The Brooklyn-based poet on growing up on the Rez, dropping out of medical school, and the power of quitting things.
Tommy Pico is Brooklyn-based poet hailing from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation. His poetry has been published in Guernica, Blunderbuss Magazine, [PANK], Powder Keg, and Glittermob among others, he’s read at launch parties for No Dear, The Atlas Review, and Adult Magazine, and he published the first poetry chapbook release as an app, absentMINDR.
From writing poems on the back of bookmarks on the Rez and hiding from aggressors in the library at high school to dropping out of medical school and finding a home away from home for himself in the Brooklyn poetry community, Tommy has never done things the “usual way”. His love-hate relationship with formal education has taken him down a few different paths including explorations in alternative learning environments. One thing that has remained constant is his lifelong love affair with poetry, which is clear in his already immense body of work, his passion for zine-making, and his latest incarnation as a workshop facilitator. For the future, he hopes to use his skills to start a mentoring program for young American Indian artists. One hot August afternoon, Tommy Pico stopped by my apartment on his way home from his shared writing studio to drink iced tea and talk about our mutual affinity for dropping out of school.
What were your early experiences of education?
I grew up on the Rez. There was an early education Indian school that was run by some tribal members. Now you can get your GED on the Rez, but at the time they just had preschool and an afterschool program where they’d help with your homework. After that I attended public school off the reservation and a summer bible camp that was run by students from The University of Long Island. I guess my earliest experience as a dropout was quitting Catholic studies. My relationship with the Catholic church was weird because the area around the reservation had been missionized by the Spanish in the 1800s, they were an occupying force. It never really made sense to me that we were reading the Bible as though this was something that was real or true, because something existed before the Spanish came, I always knew we had a more ancient religion, so I could never put my faith in the Bible.
So your main education happened off the reservation, in the public school system, what was it like to leave the world where you grew up and join the mainstream academic system?
First off, we had to take a bus, which we shared with the kids from the border areas near the reservation. Border areas around reservations tend to be the most racist and hostile towards American Indians. So we had to take the bus with a bunch of neo-Nazi and KKK members’ kids who would wear sweatshirts that said “White Revolution is the Solution” and backpacks with the Confederate Flag on them. This was at middle school and high school. Prior to that, it didn’t really feel like racism between kids existed yet. Man, once kids got into high school and started reading those manifestos they turned really fucking hostile. One day I was taking my backpack off and it hit one of the biggest neo-Nazi guys in the face. I thought he was going to beat my ass, but all my cousins came to my defense and a humongous brawl started. All those kids got kicked out of school, but my cousins got kicked out of school too, so after that I didn’t have any friends or defenders. Whenever people called me “faggot” they’d get their asses beat by my cousins, but after my cousins left I was confronted with a very dangerous homophobia. It was horrible, people wanted to kick my ass every day. There were some hallways on campus I could not walk down. The most benign bullying was people making kissy faces at me, the worst was throwing milk cartons or quarters at my head.
How did this constant threat of violence impact your studies?
I spent a lot of time in the library. I had to have an outlet, and that thing became poetry. I’d always written poetry, in kindergarten I’d written poems on the back of bookmarks and draw a mermaid on the other side. Even before that, I would have a tape recorder, and I would record a “talk show”. I had a bunch of voices, so I would interview like Kermit the Frog, and I’d do this [perfect Kermit impression] “Kermit the Frog voice”, and I would also make up songs. That was my first experience with poetry, writing lyrics. I really got into it in middle school. I won a haiku contest and my dad bought me a Sherman Alexie book as a reward. We were really poor so we didn’t get that many presents, but he always said if I wanted a book he’d buy it for me. It was called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and it completely revolutionized what I thought was possible for an Indian person to do … because, this is the thing about education and school, there is no American Indian representation anywhere, except the very first paragraph of a history book where it’ll say something like “Thousands of Indians once roamed the land” and then “The American Revolutionary War.” So in order to find role models I had to look outside the education system. Sherman Alexie was my first writing teacher, he really dilated what I thought was possible for me to accomplish. Where I come from, no one had jobs, much less callings or careers, so I saw him as a role model. He was another person from an Indian reservation, he was making his way in the world as a poet and as a writer, and I thought if that person could do it I could do it. That’s when I got involved in a ton of clubs at school, tried my hardest to get all As, and I thought if I do well, I could actually get out of this place.
