft doesn’t know how to depart from a reality that unnecessarily murders, exploits and brutalizes millions of people. I don’t see how a mind can get past that, especially a poet’s mind, whose secret weapon is compassion and empathy and an instinct for the interconnectedness of all things.

Tell us more about the curriculum you developed.

“We Charge Genocide Again!” was written to accompany the study “Operation Ghetto Storm,” which found that every 28 hours a Black person is killed by the police or a security guard or a vigilante. The curriculum was [developed] to provide an ideological framework for those numbers. It was originally written in the year of Trayvon Martin and it has a resurgence every time there’s more spontaneous rebellions around extra-judicial murder of Black people. So it served again with Mike Brown and now again with Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

It’s been a good cultural tool, but ultimately, without organizing structures to reinforce it and to put it into practice, it’s not going to be enough to transform reality. And I think that’s what these times keep calling for. So regardless of how groovy the poetry is, regardless of how widespread the educational effort can be, without political organization that creates day-in, day-out political programs for liberation, that energy is easy for the system to absorb and easy for people to forget about the next day.

Do you have a favorite poet who inspires or informs your work?

Audre Lorde is my favorite poet, just as far as an embodiment of the mysteries of the universe. I think one of the characteristics of something that is divine is how unfathomable it is, and I just don’t know how she does it — I don’t know what alchemy is going on in her head.

What Lorde gave me is a sense of permission to really let my mind go and do whatever I want to do on the page. I think in a way it’s a journey toward better fears that drives the evolution of craft, and better mandates to be beholden to. I wonder what she was respecting when she wrote, what she feared when she wrote. I’m sure it was far beyond and far more beautiful than my set of ears.

AUDIO EXTRA: Listen to Eisen-Martin read his works “I Do Not Know the Spelling of Money” and “I Make Promises Before I Dream.”