San Francisco native Tongo Eisen-Martin was recently named the eighth poet laureate of San Francisco. He also cofounded Black Freighter Press, a small press open to publishing Black and brown poets, which he hopes will “create a world where the collective determines cultural reality.” BookLife recently spoke with Eisen-Martin about his poetry, his poet laureate distinction, and his “revolutionary” goals for BFP.
What or who inspired you to become a poet?
I read a Langston Hughes poem in elementary school, and original lines of poetry immediately started running through my mind on what seemed like, physically, different bridges of thought. I was also lucky to be raised by a radical village in which art was just another mode of communication. So I don’t really recall a moment when I wasn’t in dialogue with the mass imagination. The journey then—as facilitated by the poets and poetry collectives I’m indebted to—was an education in doing the necessary political, internal, and spiritual work to be a decent instrument of poetry.
The content of your work is clearly driven by your activism and questioning of America’s social justice issues, particularly those affecting Black and brown communities. When did you know that your literary aspirations would dovetail with your activism? Was it an organic or conscious choice?
Definitely organic. Both the journey of my craft and its political praxis were like major organs in my body—cooperating with everything else that made me human in the face of a society with genocidal tendencies. Then and now, humanization is the goal. Because I was born during a time of low mass resistance to oppression, art offered my psyche protection that would otherwise be provided by unity with others. With the masses shifting toward hyperindividualism, we found in art—both produced and enjoyed—the collectives that made our evolution conversational, which was crucial because true transformation is dialogical. Interest-ingly, though, both the potentials of language and the science of social transformation have basics that you cannot make a hybrid out of. And so the meditation is to do right by both, letting the synthesis of a radical arts practice take place almost spontaneously.
What motivated you to cocreate Black Freighter Press?
We wanted to capture a sliver of the means of cultural production—to create a part of what can be a people’s power structure. We believe that all reality is determined by collectives of various sizes and gravity, and that no matter how much water an individual can walk on, no individual effort transforms a society’s structural landscape. Power is in the facilitation of process. A structure of power can grant me all kinds of concessions of material gain and safety, but, if the actual processes of production are never in my hands, I will remain fundamentally powerless.
How does your work as poet laureate inform your goals for BFP?
My favorite potential of the position is the opportunity to create cultural learning circles with more people than I’ve ever had access to before. I do believe in the roles even local renaissances have in developing mass culture, but nothing raises consciousness like cultural efforts generated by educational projects. Through educational projects for all ages, you can create the sea for liberation that artists can swim in—the sea that a liberation press is both an instrument of and accountable to.
You’ve said you want BFP to showcase poets whose voices are “anti-imperialist” and who “belong to the revolutionary imagination.” Can you describe what that means?
The revolutionary imagination has several tributaries, and we are interested in publishing all of them. Poems synthesized from an analysis of how the well-being of the biosphere is in contradiction with the well-being of current power structures in society. Also, poems synthesized from the belief that reality is a constantly evolving product of collective determinations and not just a status quo we must accept—and/or rage against—as if it were immortal. I also believe that liberation lies in the writer’s craft reflecting their ability to search for and recreate phenomenal meaning. I think there are beautiful poems in which the poet teaches us about realities, especially of oppression, but there is a special electricity that comes when the poet, through a poem, is actually just teaching themselves something—and we, as readers, get to experience this beauty firsthand.
What advice do you have for new and aspiring poets who are looking to find their audience and build communities with their peers? How can they make their voices heard?
The foundation is developing a critical relationship to the craft—finding the process that pulls the world to you. Also critical is a commitment to internal cultivation and political praxis on their own terms, without your life as an artist involved. Again, I think there’s no shortcut or individual orientation to progress that can get us around the need to build the sea. Only from a transformed mass imagination and mass practice will we get the audience that your personal journey truly needs and deserves. Create as many collectives as you can, and organize your unities around nonindividualistic aspirations.
As of now, BFP is not accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Do you anticipate opening up opportunities for new and aspiring poets in the future?
Yes, for sure, as soon as we have the means. In the meantime, we implore all able-spirited writers to build our unities, the necessary cultural structures for taking care of all of our people who need and deserve light.
Diana M. Dean is a freelance writer who shares book pics, reviews, and commentary on her blog Reading While Mommying.