Interview & Conversation with Literati and Interestingati
Eisen-Martin was appointed as San Francisco’s 8th Poet Laureate in January 2021 by Mayor London N. Breed.
Tongo Eisen-Martin interview by Jeff Kaliss
“This is more pronounced than any incarnation I’ve had, as far as bringing poetry outside bourgeois conspiracy.”
I doubt that anyone else has ever made that pronouncement in reaction to his designation as poet laureate. But that’s what Tongo Eisen-Martin says about having been so honored by the city of his birth, San Francisco, at the beginning of this year.
“Actually, I also wonder if I’m the tallest poet laureate of all time,” Tongo chuckles during a phone conversation from his home in his hometown. His height — six-feet-eight-inches — has always been an attention-getter at poetry readings here and across the country, but perhaps not as much as his uncanny ability to recite his long, propulsive, feverishly imaginative creations completely from memory, occasionally chuckling at himself as he goes along.
“It’s more conducive to the process that I don’t have to keep track of it,” Tongo explains. “Keeping track of a paper in your hand is kind of distracting. So I can take those powers and just apply them to keeping an ear out to where I am”.
Early on, as a kid growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District, Tongo’s ear was on the music, poetry, and “resistance art” fostered by his mother: “A lot of Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets, and the kind of psychic standard set by Nina Simone. The idea that art itself is a sociological weapon, a revolutionary tool.” Towards which end he also credits Bay Area rap music, the incantatory rhythm of which his own delivery evokes.
Having incubated his muse at the Western Addition Cultural Center, Tongo went on to an MA at Columbia University, where he also taught at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. He’s also been an instructor at detention centers, and remains an activist against mass incarceration and extrajudicial killings of black people. Judges for the Griffin Prize, for which he was shortlisted in 2018, saw Tongo’s poetry as moving “between trenchant political critique and dreamlike association”. His first book, someone’s deal already, was published by Bootstrap Press in 2015 and nominated for a California Book Award. Heaven Is All Goodbyes, published by City Lights in 2017, earned a California Book Award and an American Book Award and was named a 2018 National California Booksellers Association Poetry Book of the Year.
Throughout April — National Poetry Month —, Tongo is one of three instructors (with the fabulous James Cagney and Janae Johnson) in Taking Notes, SFJAZZ’s very first series of (online) writing workshops. “Everyone’s a genius,” Tongo told those assembled for the first Sunday afternoon session. “You just gotta get out of the way of it.” As poet laureate (he’s San Francisco’s eighth; the recently deceased Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the first), he’s started poetry programs at the city’s Downtown High School and Aptos Middle School, made regular contributions to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, and curated events for the city’s Public Library, “It’s very much a collectively improvised position,” Tongo says about his laureate designation. “You have all these various people that want to engage in poetry, and you just make things happen from there. I’m kind of given free rein for whatever idea I might have of what a groovy time might be.”
Do the new laurels threaten to obscure his own creative vision? “It would be ironic,” he responds with a chuckle, “poetry defeated by an accolade.”
Read Tongo’s poetry in Poetry Review. Watch San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin “Unity and Struggle: A collective inaugural address.”
Wednesday, 4/21/2021 6:00 – 7:30
This event will be streamed and archived on the SFPL YouTube channel.
Eisen-Martin is a poet and the founder of Black Freighter Press. His book Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights, Pocket Poet series), received a 2018 American Book Award, the 2018 California Book Award for Poetry and was short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize. His previous book, someone’s dead already (Bootstrap Press, 2015), was nominated for a California Book Award. His forthcoming book, Blood on the Fog: City Lights Pocket Poets Series No 62, will be published in September 2021.
Jeff Kaliss Interview
by J.Macon King
Jeff Kaliss is a longtime music and entertainment journalist and author, with hundreds of articles in publications in the Bay Area, the country, the world, and online. Jeff’s poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and scripts have been published and he has made numerous performance both as a reader, and in collaboration with jazz artists. For the San Francisco Chronicle and the Marin Independent Journal Jeff reviewed diverse genres from comedy to jazz and rock and theater to opera. His work led to encounters with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Willie Nelson, Huey Lewis and Sly Stone. Jeff’s poetry is featured in the Literary Latte and metafiction here.