Do you feel today the education system in the US recognizes the need to teach Indian authors. Do you think they’re teaching Sherman Alexie’s books, for example?
I can’t imagine it has gotten any better, there’s not much money for changing curriculum. Well, you know what, I do think they teach Sherman Alexie in school. I heard that one of his young adult novels got banned. I think it’s called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The criticisms are like “this is a guide to masturbation” or that it’s too violent. But the violence and horror that the main character undergoes is real, it is something people undergo when they’re that young. Trying to curate people’s childhoods won’t change that, and it conceals that some people don’t have childhoods.
It feels like the censorship of marginalized authors’ works often comes down to the protection of white kids. They are too young to know about this violence, meanwhile other children are actually living it.
Yeah, children actually experience this violence in this country, so what makes it ok for it to happen to some kids but for others to not have to know about it?
Right. So, after school you came over to the East Coast for college. What inspired that move?
This is no shade on the reservation, I am where I’m from, but after school I wanted to get as far away as possible. I wanted to come to one of the biggest cities in America. I mean, here’s the thing, I’m from a very rural part of Southern California, way out in the mountains, and there’s cows and there’s horses. We don’t have neighbors really, just the person who lives down the drive. The reservation where I’m from is surrounded by mountains. On one side of the mountains you can see the lights from San Diego, and it’s a brilliant burst of light … you know, the closer you get to a city, the harder it is to see the stars and all that stuff. And to the left, you could see the entire texture of the universe, all the stars were just showing their beautiful bodies, yet I was always fixated on the city lights. I wanted to be there, where stuff was changing, and I was always fascinated by the different types of people you could encounter and I just felt like things were possible. There was something about the vibe of the hustle and bustle that really attracted me. In fifth grade I came to visit my sister in New York where she was performing on Broadway and I was like, this is the place. Because you could be whoever you wanted to be in this city. [Laughs]
Your first experience moving to New York was attending Sarah Lawrence College, which is not in the city.
No, it’s 30 minutes away on Metro North. It’s a small liberal arts college and it was a good entrée for me to start somewhere in a more suburban environment, because I don’t think my brain would’ve been able to handle moving directly to the city.
I initially went to study creative writing, because by then I’d been the literary editor of my high school magazine and I was writing poems all the time. Although, I still didn’t really understand how to read a poem at that time. I knew when a poem was deep, but I didn’t know to make sense of it for me. I was still playing around. So I came to Sarah Lawrence because I wanted to be a poet like Sherman Alexie, and it was just full of people with money. Like, so much money. And so much education. And they had such big vocabularies. I just felt like such a dummy and I felt completely worthless, and it felt like the other students had been writing and performing their poems for a long time. They seemed really refined as writers and I thought, well, that was a dream I once had, now what am I going to do.
So, I ended up studying natural sciences, and I was going to go to medical school. It was a big change. In creative writing, and in books, you’re dealing with a completely subjective world, so I wanted to do something that felt like the opposite of that, that had a known quantity to it, that had a yes or no answer. You could do the work and you could get a right answer, and that’s what I wanted, it was like the exact opposite of poetry.
But after a while of looking at cadavers and so on, I realized I couldn’t dedicate my life to it. I was surrounded by people who were way more competent at science than I was. My attraction to science was completely metaphorical. I loved reading about the relationships between molecules. You know, I loved thinking of them as young lovers on a college campus. That’s not … medical school. There’s not a ton of room for chemical poetry.
