Poetry Can Give You What You’re Hungry For

Tommy Pico on his poetry collection "Feed" and why you sometimes need to log off

Sunny side egg on toast
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Tommy Pico’s Feed, the fourth collection in his tetralogy, explores loneliness and growth. Pico interrogates ideas of life and death—what it means to live a full life, what it means to know your life could be shorter than others’. He plays with form and structure, asking the reader to reconsider these themes with each tracklist, each conversation at the High Line in Brooklyn, each text-like word. He recalls and recreates memories, hoping the speaker and readers will find their own answers about life. 

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Pico, also known as Teebs, moved from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation to attend Sarah Lawrence College as a pre-med student. Now based in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, Pico has written four books IRL, Nature Poem, Junk, and Feed. He co-curates the reading series Poets with Attitude, the podcasts Food 4 Thot and Scream, Queen!, and is a contributing editor at Literary Hub.

I talked to Tommy Pico about how we’re all hungry for something, making mixtapes, and always needing a place to return.

Arriel Vinson: Tell me about the title of this collection. It’s called Feed, but there is so much lacking for the speaker—love, the idea of life, access, etc.—rather than a fullness.

Tommy Pico: It’s not about arriving at a fullness, it’s about understanding what it is that ultimately nurtures you. I think the speaker is on kind of an endless search to process and refine what that is: is it poetry? Is it friendship? Is it song? And maybe some things that were adequate nutrients in the past don’t work anymore. Some things you loved, you can’t really digest anymore. Today, especially, with the endless feed of the internet? Sometimes you need to restrict some streams of intake. Sometimes you need to log off.

AV: There’s a line in the beginning of Feed that says “the reason why we don’t have the conversation is because we’re afraid we already know the answer.” Even though this is about a current conversation between the speaker and someone else, the quote feels like a theme in this book. Can you say more about how this idea works throughout the piece/the life of the speaker?

Some things that were adequate nutrients in the past don’t work anymore.

TP: This is part of the process that I think the main dude is going through. I wanted to point to places in the poem where the person is given the opportunity to change and takes it up. This whole series of books started with IRL, a book that stacks evidence after evidence that the main character should change, the main character clocks all this growth, and then ultimately decides to choose pursuing dudes rather than art. He’s given the opportunity to change and doesn’t. I think Feed is that person choosing something new. There’s a different moment in the poem, later on in their lives, where Leo doesn’t let our hero off the hook, and he has to have an honest, real time admission of feeling—rather than not having the conversation, “because we’re afraid we already know the answer.” Instead of creating conflict by avoiding conflict, they resolve conflict by confronting it.

AV: Feed uses both song titles and lyrics to explain the speaker’s feelings. We move from Beyoncé to Salt-n-Pepa to Drake. Why does music speak in this collection, and what does that do?

TP: I just miss making mix tapes for people, lol. I wanted to make one for the reader but also for Teebs and for the book and for writing in general and I think what might be my last foray into poetry. It’s been a hell of a time, but I don’t know that I have anything left to say in poems. And let’s be honest, songs are so much better than poems tbqmfh.

AV: The form/language in Feed is also its own. There is text language, line breaks in some parts, paragraphs in others. Tell me more about not sticking to one form and how that decision was made. 

TP: I was commissioned to make a soundscape for the High Line park in New York in 2018, for the launch of their Spring ephemeral garden. The idea is that you would listen to it as you wandered the grounds. It came at the same time Vignettes Gallery and Gramma Press in Seattle commissioned me to make a soundscape about the difference between loneliness and being alone, that you would listen to while walking around Seattle. Both commissions came on the heel of a self-imposed curriculum where I could only listen to food podcasts, watch food movies and tv shows, read food books, could only eat things I cooked, and made myself cook with friends in their kitchens twice a week. When I braided those in the summer of 2018 to create the body of this work, I wanted to approximate a walk through the High Line, a walk through memory, a travelogue, that had the juxtaposed feel of the microclimates of plant life in the High Line. It’s curated to recall wilderness & wildness.

AV: Feed raises a lot of questions about love and loneliness, whether that be between romantic or familial relationships. The speaker is trying to define loneliness, but also figure out why we’re alone. Why was this a theme you wanted to explore? 

With the endless feed of the internet, sometimes you need to restrict some streams of intake. Sometimes you need to log off.

TP: In my personal life, I had basically just spent three years on book tours, finding that performing on the road could actually pay my rent. There was so much freedom in that! I had spent the previous 10 years only knowing at most a two mile radius in New York. I made friends, real ride or dies, in places like Baltimore, Philly, Seattle, San Francisco, Providence, Portland, Chicago, St Louis, etc etc etc. while on the road, reaching more and more people, but I missed the homies. The grind was constant and I found myself in hotel bathtubs—the height of luxury in my mind—wishing that my friends could be with me. 

I was also reading a lot about these projects to try and find extraterrestrial civilizations on exo-planets, how pointless that seemed to me, how much like dating that seemed to me, and I just thought: what if life is actually super rare? What if multicellular life is actually super rare? What if “civilization” is actually the rarest resource in the galaxy? What if we’re all that there is? Would that make you feel like life is even more precious, or would that make you nihilistic?

AV: This collection also deals with the idea of loss and life. In one section, the speaker says “I would love to imagine being alive in five years but I have these bones u know?” right after talking about a cousin’s death. Why is life a privilege in this collection?

Forming your worldview around death makes growing any older seem audacious.

TP: It’s literally in the text. The average age of death on my reservation is 40.7 years old. I’m 35. Even though I don’t live there anymore, I still get the texts from my mom on her way to funerals and anniversary masses and graveyard cleanings. Forming your childhood and your adolescence and your worldview around death makes growing any older seem audacious. I don’t have time to spare! I don’t have years to toss things in an editing drawer! These shits have to happen now!

AV: Throughout Feed, the speaker wrestles with memories — of the mother recognizing her aging, of the father being drunk one night, etc. How did memory shape the way you wrote Feed

TP: Memory isn’t necessarily the past. Memory is a craft, like writing. I think it can be a jumping-off point for starting to imagine writing a poem or a book or whatever because what you remember has a resonance. There’s something particularly loud about it. If you investigate that, I think you can probably connect the theme of that memory to something you’re interested in exploring in your writing.

AV: Feed is very concerned with place as well. The speaker wonders if we’re the only outpost of life in this large world, but we are also asked to think about Indian territories being taken/destroyed. How is setting significant in Feed, and what did you want the readers to take away from it?

TP: I think the person is very concerned about grounding, about finding his footing as he’s consistently traveling and going on dates with exoplanets in far flung galaxies. Having a topography to come back to, whether that’s familial or platonic or terrestrial, was something I wanted to keep referencing. I think by the end he realizes he makes home wherever he goes. As for the reader, I want them to keep reading lol.

AV: What are you working on now?
TP: I’m working on one film in particular and a few other screenplays in general and getting ready for another book tour and two podcasts (Food 4 Thot and Scream, Queen!) and maybe making out with someone in a movie theater that gives us double gin & tonics and a tater tots + queso.

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