A CONVERSATION WITH TONGO EISEN-MARTIN
BY: AC HARMON AND TERRY TAPLIN
On Friday, October 13th, we met Tongo Eisen-Martin at the Qulture Collective in Oakland, CA to
talk about his new book, his poetic practice, and his politics. Just as I turned on the recorder,
TEM: [Joking] It all started when I saw Terry Taplin perform. It was like he had a spotlight from
the time he came into the spotlight on to the stage, you know what I’m sayin’? And I was like, “What
is that motherfucker doing?” And he said his poems. And it was on that day that I decided to do it.
That was my first day as a poet, thanks to this brother right here.
TT: [also joking] 1983.
TEM: 1983, it was. We was in kindergarten. [laughing] He was already running preschool. Everybody
wanted to know what he had to say.
AC: Was it still Greek stuff?
TT: Yeah, pretty much.
TEM: Right? That’s a mythological brother you’re sitting next to.
AC: Oh, I know.
TEM: [slams fist on table] And that’s ON the record!
AH: [laughs] So…Joshua Bennett said your poetry is “the unabashed abolitionist lyrics
of a writer who knows that stakes are high and so is the cost of conceding our most
radical dreams.” Claudia Rankine said that your poetry is “resistance as sound.” In
addition to being a revolutionary poet, you were also a faculty member at the
Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, teaching
on topics like the extrajudicial killing of Black people. “We Charge Genocide Again” is
a toolkit that Kali Akuno of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement describes as “a
counter, one of many that we have to produce and put in the hands of our youth to give
them a fighting chance to live lives free of oppression.” Can you talk about how poetry
and fighting institutionalized, state power goes hand in hand for you?
TEM: Indeed, it does. First, I think revolutionary work is ultimately humanizing work that necessarily
runs both collectively and internally. So just as far as, you know, humanizing as meaning having one
human experience — not just having compartments like, “this is me doing art,” “this me doing what I
have to do,” “this is me doing what I don’t want to do.” To commit to revolutionary praxis and to
commit to the craft is really to say, “I’m a whole human being.” Really, the only thing a human being
can do right now is join the fight against the dehumanizing institutions. In my immediate experience
as what some might call a revolutionary, the way of maintaining the dialogical process within myself
[is] critical thinking, critical practice. Because in many ways poetry is an investigation of reality, using
different harmonies of logic to get there, and so it’s almost all part of one effort.
As far as a prescriptive take on art and movement struggle, we really don’t have the ingredients
to mount a strong political resistance right now. We’re disorganized; we’re not unified; we’re
ideologically all over the place; we are not setting our minds to resolving the contradictions we
have with each other, or at least not in a thoughtful way. We’re really on the ropes; we’ll always
be here; the resistance will always be here, but this is a tough time. What site of struggle we
then focus on, I think, is the cultural work. Culture in a sociological sense is how we relate to each
other, you know?
And so, that’s where art comes in. You use art to transform mass culture into a resistance culture,
change the way we relate to each other, the way we socialize, and the entities of socialization that
we create. I think that’s a method. You can put education in that objective, but I think it’s
throughout time immemorial [that] all successful revolutions have had a strong cultural component.
Political resistance actually flows from cultural resistance, and political domination is a result of
cultural domination. That’s where I think the marriage of movement and art can meet.
TT: How do you conceptualize the poet’s relationship to the city?
TEM: The poet’s relationship to the city? What, like, my relationship to the city? Or like a beat poet?
TT: Like any poet, anywhere, but mostly you.
TEM: Cities are very much just open-air prisons. I think you can argue this is true even for the
ruling class themselves and the way they’re cordoned off, or the way that they cordon themselves
off. The city, or the potential of a city, is a place where strides are taken in different cultural fields.
