Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Tongo Eisen-Martin: The revolution is live

Today April 30, marks the end of National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. The bookend to my April 1 post on musician, poet, and literary artist Gil Scott-Heron is in tribute to Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s newly appointed poet laureate, and a multidisciplinary artist in his own right. Eisen-Martin’s inaugural address and the reading he curated for the occasion was live-streamed on April 22 by the San Francisco Public Library in cooperation with local literary institutions, City Lights Books and Litquake. You can watch the entire 90 minute program here:

Please be patient as I am only just now realizing the how and why of Eisen-Martin’s standing as a natural torch-bearer for a modern style of poetry the likes of which Scott-Heron forged and the performing hip hop poets of the ’90s brought back into vogue: Both Eisen-Martin, like Scott-Heron, make substantive use of revolutionary rhetoric and their dead serious lived experience as Black men in America. While rooted in Black experience, the content expresses a profoundly deep love of and want for liberation of all oppressed peoples which leads with the dismantling of the structure of a capitalist society built on white supremacy, the one we historically and presently inhabit. That’s a lot for some folks, I know. There is also a spiritual core to the content that veers from the satirical to the surreal, all of it of a piece with its message.

Scott-Heron famously followed in the footsteps of his inspiration Langston Hughes, and Eisen-Martin has direct links to that lineage of jazz and blues poets: I’m not going to give away the hand, so if you’re interested you can dig around on your own and make the connections.

Though familiar as I am with Scott-Heron’s work, and in the several hours I’ve talked poetry and in the many more spent reading and listening to Eisen-Martin, Scott-Heron didn’t come up. Why? Well, Gil is the poet most often checked when people not-so-well-acquainted with poetry, Black poets, hip hop, Black music or Black Arts think of the first time they hear Eisen-Martin at work: I didn’t want to be that person, so I didn’t say so. Besides, that, I knew Eisen-Martin was more likely to name revolutionary, feminist, activist poet Audre Lorde, as someone he’d read widely and revered; that he’d studied with scholar Manning Marable, who’s written extensively on Malcolm X, and that he has appreciation for a spectrum of music, from Handy to Hendrix. But anyone who’s a regular at Eisen-Martin’s virtual readings will have noticed the image tacked to wall of his Zoom background: A picture of Scott-Heron, preaching to thousands.

For his inaugural event, friends, family, fans and San Francisco poet laureates emeritas Janice Mirikitani, devorah major and Kim Shuck were in attendance as Eisen-Martin passed the virtual mic to a cast of extraordinary poets, their work helping to give him his start and sustain him: They were, in no particular order here, his brother, Biko Eisen-Martin; early supporter, Marc Bamuthi Joseph; running mates during his New York years, Jive Poetic, Anthony Morales and Mahogany L. Browne, and the local network upon his Bay Area return: poet Joyce Lee, community organizer Uncle Damien and Alie Jones, co-founder of his newly established independent publishing house, Black Freighter Press. All contributed to making the poet and his inaugural event unprecedented in its power and presence. The humility of Eisen-Martin, and all of the poets, their collective ability to be attentive to each other’s work as they prepared to respond then perform their own considerable pieces without any interruption to their respective flows was part of the revelation. The intensely personal and political content was extraordinary, alive with excellence, contributing to the livestream’s immediacy, prescience and what will be its staying power: It was epic, in all respects. These poets of the Bay Area and beyond are the voices of the here and now, speaking to our precarious times, to neverending police violence and murder of Black people, and the everlasting oppression of indigenous people, women and the environment – matters that impact all people – delivered through Black (and Brown) lenses.

I hope readers of this space will set aside time to listen to the 90 necessary and critical minutes archived here, so that you may see and hear what we are doing here in San Francisco under Eisen-Martin’s steady guidance. “It’s the best decision this country ever made,” said Mahogany L. Browne of Mayor London Breed’s appointment of Eisen-Martin. “You’re a soul survivor – you are the best of us,” said brother Biko Eisen-Martin. ”Tongo might be the greatest poet of our generation but he’s a very, very good man,” said Marc Bamuthi Joseph in an introduction that also served as a lead up to a piece in which he conjured the life, slow death and words of Gil Scott-Heron.

