Tongo Eisen-Martin has become San Francisco’s premier ‘revolutionary’ poet

A Q&A with, and a poem from, the The City’s poet laureate

By Maw Shein Win

Special to The Examiner

For Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s eighth poet laureate, 2021 was an extraordinarily busy year. The pandemic did not slow him from a full schedule of readings and events or his work with Black Freighter Press, which he co-founded with writer Alie Jones. Born and raised in San Francisco, Eisen-Martin is an educator and organizer whose work centers on issues of mass incarceration, extrajudicial killings of Black people and human rights.

Increasingly, his reach is national. The New York Times’ Elisa Gabbert selected his fourth collection, “Blood on the Fog,” published by City Lights in fall, as a Best Poetry Book of 2021. The collection speaks fierce truths, honors ancestors and sears into heart and mind with its surreal and visceral metaphorical language.

American historian Gerald Horne wrote of “Blood on the Fog”: “Continuing the lofty tradition of Langston Hughes, June Jordan, and Amiri Baraka, Tongo Eisen-Martin has emerged on center stage as today’s premier revolutionary poet. A master craftsman and a sensitive artist, he reserves his sledgehammer words for the cruelty of imperialism. He should not only be read — he should be studied.”

Below is a conversation I had with Eisen-Martin in late December, edited for length.

Can you tell us about the process of writing “Blood on the Fog?”

This book was a change to my approach. I had finished “Heaven is all Goodbyes” and “someone’s dead already,” which were two atoms of a molecule, a complete protein. I didn’t need a third post-“Heaven,” three in a house. “Blood On The Fog” began as a fluke. I had a gig at the Museum of the African Diaspora based on an exhibit. I looked up the artwork online and listened to “Out of This World” by John Coltrane, which took me to a whole different place. I usually stay away from euphoria and that sense of inspiration, try to keep it even-headed, you know. I didn’t want to just interpret the energy of the music and artwork. So I applied a meditative practice that I use when I say a poem. When a line has those overwhelming feelings … the reality of genocide, late stage capitalism, I take my attention and place it on physical sensations of the energy stripping it of implication. What happens is that the clutch of the energy loosens and what remains is very cooperative. I applied the same process to the writing session and I started writing “A Good Earth” (the first poem in the book).

How did your publishing house, Black Freighter Press, come to be?

Black Freighter Press is a revolutionary press and a platform for writers of color. Our goal is to capture the cultural means of production. We are preoccupied with the right now. How can art create a necessary culture of resistance that didn’t necessarily exist pre-pandemic? I’m interested in any ideas from individuals and collectives who’d like to co-create a necessary culture of resistance and imagine how people are going to organize themselves after the pandemic.

Can you tell us about one of your upcoming projects for the new year?

I have an a cappella album called “I Go to the Railroad Tracks and Follow Them to the Station of my Enemies,” which will be released in the spring. And I have a live recorded LP with virtuosic percussionist Ahkeel Mestayer, yet to be titled, but coming soon.

“Born to Local Precincts” is a poem from “Blood on the Fog” (City Lights Books, 2021).

Born to Local Precincts

by Tongo Eisen-Martin

I like this side of the city

     the side that Queen mothers watch over

tutoring the commune meetings

bringing prosperity to the revolution

holy, holy handshakes/the drums you love while kneeling

     or unintelligible chariot-talk

  Good suggestions on all sides of my friend’s passing

Lower the correct casket this time

Sneak the same eyes into your master’s stomach

  Your dangerous imagination running with a factory rat

  sardine tin rex

  revolution colors on the soles

  from walking with a knife over astronomy books

     in the new South living room

We got married in secret at the Black Power conference

Wearing modest underground clothes

Made in Black San Francisco

I don’t think I’m being followed, momma

maybe studied a little

maybe I can sketch you, Lord

or at least the veins of red in my eyes

Maw Shein Win’s most recent poetry collection is “Storage Unit for the Spirit House” (Omnidawn, 2020). Win was the first poet laureate of El Cerrito (2016-2018).

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