Theoretically, if a city is going according to plan, the engine of it is the fact that none of us have to
grow crops all day long. We can get food from this cat who loves to make food. Survival in a
theoretical city is collective. From that standpoint, that is the opportunity for intersection, that is
what could bring the evolution of culture, the evolution of societies, civilizations. But in reality, we
just have open-air warehouses, open-air prisons. We have a police state. We have corporate culture
that is solely there to inhibit everybody and everything. The poet, as perceiver, has a galaxy of food
to write about. Poetry itself is presence in the present moment, taking any little snapshot and
pulling a million things out of it. The possibilities are endless, including the oppression and social
farce of this ridiculous system and society.
Now, I think that the poet is not immune to how everyone else is socialized. Getting back to the
cultural domination that’s perpetuated and just kind of compounded in this stage of imperialism,
it’s almost like cities are caricatures of themselves, are corporate re-imaginings of themselves. It’s
such a stunted time, and the best mind to keep under control is stagnant, predictable, and
dependent. I think the poet isn’t saved just by the virtue of their craft or of their talent. But there
is the opportunity to do the cultural work, and also the poet…I’ve never used that term.
[Sarcastically.] “The poet.”
But we’re almost like the trickster spirit roaming around. We need no equipment. All we need is
one person. If you’re with me, I can expand your perception, go, “Oh, no, take a look at this; take
a look at that,” until you see what’s truly wrong. In a way, [poets] are like the guerilla art, and
almost the invincible art, because poetry is not a martial art. It’s just mind. It’s just thoughts. I
mean, you add a voice to it, and when you do, you enter this physical universe barely. Definitely
not enough to strike at [it]. Because poetry can take place anywhere. If we think of a see-saw, the
poet is in a super impressionable, vulnerable position because we don’t really have a church, you
know? We don’t have a venue, like a club that we play in, or an art studio to protect us. We just have
a pen and whatever else. We can sit down and hang on for dear life, trying to write a poem. Not to
mention, the institutional, academic domination of poetry. To a certain extent, all of that makes the
So if we do fall into American hegemony, we can’t fall. I mean it’s a tall order, and even the craft
itself is very much a loner craft. To be a musician is instant unity — we’re a band; we’re together, you
know what I’m sayin’? Dancers, together. Actors, together. Painters, not necessarily together, but they
got mighty walls. We’re just nothing — but on the flip, we are the most effective agitators. It’s not a
coincidence that poets are very much at the center of radical renaissance. Anytime you have a radical
renaissance, there’s a poet in the mix, if not at the center.
AH: In your latest book, in the poem “Faceless,” there are incredible aphoristic lines
like: “My dear, if it is not a city, it is a prison. / If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a
AH: [Laughs] Or, “When a mask breaks in half, / mind which way the eyes go,” and
“They’ve killed the world for the sake of giving everyone the / same backstory.” Can
you give us insight on the creation of these aphorisms? They have such confidence
and wisdom that I can naturally see comes from you — your work as an educator,
resistor — but how do you get there craft-wise?
TEM: Art, in many ways, is emotional math, especially music. The difference, again, is that with
music, in contrast to poetry, everybody’s in this observable universe. Some people see more things
in sounds and tease them out. That’s how innovation in music happens. But at the end of the day,
we can all hear that vibration. We can all manipulate that vibration, or patterns of vibration. With
poetry, we have these laws of physics within the craft that are universal — you know, something as
simple as alliteration — but then the deeper you go into your craft, there’s a kind of non-relativity
that is appearing. The speed of light is different in your craft than it is in mine. One of the things
that I stumbled on to in the vein of emotional math is musical, academic declarations. That’s just
a thread I have access to, which is very much, again, tied to a life of praxis. These kinds of lines are
the result of being in the political struggle for so long, both in the political struggle proactively —
fighting for the liberation of our people — and also just as a critical thinker who has experienced
this ridiculously oppressive society. In some ways, the voices that a poet uses are your own primary
colors. Stylistically, we all have a set of primary colors, and the “catchy academic” is just one of mine.
AH: So this is kind of a goofier question, but: what’s going on with the horn players?
