An interview with Tommy Pico

Rachel Mannheimer, issue 42

Tommy Pico arrived at my apartment in the middle of beautiful spring Sunday. It was a busy day for him—but that was not, it seems, out of the ordinary. He is an incredibly hard-working poet—and it shows in his incredible output. He’s published three books of poetry in three years—and has, it turns out, already completed a fourth. In the mean time, he has also, on commission, written a screenplay and created two poetry “soundscapes” – FEED, for NYC’s High Line park, and another as part of the project A LONE in the city of Seattle, through a gallery there. He co-hosts a podcast, Food 4 Thot, and a reading series, Poets with Attitude. He is active (and hilarious) on Twitter (@heyteebs), and curates a monthly TinyLetter “poetry mixtape” of poems he admires.

His latest book, Junk, was published by Tin House in May 2018. It is inspired in part by A. R. Ammons’ Garbage, and borrows its form—one long poem, in couplets, without periods. Ammons saw the possibility in “garbage” as a category that can, eventually, subsume everything. “Junk” is similar—and Pico’s poem allows in so much of daily life, stuff that rarely finds room in poetry. It’s one of the great pleasures of his work. Pico also loves a pun, and “junk” takes on many resonances in the book: junk food; junk mail; “junk” as, well, a metonym for sex; all the junk of history and capitalism and culture. And also the junk of the junk shop, where—touchingly, in a book that centers around a break-up—what’s discarded waits to be rediscovered, repurposed. Junk is a treasure.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Thanks so much for coming! I was just walking around in the sunshine today, listening to FEED, the soundscape you did for the High Line. And you’ve done a similar sort of piece in Seattle. Tell me a little about creating something specifically for audio.

TOMMY PICO: Well, one of the ways in which I write is by dictating to myself. I’ll just pretend like I’m talking on the phone—and specifically when walking around. I always feel like I’m having to translate my voice to the writing. And doing the soundscapes, I’m not translating at all, I’m just doing my voice – and I can pretty much make my voice do anything I want it to. There are cues in writing—to emotional registers, and tonal registers—but in a piece that is completely comprised of audio, there are certain things that I can do without having to use words.

I kind of learned what I was doing when I was doing the High Line piece, so with this new one, it’s a lot stranger—there’s a narrative, but there’s not as much of a plot. There’s more just textures of audio, that I’m hoping build enough of a narrative. I don’t need to do a narrative podcast, that’s not what I’m doing. And the piece for the Seattle gallery is more just about being alone—how one experiences art alone. And it’s such an intimate thing, in that it exists in somebody’s ear. It’s challenging, and what I love about it is that I love figuring out new things. I love figuring out new types of writing. That’s why I really jumped at the chance to do a screenplay last year. I wouldn’t do that unprompted on my own, but when someone’s like, “Hey, here’s some money, will you do this thing?” I’m like, “Well, yeah, sure!” What writing has allowed me to do is to constantly prove that I’m capable of doing more and different and—I’m not gonna say better—things, but that I’m capable of progress.

Junk is the third book in what the 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?

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, like, the Teebs of 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.

Reading Junk made me go back and read A. R. Ammons’ Garbage, which was such a pleasure. And then I read Tape for the Turn of the Year, and now I see so much of that in IRL, too. When did you first discover Ammons, and what did you connect with in his work?

I was at a retreat for Brooklyn Poets, and Jason Koo had us do an exercise where we read a portion of Tape for the Turn of the Year, and then just wrote something. I actually don’t remember what the specific assignment was. But it’s weird because there are so many channels through which my life had led me to that moment. One of them had been studying with Ariana Reines, and she had a sort of workshop/study group called Ancient Evenings, and in it, we would read myriad difficult texts aloud, like popcorn-style around the room. Then she would play music for like five minutes, and we were completely silent, alone in our thoughts. And then we had to write for ten minutes and then read what we’d just written. And when you’re reading out loud in a group of people, you don’t really catch everything—especially if it’s super-difficult. It’s sort of like you wade in and out of something. And I noticed that the portions that I would catch on to were tethered to things I was already thinking. There was something about the way in which my brain was primed to pick up on certain things because I had, like, five ingrained obsessions in my mind. And reading in that way allowed me to figure out what those obsessions were.

So, coming from that background, and then going into this workshop with Jason Koo, where he was giving us this text from A. R. Ammons and, again, we were just kinda reading through it—I was just pulling out what I could. And I immediately wrote the first three pages of IRL.

