on IRL by Tommy Pico

 

The text message that begins Tommy Pico’s 98-page-long poem is addressed to potential lover “Girard,” but I like to think of it as an invitation to the reader as well:

. . . do

u wanna come

over? Watch me stuff

swim trunks into

a weekender bag

and maybe a movie?

We can watch as he packs, and the subtext for Girard is of course to stick around long enough to hook up. Pico hopes the reader might linger, too, and keep reading the long narrow column of text (whose origin was a Tumblr post) as it unspools down page after page. “Part of it was a competition with the feed itself,” Pico says in an interview at Seattle’s alternative weekly, the Stranger. “There’s this idea that our attention spans have been watered down or erased, and part of the challenge was seeing how long I could hold someone’s attention.”

To hold the reader’s attention, Pico is in constant motion. The poem follows Pico—going by his internet nickname, Teebs—as he ducks and weaves through a hot Brooklyn summer, chasing his shapeshifting Muse and hooking up with boys who have air conditioning.

IRL, the internet abbreviation for “in real life” meant to distinguish from the virtual, raises questions of what is authentic and what is real. How does one know oneself? Is Pico’s online persona Teebs the young Kumeyaay living in the shadow of occupation, or is he the Brooklyn hipster spending weekends in the Hamptons? Identity is a slippery and nimble thing, Pico suggests. You must “dash dodge / weave faster than you / can think n there’s no / time to shame spiral.”

The short lines of IRL conform to their own character limitation, at times even breaking mid-word, and Pico employs the norms of the text message throughout—yr for your, mtg for meeting, and so on. We are given to understand that this is a poem very much about the current sociocultural moment—a bit frenetic, irreverent, and, perhaps most important, emotionally uninvested. “What / the hell do you expect?” he asks. “Emotional transparency? / What kind of artless / simpleton says what they / truly feel?”

Despite this seeming bravado, Pico allows us glimpses of his own vulnerability, most notably in relation to his sense of “NDN” identity. The son of a tribal chairman, Pico grew up on the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation. He observes that his “cultural inheritance / is generational trauma,” characterized “by general invisibility / of being a function of the / past, being a feature / of the land.” He says, “Do I live, or / leave—For ppl like us, isn’t / this always the question / at the bottom of every / question.” Having left, what part of identity does he carry with him? He asks: “Who dic- / tates identity. Blood / quantum is an American / invention whereby the ‘Indian / problem’ solves itself / thru assimilation.” The uneasy way in which Teebs inhabits these conflicting identities—the modern, tech-addicted, queer thirty-something and the indigenous descendant whose ancestry is under constant threat of occupation and erasure—provides an emotional center for IRL.

In this age of ubiquitous social media, we have become accustomed to composing and curating our online selves: we maintain our “personal brands” with photographs painstakingly posed to appear candid, as well as with tweets and texts meant to seem impulsive and unconsidered, as if through this literally unspoken agreement we can project authenticity without any genuine emotional risk. Pico exploits these conventions to interrogate the continual intrusion of social media on the mind and on the private: the notification screen of our lives littered with everything that we cannot possibly attend to—whether it be headlines about the latest war or status updates from our friend at the rooftop bar. In Pico’s poem, as in the continuous scrolling screen, the grave and the trivial are mashed up against each other in lines barely long enough to express a complete thought; every line breaks, pivots, and dash-dodges away from any prolonged engagement with a single subject.

The fact that one thing collapses into the next does not equalize or minimize them; the point is not that they are indistinguishable or that they are equivalent for Pico but, rather, that they are inextricably connected: “We don’t all have to like / the same things—or actually, / fully understand each other— / to appreciate the complication.” The poem, he suggests, is an attempt to hold these complications close enough to enter the stream of “IRL accountability,” while still delivering hit performances at the karaoke bar.

IRL is often a fast-talking, engaging, seductive exploration of identity in a time of blurred boundaries between public and private selves and between self and others. The self-conscious, performative nature of its formal conceit offers poignant moments such as this, in a section where Pico imagines a future version of himself, “with little relatives / pointing at the pics / all around the walls” of his trailer. They say, “That was you, Uncle / Teebs? OMG that was / Uncle Teebs!!! OMG / You were so beautiful.” In this moment, Pico projects a nostalgia for his current self, and casts a romanticized wash over the chaos and limitations of his current life—the squalid apartments, the “sweaty warehouse dance parties.” But for the alternative, “a house with / a crib. Paper route. / A lawn n other trappings,” he says, “TBQH / I find that kinda retch-worthy.” This resistance to what might have in the past seemed appealing transcends youthful idealism. We have watched as institutions have broken down. That house is worth less than its mortgage; the paper route belongs to another time. Any comforts once associated with the middle-class suburban lawn have been problematized by our increasing awareness of the labor and oppression of others who have historically been out of sight, across the country or across the globe. Now, enabled by our interconnectedness, the realities of those comforts are as close as our glowing screens.

Appropriately, IRL ends in a karaoke bar where people gather to take on false personas and perform for one another. The poem, like the questions it raises, remains largely unresolved. While singing, Teebs takes a risqué selfie and sends it to “James,” pretending it was accidental. James plays his role, taking the bait and inviting Teebs over. In response, Teebs drops his microphone mid-song, leaving the reader with nothing left to scroll.

 

Mary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in a number of literary and art journals, including Tin House, Day One, and Hyperallergic. She serves on the Advisory Committee for the Rumpus.