When the poet Tommy Pico writes "Nature is kind of over my head," it seems almost like a joke at first. Humor is indeed everywhere in his second book, Nature Poem ("mittens are dumb af," "What rhymes with, fuck off and die?"). But nature is actually the most fraught subject for Teebs, the narrator of Pico's autobiographical book-length poem. Having grown up on a reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation, if he now wrote a poem about nature, wouldn't that just be the reductive literature white America expects from him, "fodder for the noble savage narrative"?
"I love candy but I'm an adult I only let myself have candy at the movies."
As he works through this question, Teebs also contends with other white, colonialist inquiries: "oh, but you don't look very Indian is a thing ppl feel comfortable saying to me on dates," "did I live like in a regular house." Even when he gets close to new partners, goes with a cute boy to the movies, lets himself consider falling in love, other people's expectations of Teebs as an unwilling representative of his family's culture hang around Pico's lines like ghosts.
"I'll just sit here and think abt the sequel to 'A Beautiful Mind' I just invented called 'A Ugly Bag.'"
And there are other things Teebs claims he'd rather be talking about: why "Malibu" by the band Hole is one of the greatest songs of all time, Sade's comparison of love and war, his friends' Instagram posts of sunsets. Still, through these pop culture references, Pico's verse resonates with the heartbreak and resolve of a young artist confronting a world he does and doesn't love.
Below, Tommy Pico tells Sweet what it takes to write from such a vulnerable place.
"I sit down on a chair in front of a desk, and I stay there for about a year and a half."
Nature Poem by Tommy Pico (Tin House), $15, tinhouse.com.