“FUCK beauty tbh:” Tommy Pico is reclaiming Junk

Photo courtesy Tommy Pico.
I’m interested in the ruptures, in the ugly, in the mess. I wanted to redeem and give value to the stuff that most people overlook. Also I like dick.

A completely singular queer indigenous poet from Brooklyn, Tommy Pico is revitalizing the epic form by writing sprawling, messy, conversational book-length poems for the Tumblr generation. His three books to date — IRL (Birds, LLC, 2016), Nature Poem (Tin House, 2017), and, just out this month, Junk (Tin House, 2018) — boldly & baldly take on identity, sex, city life, pop culture, memes, art, junk food, and much more. Oh, and did I fail to mention how high-key hilarious he is? But I’m not alone in my love for Teebs. Just a few months ago, he received 2018 Whiting Award in Poetry (which he was far too humble to mention in his bio).

Noah Fields: Ok, let’s get started. First off out the gate: your voice!! I love the way you talk, want to listen forever. Your mode of address — it’s so embodied & self-possessed, so dynamic & funny, so direct & so casual, so queer & sexy, so brash & playful, careening yet always intimate — your kinetic mixture of high/low brow, your inheritance of Tumblr discourse and pop culture (Janet Jackson & co.) as much as A.R. Ammons, Eileen Myles, et al… yet so entirely your own. How did you “arrive” at your voice? And — alongside that, if I may sneak a second related question — can I ask who, on the page and IRL, you are in conversation with, writing to?

Tommy Pico: I think a lot of learning how to arrive at yr true voice or whatever is learning how to get out of yr own way. Learning to to strip away the inhibitions that social life and survival and respectability root inside you, at least selectively. At least for a time or a project or a visit to the stage. Aaliyah via the Isley Brothers said “At your best (you are love)” and it’s true but I think what it means is learning how to love the thing that comes out of you. I hear a lot of people all the time saying for example that they hate the sound of their own voice and it honestly shocks me because it’s all yours! It’s one of the only things you actually get to own that doesn’t involve capitalism (sort of). Let the sun shine gd it! Anything less is letting hetero patriarchal white supremacy win. Eh, I’m feeling iffy on invoking the win/lose dichotomy but you feel me.

As for who I’m writing to, it’s all on the page. Janet, AR, Sade, Amy Winehouse, Gertrude Stein, June Jordan, Robert Graves, Bobby Flay. Well not that last one but again, you feel me.

NF: It feels fitting that you bring up “At your best (you are love)” — which was the first cover we heard Frank Ocean’s voice on when he made his grand return — as an example of getting out of the way of your own voice. There’s something so grounding as well in that reference: how a voice and full-being can emerge in conversation with love as “a positive motivating force.” But also big time heartbreaking when that love slips away. Junk is very much not “at your best” emotionally, since you’re writing in a post-breakup space. Being dumped catalyzes junk feelings.

I want to talk, though, about how your book really reclaims the power in capital “j” Junk. As a signifier, you work “junk” in so many eclectic/electric directions. Junk food, junk mail, junkie, genitals, trash aesthetic, getting wasted, plus homage to A.R. Ammons’ Garbage — and I’m sure there was much more misc. on your mind as you played in the junkyard. So, I’m wondering what drew you to junk? What, for you, is the potentiality of Junk? Why, as you write, does Junk have “the best stories?”

TP: One of the things that attracted me to “junk,” just from a purely linguistic consideration, is just how elastic that word is. “Junk” has so many meanings and connotations that it let so much of the world into the work, which is essential to a long poem. Also, FUCK beauty tbh. I’m interested in the ruptures, in the ugly, in the mess. I wanted to redeem and give value to the stuff that most people overlook. Also I like dick. Period. New sentence. Wait can I amend that? You know what never mind I’ll move on.

I also wanted to touch on something I felt deeply as a person living in New York (and maybe this is every city or maybe this is everywhere I don’t really know because I only live in one place [that I know of?]), and that is this whole environment of anxiety about the idea of being “useful.” Usually useful to somebody, and usually as a transaction, and usually in a way that connotes some kind of social status acrobatics. I am completely complicit in this! So I wanted to step back and ask, is there worth in just being? Do I always have to be doing something? That, to me, is the space of junkery. And yeah, if I’m talking to A.R. in my work, one of the things I thought Garbage was talking about was the treatment of elders in society as refuse. What happens when you’re at a juncture? When you’re in between uses or jobs or apartments or partners. The space of the buffer. That’s a junker. Junk has seen some things, that’s why it has good stories!

Junk, by Tommy Pico. Tin House Press, 2018. 80pp, poetry.

NF: Oh, I’m loving this juicy junk fuckery! I want to stick with this creative refuse a little longer. In thinking about what’s thrown out, I’m curious to hear about what you discarded in the process. For instance, I noticed you disposed of periods in Junk. What sort of decisions did you make about what to jettison and what to keep or recycle in your creative process?