Jeff, let’s start with your time writing for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Marin Independent Journal.
My first article for the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Pink Section” was on spec. It was an interview with magical standup comedian Bob Rubin, and it was intended for a magazine called Comedy Times which went under (despite a benefit performance at the Punchline in Walnut Creek by Robin Williams, which I attended and taped), so I found another place to use it. For seven or eight years I covered comedy at first, and then jazz, world music, rock, theater, and some other stuff. Of the staff members you mention, I had the most interchange with Joel Selvin, whose attitude seemed hard to scale, until I interviewed him much later for my biography of Sly & the Family Stone, when he almost seemed tender.
I had more leeway with the Marin Independent Journal than with any periodical I’ve ever written for, partly due to my broad-minded, high-spirited, encouraging editor, the late Jeff Lettow. I covered all of the above topics, plus the Mill Valley Film Festival. I was for a time a featured theater and opera critic, and I did features for their Thursday special editions. Got to know Marin County and its multiple talents and venues.
Impressive amount of diverse arts you covered. I remember Sly’s live performances —off the hook! Woodstock, for example. Sly was not only an innovative musician but a hell of a showman and bandleader. Tell more of your Sly experience.
I didn’t plan on writing I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books, 2007, 2008). It came to me as a cold call from a literary agent who’d seen something I’d written about Sly for a music website. Actually getting to talk to the guy, when he was sequestered in a mansion in the hills of Napa County, wasn’t easy, but I’m a determined dog. I ended up interviewing him several times, along with other band members and folks connected with their career, and I made a lot of new friends in the process.
What other well-known people have you interviewed, and any plans for another bio?
If I ever do another biography, I’d like it with someone more accessible and loquacious, more like some other folks I’ve interviewed for periodicals, such as jazzmen Horace Silver and Charlie Haden, world musicians Hugh Masakela and George Kahumoku, Jr., country legend Willie Nelson, Huey Lewis, classical composer and benefactor Gordon Getty, and the like.
Willie! Hold on a gosh darn minute. I can’t let Willie get away. Jeff, tell us about your experience with Willie.
I started listening to Willie Nelson when the federal agency I was working for intimated that they might relocate me from San Francisco to Sacramento, and I figured I should start listening to country music, which I ended up liking much more than I thought I would. I got to see him live in Portland, Oregon when the agency sent me and a pot-smoking colleague up there on a field trip; David Alan Coe was the opening act. So, after I’d started writing for the Chronicle and noticed that Willie was scheduled for a couple of Bay Area gigs a few weeks apart from each other, I hastened to arrange an interview with him.
I and the assigned Chronicle photographer showed up backstage at the erstwhile Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, the site of the first of Willie’s gigs, and we had to wait forty minutes past the appointed time before Willie’s several tour buses rolled into the parking lot. The first thing Willie wanted when we got on the bus was to smoke some Mexican weed, which he invited us to share. The photographer demurred, but I figured it could only help, so I puffed my way through the first part of our interview on the homey, well-equipped bus, with Willie’s sister and keyboardist Bobbie sitting nearby on a fold-down sofa, smiling alluringly.
Willie was engaging but spare in his responses, something like a cowboy Zen master. And it was good weed, but being a Capricorn, I snuck looks at my watch, and realized our talk was extending past show time. Willie didn’t seem to care, he seemed to be having a good time, which prolonged and enhanced mine. When we finally stepped off the bus, I was glad I was the kind of guy who could work while stoned, but also glad that being stoned helped me ignore the dirty looks from venue staff, who seemed to want to blame the delay on me. The show itself was a blast, Willie and his adoring, adorable bandmates cantering through his considerable canon for an adoring crowd.
