Tongo Eisen-Martin Joins 'Pocket Poet' Series At 'City Lights'

"Apparently, too much of San Francisco was not there in the first place
This dream requires more condemned Africans." 
"The Course of Meal"

Tonight, poet, activist and educator Tongo Eisen-Martin releases his second collection of poetry, Heaven Is All Goodbyes.

The work, which examines police brutality and the apparatus of state oppression, is the 61st volume in the City Lights' Pocket Poet series. It joins works from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who published Howl & Other Poems through City Lights, Lawrence Ferlighetti's North Beach bookstore at 261 Columbus Ave (and Broadway). 

Born in San Francisco, Eisen-Martin is also the author of someone’s dead already, which was nominated for a California Book Award and is part of City Lights' Pedagogies of Resistance collection.

As an educator and human rights activist, he has taught at Columbia University and in detention centers around the country. 

Photo: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline

Often described as a revolutionary poet, Eisen-Martin's local roots reach from the Mission to Potrero Hill to the Fillmore.

As a child, he attended Meadows Livingstone school in Potrero Hill, an experience he says helped form him intellectually that reinforced a radical upbringing.

"I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer or doctor when I grow up," he said, "I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, but I did know that I wanted to do something for my people."

Growing up, he spent a lot of time at the Woman's Building in the Mission because his mother was a "womanist"—she preferred this term over "feminist." During those years, his godmother enlisted him and his classmates to help paint murals in Mission playgrounds where they would play drums, sing and rap every year on Carnival floats.

He also spent great lengths of time during his formative and adult years in the Fillmore district at Marcus Bookstore, which he called “his second home.” He said he felt it was there that he had access to the pan-African world. 

At Marcus Books, he developed a close relationship with bookstore owner Karen Johnson.

"It was a place where I felt I was part of a village, and it offered me an opportunity to do real cultural work," he said.

Today, Eisen-Martin is involved with several political organizations, one of which is The Last 3 Percent, which he describes as an organization dedicated to the unity of what remains of Black San Francisco.

Eisen-Martin has also developed a curriculum on extrajudicial killing of black people called “We Charge Genocide Again." 

"I am mainly concerned with political education, both in structured steadily offered community workshops and the opportunities to hold class in the streets," he said. 

The activist and poet said that he was incredibly honored to join the Pocket Poets lineage. “It’s pretty surreal,” he said. “The only ground or tether is the duty to pull my weight for that lineage."

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Tongo eisen martin joins pocket poet series at city lights