I started to understand that my affinity for A.R.—for Archie—was that, even though we didn’t write anything alike, I felt deeply that poems came to him the same way they came to me. And that the sustenance of a longer work depends on obsession, and I feel like the engines of our obsession are similar. So, like, we have a similar anatomy, but we don’t have a similar phenotype, or skin color, or hair, or whatever.

I guess I do see some similarities in the writing—the movement between registers…

Right, and he’s really funny!

Yes, and he likes wordplay!  One thing I love about both his work and yours is that it’s able to bring really anything—everything—into the poem.

But it’s about figuring out what your obsessions are—and this is something I tell the kids all the time. Figuring out what your obsessions are allows you to see the world through those lenses, and then anything can become a part of your work. I mean, if you write it into your work, it’s a part of it. And that’s the only way in which I can understand making work in general. Because if I felt like things were forbidden or off-limits, that would just start to create that feeling of inhibition inside of me. Writing is a way for me to let loose of those inhibitions. And, again, I think I attribute this to improv! And being like, okay, nothing’s off limits—just go! And it’s terrifying because self-censorship is something we use to socialize, right? It’s like, your true self and your false self—quote unquote. Your true self and your persona. And one of them is created to exist socially so that—I don’t know—you don’t call someone a fuckface, or whatever! So there’s some idea of having to rein in a part of yourself in order to play nice.

But that doesn’t have to exist in writing. Like, that can be a way in which you’re totally free. So why not bring everything into the poem?

And once you’ve brought everything in—then what does your editing process look like?

I mean, once I’ve typed it, usually it’s done. But I do longhand for drafts and drafts and drafts beforehand. Because it’s a kind of whittling away. So the first spurt is just the entire tree, you know? And then the revisions—reading it over, reading it over, reading it over. Again, Jericho Brown has this thing where he’s like, “Is this a poem, or is this an essay about the poem?”  So, you know, stripping the essay parts away, and then making the words as vigorous as possible. Because that’s the economy of the poem, whether it’s short or long. You know, you could say “eyes,” or you could say “peepers.” Which one is gonna be better? I’m like, “Fuck, I’ll say peepers!” Because one of them gives you a feeling—and one of them is just telling you something. So I’m trying to get to the point of feeling, rather than telling, as much as possible. And then, by the time I’ve typed it—it’s the tiny carving that it was supposed to be.

So, I end up generating a lot of words, but, for as long as my books are, what I throw away is probably that times three or four. I mean, it’s heartbreaking sometimes. Because when I was writing IRL for example, it was like, Monday to Thursday I wrote everything, and Friday I deleted 80% of it.

And then over the weekend, I read it over, and then Monday through Thursday… This is a process of maybe three to four months, over the summer of 2014. Because I was committed to just writing it. Once I had the inciting incident of Jason Koo’s workshop, I had an energy to keep working on it, and I was like, this is an opportunity, to maybe come out of this summer with a manuscript, with a book. And it was really hard because, you know—look outside! Summer is what you live for in New York! You slog through the rest of the year so that you get those few months of being outside, you being in shorts, and going to the river, and going on rooftops, and going upstate! And to deprive yourself of the best part of living here, in this shitty, shitty, place, which I absolutely hate? It was heartbreaking. But again, I was like, this is an opportunity. Maybe I’ll never have another opportunity like this again.

But what about your trick of dictating while walking?

That was something I learned to do after. IRL was definitely head down at a desk, looking wistfully out a window, crying every now and then.

And before IRL, were you writing shorter, lyric poems?

I was writing a lot of short-form work—I mean, exclusively. Because I was afraid of anything longer. Now that I look back, I can see the prototypes of what I would eventually work on, but there was such a hesitance in them, it’s like, no wonder I couldn’t sustain it, because it was like trying to yell when you’ve only taken half a breath. It didn’t resound in the same way, because I didn’t really know what I was doing. And I don’t think you should know what you’re doing! But I think you should at least know what you’re working with.

Would you ever return to shorter work?

I don’t think small things would satisfy me. My stomach’s too big—you know what I mean?—to go back to those things. I’m kind of a glutton when it comes to work.