Willie had invited me to return after the gig to the bus, where I found him standing on the steps signing autographs. Back inside, he displayed a fat joint one of the fans had gifted him with, and suggested we assess it. I accepted the offer, and extended the interview.
This Dizzy photo is fantastic. Jeff, what was your participation with the Monterey Jazz Festival?
I was at the 1989 Festival before and afterwards, as a freelance writer, a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, and as a contributor to the Festival’s program booklet. For their program, I wrote both feature pieces and artist bios. I interviewed both Dizzy Gillespie, more than once, and Jimmy Lyons, who co-founded the Festival.
Let’s hear about your San Francisco Chronicle interview with Huey Lewis.
We chose Mill Valley’s 2 AM Club as our site for my interview with Huey not only because his local abode was on that side of the Bridge, but also because that was where the cover photo for his breakout album Sports was shot. And because Miller Avenue was where he’d had gigs with groups that had preceded the News, and he’d soon be performing at the Marin County Fair.
However, our scheduling was closer to 2 PM, and for some reason they weren’t serving drinks yet at the 2 AM, in fact, they weren’t officially open, so they were doing the Chronicle a favor. They made us some coffee.
So technically, you can’t say, “I had a drink with Huey at the Deuce?” (laughs)
Ha, right. Personally, I don’t depend on a clock to tell me when to drink. Huey wore a black leather jacket as worn as his smiling middle-aged visage. He was friendly and forthcoming, and he willingly posed by the pool table where he’d posed decades earlier for that cover image. Some months later, he performed soulfully on harmonica (his instrument in Clover) at the San Francisco Blues Festival, to which I brought my two small kids, after a micro-soccer game nearby on the Marina Green. Huey came over with a charming greeting for them, and they both grew up loving his good-time rock ‘n’ roll, including his contribution to the soundtrack of the “Hill Valley” movie, Back to the Future.
What is your background?
I was born in Brooklyn, but exported as a baby to Bar Harbor, Maine, where my Dad was a research biochemist, and my Mom a piano teacher. I loved both the natural and the human aspects of that place, and I continue to write about its magic and my memories in a variety of literary genres; two creative non-fiction pieces about Bar Harbor are about to be published in this semester’s issue of Forum, the literary magazine out of the City College of San Francisco. Last semester they published a poem about my Aunt Stella, who was my refuge and delight on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; I also revisited New York often for its music, theater, and ballet.
Where did you go to school back East and what drew you out to San Francisco?
I went to Boston University (my Mom didn’t want me straying too far from home). In my sophomore year there, I met a freshman in the dorm from Brockton, Mark, he was a Bob Dylan fan and we became buddies, and I was happy when he met a girl from California who lived in the next dorm over. Towards the end of that year, they both sought advice from me on what would be becoming a long-distance relationship during the coming summer, and the girl, Jill, began liking me more than my buddy, which tore me up a bit, but was hard to resist.
We became a sort of couple during the next year, then she returned to the San Fernando Valley and convinced me to leave B.U. in the middle of my senior year and relocate to SoCal. After about a year-and-a-half, both her parents and my parents decided that if we were going to keep having sex, we should make it legal. I agreed to marry Jill, but insisted we move up to San Francisco, which seemed to be where it was really happening, man. It was, and we did.
That’s a classic tale! I too was seduced to California by a girl. Jeff, I met you as a fellow poet. That was when we read along with our mutual friend Don Alberts and his Renaissance Band at the historic 7 Mile House in Brisbane, CA. Let’s talk about your poetry.
I only wrote poetry occasionally until I decided, after my older kid went off to college, to enroll again at San Francisco State University and pick up an MFA in Creative Writing. Some poems ended up in my master’s thesis, and my output accelerated when I later started poetry classes at CCSF. It’s no surprise that my Maine raising and music still get major coverage in my verse, and that much of my stuff is upbeat. As you mentioned, I’ve read to jazz accompaniment in the company of the late pianist and poet Don Alberts, primarily at the 7 Mile House, and with wonderful jazz vocalist Thu Ho, at venues like Bird & Beckett bookstore in San Francisco.
