JUNK: Tommy Pico on His New Book of Poetry
Tommy Pico is the Whiting Award-winning author of three book-length poems: IRL, Nature Poem, and Junk, which was published today by Tin House (and he’s just finished a fourth manuscript, titled Food.) Our Washington Square Review Interviews Co-Editor, Rachel Mannheimer, sat down with him to talk about the new book and a number of other projects, including a screenplay and two recorded poetry soundscapes, one for New York’s High Line Park and another for a gallery in Seattle.
The full interview will appear in Issue 42 this fall, but we've excerpted a preview of their conversation to celebrate the publication of Junk.
Tommy Pico on Persona
Interviews Co-Editor Rachel Mannheimer: Junk is the third book in what your publisher is calling the “Teebs” trilogy—soon to become a tetralogy. In the books, Teebs is your alter-ego, a persona. Can you talk about that persona in your work—and, I guess, in life?
Tommy Pico: What persona allows me to do, it allows me to point toward actual events without having to feel the need to render them as they adhere to my memories. I get to combine things. The thing is—you can do anything you want in writing, so why would you just do the facts? Persona allows me to take inspiration from what’s going on around me and to discover a new kind of truth.
Because I wouldn’t say I—me, Tommy Pico—am the narrator of the work. That person exists in a world that I don’t live in—and it’s one that I created! And I could call him Tommy—the way, you know, Issa Rae’s character in Insecure is named Issa—but I wanted to give him a different name so that I didn’t feel too precious about what happened to him. I started writing this screenplay, and the main character’s name was Tommy, and all of a sudden, I had to have him do some unsavory things, and I was like, “Tommy would never do that!” And my best friend was like, “You should change his name, because you’re gonna feel this way if his name is your name.”
And then persona became a way of being able to perform, too. Because I used to get so nervous. But through years of performing, and having a performance persona, I just don’t get nervous anymore. I know I’m capable of doing it, but I had to create Teebs as a persona who can get on stage—who was not me, who didn’t care, who didn’t second-guess things, who was a live-wire, who went off like a shot, and was able to be with a room and not hide in the corners of that room.
Do you feel that’s also true for the Teebs of @heyteebs on Twitter?
Teebs of Twitter is very impulsive, I would say. Yeah.
How did you first find that persona?
I was at Ohio State University a couple of weekends ago—they have a Native Speakers series that I was invited to participate in, and one of the kids asked me a question that nobody had ever asked me before. Because he was in this improv troupe on campus, and he was like, “A lot of what this is reminding me of is improv.” And that is actually one of the ways in which I crawled out of my shell, is that I did an improv intensive at UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade]. Because I saw an ad for it, and their tagline was, like, “Think at the top of your intelligence.” And I felt so mired in my self-deprecation and it made me such a sludgy thinker—because I couldn’t think on my feet. And I did that intensive, and it pulled Teebs out of me. Because you just have to go off the top of your head, and it was not easy at first—and is not easy ever. But, again, it proved I had the capability to do something I didn’t believe I had the capability to do. Like anything else, you have to apply yourself.
Jericho Brown told me this about workshops. It’s like, workshops are karma—you get as much out of them as you put in. That’s how I felt about that improv thing; that’s how I feel about writing; that’s how I feel about anything. It’s not easy, and you will fail a lot, but you will get what you put in.