Interview & Conversation with Literati and Interestingati
Eisen-Martin was appointed as San Francisco’s 8th Poet Laureate in January 2021 by Mayor London N. Breed.
Tongo Eisen-Martin interview by Jeff Kaliss
“This is more pronounced than any incarnation I’ve had, as far as bringing poetry outside bourgeois conspiracy.”
I doubt that anyone else has ever made that pronouncement in reaction to his designation as poet laureate. But that’s what Tongo Eisen-Martin says about having been so honored by the city of his birth, San Francisco, at the beginning of this year.
“Actually, I also wonder if I’m the tallest poet laureate of all time,” Tongo chuckles during a phone conversation from his home in his hometown. His height — six-feet-eight-inches — has always been an attention-getter at poetry readings here and across the country, but perhaps not as much as his uncanny ability to recite his long, propulsive, feverishly imaginative creations completely from memory, occasionally chuckling at himself as he goes along.
“It’s more conducive to the process that I don’t have to keep track of it,” Tongo explains. “Keeping track of a paper in your hand is kind of distracting. So I can take those powers and just apply them to keeping an ear out to where I am”.
Early on, as a kid growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District, Tongo’s ear was on the music, poetry, and “resistance art” fostered by his mother: “A lot of Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets, and the kind of psychic standard set by Nina Simone. The idea that art itself is a sociological weapon, a revolutionary tool.” Towards which end he also credits Bay Area rap music, the incantatory rhythm of which his own delivery evokes.
Having incubated his muse at the Western Addition Cultural Center, Tongo went on to an MA at Columbia University, where he also taught at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. He’s also been an instructor at detention centers, and remains an activist against mass incarceration and extrajudicial killings of black people. Judges for the Griffin Prize, for which he was shortlisted in 2018, saw Tongo’s poetry as moving “between trenchant political critique and dreamlike association”. His first book, someone’s deal already, was published by Bootstrap Press in 2015 and nominated for a California Book Award. Heaven Is All Goodbyes, published by City Lights in 2017, earned a California Book Award and an American Book Award and was named a 2018 National California Booksellers Association Poetry Book of the Year.
Throughout April — National Poetry Month —, Tongo is one of three instructors (with the fabulous James Cagney and Janae Johnson) in Taking Notes, SFJAZZ’s very first series of (online) writing workshops. “Everyone’s a genius,” Tongo told those assembled for the first Sunday afternoon session. “You just gotta get out of the way of it.” As poet laureate (he’s San Francisco’s eighth; the recently deceased Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the first), he’s started poetry programs at the city’s Downtown High School and Aptos Middle School, made regular contributions to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, and curated events for the city’s Public Library, “It’s very much a collectively improvised position,” Tongo says about his laureate designation. “You have all these various people that want to engage in poetry, and you just make things happen from there. I’m kind of given free rein for whatever idea I might have of what a groovy time might be.”
Do the new laurels threaten to obscure his own creative vision? “It would be ironic,” he responds with a chuckle, “poetry defeated by an accolade.”
Read Tongo’s poetry in Previous Poetry Review. Watch San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin June 2021 “Unity and Struggle: A collective inaugural address” archived on the SFPL YouTube channel.
Eisen-Martin is a poet and the founder of Black Freighter Press. His book Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights, Pocket Poet series), received a 2018 American Book Award, the 2018 California Book Award for Poetry and was short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize. His previous book, someone’s dead already (Bootstrap Press, 2015), was nominated for a California Book Award. His forthcoming book, Blood on the Fog: City Lights Pocket Poets Series No 62, will be published in September 2021.