NOVEMBER 19, 2019
THE FIRST STANZA of Tommy Pico’s Feed begins with a reflection on writer’s block. Given that Feed is Pico’s fourth book in as many years, the reflection might seem ironic. In the scene, Pico’s alter ego, Teebs, recounts walking with an ex, Leo, before they dated. As they meander, Leo describes how “writer’s block / […] comes from being blocked up / in other parts of the days / of our lives” causing him to forget “what the feeling / of a good / idea is.” For Teebs’s part, the blockage is more than writing: it’s the wish to be desired, for Leo to see that Teebs is “standing right in front of [him].” The poem wonders how writing relates to being seen and to how one sees oneself.
Feed’s themes will be familiar to any reader of Pico’s work: love, written self-expression, and the search for a self and community in the midst of a world hostile to queer and indigenous people. The “casual and intimate” millennial idiom that Jacquelyn Ardam celebrated in Pico’s previous book-length poem, Junk, remains, like the “kind of message your friend texts you from a bathroom at a party to share news of something illicit, or strange, or wonderful.” Once again, we join Teebs’s group text, ready for his delightful, intimate ride.
But something both subtle and substantial changes in Feed, in which the gambit of the previous book-length poems starts to stretch thin. It starts when Teebs breaks the proverbial fourth wall and addresses his “dear reader.” Suddenly Teebs recognizes a responsibility to an audience outside the world of the poem. “White as a bell you whisk me to a fever,” Teebs writes to his reader, finding a dramatic energy in the address and its intimacy.
This intimacy has a flipside, however. In Feed, Pico reflects on the anxiety of influence and the interdependence of poet and reader. Wondering what has changed and broadened in his own writing, he also considers how to adapt to the role that his books have generated for him:
Shall I be a poem for you?
I mean, I used ‘shall’ tbh
the human condition smdh
the bible lol
the library iykwim
No territory will ever satisfy me.
The text-message style gains an edge starting with Teebs’s rhetorical question: in writing these poems, what has Teebs revealed about himself, his love life, his reflections on fragility, his vulnerability? These questions, which rose occasionally in preceding books, become central. When Teebs replies that there is no single territory that can provide him satisfaction, he begins to claim independence from the audience his poems gathered — but also from the weight of his own poetic project.
That is the event that Feed investigates: the ending of a conceit that permitted much creativity and the need for a new method, which is on the horizon but as yet unrealized. As Teebs opines:
There’s a kind of stability
to being so thoroughly Teebs I mean seen
A sly calm, indulging the part of you that stays when the rest hides
Over Pico’s tetralogy, Teebs’s voice has guided readers across heartbreak, urban alienation, and the indigenous fear of American violence. Adding to these explorations in Feed, Teebs also asks how to move forward from what he has made possible. “Is it revolutionary, asserting the desire to continue?” Teebs, in characteristic style, poses an existential question but withholds the answer.
In a way, the question extends from Pico’s preceding book, Junk. In Junk, junk food, junk stuff, genital junk all offered sites of immediate pleasure in spite of the violence of the surrounding world. But these multiple kinds of junk offered subsistence that did not provide sustenance. In the poem, transgressive ecstasy of unhealthy eating, meaningless sex, and a disorganized life provided an ephemeral solace in an American culture that has “capital ‘O’ Obliterated” almost everything else in its way.
In Feed, the ecstasy of junk morphs. Instead of seeking immediate pleasure, Teebs asks what kinds of nourishment sustain us over time. The wish in Junk to just “b me” expands; when Teebs writes, “I am the recipe I protect,” he connects the need for nourishment to the will to thrive. Enjoining the reader to collaborate in the making of a vinaigrette, Teebs asks his audience to consider what sustains a person in a culture that rarely allows queers or people of color to prosper. “A sauce is broken when the oil separates / like a heart,” Teebs reflects. Creating nourishment requires a fragile craft that also risks wounding.
Those wounds extend beyond a single personal history. Food and sustenance, as Pico writes, carry a traumatizing history especially for America’s indigenous communities. “I don’t have a food history,” he explains at a Thanksgiving gathering with friends. The European occupation of indigenous lands means that American food traditions have a central ingredient: to “alienate us from our traditional ways of gathering and cooking food.” What does it mean to protect the self like a recipe when your cultural traditions, food, even language, are lost?
In Feed, Pico invokes this theme from his previous books in order to create something new. Even while remembering the anti-indigenous violence Thanksgiving represents, he tells his group of friends, “I don’t have food stories. With you, I say, I’m cooking new ones.” Here, Pico forges ways of living by recognizing and building communities. It’s a deeply personal project that also extends beyond Teebs. “Making culture is me exposing my will to live. Shh don’t tell anyone,” Teebs confesses to his reader.
Framing this wish as a confession also illustrates the limits of Teebs’s creative project. The interruption of the poem’s discourse by news headlines and chyrons — “THE EPA’S PLAN TO CENSOR CLIMATE CHANGE DATA” and “SAVE OUR COURTS! SIGN THIS PETITION!” — looms over Pico’s private disclosures. By disrupting his direct communication with the reader, he emulates our shared sense of shock. He also wonders what we, as a group, can do about a world in crisis.
As the poem’s direct addresses accumulate, they illustrate personal barriers to forging the very community Teebs seeks. The poem starts to wonder if a persona like Teebs can act as an emotional crutch. That is perhaps what is most radical about Feed: how Pico questions the very existence of his alter ego, Teebs, as a means of creating a culture centered on queer and indigenous people. As Pico exhorts himself, it is time to “[l]et go / of the overgrowth, the unhealthy attachment […] imagine letting lose.” Part of letting go means letting go of Teebs too.
In relinquishing Teebs, the voice in Feed finds comfort in shared experience that in the previous books seemed elusive. In Feed’s final pages, Teebs sits with his former lover Leo and their friend Wilkes, smoking a blunt and arguing about the fate of the planet given the inevitability of climate change: “This is our one and only Earth. These are our finite lives. You are my friends. The idea of us being alone makes me want to hold on to life.” In the face of this seriousness, Leo counters with a stoner joke, and Wilkes banters that “High Teebs is a corny, bold, sensual Teebs.” The exchange, heartfelt and comic, illustrates what so often seemed to elude Teebs: a world beyond apps and hookups, a community resilient under the weight of history. “Imagine being fed, and feeding. / Imagine getting what you need. / Imagine the fire inside you,” Teebs writes. Feed takes a risk: it wills that imagination into being.
As the capstone in the Teebs tetralogy, Feed is both a meditation on community and a farewell. As Pico explained to an audience at Skylight Books in Los Angeles this past spring, his writing attempts to spread queerness and Kumeyaay-ness into a hostile world. By letting go of Teebs, Pico finds success in at least part of that project. He also makes room for an evolving voice that will tackle novel challenges. “This is how I be with / You dear reader, on the other / side of my words.” What that other side looks like, the voice in Feed doesn’t necessarily know. But in discovering what needs to be left behind, Pico claims space for himself to grow — as a lover, a friend, a community member, and a writer. While Feed is a valediction to one poetic project, it also suggests that Pico’s next endeavor might even transcend his work’s existing vigor.
Will Clark is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and American Studies at William & Mary. His research examines how the literary representation of citizenship and sexuality at the end of the nineteenth century shapes the evolution of queer rights until the present. His interests include queer theory, the US novel, and US legal and political history.