‘On the narrowing frontier between song and speech, memory and oblivion, future and no future, Native and American, IRL is Heraclitian, a river of text and sweat, whipping worlds into the silence of white pages’, writes American poet and playwright Ariana Reines in her review of IRL on the Books LLC website. Tommy Pico’s first book-length poem masquerades as a series of visual snapshots and text message extracts whilst subtly attempting to reconcile a satyriasic urbanite, Teebs, with his Native American past. Pico, 32, grew up in the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation, near San Diego. He started writing poetry from an early age, but only began taking it seriously a year after moving to New York when he got high one night in summer and wrote a four-page poem about a man he was attracted to on the city subway. He now lives in Brooklyn and co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude with Morgan Parker. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of birdsong, a modern collective, small press and zine that publishes contemporary art and writing. He is a keen performer of poetry and has read from his works at many live events. It is important to consider IRL – and its sequel, Nature Poem – in this performative limelight: these poems are, at the heart, psychological dramas.
By putting his most intimate thoughts under the microscope, Teebs, the semi- autobiographical speaker, tries to explain his ongoing confusions. IRL is composed as a long text message to multiple recipients on different levels (friends, lovers, ancestors, New York, the reader, himself ) through which Teebs retraces his personal history of intense short-lived sexual escapades with men he meets online. By intertwining this with questions about Native American history, he tries to make sense of his haywire libertine lifestyle and severely disjointed mind. Teebs’ stream of consciousness transports us through time and space, from cramped New York flats to an unspoilt, ‘pre- apocalyptic’ America. Teebs, as we first meet him, seeks in poetry signs of his lost past and how the alienation of his ancestors in their native land can explain his self-estrangement. Nature Poem feels less centred on the poet that its predecessor; instead, Pico grapples with society’s perceptions of his identity. IRL’s ending with Teebs receiving a message from his online ‘Muse’ and leaving a karaoke party to go sleep with him, leaves the door open – literally – for the further reflection undertaken in Nature Poem, where the experiments with form and style allow Teebs to explore his multifaceted personality better.
Talking about Nature Poem, Pico claims Teebs has ‘calmed down a little’ since IRL; he has come to accept his hypersexual drive and enjoy it rather than see it as a sign of psychological turbulence. However, Nature Poem’s fractured ‘poems-within-a-poem’ form seems to suggest otherwise. Teebs has anything but calmed down: by addressing a wider scope of ideas – political, literary and psychological – and building on the touchstones explored in IRL, he thwarts his own insights and tears open the fabric of his mind through metatextuality. His thoughts spill across the pages in a brilliant variety of tones; whilst IRL was a continuous stream of consciousness, Nature Poem resembles an anthology of thoughts. With one poem per page, varying in length and register, Pico creates an ensemble of ‘asides, stutters, stammers, and media glitches’, in the words of fellow American poet Jericho Brown. Yet this seemingly more disconnected form creates a more coherent and solid whole than IRL. Despite IRL’s apparent flow, the stream of consciousness causes the poem to digress. Teebs gets lost with the intention of finding himself. However, Pico does not quite master the device at the heart of his piece: his digressions do not connect as fluidly as one would hope. Pico may have succeeded in his illustration of a disjointed mind, but his poem often falls short of syntactic clarity. Pico chains thought processes together without punctuation or connectives:
Peeps n all my relatives
are diabetic The metaphors
age well Are rent stabilized
Take on new shapes There
is a great flood
A style which can feel lyrical can also feel uncalled for. Teebs’ digressions are too numerous and numb the intended effect. Nature Poem presents a more eloquent Teebs whose digressions, despite not being any fewer, are more structured and detailed. Teebs allows us to dive into his mind more than in IRL, where the digressive stutters remain so underdeveloped they make it seem as if Teebs is censoring his own mind. By jumping so promptly from a subject to the next, Teebs fails to express the nuance and subtlety permitted by a more restrained tone. Nature Poem’s more formal register and slower pace allow not only the reader, but also Teebs himself, to truly analyse his persona.
One might say, however, the dichotomy between lack of restraint and self-censorship is not a sign of Pico’s poetic failure in IRL, but rather a key device in the portrayal of Teebs as a conflicted character. Indeed, whilst Teebs negotiates between his individual experience and his discovery of the cultural heritage that conditions it, Pico invites us to negotiate between Teebs’ two selves: a poor, gay man from the rez, and a hedonistic social media enthusiast who juggles between dating guys he finds on the internet and wondering about his ancestry. By framing two fragile identities, Pico introduces us to a world of internal chaos punctuated by self-conscious interrogations that question the very existence of IRL and the relevance of poetry: ‘Everything is so extra, / it gets hard / to know what to actually / give a fuck about.’ The lines between private and public, personal and interpersonal, are blurred: Teebs’ internal monologue is regularly interrupted by other voices, be they the external canonical ones which he deplores, or that of his other self:
We just get com-
fortable with each other
at a time when comfort
something come stop the shaking
is more important than
Like stage directions, the interruptions highlight the theatricality of Teebs’ life: choreographed by others’ prejudice and a political system that reduces him to a mere label. By blending poetry and theatre, Pico not only presents the former as an inherently performative and dramatic art, but also alerts us to the fact that cultural narratives are simplified and even fictionalised to suit a power-hungry political script. Whilst Teebs tells us he is getting comfortable, his suppressed voice cuts through like a cry for help. His vulnerability emerges from his unreliability and raises the question of who is responsible for the suppression of part of his voice. Polyphony helps Pico create a battle of voices within Teebs’ mind which echoes the unresolved conflict around his identity: an acknowledgement as well as a label, on both an individual and cultural scale, a personal and historical one.
