*Update, 9/16/2015: Post has been updated to include correct name of Eisen-Martin’s friend, a more recent performance clip, and a correct link to Bootstrap Press’s website.
Welcome to Breaking, a series where we highlight under-the-radar creators of color. Our latest installment is about poet Tongo Eisen-Martin.
Hometown: San Francisco
Influences: Borne of the renaissance in spoken-word and literary poetry happening in the Bay Area, Chicago, New York and related cities in the ’90s; indicative of poets like Saul Williams, though completely original
Latest Project: “someone’s dead already,” his first major collection of written work.
Why You Should Care: Recent controversy around the white poet Michael Derrick Hudson using an Asian pen name to to get published in “Best American Poetry 2015” highlights an ongoing issue in the literary world—that, like in all spheres of American arts and culture, people of color remain vulnerable to cultural theft and erasure.
That said, Tongo Eisen-Martin isn’t particularly concerned with the literary world’s acceptance or opinions. When asked about the implications of Hudson essentially implying that Asian poets hold an unfair race-based advantage, Eisen-Martin is blissfully unaware, laughing at what went down.
But by no means is Eisen-Martin disconnected from the realities of being an artist of color—he just has his sights set on benchmarks that matter. “I’m not trying to storm the literary world,” he explains. “What I really want is my book to be next to ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ in everybody’s collection—not that I’m trying to compete [laughs]. But I want it to flow organically through the masses. I want it in everybody’s jail cell, the poorest classrooms, to have a life with the people.”
A longtime prison educator and anti police violence activist, Eisen-Martin has creative affinities for movement politics and struggles of the disenfranchised that are rich throughout “someone’s dead already.” And just as his way of explaining his work and life are sometimes circuitous or cryptic, so is his poetry, weaving in and out of frankness and illusion to tell stories of resistance, community, power and violence. The 45 poems in this collection take on all physical forms, meandering through the margins and columns without inhibition (except, notably, on a few works with left-aligned stanzas and structured meters). One of the works featured, “We Charge Genocide Again,” surfaces lesser-known details about black victims of police and extrajudicial violence, painting a picture of how far structural violence reaches:
“-TRAYVON MARTIN-/My girlfriend misses me/-RAMARLEY GRAHAM-/Democrats flood the Bronx/Soundview doesn’t care/Which of these two is half asleep?”
It’s no wonder that this poem has been used in classrooms and activist spaces to illustrate the emotional core of contemporary activism. Eisen-Martin’s long career as an organizer and educator has been an important asset to his creative works.* He has taught in detention centers across the country, from California’s San Quentin to New York’s Rikers Island. (The New York Times highlighted Eisen-Martin’s work with young prisoners at the latter.) He has also served as an anti-racism and self-determination-focused organizer in Jackson, Mississippi, during Chokwe Lumumba‘s successful run for mayor. While “We Charge Genocide Again” is an obvious example of his politics, the work also reflects his personal engagement with some of the topics.
“Around the time I moved to Mississippi, a close friend of mine died, named Willie B— that’s who the first dedication is to, and he pops up a few times in the book,” says Eisen-Martin. “He was 23, and he was just one of the most beautiful souls I ever came across. So he’s on the stage of that book—we wove it throughout there.”
Eisen-Martin wrote most of the poems in “someone’s dead already” during his two years in Jackson. But while his current organizing work inspires his poetry, his style has a clear predecessor in the late-’90s poetry that emerged from New York City’s famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe and Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Eisen-Matin was a Columbia University student during that period.
“I got [to New York City] in 1998, and some of these people I really looked up to actually heard and liked my work—folks like Staceyann Chin, Saul Williams, muMs da Schemer. The objective of my work is to enter that large, infinite conversation that I feel all art is in the middle of.”
So this is where Eisen-Martin finds himself: a member of a literary vanguard with roots in several radical movements. If he is to achieve his dream of being in every prison cell, classroom and home along with the descendants of Gil Scott Heron, The Last Poets and Sonia Sanchez, then he’s already well on his way—and you should have him on your shelves too.
Tongo Eisen-Martin’s “someone’s dead already” is available now through Oakland’s Bootstrap Press.
*Prior to working as an organizer, Eisen-Martin interned at The Source under then- politics editor Akiba Solomon. Solomon is currently the editorial director of Colorlines.