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‘Not Waiting for Inspiration’: An Interview with Tommy Pico

Niqui Carter
Tommy Pico

Tommy Pico, a queer, Indigenous American poet, has published four book-length epic poems, the Teebs tetralogy, in the last four years. Pico grew up on the Kumeyaay reservation east of San Diego in the California desert, and writes about feeling as out of place there as he does among the young strivers and artists of New York City.

In his first book, IRL (2016), Tommy is a writer without a voice. “I strain to sing,” he writes. Teebs is Pico’s alter ego, the Sasha Fierce persona he adopts to escape himself, to write, to date, to speak onstage. In IRL, Teebs is out for sex. He asks the important questions (“who do I have to blow to get / some sex over here?”) and makes admissions of vulnerability (“I feel small / online and in real life / bc there’s my body / and then there’s your body, and I don’t think anybody’s / coming over tonight”). The book ends with Teebs sleeping with a stranger just because he owns an air conditioner. New York summers, right?

Pico’s next two books, Nature Poem (2017) and Junk (2018), show us the conflict between Tommy and Teebs. As Tommy becomes more and more himself, he realizes that the shy, introverted identity might have been the one he adopted to survive. Maybe the loudmouth was his real self all along, and ‘Tommy’ the construction. Pico struggles to make art in opposition to the expectations that indigenous writers bring the white reader closer to a bygone, natural state. “I wd slap a tree across the face,” he writes, always ready with a punchline.

In his latest book, Feed (2019), Teebs is thirty-five and hunting for community, nourishment, and a body that will carry him for another thirty-some years to come. He is concerned, that is to say, with the state and transformation of his body.

Tommy is a Whiting Award winner, winner of the 2017 Brooklyn Library Literary Prize, a finalist for two Lambda Literary Awards, an NYFA awardee, and in 2017 he received the Friends of Literature prize from the Poetry Foundation. He has read his work all over the country, and he imagines his poems and his reading voice as inseparable. 

Pico and I met in 2016 at the Tin House writer’s workshop in Portland, Oregon, where he worked with Jericho Brown and I worked with Kiese Laymon. The small number of queer participants at that workshop huddled together in our free time, drinking rosé, and talking trash about the literary establishment, capitalism, and Taylor Swift. Since then, Pico and I have launched a podcast, Food 4 Thot, with our friends Dennis Norris II and Fran Tirado, where we talk about boys, Beyoncé, and Borges in equal measure.

We are part of the first generation of queer men to grow up knowing about AIDS from childhood. So many men a half-generation older than us died, before they had the chance to share their lessons. We recognize that there is a gap in mentorship, a dearth of examples of what it looks like for us to grow older.

We spoke recently, on the High Line and in a Brooklyn dive bar, about the geography of our lives, sustenance, and how to care for one another. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.


Joseph Osmundson: What did care look like for you and your family growing up?

Tommy Pico: Well, I was raised on an Indian reservation alongside cousins and aunties and uncles and grandparents. I had a lot of models for care that weren’t necessarily my parents. My parents worked all the time. Sometimes I got dropped off at my grandmother’s place, or sometimes I’d just be gallivanting with my cousins. I would have been a latchkey kid if we had a latchkey. I did have a lot of imagination, and a lot of cousins, and sometimes drugs.

What models for queerness did you have in your youth?

My family was queer in structure because a tribal structure is different than a hetero, nuclear family. My mom had three different kids from three different men. It wasn’t that common for somebody to be married to the person that they were having children with at the moment. My parents were together, and I thought myself kind of lucky and outside of the norm. When they split up when I was in the seventh grade, my family structure more closely mirrored other families on the reservation. 

What sort of food and food traditions did you grow up with there?

My parents were responsible for cooking at funerals. Funerals happen all the time in Indian country. The average age of death on my reservation [the Kumeyaay reservation east of San Diego] is 40.7 years old. Compounded with the fact that there are seventeen other Indian reservations across San Diego County, my parents were cooking probably every weekend for scores of people.

They weren’t that excited to cook when I got home from school, let’s put it that way. So if it wasn’t fast food, it was food in cans, and commodities that were delivered monthly to the reservation, which was a government program to prevent starvation because they put us on the reservations in the first place.

Your persona in your books is named Teebs and in your author biography you call yourself Tommy “Teebs” Pico. In your first book, IRL, Teebs is a loudmouth who lets you perform on stage, but in Junk and Feed, we see him become this badass character. You write, “There’s a kind of stability / being so thoroughly Teebs.” Can you talk about your current relationship to Teebs?

I feel like Teebs was the original me, and then Tommy was the shy one whom I created in order to survive, to shield myself from anti-gayness. I was shamed into becoming a lesser version of myself. So getting older and getting louder and getting more performative is, I think, my reconnecting with a person before shame touched him.

I used to hear you call yourself Poverteebs when we first met. Who is Poverteebs?

