What, like I’m not going to make a dick joke about Tommy Pico’s new collection of poetry just because he won the prestigious Whiting Award this year? Please. Making phenomenal dick jokes in the marbled halls of poetry is one of the reasons Pico has come so far—well, making dick jokes and writing hysterically funny, nervy poems about the life and loves of Teebs, a queer Native American persona just trying to avoid being assaulted while holding hands with somebody in country that’s openly hostile to his being.
In Junk, Pico's third book-length poem (but his second book with Tin House), he somehow piles on more soundplay and wordplay than he did in IRL and Nature Poem. Though the language feels denser, the poem speeds right along. The callbacks and pop culture references come faster, and he’ll start new sentences in the middle of lines, as if he can't help but interrupt himself as he tries to track the lightning storm of jokes and associations and pithy phrases sparking off in his head.
But he has kept the self-deprecating one-liners coming, as this indicative passage proves: “you know how some ppl are workaholics / Well I'm an alcoholic Today's jaw lick click clocks sops the // syrup leaking from my mores I mean pores One more time / plz can I ride plz just one more time I have the tightest pink-// est purse Sorry clutch Let's play a game called sociopath, or / gay man...”
In addition to reading from the book at his Seattle launch on Tuesday (tomorrow!), Pico and a bunch of Seattle writers—Civic Poet Anastacia Renee and fiction writer Willie Fitzgerald, to name a few—will play a game of show and tell. Participants will hold up a hunk of junk and tell the story of why they’ve held onto it for so long.
To give you a taste, and to avoid compromising my critical reputation any more than it already has been (Pico and I are friends), we sat down to talk about his new book and to play a game of show and tell. I was amazed by how much he was able to divine about my life from my junk.
Tommy Pico: The scary thing about having a new book is how it follows. You know that horror movie, It Follows?
Rich Smith: The one about STDs? Yes.
Yes. It’s kind of like that, but it’s a book, and it follows me everywhere I go. When people ask me to sign it, it mortifies me.
Do you feel ashamed about IRL or Nature Poem?
[He shakes his head up and down and goes red.]
How can you feel that way? They were such good books!
I wish I knew. I talk about it in therapy all the time, and I talk about it on [Food 4 Thot], and I talk about it with my friends. I would like to be my biggest fan, I would love to feel proud, but that’s not how I feel. After I finish something, it feels like a piping hot blob of feces that I’m just handing over.
You're saying writing is like excrement.
It is like excrement! It’s something that came out of my body, like sausage or something. I don’t…I thought the feeling would alleviate with the more experience and success and acclaim that I got, but it’s only getting worse. That feeling propels me to keep writing, though.
First of all because I don’t get that postpartum feeling. Second of all because as long as I’m working on something new, the last thing I wrote doesn’t feel like it sticks to me as much.
Hence your new book, Junk. This started as a ‘zine, right?
I wrote it in 2016. The 'zine was the basic structure, but then I had to fill it out with other things. Same thing with Nature Poem, which was a 'zine before it was ever a book, too.
And IRL was a Tumblr before it was a book.
Yeah. Bringing all the tools of the trade, you know what I mean?
The thing is, I got stuck while writing the manuscript of Junk because the first half of it was dealing with a breakup, with someone dumping me. But that event only sustained half of the book. I couldn’t get any more pages out of it because I had processed the feeling. But then a year after that breakup I had to breakup with somebody. I was on the other side of the table, and so the second half of the book is more or less me letting down somebody whose greatest fault was that he liked me.
You define and re-define the word “junk” a lot in the book. Could you give me some of its multivalent meanings?
Well, I was raised in a thrift store. That was one of my mother’s jobs as a kid, so I just kinda grew up around junk. We didn’t have money, but I could take stuff from the thrift store. So I spent a lot of time imbuing my junk with personality. A lot of kids do that. They make inanimate objects into breathable companions.
I also think of junk as a thing that’s being repurposed. Not just an object, but perhaps a person getting fired. What happens when you get fired or broken up with or you lose your apartment? You lose your sense of stability. And so that liminality is part of it. I just name that space “junk.”
Okay, I get that.
The book is also talking to Garbage, by A.R. Ammons. In Garbage I think one of the theses of that book is what society does with elders in the United States and in the West—it’s like they’ve outlived their usefulness and you’re just waiting to throw them away. Writing this book in my mid-30s, I obviously didn’t feel like I was garbage, but I did feel like I was in a transition state. And so I named that state "junk."
