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Acclaimed local poet takes international stage with prestigious award
Local poet Tongo Eisen-Martin, one of seven finalists for the Griffin Poetry Prize, poses for a portrait, Saturday June 9, 2018. Photo: Kyler Knox

Becoming a poet was the last thing Tongo Eisen-Martin would have imagined he’d strive for. The 38-year-old San Francisco native tried hard to separate himself from that part of him throughout his life, a struggle that continued for almost 20 years.

“The journey has been coming to terms with being an artist,” Eisen-Martin said. “Moving that towards a more central part of my identity is what took a while. But the craft itself is how I think.”

The writer said his mind is poetry, and it has been that way since a very young age.

“It comes to me naturally and lucidly. It’s just kind of like an ocean I was born to swim in,” he continues.

Eisen-Martin has now published two books of poetry, with the latest one being “Heaven Is All Goodbyes,” which was released in 2017 to critical acclaim. The writer won the 2018 California Book Award, and was one of seven finalists for Canada’s most monetarily-generous poetry award: the Griffin Poetry Prize. Out of more than 500 contestants from both Canada and abroad, Eisen-Martin made the award’s international shortlist along with three other writers. The designation also came with a $10,000 prize.

“We submitted Tongo’s book for all prizes that he would possibly qualify for that we knew about, because we felt so strongly that he was a contender and should get the recognition,” said Elaine Katzenberger, the publisher for “Heaven Is All Goodbyes” at City Lights.

Although he didn’t win the $65,000 international award, which was announced on June 7 (that went to Susan Howe), the writer said he was still grateful for the nomination itself.  Eisen-Martin said the feeling after learning he was nominated for the award was weird and he hopes the “train pulls off before someone comes after me for my ticket.”

He added that it’s a great honor and that he appreciates all the accommodation from the Griffin Trust, his publishing team, and all of those who have supported him.

“It’s an opportunity to make your family, and the people who have been rooting for you proud, and the people who have known you forever proud. That has not been lost on me,” Eisen-Martin said. “And one of the most beautiful outcomes of this is to have given the opportunity for the people who love you to brag. It’s been great.”

Local poet Tongo Eisen-Martin, one of seven international finalists for Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize, poses for a portrait, Saturday June 9, 2018. Photo: Kyler Knox

Along with being a poet, Eisen-Martin is also a movement worker and educator, and has taught in jails, and youth and group homes on both coasts. He describes himself as a revolutionary, something Katzenberger said is also reflected in his latest work.

“I don’t know if this is the right way to say it but I think what some people might say is that it’s about the ‘Black experience of life in the U.S. or in San Francisco,’” she said.  “The reality of what it means to be in a Black body, being the person who is having these experiences and looking out at the world and being seen in that way, and the awareness of that and the frustration with it, and the love of it and the anger about the racism—that’s the powerful part of it.”

She said the collection covers a lot of ground, with heavy themes such as loss and coping, along with solidarity and love. It is also a critique of capitalism and class, mixed with humor.

Although Eisen-Martin now has a healthy relationship to the art-form, his struggle with the craft has been all but easy to maintain.

“When craft is intoxicating for you, it bogs you down,” Eisen-Martin said. “And I don’t mean you need to be intoxicated to do it. I mean that you literally get high off of writing and get high off of reading your poems in front of people.”

He said this process stunted his growth as an artist, because it inhibited him from exploring all possibilities of the craft.

However, five years ago, while living in Jackson, Mississippi, Eisen-Martin began the habit of having writing sessions and focused solely on poetry for two hours every day, as a way to diminish the sensation of intoxication.

“It was when I was able to break out of that, as far as taking the intoxication out of writing, that’s when I kind of really landed into my voice,” he explained. “I put myself in a position where I cannot lose. It’s when you settle into your voice everything is beautiful experiment.”

He eventually met with Derek Fenner from Bootstrap Press, who heard his poetry and instantly asked for a manuscript, which became Eisen-Martin first book “Someone’s Dead Already.”

Cover of Tongo Eisen-Martin’s book “Heaven Is All Goodbyes” (City Lights, 2017)

“He’s one of the most disciplined writers that I know,” Fenner said, who also helped with the layout of his second book and added he’s certain Eisen-Martin already has new work on the way.

“He continues to up the game, and the thing about Tongo is that he never rests on his skill,” Fenner said. “He’s always trying, as he would say, ‘to put himself out of work.’ He’s always trying to write the next book that will make the last book seem silly.”

Eisen-Martin said he will continue to write and to do right by people, and he’s looking forward to exploring new possibilities of poetry and is “excited for something new to knock on the door.”

“There is poetry that is very politically motivated and doing that work, but sometimes it’s not necessarily that interesting,” Katzenberger said. “But Tongo’s work is both, and that’s what makes it so great and powerful—that it functions on all of those levels and it can achieve all those goals.”

Both of Tongo Eisen-Martin’s books of poetry, “Someone’s Dead Already” (Bootstrap Press) and “Heaven Is All Goodbyes,” (City Lights) are available now in stores and online.

Story by: Jessika Karlsson