Poet Tongo Eisen-Martin Finds the Universal Power in Everyday Life

Watch San Francisco duo LOAN’s “Church Bell” music video today
Photo of Loan members Tongo Eisen-Martin and Chris Peck.
Photo by Ian Tuttle

“Church Bell,” a poem by San Francisco poet laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin, begins with an electrifying first line: “I’m off to make a church bell out of a bank window.” That imagery is meant to introduce a dichotomy of two surfaces, as Eisen-Martin explained. “I was imagining resistance with the signal of the bell, a musical inauguration on a revolutionary stage,” he said, before adding with a laugh: “I got lucky with that first line because, no pun intended, it just has a ring to it.”

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Eisen-Martin spoke with Noisey about the poem, which has been paired with a brooding instrumental from Chris Peck through the two artists’ collaborative music duo LOAN. An accompanying music video directed by Naftali Beane Rutter seeks to capture the universality in Eisen-Martin words. His poem channels the pain and blankness of imprisonment through observations like “somewhere in America the prison bus is running on time,” and Rutter said he was inspired to create visuals with the same directness and power.

“Tongo’s words and these truths are omnipresent, even in mundane, everyday moments,” he told Noisey.

The video for “Church Bell” brings Eisen-Martin’s words to life through a series of surrogates who mouth the poem’s words as they go about their routine lives: staring at themselves in the mirror, putting on a shirt, or sitting at the dining room table. Captured on Super 16mm film with limited takes and perfectly timed performances from a synchronized, all-Black cast, Rutter said the shoot came together in a seamless fashion.

“It has a distinct look that lends itself so perfectly to the world,” he said of the video.

In conversation, Eisen-Martin exudes the same easy fluidity, stringing his words together in a contemplative rhythm. His speech is musical, a stark contrast to the cacophony of a busy school yard in Oakland, where he is working alongside parents to organize in the face of school closures. He said that his poetry stems from revolutionary roots, having grown up surrounded by the grim realities of gentrification and climate catastrophe in San Francisco.

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“I’m a movement baby,” he said. “My mother was a heavily committed revolutionary in the ‘60s.” 

His activist upbringing continued into adulthood, where he engaged critically in efforts to further social change. From his time spent at the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, he recalled a memorable line from Dr. Manning Marable, “They didn’t give us Black studies, we took it.” Eisen-Martin said his mentors and role models—whether his heroes in academia or the musicians that influenced him—continued to shape the course of his life.

“More than a few groovy villages coughed me up,” he said. “I was lucky to wander into the Nuyorican poets’ cafe in New York. I got a lot of education there. Great poets took me under their wing, like Mahogany Brown.” 

The ability of art to challenge collective consciousness has been explored by innovators like Albert Einstein to John Coltrane, and Eisen-Martin has long looked up to musicians like Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, who put the idea into practice. With his trademark thoughtfulness, Eisen-Martin remarked that “art that comments on the true contradictions of society stands outside of ruling class power,” and he said “Church Bell” was written to address those contradictions.

“Art is one of the healthiest reproductions of reality you can achieve,” he said, adding that he hopes his work helps others find unity and connectedness or imagine their own revolution. “I would encourage young folks to get in tune with some kind of internal cultivation of gentleness.”

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