At 30 the country starts to crumple you up into a ball, and you were starting to feel that pressure?
Yeah, but it was more like I was an end table in a hallway, and now I’m going to be a conversation piece in the living room. So it’s more about repurposing.
Oh, okay, yeah, that’s better than being crumpled.
And, of course, dicks. Somebody’s junk.
There’s a lot of sex in the book.
And also the personality of the country as it was switching over. I finished the book between mid-November and mid-January. It was after the election but before the inauguration. So it was during a period of being broken up with by Democracy in a weird way, knowing that there was something dangerous bubbling but it hadn’t happened yet. So that was part of it, too.
I was also thinking about the idea of trying to find a solace in not having a utility. Utility strikes me as a state of anxiety, like you’re trying to be in Beast Mode all the time. But I'm asking if there can be solace in just being.
Just being on a shelf.
And just not having to perform, or not having to be a pooper scooper. Maybe you’re just a thing, just being—there’s gotta be some redemption in that, too.
Or some language we can invent to allow us to feel comfortable just being junk for a while. That sounds nice.
Which is a kind of the vocabulary of self-care, which people are sort of using now. That feeling of "I’m going to get off Twitter, I need to be by myself, I need to reconnect to something..." If you’re in a space between one utility and another, that’s a chance to reconnect to yourself.
I was also doing the Marie Kondo method while writing the book.
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
Oh yeah, I remember that book.
I was getting rid of a lot of stuff. It’s an interesting metaphor for editing. You’re singling lines out and saying “Does this spark joy?" It’s something to ask of long poetry in particular. “Does this add something, or is it just accumulative?”
Do you have a piece of junk that sticks to you? Something that’s not just accumulative?
I do. I was with someone who had a bracelet. Symbolically when we started dating I started wearing the bracelet.
What did it look like?
It was a rounded silver crescent. It looked really good, and it looked great on me. And I love silvery jewelry.
I took it from him and put it on my wrist and said jokingly, "See, it looks so much better on me!" And he agreed. So I kept it absentmindedly. I never took it off. It felt like such a concrete piece of jewelry. It was never too ostentatious, it was very plain, and it fit with everything. I kind of took to it.
Did he like the bracelet?
Hm. I think he acquired this bracelet after coming out. It was sad because this person wasn’t necessarily comfortable in his queerness. And it was—maybe I’m giving it too much weight—but maybe it was a symbol to him as well, a symbol of his burgeoning sexuality, or at least his ability to talk about it. And as a person who’s never been in the closet, and someone who is very very comfortable with my sexuality and gender, as an access to queerness I think that was attractive to him.
We adhered to each other. We were so physically attracted to each other. I have never, ever in my entire life dated anybody else who I just wanted to touch all the time as much as I wanted to touch him.
But our traumas were inversely incompatible. About touching and not being touched, about being vocal versus being quiet. You couldn’t have had two traumas that were more incompatible with each other.
Your insecurities and securities conflicted with each other.
Yeah. And I think he overpromised but underdelivered. The thing is, making out with guys and having sex with them is different than being in a relationship with them. I’m not sure if he wanted to be in a homosexual relationship. But because we were so attracted to each other, it just went way too deep way too fast, and in the middle of it he was like, “Oh my god I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into,” and he pulled away. And that was heartbreaking.
But I had absorbed the bracelet. And I forgot to give it back to him. But we were already broken up. And it ended messily. I had no interest in talking to him, and he had no interest in talking to me, either. But somehow the bracelet had gotten caught in my bag. It’s the greatest bag of all time.
It’s got this strap, and it’s got all these handles, and it’s incredibly versatile. In the subway when it gets really crowded I can wear it over my shoulder. If I’m raveling a lot I can let it dangle. When it’s a business casual situation I can hold it by the handles.
This is a great bag.
Somehow the bracelet got into the lining of the bag. I don’t know how. I’ve searched the entire thing for the hole that it slipped through. Now it’s at the bottom of my bag. So this token of my relationship is with me all the time.
And I'm not interested in traveling without my bag. I’m not interested in getting a new bag. That’s my bag. I like that bag. And in fact, symbolically, there’s something to be learned from this relationship. We have not reconciled. And so it’s partially me reminding myself of this time.
What does it remind you of?
