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“I Can’t Write a Nature Poem”: Beyond Nature and Tommy Pico’s Climate Arts

As the world wraps its head around the dangers of Climate Change, most of us, scratch that—some of us are anxiously learning and actively unlearning our shifting realities. Vehemently shaken awake from our slumber, we are just realizing the fragility of the environment, of nature, and the impending horrors that await. Climate change in India, has not been considered with the seriousness it deserves. I want to acknowledge that India has been host to various important environment awareness events spanning decades, however, climate change fails to be an urgent political issue in the country. It remains a ‘heard of’ yet a ‘foreign’ reality to grapple with despite one’s privileged, English-educated, ‘modern’ status.

Instigating as a conscious recognition of this reality, Climate Arts is an urgent, burgeoning academic discipline. Going beyond just the concerns of “confront(ing) the incipient death of the planet” (Waldman, The New Yorker), the discipline’s liminality is striking: how something so ‘broken’ navigates a path of hope and hopelessness, reverence and fear, evoking joy and sorrow at the same time.

Over the years, several authors, poets, essayists have made eminent contributions to the umbrella genre of Climate fiction, popularly known as Cli-fi. Making a bold claim in The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh propounds that owing to its uncanny enormity, climate change as a phenomenon becomes “too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous, and too accusatory to be written about in a lyrical, or elegiac, or romantic vein” (Ghosh 37). In this article, I will discuss the Indigenous (from Kumeyaay Nation), queer poet, Tommy Pico’s book length poem, published in 2017, Nature Poem—the reason I choose to explore Pico’s poem is simple: he asserts his stand on climate politics by not writing a nature poem.

The glorification, even pedestalization of nature, for decades, has predominantly been a White tradition, and more often than not, has stemmed from a place of privilege. When we pedestalize something, we often don’t see its problems; Tommy Pico in Nature Poem, brings to fore the anxieties and paranoia that arise when one feels dissociated from the very phenomenon that one is ‘supposed to’ belong to.

When I read Nature Poem, I found myself reading it out loud. I watched a YouTube video of his poetry reading and finally listened to the audiobook, realizing that his poetry is embodied in a physical experience: it is a full body experience—from his mouth to our ear, invigorating a physical proximity between the listener, and the speaker, making Pico a storyteller. A major aspect of his poetics thus, lies in its orality. What is interesting is that storytelling is an integral part of Indigenous cultures. Indigenous storytelling has been a way to instil knowledge about their culture, and about nature: Pico challenges the white dominant discourse on Nature, addressing the nature that is known to him, his lived realities, while also taking the tradition of orality forward. He astutely situates orality to the culture of the times, his poetry is reminiscent of the 21st century spoken word or slam poetry, poetry of the marginalized, poetry that is performed, poetry that resists. Pico’s poetry is all about unfiltered excess: he does not censor himself, neither in his language, nor in the ideas he explores.

As one reads Nature Poem, one realizes that the persona, Teebs, is Pico’s alter ego. His position is not fixed; it is constantly shifting, evolving—it is queer. I use ‘queer’ here, not to describe his sexuality, but to draw attention to his style of poetry, which is an anomaly to the ‘norm’. I use ‘queer’ also to describe his liminality, his in-betweenness, his double consciousness, and hybridity. He tells us that he does not feel ‘at home’ in nature; this recognition, the painful awareness of alienation is agential, but the result is alienation and a feeling of distance, inhibiting loss, further ‘queer-ing’ his position.

In a New Yorker article by Peter Moskowitz, Tommy Pico tells Moskowitz that he uses poetry to “square two identities that don’t fit together well: being a poor, queer kid from the rez (Indigenous Peoples’ reservation centre), and being a pleasure-seeking, technology-addicted New Yorker who would rather chase the boys he meets on apps than think about centuries of pain passed from one generation to another” (Moskowitz, 2017). Poetry thus, becomes Tommy Pico’s way to make people witness this feeling of disjointedness. In order to achieve this, he uses his poetry as a tool to unsettle the reader. At one point, Teebs talks about “fucking or texting somebody” and then suddenly he is talking about “the three hundred years of colonial practices”; he lulls the reader under the pretext of security, and then abruptly destabilizes the reader (Moskowitz 2017).

In order to further unsettle the reader, Pico uses humour, one that is not-so-subtle, which is urban and queer. Humour becomes a part of his resistance. Brutalities of the Indigenous life are rendered to the reader through humour, which he uses not to defuse tension, rather to fuel tension, creating a rupture in the discourse. While challenging power, his ‘unsophisticated’ humour addresses the simmering real issues,

it seems foolish to discuss nature w/o talking about endemic poverty

which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about corporations given

human agency which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about

colonialism which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about misogyny (Pico 12).

