One Can't Rehearse Revolutions (Part 2): An Interview with Tongo Eisen-Martin


In April, Adobe had the pleasure of hosting the duo ZNH, comprised of poet Tongo Eisen-Martin and musician Marshall Trammell, for a series of performances. Both Tongo and Marshall have an inspiring reputation nationally for spreading community-based social and political action through their art. Judging by the dynamism of their percussion-spoken word exchanges, the two could have spent hours in front of their audience, dishing out incendiary commentary, verbally and musically, on how America’s status quo of injustice pervades our day-to-day life. Yet, throughout the series, Tongo and Marshall also brought up a host of local poets to perform, demonstrating their enthusiasm for carving out space for the Bay Area’s wider community of poet-activists.

I was lucky enough to speak with Marshall and Tongo shortly after ZNH’s performance series wrapped up. Below is the second of the two separate interviews, a conversation with Tongo.


Jamie Aylward: How does your experience of delivering your work change when you’re performing with Marshall, instead of being alone on stage? 

Tongo Eisen-Martin: Performing with Marshall is like making a deal with a distant universe. When alone, the meditation is to constantly return to an internal space of gentle approaches to potentials; potentials of intensity, character, emotional journey, rhythm, social analysis and more. It is reset after reset. With Marshall, it is a running conversation or it is hitting a new dimension running. So I am getting to know the rules of physics of this new universe as I go. Which makes for a different meditation or inversion of the other in that the breaks between decisions are filled with sound and not silence. But why I call it a deal is that what I give up in control I receive in ready-made energy. Decision and energy exist in a different relationship when I am accompanying Marshall than when I am alone. Always a treat.    

JA: In talking about how you two came together as ZNH, Marshall referenced Anthony Braxton, the great Chicago free jazz composer and improviser. How does improvisation figure into your poetry, if at all? Relatedly, how much do other forms of expression, like music or visual arts, factor in to the things you write? 

TEM: There is an improvisational nature to writing in that technically a thought does leap out from nowhere. But without the constraints of real time, external communication of energy, we can build language around the thought parenthetically. Through that building, you lose the sense or sensations of improvisation, but that nature is there. I internally alternate between both vantage points as I write just to get from line to line. Whichever path is giving me the least resistance.

I get a lot from other forms of expression, mainly strategies that I perceive other artists to be using. In fact, a (non-overwhelming) majority of my strategies I’ve lifted from artists of different disciplines.

JA: Is there ever a tension for you between having your work “immortalized” in books and wanting to preserve a free spirit of expression of your poetry?

TEM: No tension. They are two different practices. Two different instruments even.

JA: Are there particular inspirations in mind for this duo format you and Marshall have been doing? 

TEM: In general, I try not to bring precedents into a moment. For a split second, something we are doing might remind me of something, but I only use that impression for a split second.

JA: Stepping back in time a little bit, I was wondering what your earliest memories of engaging with the arts are? 

TEM: Art and engagement of reality is the same as the unification of space and time for me. Racking my brain, I can find no justification for separating them in the history of my sentient experience.

JA: Is fusing your art with social and political action simply instinctual for you? Like you can't have one (art) without the other (putting art into action to challenge prevailing power structures)? Or did you build up to it over time? 

TEM: In some ways, art is just an intelligence. It is a mode of critical thinking. And the garden of intelligence is praxis. To me, there is no being a human being without being a revolutionary. There is no being a revolutionary without praxis. So whatever my output is, I am trying to do right by humanity. I am trying to do right by craft. I am trying to do right by my true self. And so I operate critically in all aspects of my social existence and social reproduction. Oppression exists in a perpetual unity of art, idea and organized violence. Resistance is the same.

JA: Your performances also had an amazing selection of guest poets. Could you list some of the guests you had? 

 TEM: Off the top of my head. Poets D’dra White. Lady Rev. Tureeda Mikell, Jeremy Vasquez, Narcotic, and Steve Dickison.

JA: You’ve written essential words about San Francisco’s more troubling changes recently. But, are there things going on that make you optimistic for the artistic future of San Francisco?

TEM: I’m optimistic about the revolutionary potentials of humanity. San Francisco will come along for that ride.