There’s something almost Proustian about Pico’s representation of the mind: inherently confused and incomplete, searching for its lost parts inside those few which haven’t escaped his consciousness. For Pico, the search for lost time is as much a work of self-reflection as it is a work on American history. In a similar tradition to Beyoncé’s visual albums, Pico uses intimate experiences and the challenge of secrecy in a digital age where everything is made public to develop a more profound understanding of his Kumeyaay heritage. By recounting his own stories in IRL, he depersonalises his experience:
to see anything but blood
in the tap, knowing ancestors
died to keep green lawns
over desert sand. It’s dead
summer, every lover a river
of sweat in my bed. You
look into the current, wonder
at the bank what ppl think.
Language is the thread that ties self-reflection and history together. By using an informal, sometimes strikingly explicit register for a sophisticated critique of semantic banalities, Pico creates in Teebs an irresistibly sharp and sassy character, unafraid of tearing down and taking apart those words and ideas championed by his elders. The fact that Teebs writes in SMS language gives him a communicative power his elders do not have. Not only does he escape their influence; he also takes part in a new legacy. Pico’s love/hate relationship with the digital era creates a struggle between his attempt to use poetry in order to engage with great historical ideas, and the actual state of his poem trapped in SMS form. Although abbreviated language may echo reduced, self- censored ideas in IRL, Nature Poem manages to escape the confines of SMS. Where the sentences in IRL are split in such a way that two thirds of each page are left blank, the sentences in Nature Poem are free to run from one margin to another or not, ending up varied in length. However, Teebs does not discredit SMS lingo. In fact, he consistently shortens certain words, notably people (‘ppl’), in order to deformalise tricky concepts and make them relevant to his generation. Once again, he ties personal and universal together, allowing his work – despite all its quirks and originalities – to pursue the legacy of conventional lyricism. The fact that the men he sleeps with all start out as online encounters, snapshots of ‘personality’ fragmented here and there, also echoes the hidden depths of SMS code. Abbreviated SMS language conceals things in the same way that Teebs hides certain thoughts. Pico’s poems are all about hidden depths, whether in the cracks of the pages and the spaces between the words, or in the platitudes of political lingo reluctant to acknowledge unpleasant truths. In Nature Poem, he viciously criticises the hypocrisy of those very people who, whilst claiming to mourn his wiped out Native American culture, institutionalise its legacy in a way that fails to acknowledge colonial responsibility:
and that word Natural in Natural History hangs
hangs as in frames
it’s horrible how their culture was destroyed
as if in some reckless storm
The italic line splits the passage above like an interruption, articulating another one of Pico’s main concerns: contingent utterances shape our understanding of history. Had there been no interruption, we would understand the sentence differently: ‘Peoples’ hangs as in frames, as if in some reckless storm. But the interjection of a new, unwelcome utterance changes the narrative and distorts initial meaning. Both of Pico’s poems brim with polyphony, although, as seen previously, for most of IRL the ‘other voice’ is not that of an external agent but another force within Pico’s own mind: ‘Muse is not / don’t write it / amused.’ He battles with self-censorship throughout IRL, at one point calling his story a ‘lol truth’ not worth writing or reading about. What I find fascinating about this poem is the way in which its raw, honest and sometimes crude expressiveness opposes a paranoid awareness of judgement and fear being watched. It is as if Teebs manages to embody the entire introversion-extraversion spectrum, sometimes within only two lines: a character rooted in the age of the internet, simultaneously encouraged to speak out but also under intense scrutiny.
