Poet Tongo Eisen-Martin was born and raised in San Francisco, a city whose rapid gentrification he critiques in his work. Through his writing, Eisen-Martin seeks to “facilitate resistance” to a culture that he believes perpetuates domination of those who are already oppressed. The winner of a California Book Award shares his Brief But Spectacular take on poetry as revolution.
Judy Woodruff: Tonight’s Brief But Spectacular comes from poet Tongo Eisen-Martin.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Eisen-Martin’s writing offers a critique of the city’s rapid gentrification.
The California Book Award winner’s latest collection of poems is called “Heaven Is All Goodbyes.”
His story is part of Canvas, our ongoing series on art and culture.
Tongo Eisen-Martin: I was born and raised in San Francisco, in an interesting time of transition, a time when the — really the corporatocracy was ascending.
In a way, the streets still kind of belonged to us. Institutions still belong to us. It felt like we had the keys to the buildings. Along the way, it all got bought up, and now I’m just in a city that’s a strange and permanent occupation, in which even the wealthy seem to be incarcerated.
To walk down the street in the Bay Area is really to walk through a dystopia. In one sense, it feels or it has the facade of all this kind of aesthetic, even human evolution, but, really, you have people bouncing superfluous conversation to superfluous conversation, bouncing meal to meal, and the rest of us bouncing tent to tent, a bunch of condos and tent cities.
This poem is titled “The Course of Meal.”
Apparently, two months in San Francisco wasn’t there in the first place. This dream requires more condemned Africans or, put another way, state violence rises down, or still life is just getting warmed up, or army life is looking for a new church, and ignored all other suggestions, or folktale writers have not made up their minds as to who is going to be their friends.
And this is the worst downtown yet. And I have borrowed a cigarette everywhere. I have taken many a walk to the back of a bus that led on out the back of a storyteller’s prison sentence, then on out the back of slave scars, but this is my comeback face.
I left my watch on the public bathroom sink and took the toilet with me, threw it at the first bus I saw eating single mothers half-alive. It flew through the bus line number, then on out the front of the white house, that, hopefully, you find comfort downtown. But, if not, we brought you enough cigarette filters to make a decent winter coat.
My role in the Bay Area, besides hanging on for dear life, is to do what I can to transform culture, from one that facilitates domination of oppressed people to one that facilitates resistance.
I taught in prisons, youth homeless shelters, youth group homes, even youth psych wards, everywhere our conditions are most wretched.
A lot of what I actually pull into my craft, a lot of strategies, I actually pull from other disciplines of art, looking at John Coltrane, looking at a Jimi Hendrix, trying to figure out what made them tick.
Playing with ideas, playing with patterns of logic does kind of stand outside of time and doesn’t require the same cultural landmarks for anybody to engage your ideas and engage your words.
So, in that way, a poet’s craft lasts a long, long time.
My name is Tongo Eisen-Martin, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on poetry as revolution.
Judy Woodruff: And you can find more Brief But Spectacular pieces on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.