And so the month ends where we began it: The revolution is in good hands.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Book news, Poetry, video, , ,

San Francisco Names Eighth Poet Laureate: Tongo Eisen-Martin

“My poems are a product of a complete life of resistance,” said Tongo Eisen-Martin when I interviewed him for the San Francisco Examiner in 2018. On Friday, the San Francisco-born movement worker, educator and poet was named the city’s Eighth Poet Laureate. With the civic appointment and as author of (the award-winning) “Heaven Is All Goodbyes,” No. 61 in the prestigious City Lights Books “Pocket Poets Series” — which includes “Howl and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg and “Lunch Poems” by Frank O’Hara — Eisen-Martin is receiving the kind of recognition it often takes poets a lifetime to achieve. Yet, he is exceedingly humble, his head in his work as a social and racial justice teacher, and his eyes on the prize. “The best reality for me is the reality that’s better for everybody,” he said, his extra-tall self contained in what looks to be a chair too tiny for him in the back of a Mission District bookstore. “If not that, I’m deluding myself and not living the ideas I’m championing in my poems. READ THE COMPLETE PROFILE in my column, SF Lives in the San Francisco Examiner

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Books, California, Civil Rights, Poetry, , ,

The Lives of San Francisco’s Poets

 

Some people write poetry. Others write about poetry.  I write about poets, among other people and living things. This week, San Francisco remains in the throes of celebrating poet, painter, and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti who turns 100 years old on March 24.  He is indeed a person and a cause worthy of an extended celebration: A champion of art not only in his own work on the page, but at every opportunity he gets to speak publicly about the City, and as proprietor of City Lights, the bookstore he founded in 1953. There has been and will be much more written about Ferlinghetti as we move into his birthday month’s second half and upon the publication of his new novel Little Boy (pure poetry); I’ll leave it those better qualified to speak to his influence. I can however report firsthand that last Sunday,  on an unseasonably sunny and warm day, poet laureates past and present and assorted other people crammed into the cave-live Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library for a long afternoon of reading and speechifying in the name of Ferlinghetti’s centennial. There were some laughs and appreciation, but it was largely the kind of event that Ferlinghetti himself might have described as a gathering of “all you poet’s poets writing poetry about poetry.” I mean, I don’t know, I’m just going by what he’s written and what the poet’s poets said about him that day (at some point I lost altitude — not enough air in there).

As Ferlinghetti’s celebration continues, and in anticipation of poetry month in April and well, just because I can, I’ll point you to four recent profiles I’ve compiled about the lives of poets from our City of Poets.  All are in some way connected to Ferlinghetti’s legacy.

In this week’s San Francisco Examiner, I profiled Josiah Luis Alderete, a Spanglish speaking poet with North Beach roots and a Mission District corazón. An amazing performer, his pieces with titles like Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez and Pinche Piñata will set you straight. Read his story here

Kim Shuck is San Francisco’s seventh and current poet laureate:  She is a tireless artist, educator, activist and advocate.  Her poems make racist statues disappear.  Read her story here

Alejandro Murguía was San Francisco’s sixth poet laureate and is the de facto poet laureate of the Mission District. His personal story spans beyond poetry and our city limits, from the bracero camps to the war in El Salvador. Read his story here

Finally, Tongo Eisen-Martin has been reading and resisting across the country the last couple of years. If you’ve had the good fortune to hear him recite his poems in person, then you know. He’s done some deep research into extrajudicial killing of Black lives and his poetry is alive on arrival. Read his story here

None of the tellings of the stories of these poets and their lives would be possible without the poets themselves, The City of San Francisco, The San Francisco Examiner and its photographer Kevin Hume, and the independent booksellers of the Mission District (particularly Modern Times Bookstore Collective, where I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of these extraordinary artists). Thank you to everyone involved in making San Francisco’s poetry community exceptional and accessible.  And oh yes: A hearty thank you and a very Happy Birthday, Mr. Ferlinghetti. Your insurgent poetry continues to inspire we who are waiting for the rebirth of wonder with you.

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Poetry, San Francisco News, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

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