I remember the collective groans that used to come in my English class when it was time to read poetry. The epic length of Beowulf, the thees and thous of Shakespeare, the overly flowery prose of Walt Whitman. While it all holds a place in the annals of literary history, it never really inspired the reaction our English teachers wanted.
The poetry we were taught in class has often been marginalized in our minds, watered-down notions of saccharine sweet soliloquy with roses of red and violets of blue. In a digital age where both spoken and written word is considered an antiquated art form relegated to the sidelines, it's a few and far between experience to find a poet that can grab your attention.
At least it felt that way until I heard Tongo Eisen-Martin.
The Columbia-educated, San Francisco-born writer ignites a fire in both artist and audience member with his unique delivery, poignant political statements broken down into powerfully jabbing sentences, and raw emotion that harkens back to the legends of poets past.
Poets that captured the hearts and minds of the masses with words stripped bare of pretense. Poetry that was considered the "lifeblood of rebellion, revolution and raising consciousness." The SF poet laureate is bringing all of that talent, passion, and energy to Sacramento tonight as he graces the stage of Brickhouse Art Gallery in Oak Park. Fresh on the heels of his recent book release Blood on the Fog, published by City Lights.
It was a dark warehouse in Oakland when I first saw him. Marigolds were strewn everywhere. Candles encased in glass pillars filled the room with glowing warmth and soft light, casting shadows across cement walls, dancing circles around the memories we were collectively sharing. Music played in the background. Sage and copal burned as we gathered together in community to honor someone we'd lost. He'd come to share space and share words with those of us that had gathered. I'd heard his name and was aware of his work, but I'd never seen him perform in person. I was not prepared for the emotions it evoked from me, and I definitely wasn't prepared to be brought to tears from the words of this lone man behind a microphone. Yet for the next twenty minutes, that's exactly what he did. He stood on stage, his tall and lanky frame acting as a powerful physical presence, while the words that came from his mouth were an even more powerful force. Words that drew emotions, and feelings that you didn't know you had stored in you until they came rushing to the surface. He spoke of revolution, and struggle, and ancestral knowledge that acted as a soothing balm for the collective loss we felt. There was healing in his words. There was medicine in his delivery.
During a time where I was processing through a painful loss, and as both a writer and a human I needed a reminder that something else existed besides sadness, Eisen-Martin's performance managed to spark something. It managed to shift the sadness to the side and find joy.
He made poetry exciting again... and I needed to understand how.
IN THE BEGINNING
We sat across from each other in a small cafe in San Francisco, not far from USF. I was an hour late, because I hadn't given enough credence to the daily Bay Area traffic, and he had selected a place to meet near the University when really, I was near SFSU. None of which boded well for my intimidation. Even with his pleasant disposition through text and genuine enthusiasm to sit down and do an interview, I was still not sure I would even know where to start.
"So you made poetry exciting for me for the first time in I don't know how long, and I need to know how you did that, did you just come out at birth writing?"
Apparently, I did know where to start.
"It started kind of early, as far as it was almost like being held hostage by this zone where lines would just come to me, and I'd have to write it down, and from an early age, people told me it was good. But to tell you the truth, the altitude and the elevation of my craft really came from a direct result of other cultivations. Cultivating political commitment in tandem with a kinder relationship with myself, and both are important because one gives you access to more reality and in a more critical way, and the other gives you a much clearer kind of a lucidity. Internal lucidity sets the stage for lucidity of craft."
That kind of lucid state can feel rare in a world where the digital noise of constant connection and unlimited access to anything you want whenever you want, can make it difficult to sift through and find the things that bring you new inspiration. Eisen-Martin's talent is one of those rare gifts where whether it is consumed on the page, recorded over live instruments, or sitting casually in front of you at a coffee shop, it is undeniable.
"There's so much justice to poetry in that the more you figure out how you think and what energy hitches a ride to these thoughts, the better the poetry gets. And it's all so beautifully natural. An extension of your singular self, where you don't have to put on someone else's skin or put in somebody else's teeth to make the point."
Yeah. He even speaks in poetry.
THE POETRY OF REVOLUTION, THE REVOLUTION OF POETRY
While his poetry has garnered him critical acclaim, literary prizes, artists fellowships, and a new event series curated with the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, his roles extend far beyond the poetic scope.
Eisen-Martin's activism centers around both prison and police abolition, the role that criminal justice inequity plays in those spheres, and the violent atrocities committed against Black people through police brutality. He carries those same themes into the education sector, and refuses to water down the message, despite those types of revolutionary thought processes not necessarily being accepted in mainstream education -- or in Riker's Island and San Quentin, where he has also taught. With everything he does, whether it's poetry, events, education, or activism, he does it with the keen eye of someone who views everything through the lens of his own experience as Black man in America. A viewpoint that is far too often left out of consideration and one that he is ensuring is never left out of any conversation he is a part of again. It is through that lens that he was able to find his next goal.
As Poet Laureate one of your tasks is to create a project centered around what you want to see poetry do for the masses, whether it's an event, a project, a book, a series, it doesn't matter. It's yours to create, and yours to control. Eisen-Martin's plan is to try to reach across the gap.
"I had a few ideas, mainly education centered. But one thing that I was really interested in doing is getting away from this really corporate category when it comes to the demographic of who is interested in poetry. I really want to put together this workshop in which all generations wrote together..."
You can feel the passion he holds in his spirit when he speaks about his future plans. As we speak about his prospects, he pauses. Ever an activist, his posture changes as he notices that police officers have shown up at the same cafe we are at. A man was having a mental health crisis before I got there, and he called SFPD on himself. He's been paying attention to the situation as he waited for me, and now they have arrived, he's keeping a mindful eye on the situation. We pause the conversation to allow him to watch. As a fellow Copwatcher in Sacramento, it's hard for me to not feel a soft spot for the SF poet laureate who stands on his principles. The person that called, however, is no longer there, and the police officers quickly leave. He jumps back into the conversation as if it never happened.
"Sorry about that. He was scared when he called, I just wanted to make sure things were cool. Where was I?"
I smiled, figuring he would find his train of thought long before I would, and he did.
"It started at the end of the last school year, and I was working with this middle school. We were trying to get parents and students to write together, and honestly, the results brought me to tears. Without prompting they seemed to write about each other, or write about their relationship to each other. Especially when a couple of parents were talking about their anxiety, worries, and insecurities within the space of trying to be a good mom or dad. It was just super beautiful. It made me realize how much of a need there is for that kind of space."
think people need to remember that we're all one village, one people, top to bottom. I'm not just oppressed by white youth, so that means that we need more than youth programs. And on the other hand, I think it could have a pretty significant cultural impact just to see how much realer people get to each other when they write alongside each other."
In whatever realm he chooses to exist in it’s evident that Eisen-Martin is destined to make an impact. The same kind of impact that The Nuyoricans Poet Cafe, Gil Scott Heron, and Sonia Sanchez had with their poetry. The kind of impact that transcends space and time, and carries generations forward into the next chapter of both creative and tangible revolution.
A heavy crown to wear.
But Eisen-Martin is up for the challenge.
You can buy tickets at the door for the show tonight at Brickhouse, or purchase them online through Eventbrite. I implore you not to miss it if you can make it. It will only cost you 10 dollars for a life-changing experience. One that will remind you why sometimes it is better to put down the phone and find the poetry in your life.