The Saturday Rumpus Interview with Tommy Pico
Tommy Pico’s IRL is a stunning book-length lyrical poem following the mind of a contemporary Kumeyaay man, Teebs, living in New York City. The book opens with a risky text that Teebs sends to his beloved—a man known only as Muse—and the spiraling obsessions and actions Teebs makes while waiting for a response, which takes the form of an extended text message. Through this, we witness Teebs’s passions and traumas, both inherited and new-made, and woven through all of this somber and serious poetry is a piercing humor that is wicked and genuine. There is so much radiant life in this book, like a dear friend, it’s hard to be away from it for too long.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to talk to Pico about his book, poetry, Indigenous poetics, and kettle corn, in between his mounting schedule after the release of IRL earlier this month through Birds LLC. His second book, Nature Poem, will be out through Tin House soon.
Let me speak a little bit about Tommy’s work here.
Tommy has intentionally formed his lines to be short in IRL, (short for “in real life,”) after the appearance of a long text message, but the lines are also broken for breath. You can follow the quoted lines below with a bit of a pause at the line break (not all poems do this), and it adds to a very real conversational tone to IRL, and it gives distinct emotions to the speaker because of the specific and careful choices that Tommy makes.
…We are going
to have this argument
again. Adam eats an ice cream
sandwich. I eat allllllllll
the ice cream sandwiches.
This is basic science. Adam’s
body was made by God It’s
always looked kinda divine.
My body is a scum bag.
My landlord is a dick.
Adam was never given
peanut butter cups n onion
rings so he wd stop biting
his cousins I mean, there’s
no grocery store on the rez.
Adam has an apple
and maybe some juice. Up-
keeping the palace of
Adam is a dream…
When you read, “…We are going / to have this argument / again…” a distinct attitude comes across. And it’s kinda funny, we’ve all had these thoughts before—though here it’s a touch more dramatic, and that more—that subtle increment towards hyperbole—is a key element in Pico’s humor, as well as honest and silly, seemingly out-of-place images, like Teebs eating a bunch of ice cream sandwiches, which is presented humorously, while showing us a rare darkness.
It must be mentioned, his sound work is really complex and invigorating. The ease with which we glide through the conversational text keeps us from seeing more pointedly how Pico uses sound, if we don’t look for it expressly. If we look at the line “again. Adam eats an ice cream / sandwich….”, we can see and hear that while the subject matter may not seem poetic, the craft and care with which Pico commands the fluctuation of the letter a in this line, and the multiple sounds of the a, the slant rhyme of “again. Adam” and “eats…cream” is the mark of a serious poetic talent to do all of that in just one line. And this is just one line of the book.
The Rumpus: I gotta know, man, while writing IRL, when did you know that it was going to be a book-length poem?
Tommy Pico: I didn’t initially think of IRL being a book or even a poem at first—I was just trying to write a really long Tumblr post. A couple months in, I read from it at a garden in the Lower East Side alongside Ariana Reines and Pamela Sneed. They are both sort of mentors of mine (in my mind [btwn me and you]), equally familiar with my work, and I could see them regard this differently that what I’d written before. I started to realize it would break my heart if this “epic” I was laboring over got lost in the feed. I knew then it had to be one of those stupid book-things.
Rumpus: Speaking of getting lost in the feed, you’ve spoken before about using the Tumblr feed as a kind of way to judge the strength of a work of yours. In what ways has using this method affected the generation of your work and your revision? What did it change?
Pico: It really beefed up my editing process, in the sense that every word had to earn its keep. It made my writing more concise, more compelling (I hope!), and more deliberate. It also took out the “importance” of having to write a capital “P” “Poem.” I was just writing some mess on the Internet.
Rumpus: How did it feel when that first thought occurred, “This is going to be a book-length poem,” and what did it feel like when you got sort-of settled into knowing what shape it was going to take?
Tommy: It was kind of terrifying so I tried NOT to think about it as much as possible. Thinking that words will become “poems” tends to make me freeze up, so I treated it like a game. I wrote as much as possible Monday to Thursday and cut as much as possible on Fridays. It helped me not be too precious about anything I wrote. And I’m not going to lie, it was a lil comforting. I figured everything I wrote from then on would get funneled/channeled into IRL. In that sense I thought of it as a book that would never end.
Rumpus: In the process did you feel any urges to break IRL into smaller poems, and, if so, how did you fight those thoughts?
Pico: I didn’t really feel the urge to break it down because the exercise was actually to NEVER stop writing IRL, ya know?
Rumpus: I can’t imagine surviving revising a single poem twenty pages long, let alone ninety-eight! What did you do to make it through that process?
Pico: I didn’t revise too much while I was writing, besides the Friday slash-and-burns. When I’d finally (for lack of better words) “pinched the loaf,” revising was kind of a nightmare. I cried a lot. It helped when I started to see sections emerge that I could isolate and wring out on separate days. TBQH I have read that damn poem so many times over the course of edits, section edits, line edits, and copy edits that it could never cross my eyes again and I’d somehow live.
Rumpus: How did you go about revision when it came to writing comedic parts of the book, keeping the sonic register tight and still delivering these really funny moments?
Pico: I revised and read out loud a lot, and started to understand how the jokes and the drama would earn their keep beside each other, and sometimes open for each other. When it came to revising the comedic parts in particular the rubric was: am I laughing? Unfortunately I’m under the impression that I’m hilarious :-/
Rumpus: There are so few people writing book-length poems right now, did you look to anyone for any guidance in IRL’s making?
