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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....