There is more than one instance where the poet-speaker has some altercation with or
contemplation about horn players. Like in “Skid Bid,” it reads, “Horn players beat me
up / and everyone left the altercation a better person.” Alternately, when the drummer
enters your poems, the poet-speaker admires them. In “I have to talk to myself
differently now,” the poem opens with, “When a drummer is present, / They are God /
I am not an I. / I am a black commons.” Can you also talk a little bit about how music
influences your work?
TEM: To me, the voice of the horn is almost like the most autonomous voice that exists. It
expresses the whole range of the human experience. It always stands out. When I use horn players in
the book, it’s along the lines of the spirits that intervene, the spirits that ramble, the spirits that are
aggressive. So in some ways, it’s almost a reduction, but a parallel reduction. Like I might take a set of
bullies and reduce them to horn players. I might take a person muttering to themselves, reduce them
to a horn player. So it’s like a reduction only in that that is what they all become, but it’s not a devaluing
of the voice. It’s an interesting thing to play with — how to take people and define them in a way that
pulls them into a mass identity that is at the same time more exalted than how they literally exist on
this plane. That’s where the horn players come from.
For music — a fool knows how to take their cues from any discernible pattern, and music is perfect
for that. Music is perfect to find cues in because it’s an interruption. Music is like a parallel dimension
that we can actually perceive. So both in likening things to certain aspects of music and in my process
as a poet, finding strategies that musicians are using, or strategies I perceive them using, helps me
teach myself how to write.
TT: How do the poetics of peace, patterns of speech, regional dialect, the social,
economic, and political landscape of the city affect or inform your work?
TEM: Like, how does bullshit affect my work?
TEM: It’s almost sad, you know, that…well, that our generation has to spend our life trying to set
things right. I would love to explore the universe. To me, that’s almost like the birthright and the
ideal — you name it. I would like to use my creative powers just to poke around, but unfortunately,
I was born to a slaveocracy that has entered its late stage of imperialism, and I have to do something
about it. Another angle is this: I think that beautiful poetry, or insightful poetry, always has a ground.
If you see reality as a surface…
[Gestures to the table and pulls an invisible string from its surface]
…and you can imagine me pulling that reality up through the suspension of certain rules, like logic,
or time, or physical possibilities, or maybe it’s just as simple as a zoom-in, or recreation… just
manipulating what’s there… and revealing what other patterns and possibilities we are blind to
because we are caught up in survival, especially in the way we are collectively socialized. For me, I’m
not just up here playing with ideas. This altitude is only as high as I can pull the ground — the surface
of reality — up to. I’m notjust up here flying and floating around. Now, that is a possibility. There are
people who do that, and they have really exciting minds that can make these sharp turns in mid-air
and jump through different dimensions. It’s beautiful to watch, but it’s collectively limited. It’s an
experience I can sort of have with you, but it’s ultimately not as transformative for me.
With the poet who does stick to the ground, we all see the possibilities of perception expand. We all
see the tigers that are really made of paper. That’s why my poetry is heavy in the trenches — heavy
in the trenches in order to obliterate them, or obliterate how they are mentally and psychically
imposed. That’s why, at the end, we feel catharsis. A good piece of art leaves you feeling unified.
That’s the gravity that keeps me in the scenes where my poetry takes me.
AH: Both of your books have beautiful cover art. Heaven Is All Goodbyes has a
Black woman and child walking while holding hands. The Black woman, presumably
the child’s mother, is stuck with multiple arrows. The child has an arrow through
his bicep and is looking at her with a shocked expression. She isn’t looking at him,
but seems to be walking “off” the cover, in a different direction than the boy. Can
you tell us about the cover art of Heaven Is All Goodbyes? How did you find this
TEM: Both of the paintings were done by my brother, Biko Eisen-Martin. He did them specifically
for the books. I give him the manuscript and he comes with the ideas.
AH: Do you have a reasoning as to why poems like “Scenes Do Not Flee” are
left-justified and other poems are more free-flowing across the page? Is there some
sort of reasoning with the content, or something else?
