San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin brings revolution to forefront

Paolo Bicchieri

Contributing Writer

If you were to Google San Francisco’s newest poet laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin, you’d find that many people who look him up also search for Langston Hughes, the American activist and poet. This is no coincidence.  

The city has a new poet laureate as of January, and like Hughes, this poet laureate writes for the people. Tongo Eisen-Martin is the eighth Bay Area writer to hold the title of poet laureate, and has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, The Poetry Foundation, and various other outlets. Eisen-Martin was born and raised in San Francisco, and the poet’s giant presence (he’s about 6’7”) is evident all throughout the Bay.

“Poetry, and cultural work in general, is crucial in stabilizing the potential for liberation,” Eisen-Martin said in a message about the role of poetry in activism. “I try to stay away from metaphors of precipice when analyzing social reality, but I think the sidelines are shrinking.”

The tradition of selecting a poet laureate began with Willie Brown, who appointed Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1998. Since then, the mayor of San Francisco has been picking a new poet laureate every two years. According to mayor London Breed’s press release, applicants for the laureate title must be a San Francisco resident with a substantial body of published work, including at least one full length book and 20 or more published poems over the past five years. 

Eisen-Martin published his first book “someone’s dead already” in 2015 with Oakland-based Bootstrap Press, and released “Heaven Is All Goodbyes” with San Francisco publisher City Lights in 2017. In November of 2020, Eisen-Martin released five essays and accompanying poems in the collection “Waiting Behind Tornadoes for Food,” and in September 2021 will again work with City Lights to release another collection titled “Blood on the Fog.” 

Eisen-Martin’s writing reflects his life and youth in the Bay, but also imagines new worlds. Watching him read his work is its own poetic experience. Pre-pandemic, Eisen-Martin would walk his towering frame to the stage. He would often pause to have a laugh to himself , then, like falling into a dream, he would launch into a memorized, spellbinding poem. 

“I am looking forward to the collective improvisation of the position, to sharing the various trenches with people committed to social transformation,”Eisen-Martin said of his new role as poet laureate.

Eisen-Martin has also spent time teaching in detention centers all over the country, from New York’s Rikers Island to California county jails. His curriculum “We Charge Genocide Again” is taught from the United States to South Africa. He is a regular on the poetry circuit in the Bay Area, and has now begun a rotation of speaking engagements to discuss the role of poetry in 2021. 

In addition to his poetry, Eisen-Martin is also creating spaces for Black and Brown people in the publishing world. In February, he launched his own company, called Black Freighter Press, alongside co-founder Alie Jones. The press’ name is a reference to fellow poetic revolutionary Nina Simone’s song “Pirate Jenny.” Their goal is to publish “revolutionary books.” In the few short months since its launch, the outfit has hosted numerous readings over Zoom through its series “The Docks.” Bay Area poets like Josiah Luis Alderete, Darius Simpson, Mimi Tempest, and Tureeda Mikell have all participated.

USF professor and poet Alan Chazaro said Eisen-Martin has long been an anchor in the Bay Area’s literary community. When Chazaro began his masters of fine arts program at USF in 2015, he immediately gravitated toward the laureate’s work.

“I was a young, male writer of color, and it’s not always common to find other men I can relate to on multiple levels in this field,” Chazaro said. “Let alone those who grew up in the Bay Area and have a penchant for social justice.”  

Poetry and organizing aren’t Eisen-Martin’s only passions. An avid guitar player, Eisen-Martin has collaborated with other local musicians to release projects. In 2020 the poet set his words to music with Chris Peck on their joint album “LOAN,” and just last month worked with Damani Richards and Somadhi on their jazz single “Not a Poem.”

Chazaro said Eisen-Martin’s achievement wasn’t just a personal one. “At the end of the day, seeing someone like Tongo in his position is a victory for all of us who have felt invisible in the shadows of tech money, transplant culture, and economic displacement.”

Martin gave an inaugural address, titled “Unity and Struggle: A Collective Inaugural Address,” on April 21st. You can watch his MLK Day address to Reed College here.

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