Tommy Pico: Epic Poet
The world was introduced to Tommy Pico’s epic poetry in a thoroughly modern medium.
Tommy Pico is an esteemed poet, podcaster, and TV writer. His 2017 collection Nature Poem won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the 2018 Lambda Literary Award.
Born in 1983 and raised on the Viejas Reservation of the Kumeyaay nation in Southern California, Pico studied pre-med at Sarah Lawrence College, but eschewed a medical career in favor of writing. He has released four books of poetry, beginning with IRL in 2016, which received a Brooklyn Library Literary Prize. His latest, Feed (2019), was a New York Times Notable book of 2020. In 2018, he won a prestigious Whiting Award for emerging writers.
Pico hosts the podcasts Food 4 Thot and Scream, Queen!, and writes for TV shows Reservation Dogs and Resident Alien.
The poet Tommy Pico started life on the Viejas Indian Reservation in California. He now plies his trade in Brooklyn, where he’s applying distinctly modern language to an archaic literary form, the epic poem. The first book in his evolving trilogy, IRL, did make a splash in print, but was designed for the web. Pico’s goal was to create a post so long that it would dominate the feed on a social media site so thoroughly that viewers would eventually be forced to become readers.
Tommy Pico: This isn’t just poetry. This is an epic poem. You know what I mean? Nobody has that kind of attention span.
Tommy Pico’s focus is on making a powerful personal statement, rather than on attempting to control or predict how a reader might react.
Pico: I don’t have any relationship to another person’s relationship to the work. I only have my relationship to the work, to the thing being made and being put out there. So if that’s out, I’m good.
AJC: So who’s it for, then, you or the reader?
Pico: Well, it’s both. A book is a handshake, kind of, or an embrace or something. You have to come together. There’s work that I do as the writer, and then there’s work that you do as the reader.
After high school, Tommy Pico left the reservation to study poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. But feeling alienated by the backgrounds of his more privileged peers, he changed his major. When he returned to writing poetry after graduation, it was with an uncompromisingly authentic voice.
Pico: Accessibility is very important to me. I oftentimes hear poets read, and I’m like, “I think this is for other poets, I don’t think this for people.” Not that poets aren’t people… I mean they’re maniacal, but they’re still people. But, I mean, I wanted my mother to be able to read this. I wanted my brother and my people where I come from, I wanted them to be able to read it, too. And also, I didn’t want to write anything that didn’t feel right coming out of my mouth.
IRL was followed by Nature Poem in May 2017. The trilogy will conclude with Junk, a work still in progress. All three books center on the same protagonist, an enigmatic alter ego with whom Pico has a fraught relationship.
Pico: His name is Teebs. And I can bring Teebs out on stage but it’s not me, necessarily. It’s an approximation, I think.
AJC: Who am I talking to now, him or you?
Pico: I don’t know how to disentangle the two of them anymore. Ever since I started writing, Teebs has started coming out more, I’ve noticed.
AJC: Are you becoming your own stage version of yourself, and if so, is that okay?
Pico: Honestly, that’s what a lot of the third book is contending with. Having found a character in the first book, having brought him out, Teebs is the person who gets the call back after the first date. Teebs is the person on stage that everyone wants to be friends with. Teebs is the person who doesn’t overthink anything. But the thing that Teebs lacks is vulnerability, I think. And what I’ve started to understand is that I cannot—writing requires that vulnerability, and it requires second guessing, and it requires a ton of self-loathing.
Leave me alone, Muse.
Muse is finally giving me what I want.
What I mean is, my hard-won sense of self surrenders through the sieve of your attention every time.
What I mean is, for 15 years, I give all of myself to every man I meet, mostly because I have nothing worth holding.
I want to get lost, to merge, to be somebody else.
I look into the water, a rolling, exact me, and I promise to find or make something worth holding onto.