Stay good: A Conversation with Tommy Pico / by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRAN BATH

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Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the author of the books IRL (Birds, LLC, 2016), winner of the 2017 Brooklyn Library Literary Prize and a finalist for the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Nature Poem (Tin House Books, 2017), winner of a 2018 American Book Award and finalist for the 2018 Lambda Literary Award, Junk (Tin House Books, 2018), and Feed (forthcoming 2019 from Tin House Books). He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural fellow, 2013 Lambda Literary fellow in poetry, a 2017 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts, was awarded a 2018 Whiting Award, and has been profiled in Time Out New York, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn where he co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker, co-hosts the podcast Food 4 Thot, and is a contributing editor at Literary Hub. @heyteebs

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I am just going to call it. Tommy “Teebs” Pico’s voice is one of the most exciting things to have happened to contemporary poetry.  In an era where GIFs and character restricted tweets have attained unprecedented levels of cultural currency, Pico resuscitates long form poetry and wonderfully distorts expectations of language, space and time as he maps out an extended meditation on what it is we are anchored by and what the stuffing of our lives says about us.

In its prologue, Junk is described as “a break up poem in couplets,” and what this reader found was a visceral gallery of the human condition. In the space of a page, Pico redirects our attention from his candy cravings to his consumption of critical music lyrics (people often overlook the gravity of the Erykah Badu lyric, “I’m feelin kinda heavy/cos my high is comin down”) to his afflictions with the New York gay scene (Edible is the birthright of all butts but I hate gay guys so much There’s this idea that only some bodies are worthy of desire) to mourning the genocide of his native ancestors (America wants its NDNs weary, slumped over the broken horse...but I’m giving you NDN joy NDN laughter NDN freedom) to deeply profound observations of our nature (The way “to see” is also to apprehend? It can’t be that sight is isolating It’s like taking a dip With the water on all ends you are suddenly your whole entire skin). Junk compacts as it expands, Pico’s language takes up space and commands movement in ways that make you learn about poetry on the page.

Reading Junk is consuming art in the truest sense. And like all prize-winning art (yes, earlier this year Pico was awarded the Whiting Award, and just this week the American Book Award), the sum parts of Junk cannot be quantified, only understood and beheld through the lens of each reader as we are forced to consider our own pillars for self-orientation.

Junk is the third in a trilogy of Pico’s published books, and the prolific poet just finished the manuscript for his fourth. He also makes up one quarter of the luminary gay literati behind the hilarious and seriously intellectual Food4Thot podcast. I had the pleasure of speaking to the charismatic poet about Junk, his poetry career, our mutual worship of Janet Jackson, and plenty more.

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Kiran Bath:  Tell me about your commitment to poetry as a career. I remember in one of your Food4Thot podcast episodes you described a moment where you were sitting in a café with a friend in Williamsburg and decided there and then, “I'm going to make this poet thing work What has this journey taken from you? What has it given you?

Tommy Pico: Oh yes that was my friend Chantal (who is a new fellow at the Center for Fiction in NYC! Yay friends!). That decision has probably done some terrible stuff to my blood pressure, wrecked my nerves, upended any sense of job or apartment or income security, facilitated the opening of new credit cards to pay off old credit cards, usurped any energy that I could have committed to a romantic partner etc. etc. etc. But it’s given me a real sense of artistic community, a deep understanding of my direct line to my ancestors, and has given me the satisfaction of knowing that I am capable of anything if I put my mind and my energy and my whole ass into it.

KB: I’m in awe of the stamina that goes into your poetic form, long streams of consciousness that flow into one another and back and forth. Can you describe how this flow works through your mind and onto the page?

TP: I just try my hardest to affect on the page the kind of curiosity and obsession and circuitous Ms. Pacman-ing that happens in my brain thing all the time. It takes drafts, it takes long stretches of working on it a little bit everyday, and short bursts of fireworks that leave me wanting to sleep for, like, 20 years. I’ve just committed to the process, so we’re seeing each other through our ups and our downs.

KB:  Landscape always plays a significant role in your work. In Junk the constant references to the urban foreground and junk food consumption (“mint sour patch kid”, “chicken tikka pizza,” “dumbo carousel park,” “west village karaoke,” etc.) adds a layer of surrealism to the language, which is fun to experience as a reader. This theme seems to be a natural continuation of your previous book, Nature Poem, where you really stick it to the stereotypical expectations of American Indian writing. What has helped you to deny those expectations from impacting your work, and what advice can you give to other poets in giving permission to oneself to do the same?

TP: I don’t think it’s about denying expectations, because I think that has the potential to perhaps reify them even further or create/reinforce all kinds of defense mechanisms. In my case anyway I think it was more about me looking at those expectations very plainly, always staying curious about them, listening to them and where they come from, so that when it came time for me to write it wasn’t with an ignorance or denial of those expectations, but a kind of shouldering through them, and ultimately trying to be all parts of my identity: native, queer, urban, hard femme, jokey, loud, shy, sexy, etc. etc. etc. so that it couldn’t be reduced to any one kind of perspective.

KB: That is a super constructive approach to it and wonderful for aiding self growth. In terms of navigating the online world, and as someone who has a love/hate relationship with Instagram, it’s been really interesting for me to watch how poets and writers I follow use social media and how they’ve adapted to its dynamics. What is your relationship to social media? Do you think it’s important for artists to maintain a social media presence today?

