Photo by Niqui Carter

Although Tommy Pico has lived in New York for 14 years, his roots are here in San Diego. He left the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation when he was 18 years old to attend Sarah Lawrence College, but his experience growing up on the reservation informs a good portion of his astonishing poetry debut, IRL, published this month by Birds, LLC.

Told in streams of unconventionally punctuated sentences, IRL is peppered with Internet slang, acronyms and abbreviations. The entire book is made of “a single long poem with a narrative undertone,” Pico says.

Reading IRL [Internet slang for “in real life”] is like looking over the shoulder of a young gay artist as he scrolls through various social media feeds searching for sex, inspiration, a relief from the stultifying boredom of a hot Brooklyn summer, and finding something else. On the page the poem is compressed into a narrow column of words that stretches for almost 100 pages, like an epic monologue in messages:

Where I’m from,
in the valley I lived in
for thousands of years,
once someone has passed
or pushed or pressed
into the next life that I don’t
believe in, their name
is forbidden. Reference them,
but don’t use the name bc
it distracts them from
heaven Sullies the peace
they rest in. I don’t want to be
a sullier.

The narrator of IRL struggles to assimilate whether he’s back home on the rez or navigating the streets and subways of his adopted home in Brooklyn.

“The character is really struggling where I don’t,” Pico says. “I found very early you can never get away from yourself. I don’t have that kind of anxiety but it felt really important for the character I was writing to be conflicted.”

This anxious search tends to go in one of two directions: forward into a projection of pleasure the night might bring or back to the past and the poet’s “expressions of Indian-ness.”

It would be easy to cherry pick quotes from either and make a case that the author is making a statement about the way social media disconnects us from the past or interferes with our ability to connect in real life, but the poem’s format makes these strands impossible to separate.

“I think by necessity they have to be coiled together. They are indelible parts of myself,” Pico says.

Pico has a great deal to say on a number of topics. “Rooftop/parties r the payday/ of summer” appears on the same page as “Tradition is a cage,/like an Edward Curtis pic/of high copper cheekbones—/totemic, fabricated.”

There’s a tendency to think that IRL is no different than being online where cultural criticism (“I survive seven generations/into a post-apocalyptic America/that started in 1492. Maybe/you’ll live too?”) sits along side artful musings (“The thing that compels you/to sing? Don’t then challenge/it to a singing contest.”).

But it’s unlikely your “friends” are as clever or courageous as Pico—either on screen or IRL.

The Travelers Club Reading
Photo by Anders Murillo


Going to Warwick’s: One of our favorite independent bookstores, Warwick’s in La Jolla always has a solid lineup of local and international authors stopping in to promote. If we had to pick just a few, try not to miss Gina Frangello discussing her excellent new novel, Every Kind of Wanting, with CityBeat’s Jim Ruland on Monday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 p.m. We’re also excited to hear/read Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 20), actress and environ mentalist Jane Alexander (7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 19), and neuroscience genius Daniel Levitin (7:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 14).

Voices raised: Local writer Andres Murillo, working under the name The Travelers Club, has been holding some awesome spoken word readings at The CHRCH in Barrio Logan emphasizing San Diego’s vast community of minority voices. Dubbed The Color Theory, the next reading on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. will feature notable names like Manuel Paul Lopez, Hari Aluri, Lizz Huerta and over a dozen more.

Something sweet: For those whose reading habits mostly consist of trying to learn how to whip something up in the kitchen, local health expert Laura Marquis will be promoting her new cookbook, Sweets in the Raw: Naturally Healthy Desserts, on Sunday, Sept. 25, at noon at Warwick’s in La Jolla ( On Sunday, Nov. 6, at 11 a.m. at The Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe, James Beard Award-winning baker Nancy Silverton will be serving up some tasty bites and promoting her new book, Mozza at Home, which was co-written by local journalist Carolynn Carreño.

Banned for life: Grossmont College’s annual Fall Readings Series never disappoints and this year will honor National Banned Books Week with a reading on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 2 p.m. from novelist Matt de la Pena (Mexican White Boy, Ball Don’t Lie), who was the first Latino to win the Newberry Prize in literature. Also save the date for the Lester Bangs Memorial Reading on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. The annual event will feature readings, film screenings and discussions about Bangs, a Grossmont alumnus and “America’s Greatest Rock Critic.”


See all events on Friday, Dec 9