One Long Poem to New York and the Universe: An Interview with Tommy Pico

Tommy Pico is an NSFW explosion of queer joy, poetry, and witticisms sharp enough to draw blood. Author of IRL, Nature Poem, Junk, and Feed, Tommy is an autodidact, a wordsmith, a podcaster, a screenwriter, and a proud descendent of the Kumeyaay Nation. Tribe-born and raised and fortified by New York City grit, this xerothermic LA transplant is here to make some shit, make some money, and make the world more Kumeyaay. I connected with this poet, performer, and Beyoncé lover to talk career, self-belief, and the art that’s possible after we fight through fear.

Regan Humphrey: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Tommy Pico: I always knew that I was a storyteller. Before I could write or spell, I had a tape recorder that I would constantly talk into. In high school, I was editor-in-chief of the school literary journal, I was on the paper; I was very involved. I knew I wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence and study writing.

Being there was my first experience around people with money—like generational wealth— who had sparkling, pristine educations, and I felt so “less than.” I felt ashamed, dirty, and stupid next to these people who had gone to boarding school in Paris and shit, whose names were on museums—these people who regarded me as a curiosity but nothing to be seriously contended with because I didn’t have the same vocabulary that they did.

I was so discouraged by my interactions with those people that I drew back from writing. I actually got into pre-med; I was going to go be a doctor because I had been so thoroughly shamed about my education. And it took a long time and a lot of unpacking to understand that there is a difference between intelligence and education. Those two things are not the same.

I ran into a former classmate at an airport recently. One of the people who made me feel really ashamed. One of the people whose name is on a museum. We were both taking a plane back to New York.

I said, “I’m working on this film.”

He was like: “Oh, rad, as a gopher?”

RH: For the uninitiated, a gopher is a nameless, coffee-bearing, errand-runner on a film set.

TP: I was like, “No, no, I wrote it. It’s a film that I wrote. I was actually paid to write a film. After my first book came out…”

“You have a book out???”

“Actually, I have four books out and I’m Mint Status on Jet Blue and they just called me, so I have to go.”

RH: (Guffawing) That’s priceless. I love it when those moments happen.

TP: I had so thoroughly forgotten that this person had been part of my life. And I was like, “Wow, you’re one of the people that tried to make me feel like shit, and now I am the shit!

RH: The tension of having a real job, doing something sensible… Can you expand on that?

TP: I was approaching thirty, and I was thinking, I don’t have any tangible evidence of “success” in this thing. I don’t feel like I’m a great writer; I don’t feel like I’m successful; I don’t feel like I’ve produced anything that I’m proud of. And also, I’m broke as fuck! It was winter, and I was like, “You know what? You tried really hard, tried everything that you could, and it didn’t work. You’re feeling bad about it, but at least you can say you tried.”

I didn’t see a future for myself in New York, because I wasn’t making very much money and the rent only goes up. I was already living with four roommates and their partners and their dogs. I couldn’t live any cheaper. I’d gone out as far on the subway line as I could.

I thought, I have a place I can go back to, a place that claims me… it’s just a shame that the writing thing didn’t happen. You didn’t make it the way you hoped you would, but you really tried, and you should be proud of that… Then my book came out and I got a profile in the New Yorker! I got some contracts, and then three more books came out. And I was like OH, THANK FUCKING GOD! THANK GOD IT HAPPENED!

I partially credit my success to Beyoncé. She dropped Beyoncé on midnight on my thirtieth birthday. And that changed everything for me. It expanded the way I thought about poems. I saw them as sequential. I saw a visual album as a long poem. This wasn’t an album of songs; this was one long song. It was like professional permission from Beyoncé. I thought, Let’s just see if I can write the world’s longest poem, and four books later, now I realize how those four books are continuations of themselves. It really is my Patterson; one long poem to New York and the universe, you know?

RH: Where did you come of age? How did you come into yourself?

TP: I grew up on the Viejas Indian Reservation, forty miles east of San Diego. I wouldn’t say it was idyllic, but I have a lot of fond memories and a real feeling of belonging. I literally grew up in a tribal society. Being taken care of by many different people affected how much I require family—and in this new world, chosen family. No matter where I’ve gone in my life, I’ve always made sure to build kinship and kinship pathways immediately. It’s important to me to have my independence, and also know that I have people I claim and people who claim me.

