Tongo Eisen-Martin Selected as San Francisco's Poet Laureate

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Tongo Eisen-Martin has been named San Francisco's eighth Poet Laureate.
Tongo Eisen-Martin has been named San Francisco's eighth Poet Laureate.  (Courtesy Photo)

Tongo Eisen-Martin has been chosen as the eighth San Francisco Poet Laureate, Mayor London Breed announced Friday. Nominated by a selection committee made up of nine city officials, prior Poets Laureate, and members of the Bay Area literary community, Eisen-Martin will succeed Kim Shuck in the position.

In her announcement on Friday morning, Mayor Breed highlighted not only Eisen-Martin’s literary talents but his long history of giving back to San Francisco’s young people. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Tongo when he was a teaching artist at the African American Arts and Culture complex, and I’ve seen his remarkable ability to spur creativity in youth and inspire them to find their own voice,” said Mayor Breed. “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.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, Eisen-Martin is the founder of Black Freighter Press. His 2017 book Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights) received the 2018 California Book Award for poetry, a 2018 American Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. (In a review of Heaven is All Goodbyes in 2017, KQED hailed Eisen-Martin's cadences as "polyphonic, gritty, and unexpectedly fragile, like jazz.")

“San Francisco has legends too fearless for me to count myself as one of them, but I am from this collection of thousands and thousands of participants in revolutionary history and culture,” Eisen-Martin said in his inaugural address. “What the people here taught me is that unity is the only thing, and that individualism as it is practiced, codified, and romanticized… at its core is about selective humanization.”

Tongo Eisen-Martin described himself and his work as “an absolute product of every nook and cranny of San Francisco,” adding that “as deep into the various communities of the city as our poets have already brought the craft, I want to push even further into places where poetry has not yet permeated.”

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Eisen-Martin has certainly pushed the boundaries of that permeation throughout his career, utilizing art and poetry in his education and movement work. His curriculum on the extrajudicial killing of Black people, We Charge Genocide Again! at the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, has been taught across the nation, and he has taught at various detention centers throughout the United States.

In his time as Poet Laureate, Eisen-Martin intends to organize poetry reading circles in Sunnydale, Bayview-Hunters Point, and the Tenderloin, as well as seek out and foster San Francisco artists from marginalized communities.

Eisen-Martin’s as-yet-titled second book in the City Lights Pocket Poet series will be released in the fall of 2021.