And it also happens to me reading shorter work—I love poems, but it’s hard for me to read a book of poems by the same person in the same sitting, because after the first three, after doing so much work to get a sense of the writer’s voice, to get a sense of the writer’s world and the world of the poems and the book, and the vocabulary, and going through whatever emotional arc happens in each one, by the fourth one, I feel just so rubbed raw. My ability to get a sensation from the work is dulled to the point where I can’t do it anymore. So I have to read them in bursts, or one at a time. But with longer work, I feel more invested in what is going on. And it doesn’t drain me. I feel like it feeds me.

And with Junk, with almost every line enjambed, you do have to read it in one sitting—it’s almost literally impossible to put down.

But the reason for the enjambment in Junk—that’s more structural. I wanted the lines to all be the same length, more or less—like, four-and-a-half inches, that’s what I was going for—so that every page looks exactly the same as the page before, so that it would be easy to find a moment and to lose it, too. The way that in a junk drawer—it’s made up of so many distinct things, but once you find something, it’s easy to lose it, because as a mass it becomes a bunch of indistinct things. And then, physically, it’s just like a drawer—the page.

And what about the couplets?

Well, I just thought it would be, like, disgusting to write a break-up poem in couplets. And also Garbage is in couplets. Or Garbage isn’t always in couplets—sometimes it breaks couplets, and definitely the lines aren’t all the same length. But as an interpretive way of talking about coupling and uncoupling—it was just like, I’m gonna give a nod.

Right. Do the thing. I wanted to talk about humor in your work. It’s something I really value in poems and—well, yeah, I’ll just let you speak to it.

I think humor upends a lot of people’s expectations of what a poem can be, or what it can do. Because there’s this idea that poetry—because it’s a form of literature or high art or whatever—that it has to be painful, or serious. But I think you can be painful and serious and jokey. I mean, I was raised on an Indian reservation, and Indian people—of all the people who make me laugh—Indian people make me laugh more than anything else. But there’s a sense of humor that, you know, it’s one that we really only show each other. There’s this idea of, like, Indian stoics, and that’s just because we’re so cagey. This is my theory anyway—and when I say “we,” I don’t mean to speak for everybody. I mean to speak for people in my tribe, on my reservation. The sense that I get is that people where I’m from are so used to things being stolen that they don’t want to give you anything. And it’s like, when an outsider leaves, that’s when we become ourselves again. And there is a pain from which the humor originates. And it’s one of the ways in which we stayed alive. And that’s to turn incidents of pain into something you could laugh about. It’s one of the strangest things I remember growing up, and going to funerals all the time. In one breath people would be sobbing, and in another breath, people would be laughing. And the alchemy of that emotional state was something that stuck with me even today.

I feel like humor sometimes gets a bad rap, because it’s seen as a defense mechanism, meant to deflect. But we use it as a way to connect with each other, too. And it’s a way of pointing to the pain, and letting someone in—and letting them into a poem, too.

And there’s a nice way in which I have seen it work on other people. When I’m performing or whatever, it’s a way to get the audience on your side, before you implicate them in something really painful, or speak some kind of painful truth into the world. And in that way, I wanna say that it is born out of a fear—for me at least—that if I push too hard with the painful stuff too early on, I’m gonna lose people. And I also I feel that in literature or pop culture—to what degree Indian people exist in literature and pop culture—there are so many narratives of death and genocide and alcoholism and pain and all of these things, that it is kind of lugubrious to a certain extent, that it’s saturated with Indian sorrow and Indian defeat. And I wanted to bring Indian humor into the world, and I wanted to bring Indian punchlines, and I wanted to bring Indian joy—as much as I bring pain into the world, too.

I’m thinking, too, of my teacher, Catherine Barnett. She was talking about unreliable narrators in poetry, and she said one of her favorite unreliable narrators is the person who doesn’t know how much pain they’re in—who might be making jokes, but you can see the pain in the poem.

That’s how, honestly, when I read back IRL, I see Teebs. I’ve seen him kind of grow throughout, but in that one, he absolutely did not know in the beginning. I think he had an idea of what was going on underneath the surface, and what was underlying his compulsive behavior, but the book is really him discovering what it is—and then turning away from it.

I’d love to hear a little more about this screenplay you wrote, how that came to pass and what that process was like. It’s so different from a poem!