I wanted to be a doctor because I realized if I can’t do my dream, which was to be a poet, at least I could still do something that would impact my community in a positive way. Where I come from, people suffer from astronomic rates of diabetes, obesity, gallbladder disease, this trio of diseases known as metabolic syndrome. I thought I’d go into genetics, because Indian people seemed to have a genetic susceptibility to these diseases and I thought going into genetics might help me find a cure for those things – I was very ambitious! But while I was doing my thesis on metabolic syndrome I realized there wasn’t a strict genetic component to these diseases, that they were actually social diseases. It’s not like breast cancer, where you can be genetically predisposed to it, these are diseases of neglect, these are diseases of people who don’t have the ability to make good choices. They don’t have access to fresh food. They don’t have access to knowledge of how what they put in their mouths affects their bodies. They have no infrastructure of public health to prevent these diseases from happening. The push in the medical world is on medication. I mean, you can’t cure diabetes. What medication does is it keeps people paying into the system. I knew that real public health solutions would cost a lot of money, but medicine makes a ton of money and that is the culture we live in. So, no one is actually invested in preventing these diseases that exist in these communities because it’s more profitable not to, and that destroyed my will to go to medical school. I was like there is no way I’m going to be a part of this system in this way. I might be able to help a couple of people get their dialysis, but I wouldn’t be doing much for the state of American Indian people overall.
So this revelation brought you full circle back to poetry?
I figured if those diseases were social, I could help to increase the visibility of my people, which would impact the communities in ways I wanted more successfully than by entering the medical system.
And I knew that if I studied my ass off I could be like a B-minus doctor at best, but if I worked my ass off I could maybe be an A-plus poet. And then I was like, well, this is what I’ve always wanted to do anyway, and I’ve been afforded the opportunity to do it, and it makes a ton of sense to me now, like I have a platform to be speaking about these issues. Not strictly medical issues, but also like why someone can’t wear dreamcatcher earrings, or why is it shitty for a non-Indian person to put a headdress in their music video. I can talk about these things and say, I’m sure you just want to wear the dream catcher earrings or the headdress, I’m sure you don’t mean any harm by it, I’m sure that you don’t think about us at all, I’m sure you don’t understand the concept of off-limits … but imagine if you didn’t put that headdress in your video or changed your freaking mascot and shouldered that half a percent of personal annoyance that lasts 20 minutes, what if that meant the 103 kids who tried to commit suicide on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the past four months wanted to live like 50 percent more? Cultural appropriation and mockery while at the same time devaluing the lives of the people from whom you’re stealing, abject poverty, lack of adequate health care, sexual abuse, the list goes on – that is trauma, that is psychic trauma, that is generational trauma, that leads to kids wanting to kill themselves. That I can sublimate into a poem.
Your entry into poetry has been a little off the beaten path, to go from creative writing to pre-med back to creative writing in the institutional sense and then …
I love dropping out, I love quitting things, it’s so satisfying.
Same! Especially when you reach that point where it’s like, this is going nowhere. This is giving me nothing. Is that what happened for you with The New School?
Yeah, after deciding to drop out of medical school I sort of floundered a little bit. I started making zines. I founded Birdsong, a collective of writers, artists, and musicians. I started building a portfolio of work that I was like, OK, what do I do with this? An MFA seemed to be the route that people took and I didn’t know anybody who was a poet, anyone who did this really successfully, so I thought maybe that was the model, that you enter the MFA and, like an easy bake oven, after two years, the poet is born.
For me, the MFA didn’t really feel like it was going to help me understand poetry better. I’m not saying it’s not a feasible model for other people to develop their creativity but it just wasn’t for me. I was still trying to tease out my own voice, and the course made me feel like I was doing things to sound like the other people in my workshops or my teachers, it felt like I was being invaded in a way … so I quit after a year. At that point my collective (Birdsong) was getting more momentum, we were making zines every other month, we’d started a reading series, we were doing art shows and music shows and benefits, it just seemed like I had actually found that creative community I’d been searching for outside of the MFA program.
