San Francisco’s eighth poet laureate is Tongo Eisen-Martin, an S.F.-born writer, organizer, and educator whose work centers racial justice.
“His poems are just one of the ways he fights for racial justice, equity, and human rights,” Mayor London Breed said of Eisen-Martin at a live-streamed announcement on Friday, Jan. 15. “He has shown our community what it means to be a successful poet as a Black man in San Francisco.”
Being San Francisco’s poet laureate is just one of the many honors Eisen-Martin has received in his poetry career. His book, Heaven Is All Goodbyes, published by City Lights Press, was the winner of an American Book Award, a California Book Award, a PEN Oakland Award, and was shortlisted for the 2018 Griffin International Poetry Prize.
“My poems are a product of a complete life of resistance,” said Eisen-Martin to the S.F. Examiner in 2018. Eisen-Martin was raised by a family of organizers in San Francisco, whom he thanked at a virtual event announcing him as the new poet laureate, before reciting his poem, “Faceless.”
“My dear, if it is not a city, it is a prison,” Eisen-Martin said. “If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.”’
Eisen-Martin has also taught in prisons across the country, including San Quentin, as well as at the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, where he earned his MFA. In 2012, he published a curriculum titled “We Charge Genocide Again!” The lesson plans analyzed the connections between the extrajudicial killings of Black people, empire, and police psyche, and have been used by teachers and students in prisons across the country. During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Eisen-Martin led Zoom workshops to interrogate white supremacy.
“A poet of any station is secondary to the people,” Eisen-Martin said at the announcement. “A poet of any use belongs to the energy and consciousness of the people.”
“We are incredibly proud of the work he has done so far, especially his commitment to inspiring Black men and boys, and providing support for people in our community,” Breed said. “He will continue the work that our ancestors did as they fought for their own voices to be heard.”