From there, I moved to New York. New York did a lot to hone my personality and harden me, toughen me up. Not only did I come into myself and self-actualize in New York, but I really found my voice. It was there, but I went through many personal and professional interventions before [my voice] could come out of my face like this.

The thing is, in New York, you can’t be mediocre for long. If you’re going to stay there, you have to learn how to be excellent. I didn’t get an MFA or anything like that, but I definitely found a scene there of artists. I created and maintained community through this art collective I started called Birdsong. By having a broad and genuine social connection to other humans and other professionals, I developed a peer group through the years. So many people I came up with, we all came up together. We held ourselves.

RH: In the end, what got you through? What was your work philosophy? New York will kick anybody’s ass.

TP: It was shitty for a pretty long time.  (He laughs from the heart.)

First, I had faith in my ability to get better. I still deal with feeling inadequate, but I work through it; it’s always going to be there.

My work philosophy is work: put in the hours, stay at the desk, stay in the Word doc, keep the notebook open. It took me a long time to understand that [writing] isn’t about submitting to a discipline but learning to metabolize it. Getting that, for me, was just a lot of trial and error.

In learning what form does, I learned what form my writing could take if I abandoned form. So, it is with an intense knowledge of form that I write the way I do. I learned that shit (poetry) forwards and backwards, before I discovered, Oh, that’s not what I’m doing. My project is something different.

RH: Speaking of projects, do you have any advice for querying writers?

TP: Figure out who your people are, whose advice and whose opinion you respect. Because not everyone is going to read your work and understand what the “project of you” is and what you’re trying to do. They might give you advice that derails your creative process. There are people that like to talk and give you these prescriptions and rules for what writing is and what writing does. And that can be damaging to a young writer. It can take years to recover from that kind of stuff.

When it comes to querying, I feel like with rare exception, [no project] is ever done. You just have to call it at a certain point and start sending it out. You can’t work on it until it’s perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. It just needs to be good enough. Remember that whatever you’re working on right now, the thing that you’re honing and sending out, that’s not going to be the final thing. But you won’t get to the final thing—you won’t get anywhere, if you don’t start somewhere.

RH: What brought you to LA after New York?

TP: Film and television. I think I was like, I’m ready to start making money. Poetry is, like, cute, it’s fine, and I was making a living as a touring performer, but through a series of professional moves, I now work in television as a television writer. There’s no way I could make money as a touring performer now, and so I found another professional avenue that allows me to be creative, maintain creative spaces, but also pay my bills, which is nice. That’s so rare right now.

RH: What got you to television writing?

TP: IRL came out in 2016 and what followed—and this really made my early career—was a profile in the New Yorker. It wasn’t in the magazine; that came later. (When I finally got it in print, I was like, “Mommy, you can go pick it up at the bookstore!”) It was online. At the time, I was still on Facebook and Twitter, so I was able to share it, and I could see it being shared. And, an old friend of mine, who was a film producer, called me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a film for his production company. He saw something cinematic in my writing and he wanted to nurture that.

Belief is a funny feeling because it’s transmissible. You can catch it from somebody who believes in you. You can catch it. Mike believed in me and my writing before I fully believed in it. It was so important to have my potential nourished by someone who didn’t want to put his fingerprints on it. He had no prescriptions about what I produced. And there wasn’t anything hanging over my head. It wasn’t like if they didn’t produce the film, I wasn’t getting the money. No, no, no. I was getting the money regardless. That’s some once in a lifetime shit.

So, I spent the seven months of my contract learning… I had to learn what a screenplay was, about plot and dialogue. About characters—what they wanted and needed.

Enriching and expanding what it means to be Native to myself has helped me realize that by leaving the res, I’m not becoming less Kumeyaay. Instead, I’m making the world more Kumeyaay.

RH: You’re a queer person of color in the industry. What has that been like for you?

TP: I know people have horrible experiences with publishers, production companies, TV writer groups, and, thankfully, those have not been my experiences. I’ve never had someone tell me, in so many words, “Can you make that more Native?” Or “can you make that less queer?”

I’ve had people say, “You’re gonna figure it out. Here’s some time; here’s some money; go do it.” And right now, I’m in an all Native writers’ room, the first all Native writers’ room in the history of Hollywood. In the HISTORY of HOLLYWOOD. This is the first time it’s ever happened. That’s my entree into this world. And what better opportunity to learn the craft of television writing than amongst peers?

