‘I lift the house / of language, allow doubt / to whoosh in’: A Conversation with Tommy ‘Teebs’ Pico

By | 1 February 2017

MHS: Yeah, I feel like poetry / the poem can be anything we want it to be. Can you remember a time in your life when you read something that helped you realise this? That tore apart those (restrictive, elitist) ideas about poetry’s ‘project’? Or was it something that you discovered through your own writing? I guess I think a lot about my own experience within the colonial institution of university and how I actually formulated a kind of understanding/knowledge outside of those walls that was way more interesting.

TP: I think I’ve had a good relationship to the radical possibilities of poetry because I didn’t study it in college. I didn’t take any straight literature courses in undergrad, and while I did get accepted to an MFA program, I quit after a year. I also kind of came up in the punk and zine culture, in which the only rule was that you had to make something. Other than that, zines don’t have much in terms of formal structure. I don’t think I really put all of this piss and vinegar to good use, however, until I was in this sort of reading group / workshop / gathering situation helmed by Ariana Reines called Ancient Evenings. We had to cold read difficult work aloud, take a short break in silence, write for ten or so minutes, and then read what we’d just wrote. My internal critic didn’t have the time to really say anything since I only had ten minutes, and the threat of reading something crappy I’d just scribbled really pushed my like poetic disregard into gear.

MHS: I enjoyed the profile of you in The New Yorker. How do you feel about public recognition? Is representation on a platform like The New Yorker important/does it matter to you or is it happenstance? You’ve got such an incredible history of work within your tumblr, self-published zines, and the small press birdsong –does it feel like getting acknowledged in this way do something to who might now read your work, or how far your reach is?

TP: Exposure makes me nauseous, but I’m excited for tour purposes that perhaps out of town people and venues and reading series’ will actually return my emails! Listen, nobody who writes zines or does small press stuff or makes poetry for that matter does it for the fame. I was briefly in a master class with Marie Ponsot and she said, ‘the only way a poet is going to get into the newspaper is maybe an obituary.’ Ha. Regarding my first point though, I’m not excited for the attention, but more it’s potential to catalyse access to resources and tools other, perhaps more ambitious projects.

MHS: Yeah, wow. I totally feel you re: the fame thing. Well, can just say I read and adored your poetry before any of The New Yorker stuff. lol. My question was directed more towards what recognition can allow in terms of resources or readership. Do you have a specific readership in mind when you write / think / dream about making a work come into existence? Or are you less conscious of it and it’s more like you get feedback from a whole variety of people and then you can say, well that’s who’s reading my work?

TP: Definitely the latter. I mean, I want the work to approximate my speaking voice – albeit smarter, louder, and maybe more sexy? So in that regard, it’s not the readership I have in mind but more ‘could this conceivably come out of my mouth?’ I really have no idea who, if anyone, reads or likes my stuff. I imagine it’s a younger, queer, POC audience, but once it’s out of your hands you can’t control who sees the stuff. I like to stay almost ignorant.

MHS: Do you have any projects in the pipeline that are about working with communities / using your platform as a published poet (and I guess a ‘reputable’ poet in this strange capitalistic notion of success) for education or mentoring / teaching? Are you interested in engaging with poetry in that way or using poetry like that?

TP: I’m going to say something that might be a little bit controversial: I don’t like teaching. Record skip. I’ve done it a little bit and I am really not good at it. Teaching is so hard! I really admire and respect all of my friends who teach, but know thyself, you know? I’m just not good at it, and really my heart isn’t in it. Mostly because I feel like, who am I to ‘teach’ people to write, or how to read a poem or whatever? I know a lot of really good teachers and I don’t think I’m qualified at all. I do, however, eventually, want to spearhead a mentorship program that would take a dozen or so rez kids interested in writing, art, music etc., and hook them up for a few weeks in the city in the summertime. I imagine there would be a workshop portion, studio time, some kind of reading, mentorship, practical stuff (signing a contract, royalties, advances, etc.), to really give them an experience I wish I’d had as a teen or 20-something. I think it’s important for American Indian people to be able to tell our own stories, and sending a dozen or so kids back into the world every year armed with that experience would be extremely satisfying for me.

MHS: Yeah, fuck. For people that have been forced to find habitat in the margins to be able to tell their own stories, in their own words, from their own mouths is so vital. What advice would you give your younger, teenage self? Before the MFA, before the zine writing? About writing or about just waking up and carving out a space for yourself in the world.

TP: To be fair, I don’t actually have an MFA – I took it for a year and quit. I would probably tell him to ‘not to be intimidated by rich kids in college with faux sophisticated vocabularies, because although they’re using big words, they aren’t actually saying anything’. I would also tell him ‘that he was leaving that small place for the biggest city in America, that his favorite author was going to blurb his first book, so fuck all those dicks calling you a fag and threatening to kick yr ass everyday in hallways at high school. Let them read you in The New Yorker. Yr gonna be better than good. I love you.’

MHS: Why do you write? Does it just happen as an extension of you? A kind of overflow? I was recently asked this question and I guess it’s something that seems arbitrary to talk about because, you just do it cause you do.

TP: Probably all of those things? I started writing as soon as I learned how to spell, and even before then my parents would play word games with me all the time and really ignited my love of word play and the humorous capacity of language. Because Kumeyaay wasn’t a written language, and because I never learned it (as in, it was institutionally robbed from my grandmother’s generation), in a way I think writing is a way for me to create a new ceremony in light of the destruction of all my ancestral ones.

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