The Kumeyaay poet who’s disrupting nature poetry

Tommy Pico merges natural and personal history of the arid West from Brooklyn, New York.

 

Tommy Pico has just flown in on a red-eye from the West Coast, where he saw Janet Jackson live in Portland. (“Janet is my Beatles,” he tells me.) Pico, a queer Native American poet from the Kumeyaay Nation, grew up in rural San Diego County on the Viejas Indian Reservation, a place where “history is stolen like water.” Today, however, we’re meeting outside a rustic and urbane farm-to-table café in the gentrified North Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where he lives now. “How do you see the space inside yourself when you’re all borderlands?” he asks, looking west as if toward the chaparral and oak-pine forests of his native Cuyamaca Mountains. Pico, 33, wears a pink T-shirt under a slate-gray sleeveless hoodie imprinted with a Native American pattern, white Converse high-tops and black denim cut-offs; tattoos of traditional Kumeyaay basket designs spiral down his forearms. “When markers of identity and markers of definition get taken away, then what are you?”

Tommy Pico
Ada Banks

Pico knows a thing or two about loss of history and identity; his writings obsess over the concepts. Most of his work investigates how identity categories restrict meaning. The moment you define yourself, you risk becoming a stereotype — static rather than dynamic. This is why he critiques nature poetry in Nature Poem, his new book. It’s not that he dislikes the natural world, despite his flip tone (“I’d slap a tree across the face”); rather, he distrusts what it means to write such poems. “Talking about nature, specifically as a Native American poet, it can become fodder for the Noble Savage narrative. I’d never do that.”

Challenging the myth of “the ecological Indian,” Pico traffics all parts of himself into his writing, making for a rambunctious romp. “One way to resist categorization,” he tells me, “is to be all categories that you can possibly be. My writing tries to be all of itself so it doesn’t snag on any one type of definition.” He writes without a filter: Everything is game. Nature Poem reads like a continual status update, its long, poetic lines manic yet mannered. He tracks seamlessly between the millennial milieu of Brooklyn — where his queer Indigenous identity collides with the conventions of urban, white, gay sexuality — and the arid landscapes of his homeland (the words “drought,” “blood” and “water” frequently occur). The poems abruptly shift registers, resisting any overarching style while capturing the complexity of the moment. Natural history and personal history meet: “Every date feels like the final date bc we always find small ways of being / extremely rude to each other, like mosquito bites or deforestation.

That a New York poet — one rooted in the heat of urban life — doubles as a poet of the American West makes sense, given Pico’s unique biography. Growing up on the reservation meant “merging and sublimating your own personality to the group,” as if there was “only one way of being Kumeyaay.” That repelled him. “I had to become an individual before I could come back to the group,” he says. Now, after 15 years in New York City, he no longer shies away from writing about his people and the themes and preoccupations that characterize them. “I can say what I need to say and not feel like I’m going to be a stereotype,” he explains. “Reclamation” seems like an apt word to describe his oeuvre, I say, and he replies, “Yes. Especially of self-identification.”

Pico did not study poetry; he studied science at Sarah Lawrence College, initially hoping to become a physician who would solve the public health problems of Native American communities. He wrote poems for a decade but “hadn’t really found my thing yet.” Then, on Dec. 13, 2013 — his 30th birthday and the day Beyoncé released her self-titled, genre-changing “visual album” — Pico, who has a penchant for popular culture both high and low, suddenly found his form. “Her album was like a long poem. I started to read it like a long poem, and said to myself, ‘This is my thing.’ ”

Pico currently has two books under his belt and two more underway, as well as a commissioned screenplay. “Cultural knowledge was eradicated in my grandmother’s generation,” he says. “It’s problematic that I have to learn my own history in books written by white anthropologists.” Pico’s recovering that history — another act of reclamation. His books document the progression of his thinking through different poetic forms. IRL (2016) takes the form of a Twitter feed; Nature Poem (2017) is a work of landscape; Junk (forthcoming, 2018) is a break-up poem in couplets; and Food (in progress), resembles a recipe. He is reluctant to settle into any single category. “It’s my way of asserting that Kumeyaay culture is dynamic,” he says. “If I’m continually doing new things, then I’m expanding the definition of what a Kumeyaay person can be.”

Eric Siegel recently finished a season working as a field naturalist in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. He is a poet and writer based in Denver; this is his first piece for HCN.

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