Talking about real, glaring concerns, Teebs laces it with “just kidding”. This “just kidding” is packed with allusion. It is not necessarily a ‘put down’ laughter, but a ‘stay afloat’ laughter, humour employed in the face of adversity. Pico’s laughter is performative, almost cosmetic, as he uses it to calm his own anxieties, his disjointed identity. His seemingly flippant and frivolous observations swiftly turn into sharp social commentary: “Every date feels like the final date bc we always find small ways of being extremely rude to each other, like mosquito bites or deforestation” (24). Pico’s juxtaposition is brilliant and unsettling; conveying his paralyzing fear of finality, he juxtaposes the complications of modern relationships with environmental vandalism fueled by humans, suggestive of different shades of abuse.

Nature Poem, hence, is essentially about him, his natural self. This is the nature that Pico knows, his nature lies in turning the gaze inwards—towards his queerness, his disjunction is the only nature he is familiar with, and the only ‘nature poem’ he chooses to write. Instead of remembering his history, Tommy Pico re-members it; stepping away from the stereotype, he (re)fashions his own history, presenting his reality, his truth. By speaking his alternative truth to power, his resistance disrupts the power structure. Pico uses everyday micro resistances, like his Tweets, to weave into his poetry. His poetry is an earnest attempt to decolonize nature, to turn it on its head, giving it a new meaning. In order to confront a range of stereotypes, Pico resists by not writing a poem about nature, he tells us:

I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit,

makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure – Why shd I give a fuck abt

“poetry”? It’s a container

for words like whilst and hither and tamp. It conducts something of

permanent and universal interest (50).

Here, he is actively threatening the dominant white discourse on Climate, on nature, that has been universalized. Pico dismantles language that has been historicized, weaponizes ‘the colonizer’s tongue’, and makes it his own—there is no Wordsworthian notion of tranquillity, but a mash up of text abbreviations and urban slang. He blends his love for language with popular culture, which is his reality, Twitter and texting is his nature, and he uses it as resistance. His use of language does not diminish the poem’s emotional impact, but increases it, making the poem more accessible. He takes the language of his time and uses it in his favour, to resist, as well as to reach out; it becomes a consciously thought-out political act, albeit a natural one. Even his choice to refer to himself as “NDN” throughout the poem, rather than “Indian” (the formerly used, now derogatory term, to refer to Indigenous Peoples) becomes an active choice, marking his resistance through language.

In subaltern or marginalized locations, there is little or no celebration of ‘the individual self’; when Pico, a marginalized person writes something, it fortunately or unfortunately becomes a memoir. The revered postcolonial theorist, Homi Bhabha, in his concept of the “vernacular cosmopolitanism” discusses the formations of alliances owing to one’s marginality, suggesting solidarity and inclusiveness can be fuelled primarily through marginalization. Although generalizing all/any minority identity under an umbrella of marginality can be problematic, it can also often lead to personalization and solidarities. Pico’s text, hence, becomes revolutionary, not just for the queer population, or for the Indigenous People, or the climate activists, but in some ways, for every marginalized community, for anybody who has been a ghost in the dominant discourse (14).

Humans are so consumed in their incessant need to understand the unfathomable, the unknowable, that this need becomes their doom. Through Pico’s climate arts, this complex human desire to ‘understand nature’ is violently uprooted, ma(r)shed, and mulched. Bending the genres of poetry and Cli-fi, Tommy Pico’s work is a significant cultural phenomenon, as we “admit it”, he becomes the storyteller we “wanted all along” (73).

The Indian stand-up comic, Vir Das in his Netflix special For India says, “he who has the biscuit, gets to tell the story” (Das, For India. 07:39); Das uses this analogy to highlight an important Indian cultural reference. I borrow it, to mark this crucial moment: for years, cis gendered White male has had his share of biscuits, now, we have Tommy Pico, a queer, Native American man, who finally has the biscuit—so, he gets to tell his story.

Anmol Dutta is a PhD student at the Department of English and Writing Studies, University of Western Ontario. Her areas of interest include Culture and Media Studies, Postcolonial Theory, and Video OTT Cultures in South Asia. She is presently a Senior Editor at Re:Locations Journal, University of Toronto and the elected Co-chair of the Anti-Racism Committee at the graduate student-government at Western, Society of Graduate Students SOGS.


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