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
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -