It’s Ok For a Poem to Be Funny: An Interview with Tommy Pico
On Zines, Contemporary Epics, and a Love of Raisins
Tommy Pico is part of the new wave of of poets spanning the worlds of print, online, performance and DIY. His debut book IRL is an exercise in storytelling that is at the same time lyric and conversational in tone, a reflection on the pains great and small of modern city life and a meditation on identity, place and personhood rooted in history but unfolding with force into today’s world. The scope of the work is not just in length but also location, stretching across the West and East coasts of America, the contemporaneity of the poet’s current Brooklyn home brushing against a childhood spent on the Viejas reservation in Southern California. Throughout, Pico’s voice rings clear and true, speaking to a frustrated generation, but a generation that still knows humor and hope. I talked to Pico about the process of creating IRL while he was on tour for its release.
Ruby Brunton: An obvious place to start talking about IRL for me is the form, an epic book-length piece that sprawls across 90 pages keeping you hooked from the first. Writing poetry, or indeed anything, is hard and painful and requires commitment, but even considering, IRL feels like a massive exercise in perseverance and dedication. What draws you to the book-length form? It seems it isn’t such a common form in contemporary poetry despite its popularity throughout history (Homer, Virgil, Spenser, Milton and so on and so on). Thinking of contemporary poetry, there’s Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines who you cite as an influence, another story of a relationship that interweaves many themes into it. Which other contemporary poets are working in this medium that have inspired you? Did you find the process any harder or easier than writing shorter poems? What draws you to the book-length form?
Tommy Pico: I love book poems the way I love raisins—nobody else likes them, so I don’t have to share! Just kidding. Raisins suck. Just kidding I love them. Anyway, I think book poems give space to the kind of world that can’t stop at the end of a sentence or a stanza or a page. Some things just keep going, you know? Especially with regard to the ramifications of settler colonialism and traumas experienced on the generational level. Other contemporary poets who make epics I admire and am inspired by include Robin Coste Lewis, Jeffrey Yang, R. Erica Doyle, Ken Chen, Anne Carson… the list goes on. I see book poems as a kind of event horizon; they suck me in. I think writing something longer is particularly challenging because there’s this constant voice in the back of my head that’s like: are you enhancing this world, or just accumulating?
RB: We have spoken a lot about changing perceptions of poetry and opening poetry up to people who’ve felt removed from it as a genre, or felt excluded by the scene, or had previous conceptions of what poetry was that barred them from attempting it. The idea of poetry as being an older art form, a dead art form, a useless art form, a boring art form, an elitist art form are still prevalent. Your work feels like a bridge between the poetry world and those on the outside of it. From the title alone, it’s clear IRL isn’t going to just be an ode to the arrival of spring. You’re unafraid to capture the moment, reference the now, which reminds me of a poetry workshop facilitator I had once who said to avoid making too many potentially obscure references to contemporary culture. How do you feel about this advice?
TP: Ultimatums in poetry don’t usually sit well with me. When I hear someone say, “don’t put _____ in a poem,” what I hear is, “I wouldn’t put ______ in a poem,” and that’s great! By all means don’t put _____ in your damn poem, because that’s how our poetry will be different. Life is weird and dumb and restrictive, but a poem can be whatever the hell you want it to be for god’s sake. Other people will always have opinions, they’re just really none of my business. I can’t.
RB: One of the things that’s so engaging about IRL is its shift from the central love—or should I say crush—story to an exploration of other themes. There are long passages that are meditations on the struggles of Indigenous Americans for autonomy, cultural respect and justice, psychological musings on the public versus private behavior of young people and the frustrations and highlights of modern dating, friendships, seeking to carve out an existence in a hostile world. Do you see IRL as a narrative piece? Did you start from the start with an end in mind or was it more haphazard? How did you decide on the final structure?
TP: Towards the latter drafts of the poem, as it became the manuscript that became the book, I started to see the narrative emerge. It got very clear to me very quickly (and strangely) in that time. I didn’t set out to make a narrative epic, or a poem really. I just started with the idea, what happens when you have the momentary daring to sext someone, and they don’t immediately respond. I, for example, would be mortified and immediately try to outrun my shame by doing a million things, texting other people, eating a big sandwich? I don’t know. I like not knowing, and it was haphazard in that way. I wanted to be surprised and I wanted to keep going and I wanted onion rings. In another way though it was methodical, in the sense that I wrote as much as I could every day, and on Fridays deleted almost everything. What stayed was what I felt strongest about. I started with the structure, keeping the lines short like a text message, and it was the only constraint in the poem that I gave myself.
RB: There’s a marriage of so many different cultural elements in the piece, the insertion of the accessible (references to apps, hashtags, pop music, dating sites, the narrator and his roommate watching Top Chef while scarfing down chicken fingers) into the perceived-as-inaccessible form, the book-length poem. It’s actively resisting and rejecting the notion that poetry is some kind of impenetrable fortress. Is this a conscious effort or does it just speak to your incredibly varied influences?
TP: Both. At this point, I make a conscious effort to write the way that I speak. I want you to be able to read my stuff and come away from it like a conversation, probably because I want to seduce people who might not normally spend time with a poem. Sometimes writing is walking around, talking into my phone, and transcribing that later. Also when I’m working on a poem, I don’t want to read a ton of poetry because I’m afraid of losing the sound of my voice. Usually I read non-fiction and watch documentaries and Neil deGrasse Tyson giving me some truth.
RB: As part of your project against boring, you strive to also create and uphold the theatrical tradition of poetry through your own dedication to performing the work rather than simply reading it. This has also led to the reading series Poets with Attitude you co-host with Morgan Parker, which provides a platform for femme poets, queer poets, poets of color, poets who also perform. What role do you see performance playing in your work? What is the difference in experience between reading the work on the page and seeing/hearing it live? IRL lends itself beautifully to performance as it works in shorter sections too, and these never feel too short or lacking in context. How much thought do you give to being able to perform the work while writing it? How do you decide on which sections work as solo pieces?
TP: Getting back to me writing close as possible to the way I speak, I love giving readings and I don’t want there to be a glaring tonal shift between me talking on a mic before reading the poem, and me reading the poem. The difference is probably that I’m a little louder, a little quieter, a little more indignant, a little more hopeless, a little more in love, and a little more boisterous in the reading. The thing is, I can’t control how someone hears the work when they’re alone, but if they take the time out of their life to come spend it with me onstage, I want to show my appreciation by giving them a (kind of) show. It’s respect. I don’t necessarily know how I’m going to read it as I write. I usually have to sit with it afterwards and listen a little. The sections I read are usually based on how much time a host gives me!
RB: I’ve just finished reading What is Found There—a collection of writings from Adrienne Rich’s notebooks—where she spends a lot of time contemplating the role of the poet as witness and social commentator, as well as the function of poetry itself as a space for community creation. IRL certainly bears witness to the tragedies of modern society both on the macro and micro scale, but at the same time it’s bursting with humor and celebration. How do you feel about the idea of poet as commentator? Why do you think humor as a device is often not employed in poetry? Can poetry function as a healing tool or coping mechanism?
TP: One of the things I kind of low-key despise (lol) are “thinkpieces,” because I don’t care, really? And again, people’s opinions are generally none of my business—that’s just me. I don’t want to be prescriptive of anyone else, so in that sense I don’t know if I have as much of a feeling of poet as commentator as I do on poet as storyteller. I think that’s where I trick myself into allowing myself to have an opinion, which probably ends up being commentary. The world, she is mysterious. It’s my suspicion that humor is not often used in poetry because people see humor as not being serious, and poetry is deadly. Maybe? But I’m interested in what humor belies, what it masks, where it comes from. And what the hell, I want to make people laugh. There’s almost nothing truer than getting an honest laugh out of someone. As it comes to being a tool of healing, etc., I think poetry can function as anything that a person makes it function as. I’m not being glib here, for sure poems can help heal and all that, it’s just not my intention. My intention is to write a poem. If I thought I was doing something other than that, I don’t know if I’d be able to write it because I don’t feel that important or authoritative.
It’s my suspicion that humor is not often used in poetry because people see humor as not being serious, and poetry is deadly.
RB: IRL is your first published book, how did you find the process of publishing? You have throughout your career found ways of self-publishing, online, in zines, submitting to journals, public readings—how does it feel to have another medium for publication under your belt? Now that IRL is finally out, what are the current and future projects you are working on?
TP: Working with Birds, LLC has been a dream. Let’s be clear, the manuscript they read and the book IRL are not the same thing. Sampson and Justin at Birds weren’t micromanaging as editors; they gave me just the right amount of direction and a whole lot of space to figure out what I needed to change and how to make the poem more itself. I could not have written IRL on my own, which almost feels like an embarrassing admission because in everything else I’ve ever done, zines/apps/tumblrs/etc., I absolutely could do that writing on my own. With zines, I learned how to sound like myself. With IRL, I learned that understanding you need help isn’t the same as not being yourself. As for future projects, my second book (Nature Poem) is coming out next year from Tin House, and I’m working on two other book-length poems called Junk and Food. Hopefully they’ll also come out sometime, somewhere, on something. Tongue sticking out emoji.