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Our Generation: Rules Are Meant to Be Broken, an Interview With Tongo Eisen-Martin

Tongo Eisen-Martin

I first met Tongo Eisen-Martin when he read at the monthly salon I held at my house in San Francisco. Part cocktail and dinner party, part poetry reading, these parties brought artists from everywhere together and invited them to participate in something slightly magical, in that it asked, in fact, demanded, that all drama and bullshit (as well as your shoes) be left by the door. It was a place where artists could feel safe and heard and respected and we could all concentrate on what really mattered: the work. In all of my years of curating and hosting, first at the Canessa Gallery with Colleen Lookingbill, followed by a series of guest curating gigs, and finally the salon held at my home, I have never had an audience request an encore reading from a poet until Tongo.

Tongo's debut, someone's already dead, is stunning. Unapologetic and unrelenting, he confronts the ugliness of injustice, politics, power structures, and survival with fierceness and love. An old soul willing to re-ignite the revolution, Tongo picks up the torch left by Gil Scott-Heron; his storytelling leaves you speechless and sets you on fire. Though roughly the same age, Tongo, at nearly seven feet tall, feels more like my big brother. When I decided to do this series of interviews based on how poet and scholar Tyrone Williams defines and depicts our "generations" in his intro to mary wants to be a superwoman (Third Man Books, 2017), the second book in my box set trilogy, Tongo immediately came to mind, not just because he is a friend and colleague in the poetry community, but because he is someone who very directly feels like and reminds me of kin. There is a very real and immediate conversation that our works are having, and have been having, even before we recognized the responsibilities of our generation.

mary wants to be a superwoman (Third Man Books, 2017) retraces the history of the women in my mother's family, starting with The Trail of Tears and moving into the present. It is a personal history of race in America. My family history is complicated like any family history in America. mary is all about processing that history, the day to day, dealing with a history that has been passed down, to an extent, stories and memories that I had nothing to do with, and how to live and move on from that history and its implications.

In his introduction to mary, Tyrone Williams begins what I consider to be a conversation about "generations" of poets, ancestors, and kin, who may or may not be blood relatives but are somehow related. I wanted to continue that conversation with poets of color from the very generations Williams designates, his generation and my generation, and invited a small panel to join us. I am hoping that these four conversations, interviews with Eisen-Martin, Tonya Foster, and Harmony Holiday, in addition to Williams, will hopefully lead to wider conversations within the poetry community, inspire new works, or at least allow us to have a family reunion.


erica lewis (el): Who do you consider to be your direct aesthetic kin and why? Can you talk about tracing your lineage (poetic or otherwise)?

Tongo Eisen-Martin (tem): I came to writing poetry fairly incoherently (and still somewhat am to this day). No more aware of lineage than an infant knows what bigger picture they belong to. A part of the journey of craft is chasing and releasing a lucidity of artistic location. Further, as Eduardo Galeano, while relating the cosmology of a certain people in Africa, pointed out in Mirrors, you can have as many ancestors as you wish. In the space-time of art, I'd describe myself as loyal and transient.

At the same time, for any human being living in a society of slavocratic engines, there are material constants. And further, for human beings who set their mind to creating art, there is constant ideological expression. While the various praxes of ideology are a study in evolution/devolution, at any given moment, you concretely express what you believe. A (possibly non-altruistic) conclusion I have come to is that the clearer you are about what you believe, the better you are at expressing it (artistically or otherwise). Therefore I am craft-wise kin to all who were clear about what was wrong with the social orders of their respective societies and did something about it. Also, it is therefore probably not a coincidence that I enjoy Roque Dalton and Audre Lorde so much. Again though, you can pick up an ancestor an hour in the course of a life dedicated to exploring the potentials of your craft.

el: So then do you feel that the generations are talking to each other, that their works are in conversation?

tem: Yes, generations talk to each other, but we'd be throwing away the majority of the night sky if we were to call artwork a microcosm of that conversation. Throwing away the night sky and another ten dimensions. Especially concerning poetry, which has the most non-uniform potentials of all the disciplines. And especially concerning the poet, who represents the chorus of the personalities that social and spiritual sum/convergence create (or at least have the potential to create). Still, conversationally, what epochal time cannot abuse, is intimacy between artists and our ability to see the divine in each other's tricks. But (for me) it's the speech that inspired my grandfather's best friend; it's the geometry in a conversation between prisoners of war; it's the song (despite a hundred songs) my nephew chooses to sing all the time that moves reality and its reimaginings forward.