TEM: It’s always evolving as my practice goes along. In many ways, you do something in order to
not do the other thing that got boring. The kind of straightforward strategy behind how I
left-justified or right-justified text is to build a little bit of grammar into the poem so that the
reader gets a sense of how…not how I want it to be read, but a possibility for reading it. Especially
illustrating the multi-narrator approach I have. But then there are certain devices like, when I use
italics, it’s my attempt of pulling my voice away from the foreground. So even if you say in the
preceding stanza, there’s a voice up front, instead of inserting a new voice or shuffling something
new in, I almost want the effect of a voice behind it, or a voice appearing behind that character and
saying a few things. So I use [italics] to pull the presentation of an idea back, make it fainter, make
it more of a rambling voice. A more lost voice. Voices that are not necessarily sure of who they are
or play kind of like an incomplete character.
Then, in the book, there are different threads. The strategy of the layout was to split the threads up.
So this was like, the “blue thread section,” and this was the “red thread section.” I wanted to weave
them, only because I hoped people would enjoy that most. Some of these poems appear disjointed,
or confusing, or not straightforward. Even when people are intrigued or enjoyed, the perceived
dissonance… I am 100% trying to do the opposite. These lines have ground to them. I don’t want to
lose anybody. I don’t want to overwhelm anybody. I know I have an overwhelming hand. There are
certain things I can’t help. “I am off to make a church bell out of a bank window.” There is nothing I
can do about that for you. That’s how my mind works.
AH: Or throwing the toilet through the front of the bus and it exits through the front of
the White House?
TEM: [laughs] Right, right. “The toilet is going through the bus line number and on out the front of
the White House.”
AH: That is what is happening.
TEM: Right! That’s what’s happening. But the things I can help, again, like the layout of the poem…
If I throw you around the page, I think it’s actually easier for you to see what’s going on. If you’re like,
“Oh, this is different people,” as opposed to if it was all straight down, then it’d be really disjointed to
me. The strategy of layout is almost like a travel guide, or a signpost, that says, “Yes, we are going
through a strange force, but there is a path here.” Specifically, the relationship poems, like “Scenes
Do Not Flee,” are different because my relationship voice is sarcastic and cynical. In some ways it can
even be played out as deadpanned, you know?
AH: Like “She Would Untitle This”?
TEM: Right, definitely more comedic. I just wanted to make it almost plain. The poems that weave
all over the place have more spiritual potentials. The [relationship poems] are like a break. A dope
poet once told me that every poem should have a moment of humor in it, no matter how rough.
Humor, if anything, meaning any point that the reader can take a breath, and I extended that
strategy to the whole book. There’s possible breaths here, even if it’s just a short poem because it’s
less intimidating to the human mind. When you see long, long, long, long, you could be thoroughly
enjoying it, but you’d be like, “Damn, another one of these!” But you see a short one, and you relax.
So the strategy of layout this time was to induce relaxation and try to make the path through the
woods more discernible.
AH: So, going off of this point of humor idea, I’ve heard you read this poem before,
“Wave At The People Walking Upside Down.” There’s a part that goes, “The cop in the
picket line is a hard working rookie. / The sign in my hand is getting more and more
laughs / It says, ‘the picket line got cops in it.’” I’ve heard you perform that poem
twice, and you laughed when you read it. Can you tell us more about what inspired it?
TEM: I always laugh and nobody laughs as hard as me, man! I don’t think people catch it. The
“church bell out of a bank window” line comes before it, and it’s a pretty striking line, so people
are still in that chamber. For what inspired it — one of the things I’m constantly poking fun at in
this book is reformism. So that was kind of a dig on that. Like, “We’re out here protesting, and for
what? The military industrial complex has this on lock.” And even though it’s funny, it’s still an
academic statement, like, “case in point.” It was really one of those things where reality makes the
point for you.
AH: You mentioned earlier that you disrupted the different “threads” in your book.
In Heaven Is All Goodbyes, I tracked a number of words that are used multiple times.
Some of them are wolves, gold, pennies, mattresses, laughs, traitors, choirs,
stained glass, blood, genocide, purgatory, fire, and teeth.