This room is queer and trans, men and women. There are so many types of Native people in the room, there isn’t a monolith, and the network isn’t approaching it that way. The creator is Native; the showrunner is Native. For a lot of us, it’s our first opportunity. There is this idea of mentorship, broadening the scope, and nurturing the Native writers in this town.

It’s amazing, but it’s also hard, really, really hard… you’re constantly failing. Things constantly aren’t working. Sometimes, you leave the day feeling like you are the spice, you are the sauce, you are flaming hot, like you are the greatest. With these people you respect, you just wrote the greatest half-hour of television ever; and then some days, it’s the opposite of that. You’re like, I’m definitely getting fired after this. I can’t do shit. It’s understanding that those feelings are going to happen and not penalizing myself when they do. This is the best job that I’ve ever had. It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had.

RH: Do you have any themes/motifs you come back to as you write?

TP: Just like cultural loss and genocide, LOL. The fact that a specific set of knowledge was stolen from me in my grandmother’s generation—it’s maddening—and in the void of that I want to create culture. That void drives my ability, my desire, my need to make more things, because there’s so much Kumeyaay that doesn’t exist anymore.

It was like, “You’re not just doing this for yourself.” You’ve got an entire nation behind you and they really, really, really want you to be successful. And not just a nation—an ancestry. I have a strength inside of me that’s informed by the sacrifice of generations previous. It would be not only a disservice to myself and my personal desires, but it would be a disservice to their sacrifice for me to just call it. You know? I can’t do that. Unfortunately, that decision was made for you. So, get in line, get in that chair, and make some shit.

Enriching and expanding what it means to be Native to myself has helped me realize that by leaving the res, I’m not becoming less Kumeyaay. Instead, I’m making the world more Kumeyaay. I’m infusing more of myself into the world. If the world is one giant mug, I’m just putting another teabag in there, infusing the waters with Kumeyaay-ness— spreading it into the atmosphere.

RH: What was your experience writing and getting IRL published?

TP: Well, it started with consistent writing practice. I get intimidated extremely easily, so I have to make the stakes low in order to start whatever it is that I’m doing. Otherwise, I’d be short of breath and passing out half the damn time.

When I started sending it out, IRL was rejected, legitimately, twenty times. I submitted it to every book contest, every first book contest, every open submission, every query. It was rejected by literally everybody. It wasn’t until I started performing regularly and honing my voice on stage that publication came into the picture. Back then, I had the biggest stage fright. Performing was like exposure therapy. I got on stage three times a week. It was the thing that terrified me the most, but through performing, I got the attention of people who asked if I had a manuscript. That is how IRL got published. There was an editor in the audience, and he said, “Do you have a manuscript?” and I said, “yes, in fact, I do.” He read it, and he said, “All right, let’s work on this.” The book was 70% there. There were places that I just needed to re-write. I hate being edited. I hate it so much. There were times when the editor at Tin House would come back with suggestions, and I’d be like, “You write the fucking poem then! I don’t know what you want from me!” I had to learn how to temper that instinct inside myself.

I’ve learned not to identify too closely with what I produce. I had to learn not take it personally, to understand that a rejected pitch, poem, or manuscript is not a rejection of me.

RH: What do you want to say to upcoming writers (and writers of color)?

TP: Well, first of all, keep going. Keep going, keep going, keep going. Second of all, in as much as you can, try not to allow other people’s opinions of you be your business. And third, there’s worth and value and beauty in your survival, in your being, and in your art.  Remember that you are a complete novelty. And you owe it to yourself to figure that out.

Regan Humphrey is writer, film critic, and psychologist. She is the inventor of the REF Score, the first and only scoring system to rate films on craft and social justice. She is an MFA candidate in young adult fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is Managing Editor at Lunch Ticket Magazine. Her publications include interviews with writers Angela Morales, Aminah Mae Safi, Blas Falconer, and Povi-Tamu Bryant, blogs on the search for self, health and wellness, the grieving process, and love and loss, as well as numerous film reviews. When she’s not scoring films, curating her enormous and unwieldy music collection, or annoying her dog, you might find her rarely on Twitter @_ReganHumphrey.