el: My favorite poem is Amiri Baraka's (written as Leroi Jones) "In Memory of Radio." It always does me in. It takes me back to something familiar, something that feels like home but not my own recollection or experience. I always feel like it's an experience my mom would have had because she used to sit with her family and listen to the radio. Is there a poem that does that to you?

tem: "Power," by Audre Lorde, gives me a glimpse past both the weapon and blacksmith's hand. A poor man's enlightenment. The love before resistance. And a sense that definition, as opposed to imagination, is the true protagonist of creating image.

el: There's a line in mary about power being more about certainty than stillness; I am imagining that certainty is a kind of love before resistance. But now I'm finding that once you write anything that touches upon race and value and cultural instinct and history, you are no longer just a voice, you are now a voice speaking for x race or y culture or z generation. And that talking about race, even if it is within the context of your own race and family history, labels you. The work is labeled. Is this something you have ever struggled with in your own work or writing experience?

tem: In art, as in most threads of human composition, confusion is food. Craft-wise, any possible way people express micro-contortions of poor ideology is just another opportunity for new modal play. The violence expressed by representatives of power structures, though also food, bothers me more.

el: What place does music have in your writing practice? Does it inspire you? Does it add to your fire?

tem: Particularly watching musicians has clued me in to craft strategies. For example (and to paraphrase), the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, speaking about soloing, said that what he does is start with a familiar phrase everyone recognizes, and then through the following notes walks away from it towards his subconscious. Similarly, poetry has the potential to be the presentation of a familiar picture, and then through words, a walk towards other possibilities of cause and effect, evolution and devolution, tone and color, alternative patterns of logic, etc. There is an improvisation in writing; a capturable train of thought arrives from and returns to no discernable place. Musicians have an interesting way that they hold their minds to capture units of expression; and although poets don't have the same martial art, we can achieve similar states.

el: Putting words to music seems to come naturally to you. What is LOAN and how did that collaboration come about? 

tem: LOAN is collaboration between myself and Chris Peck, a virtuosic guitarist competent in many other instruments. The collaboration continues to blow my mind, an exercise in expanding convergence of crafts; as combining pre-composed music and prewritten poetry has become the construction of nuanced and jointly conjured pieces (more to Chris's credit than mine). A lot of our current work for a project we are calling "Blue Phase" is the result of Chris taking poems I record a cappella and building these incredible soundscapes around them. I think one of the miracles of music is its capacity for limitless sonic storylines. What amazes me about Chris is how his creations relate that implication of the infinite, but also in supremely sophisticated, even subtle, shades of expressions. Poets have the same potential. 

el: What would be on the soundtrack of your life and why?

tem: "A Love Supreme." "Pirate Jenny." "Band of Gypsies." "The Healer." "Straight No Chaser." "Little Wing." "7 Day Theory." "The Other Side of the Mountain." "Lenny." "The Jack Artist." "Sitting and Waiting."

el: What's for dinner?

tem: Deadlines.


mary wants to be a superwoman is about seeing yourself in other people, about history repeating itself through a personal lens. It's not a vanity project, a purging, or a reckoning; these songs are for everyone.

Born in San Francisco, Tongo Eisen-Martin is the author of someone’s dead already (Bootstrap Press, 2015) and Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights Books, fall 2017). He is a movement worker, educator, and poet who has organized against mass incarceration and extra-judicial killing of Black people throughout the United States. He was educated in detention centers from New York's Rikers Island to California's San Quentin State Prison. His work in Rikers Island was featured in the New York Times. He was also adjunct faculty at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York. Subscribing to the Freirian model of education, he designed curricula for oppressed people's education projects from San Francisco to South Africa. His latest curriculum on extrajudicial killing of Black people, We Charge Genocide Again, has been used as an educational and organizing tool throughout the country. He uses his craft to create liberated territory wherever he performs and teaches. He recently lived and organized around issues of human rights and self-determination in Jackson, M.S.


Originally Published: July 20th, 2017

erica lewis was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her books include the precipice of jupiter (2009, with artist Mark Stephen Finein), camera obscura (2010, with artist Mark Stephen Finein), murmur in the inventory (2013); and the first two books of the box set trilogy: daryl hall is my boyfriend (2015) and...