In 2015 my friends started calling me Poverteebs because I was broke. I had to pay for everything in change. I was buying a dollar slice and cutting it in half for two meals. I couldn’t go to the bar, and if I did, I would bring my plastic flask of charcoal-filtered vodka and just refill my glass in the bathroom. And I thought at that point, maybe this poetry thing, maybe it’s not for me.

Lots of people have to give up on their dreams, I thought, and it was audacious for me to think I could make it happen in the first place. I had shitty jobs and I did stupid stuff, and I sat with my feelings, and I wrote it all down. And nobody was really checking for it. And why would they? I’m a freaking gay Indian from a reservation.

How did Poverteebs care for current Teebs? Was the future even on your mind when you were living in that type of situation?

The future was on my mind, though mostly in the sense of a creative practice. It was during that time that I taught myself how to write. It just wasn’t making money yet.

I think what Poverteebs was doing for future Teebs was laying the foundation for a constant creative practice that I now have as a discipline. I’m not waiting for a muse. I’m not waiting for inspiration. The inspiration for writing is writing. I have professionalized a creative impulse, and that is not an easy thing to do.

There’s this American—I think—notion of writing that one just needs to sit and work at it, kind of like it’s pure will. Very “Just Do It.” At the same time, we view artistic talent as this innate creative genius. Or maybe it helps if your parents both work as editors at major publishing houses and can get you an editorial internship at the New Yorker in your sophomore year at Vassar. Who knows? How do you think one’s background—your background—affected what you thought it would take to be a writer?

I didn’t really think about being a writer, professionally. I mean, I wrote a lot and my parents gifted me a deep love for poetry, but nobody I knew on the reservation really had a “profession” or a “calling.” Mostly, you were lucky if you could even get a job. I didn’t have a Native writer from a reservation to model myself off of until I was in middle school and read Sherman Alexie. From then on, I had this kind of naive determination to become a Writer. Naive because I wasn’t aware how difficult it would be, but determined because I knew if there was a way to do it, I’d figure it out. After Sherman, we’re seeing what other people are calling the “New Native American Renaissance”: Elissa Washuta, Trevino Brings Plenty, Cassandra Lopez, Tanaya Winder, Tacey M. Atsitty. In general, for me, my models influenced my imagination, which then influenced my ambition.

In several books, we meet a therapist named Dr. John. Is Dr. John real? How has therapy made you a better writer and or a better person?

Dr. John has been my therapist for over ten years. What he taught me was how to be accountable to my feelings and instincts in the moment, how to have a witness for them, which is something that I think writing does. It isn’t therapy, but it bears witness to a feeling and a moment and an instinct.

He also encouraged me to just start talking and not stop. It’s a similar practice that I use in writing. I just start. I’ll get to the thing that I want to get to eventually, but if I don’t start I’ll never get there.

So it sounds like in a way Dr. John helped birth Teebs.

Absolutely. I think Dr. John helped me start to undo an elaborate system of self-censorship that I had put in place from, you know, trauma, LOL.

You write, in Feed, “Shall I be a poem for you?” Who are you a poem for?

I’m definitely a poem for my parents. You know that Langston Hughes quote about a dream deferred? That’s me to them. They wanted to be poets. But they didn’t come up in a time when that was possible for them. And they had responsibilities, and they had kids, which is not something you’re gonna catch me doing.

I was going to ask if you want to have kids.

You won’t catch me with kids. I can’t be responsible for anything other than myself. I’m trying to make sure I don’t die. That’s my project.

I have started to get plants. But I still can’t imagine being responsible for another human life.

There is something about passing on Kumeyaay blood that makes me feel conflicted, but I can’t bring myself to at the expense of my freedom. I know it’s a selfish thing to say, but how often does an indigenous queer person get any kind of a platform in recorded history? Almost never.

So I feel like I owe it to myself, my future self, and I owe it to whoever is coming up after me, to do what I need to do. To do the work and make the movies and write the books and sing the songs. That’s what I feel responsible for.

Dennis Norriss II, Tommy Pico, Fran Tirado, and Joseph Osmundson recording Food 4 Thot, 2019

In Feed, as he’s starting to try to take care of himself better, Teebs says, “I’ve been trying ever since to grow up. Sometimes it feels like I am. But sometimes it feels like it’s everyone else around me growing up, and I’m just getting older.” Feed almost seems like an answer to this question—we see Teebs grow up before our eyes. Is this what it feels like to grow up? We can only see it in retrospect?

Sure. But I was trying to understand that in some people’s eyes, I am just getting older. I’m not growing up because I don’t have children and I don’t have a partner. I’m not renting to own and I don’t have a down payment on anything. Some of those things are just late-stage capitalism and some of them are heteropatriarchy. And I have had to define what growing older means for me.