And around this time you were selected as a Queer Arts Inaugural Fellow with Pamela Sneed as your mentor?
Yeah, that was an opportunity to meet more creative people. At the time Saeed Jones was also a writing fellow. I was lucky to have Pamela as my mentor. Pamela is a performer. Performance factors heavily into her work, as it does in mine. I learned through her how to look for my voice and what it meant to listen to your own work and how to deliver that to people.
Pamela Sneed has such a strong connection with the audience, when you see her read she really engages everyone. This is something you also do in your work. Was that performative aspect missing from the MFA?
I didn’t feel there was an element of performance in the MFA at all. It was … intellectually obsessed. I mean you have to have the basics, but having that time with Pamela one-on-one and being under her influence was what I needed to come to poetry. I got more into the performance element of poetry partly due to Pamela’s influence and partly due to Ariana Reines.
Oh yes! We met each other through Ariana Reines’ workshop Ancient Evenings. How did you find that as an educative experience?
It was very unique. It was a different experience in that not everyone is chiming in to give their thoughts on whether your work is right or wrong or whatever, although Ariana gives you her eye. She really took a lot of time and care in deep-reading your work. I had never had anybody read my work that deeply before.
It’s such a different experience to look at poetic works like that, in an environment of no judgment. It really forced me to disabuse myself of the fallacy of right and wrong, in poetry and in life! In that sense it was the opposite of my medical studies. I think one of the reasons people find it so hard to come to poetry is they think there’s a right way to read it, some wisdom to be gained that they don’t know how to access. Really, reading poetry is just being accountable to your own self.
Ancient Evenings was the first time I’ve had to read cold in front of people. There was no scanning the text beforehand to find some kind of understood reasoning for the poem to present. You just had to do it in the moment, and be accountable to yourself in the moment and to be willing to sound wrong, and to sound bad. But as a result, you gain a lot of faith in yourself and faith in your ability to read. And then to sit and write afterwards. Every single class I came up with material for a poem that eventually got published. I was making work every week.
What will you take from the various educative experiences you’ve had (from self-instruction to a heavily structured academic environment to the DIY nature of Birdsong to the less structured format of Reines’ workshop) to your own teaching practice?
Well there is something fundamentally exciting to me about cold reading. You are a subject to your associations and you have to really listen to yourself and you have to really read the text. It can be exhausting. I’m exhausted after I read poetry because it takes so much of my attention span. It might be the thing I pay the most attention to actually – in the whole fucking world.
When I first got asked to teach this workshop as part of One Room (a Skype workshop that’s done in real time) I was like, who’d want to take a class with me, who’d want to listen to anything I have to say. But thinking about it and working on the syllabus and deciding whose poems I wanted to broadcast (like Danez Smith – I wanted it to be contemporary people so there wouldn’t be an analysis guide available somewhere) has already made me so excited. I’m excited to read these works with other people, reading poetry with other people can change the way you see the work.
It’s not that the person leading the workshop has the definitive reading of the poem, and I love that fluidity and that denial of a strict definition for anything.
I wanted to create a model for not just appreciated published work, but for valuing the work produced in the workshop as well. One thing that I didn’t like about workshops in more institutional situations was that once something is presented as a work in progress it was robbed of any kind of value that could otherwise be assigned to it. People in the workshop will immediately start looking for what isn’t working.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I hope one day to be on the ground in an organization like Cave Canem or VIDA for American Indian people. You could mentor a poet, a dancer, a musician and so on. You could increase the visibility of American Indian people in pop culture and in creative culture by entrusting us with our own self-representation and with our own stories. Often when you see an Indian person in anything it’s always a metaphor. That’s what I loved about Queer Arts Mentors – having one-on-one time with someone who’s established in New York. Now I see how valuable that is. So I feel I’m cobbling together these different types of teaching and learning models so when it comes time for me to create my own I’ll know what to do.
Photos by Ada Banks.