In conversation with Tongo Eisen-Martin and Cecily Nicholson
On a quiet Saturday afternoon, a room full of people gathered with excitement in a big blue building on Industrial avenue. Despite the surrounding reminders of poverty, injustice and ongoing gentrification, the light outside shone through the windows and a couple dozen people prepared to hold a space in which they could listen and learn from each other. They were waiting for the arrival of Tongo Eisen-Martin, a San Francisco-based poet and revolutionary movement worker, and Cecily Nicholson, a local poet and inspiring community organizer who had made Eisen-Martin’s visit to Vancouver possible.
The two poets first met in San Francisco mere months ago, in the winter of 2016 when Nicholson had travelled to the Bay area for a poetry reading. Eisen-Martin is an educator who advocates against mass incarceration and the extrajudicial killing of African American people in the United States. Nicholson has worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community for 17 years, where she’s currently an administrator at an artist-run space called Gallery Gachet, and has also been involved with migrant justice and prison abolition movement work. It only made sense that the two instantly shared a what Eisen-Martin called a surreal “cooperation of power” upon meeting.
As the 2017 writer in residence at SFU, when Nicholson was offered to opportunity to organize a poetry event, she knew right away that Eisen-Martin would have a unique and highly relevant perspective to Vancouver’s community organizers and the poetry community. Nicholson arranged for Eisen-Martin to perform a poetry reading at Gallery Gachet on the evening of Friday, March 3 and hold a discussion the following afternoon in which community members were welcome to share reflections on the work of Amílcar Cabral, among other artists and revolutionaries.
“My bags were packed as soon as I read the email,” Eisen-Martin said. As an artist, he knew and trusted that Nicholson understood the complexity of both art and movement work. “I knew that it was going to intellectually feel like home. Not necessarily home as in San Francisco, but just kind of the home you make with people… So I had a relaxed approach into the conversation.”
Nicholson knew Eisen-Martin would be the perfect artist to connect with audiences. “It’s possible to listen to Tongo’s work and feel enraged and engaged, and not feel somehow outside of it,” she said. His oratory style uniquely married traditions of the black aesthetics movement of the 1960s and ‘70s with a contemporary voice. It was this voice with which Eisen-Martin humbly introduced himself to the room as a “second generation radical” before reflecting on some of the lessons he had learned from his work as an educator within the US prison system. And without fail, it was this voice which drew a room full of people into a critical discussion about creating culture and the capacity for resistance, while recognizing the institutional realities of the spaces on which we gather.
Along with teaching at detention centres in New York and California, Eisen-Martin has also worked and organized in Jackson, Mississippi, an area with one of the highest incarceration rates in the US. Despite his intention to protect students from the oppression they faced outside the classroom, Eisen-Martin realized after years of teaching in detention centres that his work could not escape the institutional realities and functions of the prison system.
“I was talking about teaching in a jail. The function of education should be the practice of liberation. That’s in stark contradiction to a site that’s function is slavery,” he explained. If we are going to create culture in spaces that are meant to perpetuate oppression, we need to acknowledge and be conscious of that reality, because culture is not only the art we create – it’s also about how we choose to spend time together. And in a time when many are afraid to speak up about the injustices we’re witnessing, both Eisen-Martin and Nicholson offered a sobering perspective on the status quo in North America.
“[What we’re seeing] is an intensification of all sorts of current bullshit that’s been here since colonization, since imperialism, since the transatlantic slave trade,” said Nicholson. We’re not witnessing any new problems, but now more than ever, we need to develop the consciousness and the ability to talk about what’s going on, and to ground that consciousness in our neighbourhoods and in concrete realities around us.
“Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham and Aiyana Jones were all killed during Obama’s administration. The right for the government to [kill] US citizens, and this police state, Trump didn’t just pull out of nowhere. It’s one that was made readily available to him, since the beginning,” Eisen-Martin stated. However, he maintained we are capable of organizing ourselves so as to prevent reality from reaching a crisis point. “They’re not doing anything that we can not handle. They’re not doing anything that we can not resist. In fact, any time we lose, it’s only because we have not organized ourselves properly.”
So the question becomes: where do we go from here?
For Nicholson, it’s about creative practice and building autonomous spaces where people are able to trust each other. In creating these spaces, Nicholson hopes we can all start by transforming the spaces around us every day – our work spaces, classrooms, streets and homes. “It doesn’t matter how revolutionary anything is if the language isn’t plain enough, if the door isn’t wide enough, if there’s not food and an accessible bathroom. That work, regardless of where we are, is so critical… It’s so easy to affect change. [It’s] completely possible all the time.”
“A lot of us have a clear understanding of what we experience. We know when we’re being oppressed. I think similarly, we have to recognize when we’re not oppressed or what that feels like,” she said, recalling an experience of speaking on a panel in Toronto, where the moderator and speakers were all black women. “There’s five of us sitting there and we’re talking. We’re not talking about being black women, we’re talking about art! And that has never happened in my life… That kind of moment when you have consciousness and agreement and trust, and you’ve got a space. Those are some of the things I’ve learned to hear and recognize.”
In her own work, she tries to find poetics in all situations. “It’s just about freeing up our minds every day. It becomes a collective critique and analysis,” she said. At times like these, Nicholson is still optimistic about our ability to create art, not to mask the ugliness of what the Earth is going through, but rather so we can speak right through it.
“You can’t look for revolutionary work to solve some depths of unhappiness. When revolutionary works get undermined by people who bring [their] internal conflict… If you haven’t put yourself in the process of resolving that inner duality, you will never be safe. Regardless of what you do, there’s going to be a crisis there,” Eisen-Martin warned. “Art has been good for me because it teaches me how to take any reality that’s upsetting to be and find some type of healthy relationship to it. I can point out something within it that gives myself, or anybody that wants to walk in my shoes, some type of invincibility. A part of you that has no enemy.”
Both poets have been putting these moments of liberation and invincibility in their own poetry. Eisen-Martin’s upcoming book Heaven is All Goodbyes will be published in September with City Lights Books in San Francisco. Nicholson’s Wayside Sang, will be published in November with Talonbooks in Vancouver.
“It’s encouraging to see that we have solid counterparts here. That’s what I’ll return home gushing about. It’s beautiful to see what happens when people in good process come together, whether it be oriented around art or political struggle,” said Eisen-Martin. “I represent no accomplishment or success story. We can’t brag until this world is truly transformed. That’s the music that’s been made the last couple days.”
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