In Junk, Teebs was eating M&Ms, corn dog bites, pizza, cherry Cokes, and Funyuns. In Feed, we have a recipe for vinaigrette, leeks and asparagus. There’s a roux for baked sage mac ’n’ cheese; there’s gumbo, green tea, mirepoix, tapas, and ceviche. Junk is eggplant emojis. Feed is homemade baba ganoush. How did Teebs make that transition?

I look at the narrator in Junk and I see a person who definitely can imagine a path toward solace, but who is still spinning out and exhausted. He sees the potential for family and for nourishment and for nutrition, but doesn’t know how to get there yet.

Feed was a natural expression of that revelation, and enacting a practice to see it to its culmination. And that is like clocking the Popeyes, but not going inside.

You write, “Poems light up corridors of the mind, like food.” To write this book, you spent a year traveling the country and asking friends to cook, with you, their favorite dish. What was the single best thing you ate?

Oh God, there were so many good recipes. Some of them were good because of the story. One was my friend Christina’s grandma’s red sauce, because her grandma had just passed. I told her the project was about sharing and generating food stories and traditions to make up for the fact that I felt I had none. Christina realized that by making the red sauce together, she would be doing her grandmother’s memory right. So that was nourishing in a completely different way.

How did you come to cooking and food as your central metaphor for caring for your body. It’s not healthcare or jogging or your retirement fund. It’s a roux. Why?

A few different things. I needed to make language strange again, so the wealth of cooking terminology and food metaphors and such provided me a different window into English. I also knew from experience that conversations with smart people always become a catalyst for my writing, so cooking with people organized those conversations. Also, in a much more selfish way, I was an early-thirty-something who didn’t know how to cook.

We were both born in the mid-1980s, into a world where queer people were dying of a new, horrifying virus. Did growing up in the HIV-era affect your understanding of your own queerness? The possibility of pleasure?

Yes and no. I was never not a fairy. Before that manifested as a sexual desire, I absolutely had to see The Little Mermaid fifteen times in the theater, you know? When we were coming through the drive-thru line at McDonald’s and they asked did I want the Hot Wheels Happy Meal or the Barbie Happy Meal, it was always my girl B. But you have to understand, my brother is gay and a little over a decade older than me. When I was a preteen, just entering puberty, my brother was in his early twenties, which showed me something like what I could be. I wasn’t the first there was, even in my family. This was the early to mid-1990s when the dominant message writ large was GAY SEX EQUALS AIDS AND AIDS EQUALS DEATH. Imagine just starting to have the most innocent crushes on dudes when the topography of your desire is being portrayed as a literal hellscape! These were formative experiences!

Do you feel like all the deaths of gay men just a half generation older than us has changed how we imagine growing old outside of heteronormative structures?

Sometimes I think that’s why gay men our age thought being in their thirties was old. Also combine that with growing up on an Indian reservation where the average age of death was just over forty. There didn’t seem to be much of a future to look forward to, so what’s the point of “taking care of your body”? And even that’s complicated because I don’t want to adjoin “taking care of your body” with diet culture or “self-care,” because that stuff’s not any better for your health and is just rooted in a white supremacist capitalism and fat phobia. It’s also complicated with our generation somewhat because the possibility of “saving money” for your future is like a unicorn, even if you’re not a nihilist!

Something that came out of the HIV-era, I think, is the difference between biological family or life partner and chosen family. Folks dying of AIDS cared for each other with such profound kindness and care. But how can we trust our chosen family to care for us in the way we expect kin to? My mom always told me, after all of my 19301 break ups, ”find a man who will wipe your ass when you get old.” Tommy Pico ,will you wipe my ass at eighty?

Well, okay. Here’s the thing. I think I’m going to be out of the country, or maybe I have a work thing. I’m washing my hair. I’m—I’m cutting the ribbon on a building named after me. But I’ll send somebody. Yeah, we’ll Postmates that.

In Feed you write, “Alone is an accomplishment.” Do you ever imagine that partnership could be a component of how you could love yourself, and invest in your future happiness? Are you open to it? Or is alone—and accomplished—your commitment to yourself?

I guess I could see it happening, a partnership. I don’t think partnership for me would mean people who spend every waking moment together and we have to go to sleep in the same bed at the same time together.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m rebuking intimacy. That’s just how I’m built. It’s sort of like Mariah Carey singing, “I had a vision of love.” I didn’t have a vision of love. I had a vision of my career. So now I’m trying to figure out what that other thing—love—might look like for me.

In Feed, you write, “I guess this is a dirge / to the future I thought we could have.” This is said about a lover, but I am thinking about how it applies to climate change and the planet. Are you mourning the potential loss of the world order, or is there something like possibility rising from the ashes of everything we’ve known?

Absolutely, yes. There was an expectation for the kinds of things that we would be able to afford at our age, the kinds of lives that we would be living. What other generations had on lock is not as easy anymore. I’m also letting go of a romantic idea of a future: children and relationships. There is still a future to be made, but I have to live it to know what it looks like.