Q&A: San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin on the City’s Pivotal Moment

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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)

When Mayor London Breed announced San Francisco poet Tongo Eisen-Martin as the city’s eighth poet laureate earlier this month, she praised his work uplifting the voices of black men and youth. “He will continue the work that our ancestors did as they fought for their own voices to be heard,” she said.

Some of that work appeared in Eisen-Martin’s two previous poetry collections, Someone's Dead Already and the multiple-award-wining Heaven is All Goodbyes Now. Now, as he finds himself in an official city role, Eisen-Martin spoke with KQED to outline his vision for San Francisco, emphasize the importance of poetry in underserved communities, and explain why we need to revisit the urgency of last summer.

 

Kate Wolffe: Hi Tongo, congratulations. You've said San Francisco, the Bay Area, is a dystopia. To me, a poet laureate feels like someone who engages with the city and inspires hope. How do you balance those two things?

Tongo Eisen-Martin: I think below inspiration and hope and a lot of various energies, there has to be awareness — social awareness, political awareness — and that's where my efforts are skewed to.

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How we react to it is how we react to it. But I think now is the time to, you know, really approach social life with a praxis, with an understanding of, “OK, well, how does oppression actually work? Who is actually benefiting? How do we resist this?”

If there's any little boost in my craft, it really just comes from a perpetual inquiry.

In your inaugural address as Poet Laureate, you said “unity is the only thing” and “individualism at its core is about selective humanization.” Can you say more about that?

Just to take our conversation, for example, I'm speaking as Poet Laureate: “Let us speak about these issues pertaining to poetry and application of some kind of public embrace of poetry.” Even my identity. I have this identity as a poet, or this or that, and not just a person that is actually talking to you live from unceded territory. If you think about it, there's so much genocide, and so much slavery, there's so much exploitation, that we psychically turn a blind eye just to go on about our daily business.

That's the individualism that's dangerous, because that ignoring — I mean, “ignoring” doesn't even cover it — that delusion actually adds to the consent that makes all this oppression and repression possible.

I mean, even think about the kids in the cages. Are they still in the cages? The three-year-olds and the five-year-olds of the asylum seekers, are they still in the cages?

This has been in our face for three years now, at least. Right? We talk about a billion things other than the fact there are, within driving distance, there are kids in cages. This is that kind of individualism that oppression — that oppressors — thrive on. And that's what we have to turn our attention to, or at least take our efforts, whatever our individual assertion is, whatever our talents, our interests, whatever our skills, and synthesize it with some kind of acknowledgment of the total social picture.

This is what I'm at the gate yelling.

Maybe people feel like they have to turn a blind eye in order to function in society.

Right, definitely. In order to fit your psyche in the structure, it requires you to take some of your mind and leave it at home. And this is how we're socialized. This is what's rewarded, right?

To not acknowledge the humanity of some is rewarded. And really it's been rewarded since the settler colonial project began. And when you look at what’s not rewarded, nine times out of ten, it's people who decide that what’s going to be the center of their day is the humanity of all.

Some might call them revolutionaries, but that's really all it is, right? Someone who's just entering everybody's humanity. Because if I center everybody's humanity, well, now my day looks different. I'm going to have to do something different with it.

Would you call yourself a revolutionary?

I would, but a failing revolutionary. I wouldn't pat myself on the back yet, until we had movements that are better organized, or organized more around a clear ideology and not just tactic, tactic, tactic.

What's interesting about resistance is where it exists in the daily self-talk. Now for somebody who wants to stand on the identity of “revolutionary,” daily this is what you think about: “Where am I in relationship to revolutionary change?”

For those who don't, that's just not what we're talking to ourselves about. We’re talking about all kinds of other stuff. No judgment, it's just reality, that’s not what's going through your mind.

Now in the summer, what the opportunity was, everybody was defining themselves according to this moment. That's a huge amount of energy that movement doesn't ordinarily have access to.

But it's gone now, right? And it’s gone because there was no solid enough political organization to take that energy and clarify it for people and then give people something to do.

We see this dance and things are only going to get more and more frenetic because capitalism is in crisis, because climate catastrophe is only going to get more and more dramatic.

Revolutionary energy is not just a spontaneous reaction to dramatic conditions. We see how this kind of modern psyche will just adjust itself, will adjust its individualism, to whatever. We're addicted to it. So it's time to Black Panther up again. That's really where transformation comes from.

Right. So what is your vision for yourself in this role?

There are so many beautiful artists, educators, curators, organizations [in San Francisco]. The art landscape of San Francisco is not missing anything — except maybe missing the people, because so many are gone. [laughing] You know, we might have to do some San Francisco extension workshops in Antioch or something like that.

What I want to add to the landscape or just support: I want workshops. Poetry programs that do center social analysis. Yes, we want to build insight into what language can do. But at the same time, the vehicle is insight into the content that language is exploring. I'll work with anybody, anywhere, any any age. I love youth programming, but I think the whole village should get the opportunity to develop themselves in craft too.

Along those lines, how do you see poetry becoming more integrated into the community?

I love the prospects of the neighborhood libraries becoming centers of this almost political education. Really, I guess moving the poetry scene back into the proletariat a little bit.

This kind of “high art” really is a mass effort. It’s definitely a product of a mass effort. I did not get these poems, they did not cost me tens of thousands of dollars. You know, my poetry was developed in the trenches of mass culture. And so I want to bring it home.

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Tongo Eisen-Martin is San Francisco's eighth Poet Laureate and the author of the poetry collections ‘Someone's Dead Already’ and ‘Heaven is All Goodbyes.’ He has a third poetry collection set to be published in the fall of this year.