When a relationship doesn’t work out, and you both tried, then you’re not responsible for the failure. I think that’s the lesson I learned from this time. And that’s maybe the solace of having the bracelet on me at all times. It’s something I can’t wear.
And it’s only something that I know about! It’s kind of like him. He wasn’t comfortable being seen, and so part of him is always going to be hidden in a compartment of mine.
Are you ever going to get rid of it?
I would have to gut the bag in order to get rid of it, and I’m not interested in doing that. And I’m not so hyped to wear it that it seems like a sane alternative. And there are times when I completely forget about it. I forget about him and I forget about the bracelet. Other times I remember very keenly. And I think that’s okay.
When do you remember it’s in there?
Usually when I’m searching for something at the bottom of my bag. My hand will graze it, and I touch it, and depending on what I’m looking for it feels like a pen or something, but then I realize it’s his bracelet.
Do you ever go into the bag just to touch it?
I suppose I have, but maybe absentmindedly.
You don’t touch it to remember him?
I guess not really. It’s not a touchstone. It’s just in the walls of your house or whatever. It’s just there. But it’s not lost on me that there’s a token of a relationship that nobody else knew about or had access to that is there always.
Want to play a game?
I’m going to put a piece of my junk that I have kept on the table, and you tell me why you think I kept it.
This does not look like something you bought at a store.
It is not.
It is not clean. So it suggests that it was discarded, and it looks like it’s been in a state of discardment for a while.
So I imagine that this was something you saw while on a date with somebody.
That checks out.
So, let’s see. Sometimes people keep momentos out of obligation. We call those people hoarders. Sometimes it’s to memorialize a person who is no longer there. Sometimes it is to remember a date.
I’ll give you a hint. I kept this to remember a day, so you’re on the right track with the whole date thing.
Were you hiking?
Was this…was this hike…particularly arduous?
Yes! It was a very hard hike!
Was there…maybe not a near-death situation, but was there some kind of desperation?
And by the resourcefulness of you and this other person, did you all save each other from a near death situation? Or was it…the exacerbation of an argument that made it into a near-death situation?
Hah! It was the first thing you said, but at this point I think the story becomes too peculiar for anyone to properly divine.
There’s a hike called Humpback Mountain. There’s a lot of quartz in the mountain. People dig for it underneath the trees with shovels. While we were walking foolishly off trail, we stumbled across a father/son digging team. The son looked like he was going to kill 19 people when he grew up. One of those blank-faced murder teens. He had a weird affect. Anyway, we asked this pair what they’re doing, and the murder teen held up this piece of quartz and said he was digging for quartz. Then he offered the rock up to me. I took it because I didn't know I was supposed to do. If you keep the gift of a murder teen, will he use it as an It Follows kind of homing beacon that will lead him back to my apartment in Seattle? At the same time, it could be a ward against the murder teen, and he’s giving it to me to try to protect me from himself. But also I keep it to remember a lovely but strenuous hike with that person I was with.
But it’s remarkable to me that you were such a sleuth! You were able to look at this quartz and get pretty close.
After writing this book I feel like I did gain some affinity for the things that others look over. Being surrounded by your junk can be an insulation from the world, but it’s also a way to be surrounded by your own world. Not just as a proxy for a memory, but also as a way to show that you have lived and done things and been places. I’m not just talking about souvenirs. A souvenir is a type of junk, but not all junk is a souvenir.
The nature poets will often say we store our memories in the landscape or store our memories in the junk so we can move on with our lives. Do you feel that way about junk at all?
It’s kind of like mnemonic, yeah. Like how people use the internet. People can store stuff there and selectively review it whenever they want. The problem is you don’t usually end up going back to it. That’s how junk drawers develop. Now you have all these things you’re afraid of letting go of for fear of losing that thing forever. That’s how hoarding stuff. Why have you kept this quartz?
I’m not superstitious in an organized way, but I guess I was so in love with the idea of not knowing what to do with the gift of a murder teen, I kept it to remind me of the moment.
The moment and all its intricacies! You store its intricacies in that rock so you don’t actually have to remember it. Seeing it allows you to recall of these little details you don't just walk around thinking about. And that’s one of the theses of this book. Junk has the best stories for that reason. It allows you to store a fragment of your memory in something.
Junk does have the best stories!
I’m working with my publisher on a podcast this summer. It's inspired by the book. I go into different peoples’ homes and we talk about their junk. Each episode will end with me reading a section of the book. So look out for that!