Reading with... Tongo Eisen-Martin

photo: Shalom Bower

Tongo Eisen-Martin is the author of the poetry book someone's dead already, and his poetry has been featured in Harper's magazine. He is also a movement worker and educator whose work in Rikers Island was featured in the New York Times. He has been a faculty member at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, and his curriculum on extrajudicial killing of black people, "We Charge Genocide Again!" has been used as an educational and organizing tool. Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights, September 12, 2017) is his second collection of poetry.

On your nightstand now:

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley. Two for one. Kelley is about as good a historian as historians get. Monk will get you as close to the ins and outs of the cosmos as an artist can get you. Curious about what makes him (and geniuses in general) tick.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. True story. Bedtime reading. I learned early that I lived in an oppressive society and therefore a freedom fighter's story was the only adventure story to pattern myself after.

Your top five authors:

Ayi Kwei Armah. A Ghanaian novelist whose books are a convergence of so much creative, spiritual and materialist force that you lose any sense of time and distance between you and the characters. Like you and his characters are all existing on the same piece of tapestry.

Amílcar Cabral. I'd argue that however late he appears in the line of revolutionary thinkers, his power of political insight was as strong if not stronger than the theorists whose ideas he put into (miraculous) practice. It's hard to make an impression after so many great scientists have set their minds to liberation. For me he is the equivalent of the Einstein who will come after Einstein.

Toni Morrison. I don't know. God on steroids.

Audre Lorde. A poet can extract a two-year education from reading a couple of her poems. A craft with no internal enemy.

Trungpa Rinpoche. Find your mind. Handle accordingly.

Book you've faked reading:

Almost every single book assigned to me in high school English classes. And college core curriculum classes, too. But then, we were all faking, I suppose.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Small Hours of the Night by Roque Dalton. Collected works of my hands-down favorite poet. He was supposed to be executed for his political activities. The night before his scheduled execution, there was an earthquake. The prison wall fell down and he escaped. He has poems to match. And unfortunately would be killed later.

Book you've bought for the cover:

The Counter Revolution of 1776 by Gerald Horne. No, I'm lying. But I needed a way to get a second book I evangelize for into this. It does have a great cover though.

Book you hid from your parents:

I didn't grow up in that kind of house.

Favorite line from a book:

"If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it." Last line of Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. A good line is both 100 questions and 100 non-corresponding answers.

Five books you'll never part with:

Unity and Struggle by Amílcar Cabral
The Healers by Ayi Kwei Armah
Malcolm X Speaks (late speeches)
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
Small Hours of the Night by Roque Dalton
The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez
We Will Shoot Back by Akinyele Umoja bad

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus

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