The Brooklyn-based poet on growing up on the Rez, dropping out of medical school, and the power of quitting things.
Tommy Pico is Brooklyn-based poet hailing from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation. His poetry has been published in Guernica, Blunderbuss Magazine, [PANK], Powder Keg, and Glittermob among others, he’s read at launch parties for No Dear, The Atlas Review, and Adult Magazine, and he published the first poetry chapbook release as an app, absentMINDR.
From writing poems on the back of bookmarks on the Rez and hiding from aggressors in the library at high school to dropping out of medical school and finding a home away from home for himself in the Brooklyn poetry community, Tommy has never done things the “usual way”. His love-hate relationship with formal education has taken him down a few different paths including explorations in alternative learning environments. One thing that has remained constant is his lifelong love affair with poetry, which is clear in his already immense body of work, his passion for zine-making, and his latest incarnation as a workshop facilitator. For the future, he hopes to use his skills to start a mentoring program for young American Indian artists. One hot August afternoon, Tommy Pico stopped by my apartment on his way home from his shared writing studio to drink iced tea and talk about our mutual affinity for dropping out of school.
What were your early experiences of education?
I grew up on the Rez. There was an early education Indian school that was run by some tribal members. Now you can get your GED on the Rez, but at the time they just had preschool and an afterschool program where they’d help with your homework. After that I attended public school off the reservation and a summer bible camp that was run by students from The University of Long Island. I guess my earliest experience as a dropout was quitting Catholic studies. My relationship with the Catholic church was weird because the area around the reservation had been missionized by the Spanish in the 1800s, they were an occupying force. It never really made sense to me that we were reading the Bible as though this was something that was real or true, because something existed before the Spanish came, I always knew we had a more ancient religion, so I could never put my faith in the Bible.
So your main education happened off the reservation, in the public school system, what was it like to leave the world where you grew up and join the mainstream academic system?
First off, we had to take a bus, which we shared with the kids from the border areas near the reservation. Border areas around reservations tend to be the most racist and hostile towards American Indians. So we had to take the bus with a bunch of neo-Nazi and KKK members’ kids who would wear sweatshirts that said “White Revolution is the Solution” and backpacks with the Confederate Flag on them. This was at middle school and high school. Prior to that, it didn’t really feel like racism between kids existed yet. Man, once kids got into high school and started reading those manifestos they turned really fucking hostile. One day I was taking my backpack off and it hit one of the biggest neo-Nazi guys in the face. I thought he was going to beat my ass, but all my cousins came to my defense and a humongous brawl started. All those kids got kicked out of school, but my cousins got kicked out of school too, so after that I didn’t have any friends or defenders. Whenever people called me “faggot” they’d get their asses beat by my cousins, but after my cousins left I was confronted with a very dangerous homophobia. It was horrible, people wanted to kick my ass every day. There were some hallways on campus I could not walk down. The most benign bullying was people making kissy faces at me, the worst was throwing milk cartons or quarters at my head.