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

1 February 2017

MHS: Is performing your work just as important as the writing of it? Do you ever learn something new / different about the work when you read it aloud?

TP: Reading aloud is integral to not only my writing process, but also my basic understanding of poetry. I don’t really know the intonation of a piece, mine or any others, until I read it aloud. I literally always learn new things when I read aloud. It’s how I process. I also do readings a lot, and learning how to maneuver through a passage of writing and different ways of reading it keeps the work fresh and keeps it from being tedious to read again and again and again. I would say keeps it ‘fun,’ but really it’s learning how to engage in different ways.

MHS: What, or who, do you want to see more of being published? Does your poetry reading series with poet Morgan Parker, ‘Poets with Attitude’, provide opportunities for unpublished poets / poets whose work might be pushed to the margins?

TP: For ‘Poets with Attitude’, publishing experience is irrelevant af. We care about who is going to get on that stage and give the audience an experience. If I was corny I would say ‘give the audience a piece of themselves,’ but I’m not, so. Well, I’m a little corny. Of course I want to see more NDN people being published, but specifically what I want is more contemporary, young, irreverent American Indian voices sailing out there. I mean, we’re here – but they just need to be given an opportunity.

MHS: Corny is really good. And also platforms like ‘Poets with Attitude’ are so important, seriously like making the act of sharing / performing poetry accessible is really needed. Yeah, I get real excited about ppl being unapologetic about taking up space and being, like, y’know … what I’m gonna express myself in a way that’s probably not palatable to you, and is not respectable to your standards of who you think I am … but just shut up and listen for a hot second.

IRL moves through and around themes of grief, rage and pain in – I feel – this real blunt way, making such moments so hard hitting, kind of thumps the chest like a storm. ‘Blunt’ like you say it like it is. Blunt like your language is clarity. Like this part:

… The seam
of my skin bursts open
routinely. It’s a condition. In 
the valley I lived in for
thousands of years, in trad– 
itional times, I’m sure I would 
have been a mourner, called
on to cry bc I do it all the time.

How do you, personally, write through / of rage and grief? Does the writing of it come just like anything other, from your body, to the page?

TP: To be honest with you, I’m not sure. There’s something mysterious about it that I’d kind of like to stay ignorant of. Sometimes I look at it like, wait a minute ‘I’ wrote that? That’s not to say I believe in this idea of the muse or whatever. Most of it is keeping your butt in the chair and your head in the game. I think though, what’s helped writing the more difficult feels was writing a character. Writing for ‘Teebs’ allowed me to remove myself from the ‘I’ and let me see more of his intricacies without embarrassment, judgment, or over-identification.

MHS: Yeah, shit. Using a character as a kind of buffer can create the distance you need, but also allows this closeness that is so hard to pull off when writing as ourselves, from the ‘I’. Thank-you, so much for your time, energy and labour in having this convo. I’m so deeply appreciative, pls know that!

One last thing, what can you tell us about your forthcoming collection Nature Poems, out in 2017?

TP: Nature Poem is a book about how ‘Teebs’ can’t write a nature poem. In IRL ‘Teebs’ is kind of free falling, but by Nature Poem he has begun to identify as a writer and performer and actively takes on the tradition of American nature poetry and the stereotypes associated with Indigenous Americans and ‘nature.’ He feels that writing about nature is too stereotypical for an NDN person, so he writes about blowjobs in pizza parlor bathrooms and Aretha Franklin. I’ll leave it at that 😛

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