“My poems are a product of a complete life of resistance,” said Tongo Eisen-Martin, a San Francisco-born movement worker, educator and poet.
As the author of “Heaven Is All Goodbyes,” No. 61 in the prestigious City Lights Books “Pocket Poets Series” — which includes “Howl and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg and “Lunch Poems” by Frank O’Hara — Eisen-Martin is receiving the kind of recognition it often takes poets a lifetime to achieve. Yet, he is exceedingly humble, his head in his work as a social and racial justice teacher, and his eyes on the prize.
“The best reality for me is the reality that’s better for everybody,” he said, his extra-tall self contained in what looks to be a chair too tiny for him in the back of a Mission District bookstore. “If not that, I’m deluding myself and not living the ideas I’m championing in my poems.
SEE RELATED: S.F. Lives: The Art of Healing
“Poetry doesn’t require any physical skill,” he added, laughing and motioning putting pen to paper. “It’s not like it took my hand 10 years to learn how. … There might be a million people in this so-called country alone that probably would have a great knack for poetry. But in order for them to all be poets, live to their full potential and put that self-identity into motion, we need a drastically different system. That’s why my primary concern is movement work.”
Eisen-Martin’s interest in awakening his own critical consciousness, and that of his fellows, extends from his birthright as a child of liberation politics parents to his years as a student and, ultimately, adjunct faculty at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies (overseen by Malcolm X scholar Manning Marable). He authored the teaching curriculum, “We Charge Genocide Again!” about the extrajudicial killing of black people, and it’s been used inside state prisons and juvenile justice centers from coast to coast.
“Every 28 hours, one black person is killed by the police or some kind of military surrogate, like a security guard,” he explained. “Of these people, only 12 percent were in the middle of a crime, and not necessarily a violent crime, when they were killed. So everybody else either had the police called on them or the police looked at them like they’re doing something wrong.”
Eisen-Martin is describing the conditions of a white supremacist society; his aim is to give the racist ideology a context, a crucial part of any kind of sociopolitical analysis. His study identifies white perception of the “enemy” as the rationalization for its systemic murder and repression of black Americans.
“We have to be ideologically clear of what’s going on in order to do something scientific about it,” he said. “And we have to take our understanding of it and evaluate that. And then we have to synthesize the history with the present moment. We need to learn how to look at things critically. … At any given moment, this is my line of work.”
Whether writing and performing, teaching or political and cultural organizing, Eisen-Martin has made himself an invaluable contributor to community works since his 2014 return to The City.
“I’m struck by his honesty,” said visual artist William Rhodes. He and Eisen-Martin are among the members of the 3.9 Art Collective, a creative response to San Francisco’s dwindling black population.
“When I listen to his poetry, he brings life to the work we’re doing. That voice is woven through all of his work,” said Rhodes.
I first encountered Eisen-Martin during my work at the Modern Times Bookstore Collective, where books like “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paolo Freire and “The Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon were staff-picked and top-sellers; the store closed after a 45-year run, just one week after the 2016 election. He was a community poetry organizer at the bookstore, having returned home after a two-year stand in Jackson, Miss., working on a human rights and self-determination campaign. Not one to pull stunts or moods — unusual for a poet, I can assure you — his consistency is owed to being to the movement born.
“There was a different set of right and wrong in the house I was raised,” he said. “At the dinner table, it wasn’t lectures. It was a lot of questions and encouragement to ask questions. Nothing was stuffed down my throat. It was more, ‘Let’s get to the bottom of it.’”
Eisen-Martin was named after Josiah “Tongo” Tongogara, one of the revolutionary leaders in the Zimbabwe war of independence. “It was suggested to my parents and they took it,” he said. “I always wore it. It was natural.” He has a brother, Biko, named for the South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko.
“Some people find protest exciting — people take new names, talk different, get exposed to new things — it can be intoxicating,” he said, though he was disabused of these notions early.
“It put me in a good position. I look for what’s effective and what’s good for people,” he said.
“What I found is consistency is crucial. All I can do is remain as consistent as is healthily possible in my critical approach to movement practice.”
As a graduate student thinking he would pursue teaching, Eisen-Martin immersed himself in Marable’s newly established program. His master’s thesis turned into a job, and he spent five years in and around juvenile justice reform, educating the incarcerated population under the auspices of New York City’s jail, Rikers Island, for programs offered by inside and outside agencies.
“I was going in multiple times a week with various hats on,” he explained of his effort to transform prison culture.
“I knew Tongo from working with him at a juvenile hall in Oakland and asked him to come in for a residency at a continuation high school in Contra Costa County,” said poet and Bootstrap Press publisher Derek Fenner. “I hadn’t heard his poetry. I knew him as a teaching artist.”
“I usually like to keep things separate,” remembered Eisen-Martin. “But I guess I was bored or something when on a complete fluke, there was a kid in my class and he said, ‘I heard you’re a pretty cold poet,’ and I said, ‘Yes, yes,’ and started spitting.”
The poem was titled “Blood In My Eye.”
Guided by teeth
Goes the country
There’s a cow’s mouth on the flag
“The student, Rafael, and I were transfixed,” Fenner recalled. “I asked if Tongo had a manuscript.”
The poem and others were collected in Eisen-Martin’s first book, “someone’s dead already,” which is about to go into its fourth edition. Fenner said its sales have reinvigorated his small press.
Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights also asked for a manuscript the first time she heard Eisen-Martin recite his work as a guest at poet and educator Chinaka Hodge’s book launch.
“In publishing, there are those juicy stories of the moment when you discover someone. It rarely happens, but this was one of those moments. I was thunderstruck,” Katzenberger said. “It’s just a transcendent experience when you listen to him do what he does.”
Drawing from mathematical equations and poetry itself, Eisen-Martin drops science in his poems: Pressured to the melting point, people become a liquefied mass, flowing out to the city’s edges, sacrifices of the current Gilded Age.
His poem, “The Course of Meal,” opens with the line: “Apparently, too much of San Francisco was not there in the first place” and continues:
bet this ocean thinks it’s an ocean
but it’s not.
it’s just 6th and mission street.
“It’s so original, exciting, multilayered in its execution and meaning,” Katzenberger said. “It’s not just an assault of imagery — one amazing image after another, after another. They layer into a cohesive whole, or they don’t and that makes for a collective dissonance.”
Eisen-Martin is certainly not the first poet from here or elsewhere to concern himself with racial and social inequities: He’s been compared to Amiri Baraka, Baudelaire and Bob Kaufman and has received plaudits from poets as laureled as Claudia Rankine, Nikki Giovanni and Terrance Hayes. He counts Latin-American poet/activist Roque Dalton and American feminist/poet Audre Lorde among his inspirers and is part of a lineage of San Francisco poets dating back to the 1950s who radically altered the art form.
“We don’t publish political poetry, but we do publish creative work that’s going to have an influence,” Katzenberger said. “That he’s out there sincerely doing social justice work, using his creativity as a force for good, all the better.
“The fact Tongo is a native San Franciscan is wonderful,” she added. “He’s the best of what San Francisco can produce.”
Given the inhospitable landscape here for countercultural creativity and everyday people, I asked Eisen-Martin if he plans to stay in the place that gave birth to him and his artistry.
“When you come back for a principle and not with a plan, you’re in a good position because you can continue to do what you believe in, be who I believe in,” he said. “Whatever happens after that, happens. Along the way though, it can get rough. Though, I do believe if you take care of the people in your craft, your craft will take care of you.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.