Pico: In terms of length and really driving it down the field or whatever, I took my cue mostly from A.R. Ammons. There are people whose work I identify with more, whose themes or obsessions I’m perhaps more in conversation with, but when I read ol’ Archie I get the distinct impression that poems come to him the same way they come to me.
Rumpus: Sharp turn: where are your thoughts on the role of Indigenous poetics, the direction it’s taking and that you’d like it to take, poetics in general?
Pico: I’m not sure, but what I can tell you is that poetry offers me a way to rewire and channel the sense of cultural loss that I feel into a new kind of culture, without losing myself or having my identity subsumed into a monolithic “Indian” identity. It perhaps offers a kind of Indigenous cultural repopulation. That’s my first thought, anyway.
Rumpus: Destroying the monolith is so important. What do you think Native writers can do more of/less of to leave the monolith as rubble? What can Non-Native writers and readers do?
Pico: The more of us there are out here sharing our work and telling our own stories and flying our freak flags, being our intricate, strange, and idiosyncratic selves, the less power the monolith has. It can’t apply to everyone if we’re allowed to be different. For non-Natives I would say just don’t tell me about your maybe Cherokee great grandmother.
Rumpus: California has the largest Indigenous population, yet there are so few of us California Native poets. There are some Indigenous nations who have so many poets they have a laureate system. Why do you think it is that there are so few of us from California? And what has it been like for you, navigating a Native writing life with so few other California Native poets?
Pico: Is it specifically a dearth of California Native poets? Because I just see a dearth in general. I can say that in Kumeyaay country, the reservations are all really small, so there might not be the same institutional support or space for a “poet laureate.” Coming out to New York I didn’t really expect that there would be many Indigenous Californian poets, so I can’t say it’s been surprising. There are certain metaphors like fire or drought or chaparral that have a particular Californian association, that maybe a CA NDN would “get” differently but, I don’t know.
Rumpus: What do you think the function of poetry is for you in the version of America that surrounds you, and in the re-visioning of America that’s happening now?
Pico: The news cycle can and does absolutely demoralize me and breaks my spirit regularly. I don’t know if it’s THE function, but A function of poetry for me rn is holding America accountable to itself, alongside a tide of exceptional poets that I am lucky to also call friends: Morgan Parker, Solmaz Sharif, Kamden Hilliard, Christopher Soto, Camonghne Felix, Paul Tran, Jayson Smith, Jennifer Tamayo, Angel Nafis, Wendy Xu… the list, thankfully, goes on and on and on and it’s so real.
Rumpus: So you named the book IRL, but this Teebs is a character (which is hilarious, btdubs), which has me curious, man, what are your thoughts on the constructed personas people cultivate online?
Pico: Constructed Internet personas used to completely annoy me because I took them personally. It felt like people were deliberately trying to over-perform the poppy aspects of their lives in order to make me feel bad. But lately I’ve been starting to understand that A) Other people aren’t me, B) Everyone’s relationship to the Internet is their business and not mine, and C) Most people are just trying to find a way to get by and feel less crazy in this freakin place. Let them have their beach selfies for god sakes.
Rumpus: There are references to Grindr, where real hook-ups are conceived in a digital space. Tell me more about the process of your treatment of the intersection of the internet and reality that occurs in this book.
Pico: The conception of the book as one long text message notwithstanding, “reality” and the “Internet” are kind of needling into each other the way that “reality” and “poetry” kind of thread into each other in the way that “salt” and “sugar” kind of suture to make kettle corn. It’s like, “salt” and “vinegar” are principal gods in the pantheon of my munchies! Jk. Poetry gets to be the medium for a lot of mixing, of ages and voices and landscapes. It makes sense to me that the Internet is a metaphor.
Rumpus: How do you see the Internet shaping poetry and showing up in poetry? It’s been such a force for change in our lifetime.
Pico: I love Internet lit mags, I love being able to send someone a link to a poem, I love getting links to poems. It’s for sure made poetry more accessible. Before, it seemed like publishing credits were less about the poem and more about the bio. Who is really going to open up that 100 page journal to page 43 and read yr little thing. Come on.
Rumpus: You make use of emoticons. As someone who is really excited that you did, I ask, could you talk about your choice to include them in the poem? Moving beyond that, like you’ve said, IRL is shaped after text messages. What function do you think emoticons and emojis have in language?
Pico: In a very basic sense, they add a kind of intonation to a line that might not otherwise exist in the flat world of text. It’s another way to guide someone’s interpretation in the absence of them being able to hear your actual voice. I used them in the poem because I use them in my casual communications and sexts etc. and I wanted to give IRL some degree of intimacy and spontaneity.
Rumpus: Who have been some of the biggest influences on your poetic craft, influences who are not poets, and how has their influence taken shape?
Pico: Nicki Minaj’s voice is so spry and dramatic, I love how she can speed up, slow down, and go from tender to angry and giddy in the length of a single breath. In a personal sense, Ariana Reines, Alexander Chee, and Pamela Sneed have each given me their eyes/ears/time at times when I really needed guidance. A.R. Ammons is my dude, poetry wise. I don’t think I would have made the jump to long poems if I’d never read his work before. He really knows how to take the ball all the way down the field. I just made a football reference. Kill me.
Photograph of Tommy Pico © Niqui Carter.