By contrast, Nature Poem goes beyond the constraints of self-censorship and contains more interruptions coming from outside the poet’s mind, providing opportunities for dialogue. Nature Poem becomes a debate chamber where poetic requirements based on stereotype (the expectation that Teebs, because of his Native American heritage, must be drawn to composing Nature Poems) clash with the poet’s freedom. Teebs addresses the paradox of freedom by juxtaposing what Aunt Lydia, in Margaret Atwood’s e Handmaid’s Tale, calls its two kinds: ‘freedom to and freedom from’. By rejecting the stereotype of the Native American poet reverent towards nature, Teebs shows true freedom to compose is opposed by the expectations of the supposedly free-minded public. What Pico undertakes in Nature Poem is precisely the revelation that the public is not free-minded, but controlled by ideologies and institutions manipulated by those very people who deny us freedom to and whom we seek freedom from. In an attempt to reconcile both branches of freedom, Pico reveals their incompatibility. He progressively demystifies the ambiguity of the title, which he explains in an interview with fellow Tin House novelist Tobias Carroll: ‘it becomes evident that it’s not nature I really have a problem with (I mean you will not catch me in the woods for nothing). It’s racism, colonialism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. So the Nature Poem that the book ends up becoming is naturally just me.’ Through simple anaphora, Teebs realises that the reason why he has ‘an abusive relationship w/nature’ is because he has ‘an abusive relationship with [him]self ’.
In an interview with American poet and journalist Harriet Staff, Pico talks about IRL as an ‘overtly self-reflexive’ text – and one might go as far as suggesting it is overly self-reflexive, to the point where the environment surrounding Teebs is so clustered that it makes his mind difficult to understand. However, within this chaos, Teebs writes some of his most beautiful lines. Drawing on different poetic tropes, Teebs applies them to his hypersexual drive: ‘Muse crashes into / the edges of my nights’, and two pages later: ‘The flood of his breath / the stuff of myths’. In his description of dancing with a lover, Teebs’ seemingly offhand allusion to ‘land’ adds considerable significance to his use of sensual imagery: the dance ‘[g] oes on like land, / just accum- / ulating in my eyes.’ Teebs’ microcosm is sown into a greater cultural narrative: it is through his pessimistic outlook and sex odysseys that he comes closest to negotiating the gap between him and his ancestors. In the rest of the poem, his character remains an enigma. Teebs’ attempt to solve his identity crisis throughout IRL fails as he is unable to reconcile his modern, tech-savvy and satyriasic persona with the inbred ‘generational trauma’ of his people. By the end of IRL, he remains stuck in a cultural mould:
My dad grows
his hair long Black waves
cascade down his back b/c knives
crop the ceremony of his
mother’s hair at the NDN boarding
school I cut mine in mourning
for the old life but I grow
my poems long.
Teebs uses one tradition to justify the other and by doing so places presents his artistry as caused, even forced. The previous passage describes Teebs’ strong tendency to cry: his voice and expression are affected by emotions, which themselves are caused by bloody ancestral history. His art is not free, but occupied – by shame, fear and a burdening past he has not chosen – like the colonial powers occupied the American land of his Ancestors.
This does not limit Teebs’ confidence however, and IRL does not fall short of providing a few literary punchlines: ‘Museless, I’m useless’ and ‘Writers / should never be the hero / of their own work.’ Pico creates in Teebs a hero who refutes heroism and makes this the central theme in Nature Poem: the Native American poet refuses to glorify nature because that’s what’s expected of him, the ‘right’ thing to do. He achieves heroism by challenging the common conception people have of it, in the same way that he breaks free from influence by dismantling the common conception of freedom. It is no wonder, therefore, that Nature Poem should continue IRL’s list of literary rules. Pico confronts traditional requirements and by doing so creates his own canon. I find one of his rules particularly moving: ‘in order to get inside / a poem has to break you’.
Nature Poem achieves what IRL does not. Teebs grows from a confused and tormented individual to a skilled rhetorician, in dialogue with a history of oppression and prejudice. IRL, the long text message to and from the confines of Teebs’ mind, paves the way for a more mature poem in which the hero confronts the expectations of a public who, seeing him as a label, fail to acknowledge his individuality. He becomes like ‘Time’, Nature Poem’s ‘paragon of confidence’, who by completing a self-reflexive exercise makes us look at ourselves and ponder our own freedom. IRL ends how it began, with Teebs back at his starting point ready to sleep with a man he met online. This ‘river of a text’ cascades to the dead end it seeks to avoid, closing a cycle yet leaving Teebs’ persona unexplained and leaving us with the fear that his next sexual encounter will kickstart another existential crisis of self-loathing. By ending on such a note, Pico deliberately estranges the reader, made to feel like Teebs. It becomes clear in Nature Poem, however, that Teebs has succeeded in identifying white American society as the cause of his own self-estrangement. He journeys down another river where he puts together the bits and pieces that so puzzled him in IRL. Teebs has become comfortable and confident enough that he can parody the very notion of an ending. He closes another cycle in the second to last page of Nature Poem: ‘Admit it. This is the poem you wanted all along.’ But he then surprises us with a hidden gem of 11 lines as we turn the page. Jokes, existential questions, political comments, song lyrics and neighbourhood gossip all combine to create a ‘river’ of surprises, U-turns and bittersweet memories. By revealing our vulnerability in the face of elusive freedom, Teebs creates his own freedom by pushing the boundaries of poetic form and style. Teebs’ quest for self-discovery unites with his infectious personality to shine a light on society’s lies and shortcomings.