Inside Issue #18: Getting To Know Tommy Pico

Photo by Bao Ngo

Photo by Bao Ngo

Tommy “Teebs” Pico says the last song he recently listened to was “Where is My Mind?” by the Pixies. As you read this piece, let the melodic notes of the song cascade over the words, infiltrate your mind, and open up your heart as much Pico’s writing can and will do for you.

Teebs is not your average poet. He is quirky, he’s funny, he’s quick-witted. When he was ten he wanted to be Paula Abdul. He describes his natural world as, “trying to avoid eating chicken fingers for every meal, having crushes on everything, and the constant all-caps refrain looping in my noggin: STOP TWEETING SO MUCH TEEBS.”

Teebs is obsessed with poetry and music. His latest obsession is a Brazilian soul/R&B band called Liniker e os Caramelows. “Their songs are in Portuguese so I can’t really understand them, but the lead singer, a rad black trans woman, has this voice that communicates the feeling so well you really don’t have to speak the language.”

In poetry he’s recently been taken with, “Monica Youn’s beautiful book Blackacre, the hilarious Seattle-based poet Sarah Galvin, and forever and always, June Jordan.”

He loves to make you laugh while also making you think. He is deeply involved in social media, yet relishes time to himself and in “real life.” He even wrote a book-length poem titled, IRL, that details his struggle between staying relevant online and being his true self in his real life. When asked how to find a balance between one’s online and real life persona, Teebs leaves it up to us to decide.

“I have no freaking clue! It stresses me out. If you figure it out plz let me know. The only times I really get the hush of privacy is when I’m working or reading, because the care and attention they demand requires that I be totally alone.”

The American Indian (or NDN) poet has a fascinating pull to the Viejas Reservation where he grew up, and the Brooklyn urban dwelling he now calls home. He says it’s, “like any other connective tissue, it’s always there under the surface, surrounding and supporting the vital organs and such.”

“I suppose it’s like growing up anywhere else in the sense that when you’re young how much of a context do you have for your situation? I remember dust swirling around from the dirt road as cars drove by and climbing fig trees with my cousins. I remember how my grandmother’s kitchen smelled.

I remember a lot of other horrible shit too, like the funerals after funerals after funerals. Even then I could sense that being NDN was some powerful stuff, loaded with grit and sadness and I mean I don’t know about every nation but Kumeyaays are some funny ass mfs.”

Photo by Bao Ngo

Photo by Bao Ngo

His upcoming book, Nature Poem is an exercise in both rejecting and embracing our roots. As an NDN person he wanted to avoid writing about nature because it seemed stereotypical to him. But, as he weaves a narrative that both encompasses and surpasses nature, we find where Tommy lies, between the landscape of his past, his present, and his bright future.

“Honestly I’ve found myself outside of so many institutions, literature included, that I’ve come to view outsider status as a kind of blessing,” Teebs said. “I don’t have a fealty to tradition or taste for that matter. Also coming up in punk music and zine-making has taught me the value of production without the fallacy of ‘skill.’"

Teebs is friendly and open, and can make friends easily. He is part of the podcast Food 4 Thot with other queer writers, Fran Tirado, Dennis Norris II, and Joseph Osmundson. The queer poet very much wants people to know he is single and actively mingling.

He writes with a flow of quick internet speak with words like plz, yr, and cos, along with sweeping metaphors and hilarious quips that engage modern life with stunning visuals.

Teebs is starting to understand the balance between being an NDN person and battling colonialist ideals and values in the present day. His advice for other NDN people is to find the path to their identity in their own time.

“I think one of the problems I had to overcome was the idea that being Indigenous and contemporary were two different things. Identity is dynamic and absorptive and adaptive,” Teebs said.

“It’s like I say in the book, anything is NDN if I’m doing it because I’m NDN. Understanding that I was making the world more Kumeyaay by my presence and my art and my discourse helped me understand the power inherent within an indigenous identity.”

Tommy Pico is the kind of poet that make writers want to write. He is the Editor-In-Chief of birdsong, a Brooklyn-based lit/art collective and small press. He is the author of the zine series, Hey Teebs, and co-curates the reading series, Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker. He makes you want to dig deep, feel whole, and think large. In terms of poets engaging with social media, our personal lives, and inner depths, Teebs somehow manages to bring it all to light.

Writing isn’t just a hobby for Teebs, but a necessity. It’s more than a way to preserve the history of his NDN history, but to create a strong commentary of its importance in American history.

“I suppose it could be a way of preserving history but I also want to provide the archive of a life that shouldn’t exist: with the ways in which indigenous people were hunted in this country, the ways in which the literal government tried to exterminate us, it’s a testament to the ancestors’ determination to survive. At the very least, it’s my responsibility to them, to make good on their strength and sacrifice.”

The book-length poem form is a fascinating one. Each of Teebs’ books are a continuous piece of work that navigates the reader through the journey of Teebs’ mind and experiences. The long, uninterrupted form is a beautiful one, and one that only few can do well. Pico speaks on why he chooses that form for his work.

“Well, first of all, in perhaps the most unsaleable art form in America I decided to pursue perhaps the most obscure form within that. Really though, I wanted to give the audience an experience, a narrative of sorts, that you could sit with and consume in the span of 90 or so minutes—kind of like a film. I’m obsessed with the form and I can’t foresee myself ever writing short poems again. There is so much world, you know?”

Nature Poem details his draw to city life and to his natural world.

“My draw to the city is simply that I crave the kind of excitement and motion and possibility that city life offers. Plus I’m pretty freaking gay and I was drawn to a place where a queer relationship was safer and more possible. It’s weird ‘cos in my 15 years in the city, “nature” has become something obscured and dangerous to me. You won’t catch me camping, you can believe that.”

When asked what is the best advice he’s ever received Teebs responded, “Get out of your own way, dammit!”

Nature Poem, deemed a “thrilling punk rock epic,” by writer Alexander Chee. It  comes out on May 9, and you can follow Teebs on Tumblr and Twitter.


See the whole spread here in Issue #18 here.