You have some musical talent as well, right?
Even while limited to my desktop’s screen by the sheltering-in-place, I seek out music in all the genres I’ve written about, and I’ll be happy to return, safely, to the concert halls, restaurants, bars, and clubs where I’ve enjoyed live performances for the half-century or so I’ve lived in San Francisco. I’ve also been taking jazz piano and music theory courses at CCSF, and I’m willing and able to perform on piano or guitar myself, in the right company.
I’ve been much more likely and able to jam with amateur musicians then with pros, though some have been semi-pros. I’ve played guitar and/or piano at endless parties, and have done regular sessions with a bunch of pot-smoking papas out at a rented studio at Hunters Point. Oh, and I sing. All of this has informed my interviewing plenty of professional musicians, but so far they haven’t asked me to sit in.
How you doing during this virus “cowering in place,” as I call it?
Thank goodness that our shelter has a decent-sized TV, where I can discover, or rediscover, some of the great films and series which have and continue to influence my own creative work. I haven’t had a lot of time for reading outside of course work, but the occasional novel, biography, and poetry collection show me where some admirable people have gone with their imaginations and where I can follow with mine.
Tell us something of your imagination.
For my MFA thesis, I departed tradition by introducing the character of a Muse, who introduces the thesis (in her own voice) and reappears throughout, with more introductions and opinions. The Muse is real enough to be an ongoing influence on me, and you’d suppose that I’m always wondering whether human females I encounter here and there might have a little of her in them. Then there’s my cat, Martina, who’s named after a character from one of my plays, and who I sometimes refer to as a ‘Mews’.
That is creative! Have you seen The Muse comedy film by Albert Brooks, with Sharon Stone and Jeff Bridges? (1999)
Haven’t seen the film, but I like Brooks’s stuff. By the way, the mansion where Sly Stone lived, when I first interviewed him, had formerly been occupied by Sharon Stone — no relation. I also recently wrote a poem about the Muse on a prompt during Poetry Month.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Has this been like my talking about the things that decorate my life? I could talk about lots of other things, like jukeboxes and travel (both of which I’ve also written about), but maybe we should leave that for later. John, in your novel, there’s that Savoy juke box I remember well, and I have fond memories of the vintage selection of discs at the Aub Zam Zam, which accompanied my flirtation with a muse-worthy dancer several inches taller than me, before we repaired to her place around the corner on Buena Vista West. I wrote a juke box fiction piece, based in the real-life erstwhile Portals Tavern, the closest thing I ever had to a “local.”
Hopefully we can all return to our locals, soon, and gain more of those future memories! Thanks, Jeff.
Editor notes: See Jeff’s muse metafiction here. San Francisco bars referred are—Savoy is Savoy Tivoli in North Beach. Aub Zam Zam, aka Bruno’s, aka Persian Aub Zam Zam is in the Haight. Beloved dive Portal’s Tavern in West Portal district closed August, 2019, after 82 years.
Photo credits: Willie Nelson—web promo source. Dizzy—Courtesy of Monterey Jazz Festival Photographers Pool. Kaliss—uncredited from Jeff Kaliss collection.
Can you name these writers whom we have interviewed?
Previous MillValleyLit interviews include:
T.C. Boyle, Peter Coyote, DeLorean Auto CFO Walter Strycker, Anne R. Dick, Lyle Tuttle, Catherine Coulter, Jennifer Egan, David Harris, Tom Barbash, Louis B. Jones, James Dalessandro, Michelle Richmond, Beat expert and biographer\poet Gerald Nicosia, LSD Legend Michael Randall, rockin’ writer Deborah Grabien, audiobook narrators Simon Vance and Paul Costanzo.
Photo credits: Author photos by J.Macon King, except the Dicks, courtesy of Anne R. Dick, and Lyle Tuttle which is from promo source.