TP: In general for every page that I write there are probably like four pages that I’ve erased so it’s very winky-frownie. As for the periods, it kind of felt audacious to assert that anything really ends, so periods didn’t make much sense in the context of this work. It’s all about movement and ice floes and hot lava and pixel drift. I also wanted to make the lines as close to 4.5 inches long as possible, so when editing or inserting new things or taking them out, it would break the whole structure and I’d have to go through the whole document again and line everything up. It was a biiiiiiiiiiinch. I mean there were nights of me doing this, crying into a goblet of wine with the From Dusk Til Dawn tv show playing in the background. I have no pride. But in the compression of the lines I’d sometimes have to lose letters or use numbers instead of spelling them out in order to get the line down to 4.5 inches. It was all in service of making the structure of the poem as much like a junk drawer as possible. I wanted each of the pages to look as uniform as possible, so that you could pick up a very distinct/sharp moment and and just as easily lose it as soon as you turn the page. It’s like when you find something in a junk drawer. It’s so full of distinct objects that get lost in the mass.

NF: Omg, why 4.5 inches? That sounds like torture!

TB: 4.5 inches is actually a pretty comfortable length for me, it’s just when someone wields their 4.5 like a 12 incher and expects me to uphold the charade that we run into problems.

NF: I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the sorts of backstage pre-writing, orchestrating, post-editing that has to take place to make the pile-up look so effortlessly digestible. Your total commitment to detail points to how much artfulness and intentionality there is in the composition of your book-length poems. You really make the form work, commanding the reader’s attention through digression, narrative, etc. It’s pretty unique — as you acknowledge yourself in Junk’s opening pages: “Convention says a book shd be this long but I’m only interested in writing as long as you want 
to read in one sitting.” What does the composition process for your work look like? How does it come together? When did you know it was done?

TB: In my experience, the stuff that feels the most effortless is the stuff that has been worked on the hardest. Making a written thing that seems casual and even sometimes cavalier, that is actually pretty serious and maybe even… insightful? Or at least canny in some way has been the hardest thing in the whole world. The composition process is like drinking mushroom tea and then feeling pulled apart by the wind. Honestly it’s mostly a pretty boring, putting-in-the-hours thing. I wish I could say it was magical or muse-ical or an act of communing, but writing is a stupid job for jerks and the incubator is time. I just believe in trying really hard, trying anything and everything, making a ton of mistakes, and starting over and over and over again until you just wish Flanders was dead. The thing that propels a long poem, at least for me, is the rooting in of some obsession or another, so I don’t know necessarily when something is done but I do know when the obsession isn’t in me anymore and its time to leave.

NF: Leaving it behind, even if the thing (the book) itself is not done, or even never can be done, perhaps? I’m thinking of how you make “junk” this breathing, unending force. A perpetual motion machine. “I suppose Junk is also a way of not letting go — containing the / stasis We cd potentially be alive our whole life:” the book is out of your hands, but junk won’t let go; now it’s time for it to be recycled through readers. Now it’s my turn to be obsessed!

TP: And it’s my turn to get some chicken tenders!

NF: In our conversation, it feels important for me to acknowledge that my primary framework for approaching and connecting to your work is queerness. But also, as a non-Native, white reader who has not studied indigenous epistemologies, can I ask what might I be missing? Are there parts of this book that are not for me?

TP: I think saying things are for/not for people can be a potentially dangerous binary because as the person who wrote the book, I have to acknowledge above all things that once I send something out into the world I no longer own it anymore (and using systems of ownership is kind of a narsty frame through which to view this message-in-a-bottling tbh). This is of course just what I think, and who cares what I think, but what you or any other audience member does with what I made is more your business than it is my business. Being able to relinquish control where I have no control is like p much the only balm for anxiety I have. I have control over the book when I am sitting there on my laptop trying to square the edges of the couplets and crying, you feel me? Having said that, it’s probable that a young indigenous person reading this might find something you missed but you’re a reader. It’s a book. You bought it (or you got a copy from my publicist lol). It’s for you, even though parts of it might resist your reading more than others. Even though it might be “for” you differently. Even though parts of it may be asking you to observe or appreciate rather than participate. Idk I haven’t had lunch yet.

NF: Thank you for that answer — I hadn’t realized I had set up a binary but own up to it, and I appreciate the way you sidestepped and complicated my imposed binary. Your rejection of binaries is something I deeply admired about your previous book, Nature Poem: how your project of troubling “nature” both claps back against a settler-colonial framework and also queers (via a lens of natural/unnatural) its landscapes toward the digital and urban while also calling out racist logics permeating in gay dating culture. Do you find that poetry is perhaps particularly suited to resisting binaries? Is this part of its political charge?

TP: I guess so, if we agreed that poetry was a space in which you’re inherently trying to make a different kind of sense than the one that you’re used to. Writing my first book was actually explicitly about expressing my way outside of binaries like “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” that I started to see were imposed on me & my body specifically by settler colonialism. In order to justify the genocide, they had to think they were “right” and we were “wrong.” That they were “good” and we were “bad.” That didn’t just go away because of generations and the passage of stinky time. It’s still here and something that I’d just internalized without question. IRL provided me the fission to see that every binary was just that: an imposition. I understand. It’s disorienting to walk around every day all the time in essential chaos. Everyone needs something sturdy to grab hold of. But it was like, can your orientation not come at the price of my life? K thx. I am also out here just trying to keep breathing lol

Tommy “Teebs” Pico is a poet from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation. He is author of the books IRL, Nature Poem, and Junk, as well as myriad keen tweets including “sittin on the cock of the gay.” He co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker, is co-host of the podcast Food 4 Thot, and is a contributing editor at Literary Hub. @heyteebs

Noah Fields is a genderqueer poet and performance artist living in Chicago. They love house music and avocados. @doyounoahpoet