TP: I am not good at making proclamations about what other people should do, so I can’t say it’s important or not to maintain a social media existence. More and more my opinion is don’t do it, because that place is vicious and quick and devoid of nuance. But being quick, it also moves on to fresh meat every six hours. For me, it’s a place for my punchlines and my puns and save-the-dates. I have to delete it regularly, because I don’t really have good impulse control and in general it’s not great for my mental health. I live for the day when I can get off everything and get a landline and sit in the dark alone with my eyes closed lol.

KB: Argh. Same. I feel like apps like Instagram tend to take much more from your identity than feeding it sometimes.

Moving on, I think poets are custodians of culture as much as any other artist, and in that sense what you contribute through writing with authenticity and what you embody through ownership and celebration of your identity as a queer Native American poet is critical for the culture and society we want to create for the next generation (and ours!). Does this concept of being a custodian of culture resonate with you? Do you think there is an obligation for poets to be as authentic as possible to perpetuate this?

TP: My bff Lauren (Wilkinson, look for her debut novel next year from Random House [yay friends!]) said one time that poets were stewards of language so anytime I text her a portmanteau or whatever I hashtag it stew-stew of lang-lang, so I suppose I am a custodian of culture. That question of authenticity is like a game of Whac-A-Mole or something. Most of the time you miss it and even when you hit on it it’s not like anything really changes. And then it’s gone and there you go trying again. But yes, in that sense I think it’s important to fail and miss and that’s pretty authentic, to me.

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KB: In reading your work and the work of other poets there is sometimes a fine line between themes of self-loathing and self-deprecation. Maybe there is no bright line, and certainly many of us don’t actively observe the distinction when we’re in our zone of creating. What are your thoughts on this? How do you practice tenderness with yourself?

TP: Writing sucks and I hate it and it’s very hard and when I give my writing over to someone to look at, it feels like a stab throughout my nervous system or like drinking green tea on an empty stomach. Gag reflex. It’s mortifying. I’m in therapy. I’m mostly okay. When those imaginary detractors come armed to the teeth, the tenderness I try to practice is to let those thoughts come without judgment, without evaluating their worthiness, without trying to push them away or smother them into my ample bosom. Like I said before, to hear them and stay curious and let them go when they eventually peel away, because they always do.

KB: Exactly. Much easier said than done, I’m sure. Now as a fellow fanatic of Janet, I deeply appreciate your reverence of her throughout Junk, and I lost my shit at the J.Lo reference where I think you refer to her cameo in “That’s the Way Love Goes.” How has Janet inspired you as an artist?

TP: Janet is to me a model of someone who continues to make things and put them out there on her own time, kind of like Sade. I saw Janet in concert last year and I wept openly throughout the whole thing because for as long as I’ve been alive she’s been putting music out there, so she’s been a constant refrain in my life. There’s the me during “Control.” There’s the me during “That’s the Way Love Goes.” There’s the me during “Velvet Rope.” There’s the me during “Damita Jo.” And then me and her and this tour. All of my old selves fused into one. It was like she was touching me at all stages of my life and saying I was okay, that I was enough, beautiful even. Anyway I lost my voice that night for the first time in my life and for the next two days I could barely say a gd thing—and the thing is, my voice is super important to me, it’s the only thing I can control, but I was like welp. If I gave me voice up to Janet I can’t imagine a better host.

KG:  Yep, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, your voice is audio silk!

It is such an exciting time for poetry and especially for poets of color, and what makes it even more special is to see how many of the celebrated contemporary poets uplift one another and form close friendships. Who are some of your peer poets that you are excited about?

TP: Jfc so many, too many to list and even if I started I would be leaving some others out and that would not be cute. There are three rn that I want to bring yr attention to because they are new additions into my reading list and you need to be ready for them: Destiny Birdsong, George Abraham, and Ananda Naima Gonzalez. Just wait. Oh and in terms of peers I am super obsessed with Anastacia-Renée Tolbert bc she is probably my favorite performer with my favorite voice and these poems that take my breath awaaaaaaaaaaay.

KB: To close, I want to remark on a challenge for many creatives who come to NY, and that is finding community, both artistically and socially. What does your community(ies) and support network look like? How did you build it? What kind of a bearing (if at all) has it had to your artistic development?

TP: This is a very big answer that I’m going to have to reduce into a very small one because I have to go sign a lease lol. My community has always been lateral. They are all around you, just look out for them. Go to their readings, show up at their book parties, write them nice notes about poems or whatever that you liked. Show up for them when they need you, offer them help if you have the time, and court them like lovers, you know? I made an arts collective in Brooklyn called Birdsong made up of a lot of artists, writers, musicians and academics from 2008-2013 and I made sure to give them and myself an outlet for our creativity and a direction for our ambition. Start somewhere, keep going, stay good.

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Kiran Bath is a multi-disciplinary artist from Brooklyn by way of Sydney. Her work has appeared in Tidal, Antiserious, Live FAST magazine and other journals. Kiran’s work explores themes of sexual liberation, misogyny and identity from a first generation perspective.  She received a fellowship from Brooklyn Poets and she was also a finalist for the annual Yawper of the Year prize. As well as dreaming up poetry, Kiran explores storytelling through film photography and critical essays. You can catch Kiran reading at random events around the city or through her borderline neurotic instagram stories. @kiranbath_