Indie Community: Tongo Eisen-Martin’s Poetic Revolution
San Francisco’s poet laureate launches an indie press.
San Francisco native Tongo Eisen-Martin was recently named the city's eighth poet laureate. He also cofounded Black Freighter Press, a small press open to publishing Black and Brown poets that 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 Black Freighter Press.
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 Black Freighter Press?
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—and 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 each 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 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 and book lover who’s been a voracious reader since picking up 'The Phantom Tollbooth' at age eight. When not working or spending time with her family, she’s sharing book pics, reviews, and commentary at www.readingwhilemommying.com.