Essentially, one of the cofounders of a company called Cinereach reached out to me. He’d been a fan of my work, and he’d been passing my book around the office, and he’d known about my work when I was just making zines. Like, from back in the day. And he started reading some lines to me, and he was like, “I see the movie here. Would you be interested in writing one?” And again, I mean, I would never have done that on my own. But once he said this, and then there was the amount they were gonna pay me, that was gonna pay off my debt—I was like, “I will do anything you want me to do!” The idea of being out of debt—I never thought I would be out of debt. I just never thought I would be out of debt! That’s all. I mean, that’s such a shitty thing about this country. And then I had to teach myself what a plot was and what a narrative was—and what are characters? People who are not me, who are not thinly veiled versions of me. And also how to set up dramatic situations wherein people are horrible to each other! You know, where people don’t want what’s best for each other, or people have secrets, or people talk shit about each other. And I had to sympathize with them. And it was very, very difficult.

I had to just start somewhere, and it was like what writing books had taught me. Again, just to use this metaphor: start with the tree and whittle away until you get the thing. So I was like, alright, well, I’ve just gotta write this shitty rough draft. Just bang out a shitty, shitty, shitty rough draft you are never gonna show anybody, and then print it out, and then do what you do! Which is you sit there with a red pen and a highlighter, and go through this shitty rough draft, you make it one shade better, then retype it and you print it out and you do that over and over again. And that is a sustainable work model for me. And it really taught me, more so than anything: just start. Just start. Stop thinking and just start! Because you’re gonna make it better, but it’s never gonna be better if you don’t start. And you’re gonna have to sit with your own feces for a while.

It was by far the most ambitious and the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. And, you know, the business of this, as Anne Sexton says, is words, right? But with a screenplay, I had to figure out things without using words. Like, using the least amount of words possible, actually. Instead of somebody saying, “What time is it?,” them just checking their watch. You know, things like that, that I could do with gesture, and that you would do with the placement of people in a scene. And being intentional about everything. It was very difficult. But not impossible. And, in fact, after I finished that one, I wrote like two more!!

Whoa. I wanted to ask you also about community and collectives and friendship. It seems like it’s a strength of yours, building community. And it can be so important—in New York, especially.

It’s interesting because I’m a very solitary person. But my solitude doesn’t transmute into loneliness because I have community. With my relationships with people, with groups of people, whether it’s with the podcast, or with my best friends, or with the Birdsong collective that I started, and then the community of poets that I’ve come into, with Morgan Parker and Angel Nafis and Shira Erlichman and Camonghne Felix and Paul Tran and Danez Smith—I’ve been the beneficiary of having different strata of community, and that is what gives me solace when I’m by myself.

And also—I came from a reservation. Like, I literally came from a tribal people. So having a strong sense of community has always been important to me. I’ve always been able to make friends easily, wherever I go. But I imagine other people in my position might be afraid of making connections, because you have to say goodbye people. But I was grown up saying goodbye to people—you know, I grew up with people dying all the time. So it was like, I live one life, I’m gonna make these connections as deep as possible because there’s always gonna be pain—there should at least be some light.

Right. And the more deeply you connect, the more you can carry that with you when people go. Speaking of community and poetry, how is your work received back home, or by your family?

Well, I just think for the longest time they didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Because I had initially left and I was studying medicine—like, I was going to be a doctor. Which they understood and could comprehend very easily. I mean, my parents aren’t dummies—they love poetry, that’s how they met. My mom really liked Anna Akhmatova, and my dad really liked Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and they would read to each other—and they would write and read to each other. I was born in a house that adored poetry—so of course this was one of my potential career paths! But I think the idea of success for a poet is just so nebulous, and unattainable to a certain extent, and subjective, and dependent on so many things—be they connections, luck, hard work, talent, whatever. I think they were just afraid because, you know, you go to medical school for seven years, you become a resident, then you become a doctor. You know what I mean? There’s a clear path of success for certain professions and this one—and living in New York, and just being broke, and writing in obscurity for the fifteen years that I did—I think they thought I was just doing it so I wouldn’t have to grow up. And maybe I was! And ewhen I was getting poems published, they all existed online, and my parents were like, “Well, it’s not in a book, it’s not in a journal, it’s not in a magazine”—they still didn’t get it then. And even when I signed my first book contract, and they were like, “You’re not getting paid?” And I was like, “No, I’m getting books, though!” Because, you know, it’s a small press, and that’s kind of the deal. But then it came out, and it was immediately followed by a profile in the New Yorker. And they were like, “Oh.” Then they started to see. Then, just like one after the other, different things started happening for me—another book, another book, movie contract, all these other articles—and now they’re just pleased as shit. Any time a new thing comes out, they’re sending it to all the relatives, all the aunties, my pediatrician, my old piano teacher… you know. Now everybody gets an earful every single time.