AH: Oh, the list goes on! This is just what I put on here. There are even times where
poems incorporate the titles of other poems in them. When you write a poem with a
line that has energy you’d like to return to, do you use that same line and make
another poem with it as the title, or, for instance, did you write “Selling What Slaves
Made” and then use the title as a line in another poem?
TEM: Yeah. That was one of my artistic objectives with this book. In Someone’s Dead Already, the
purpose was to destroy the first-person camera angle that most of my poems were in before. I
needed more voices, or any voice. The evolution of that objective, then, was that I wanted the
threads to interact with each other more. In Someone’s Dead Already, it was more of a free-for-all.
There were still threads; they were just going in different directions — not to say that I have that
kind of [laughs] “Oh, the characters will achieve themselves self-awareness.” I wanted characters to
pronounce themselves more. I wanted the voices to be more like, “It’s me, talking again, and I will
be back — oh, look, I’m back.” So the voices flow through poems and interact with each other more.
And then another dimension was that I wanted the poems to interact with each other more.
TT: Do you know what your next mission is?
TEM: [emphatically] Yes! [Pats Heaven is All Goodbyes] I have to defeat this book right here. I don’t
want to get confused as some grandiose self-perception, but I want to write my own A Love Supreme.
But I want to write my Nina Simone doing “Pirate Jenny.” I want to create a moment in art that shows
a new possibility, or even the ancient possibility, or however we define these moments. I think it is a
perfection, a perfection that we all achieve when exposed to it. There’s no such thing as the perfect
metaphor, or even a superior metaphor. My best line is no better than your best line, or your best line,
or anybody’s best line. Best lines are best lines. You can argue that frequency of best lines or caliber of
best lines is various and counts towards whether a poet is interesting. Maybe the answer is already in
there, but I’m just chasing the discovery. I don’t know what it looks like. That’s what I try to do. Along
the way, it’s fun to write something slick. It’s fun to blow your own mind, but I just want to make a
discovery that completely pauses you. Jazz can be terrible to you. There’s some people who think jazz
is terrible to listen to. But A Love Supreme? Come on. You’re just snapped out of yourself. Completely.
You know what I mean? So maybe that’s it — to create that piece that’s a huge snap. “The regular
scheduled programming is over until this over.” Something undeniably human. It’s hard to explain.
When I write, I’m holding on for dear life. I don’t start with a concept. I will beat the next book — it
will be A Love Supreme.
I think that the best way to get there is how I hold my mind up. It’s not necessarily leaps and bounds.
Again, that’s what you got to love about poetry, man! It’s like a musician’s hand can get better. Or a
painter’s hand. A dancer’s body. An actor’s physical everything. But all we have is the mind and
perception. What we see, that’s all we have. I believe that’s the way to get craft moving forward.
Really living, really getting down in these trenches, really organizing. Not just writing political poems,
but living a political life. How I can come to political and academic conclusions is from reading the
world and reading the word. The leaps that you take craft-wise are super internal — how you relate to
things. Poetry — parallels, metaphors — is all a sense of unity. That has to be part of your internal life.
Unifying things within yourself, unifying with others.
I think that’s how I’m gonna get there. This style is improvised. Again, I have a loose idea. But how
does a poet really move their voice forward, really create a poem that is psychically good for people?
It’s how you hold yourself. It’s like performing. I’m not trying to do to you anything more than what
I’m trying to do to myself. I was telling a poet last night, “It’s not so much that I’m like a good
performer… so much as I’m actually the most affected person in the room.” Like, you think you dig my
lines? It’s not necessarily that I ultra-dig my lines, but I am ultra-affected by my lines. And that’s the
kind of cycle of energy that gets me from start to finish. The moral of the story is: the internal cultivation
is how you get down in the world. That’s what moves your craft forward.
Originally from San Francisco, Tongo Eisen-Martin is a movement worker and educator who has organized against mass incarceration and extra-judicial killing of Black people throughout the United States. 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. His book of poems titled Someone’s Dead Already was nominated for a California Book Award. His latest book titled Heaven Is All Goodbyes was published in the City Lights Pocket Poets series.