This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features an excerpt of a poem by Tommy Pico.

from IRL

Is this ad relevant to you?
We would like to enhance
your ad watching ex-
perience. Yr a garbage
person if you can’t
take a good photo,
is the underlying mess-
age of “gay” “culture”
in Brooklyn The concept
of fame in the United
States I hate
having my picture taken,
I say to this photo-
grapher at this party
bc every damn party
has to b photographed
otherwise it doesn’t happen
And bc the parties
are so boring, if ppl
weren’t posing
there would b nothing
to do but drink. It’s
too loud for convos
n they don’t let you dance
in the city. He says oh
come on. I say calmly
No. n he asks is this
an Indian thing? Like
does a pic steal yr soul
or something?

I want to crumple
him up in the palm
of my hand But I
guess it is a NDN
thing in the sense that
I’m NDN n doing
this thing. Posin for pics 
is like not being able 
to stare into the sun 
for too long but kind of the
opposite—blank black lens
crystallizes the uncertainty
Is this good, or bad
is a sentence in a fight
n I hate confrontation.
Why do I have to take
sides? Switzerland has
the strictest privacy laws
on the planet, and I
have the flyest tank
tops in America. Some-
how I feel good about it.
In Kumeyaay
there’s a concept for in-
between. Not knowing
how to smile, how you look
bent over a book Waking
up on either coast
feels the exact same
Sometimes you wake up
not knowing how old
you are n if Johnny
is down the hall in
a robe makin eggs. Future
leaders are wooshed away
from the tribe in a sort of
boreal way to feel
the greater world, stone
hills etc (this is back
in the day).
This in-between
is like gangbusters
for Muse. It’s like cat-
nip to Muse It’s throb
of light in-between
the 2 of us Just the 2
of us, you n I. I rub Muse
my neck I’m clenching
my jaw for like 20 mins
waiting for this damn
photog to take damn
pic. In-between
Kumeyaay and Brooklyn—
that it has a word,
even if the word is lost
even if the word doesn’t exist
even if I’m lyin to you,
is breath tethering Opens throb
of light inside me. I
don’t have the option
of keeping my God
alive by keeping her name
secret The word for her 
is gone Keeping secrets 
is not possible So I give 
everything away I’m out 
here all alone trying to wad 
up enough obsessions 
to replace her and with
it, my God I never got to
know her But strangely
sometimes when I’m cry-
laughing at that scene
in Steel Magnolias or
I can’t sing the part in
that Beyoncé song at
karaoke where the music
gets all soft and I try
to croon ooh baby, kiss me—
Maud has to take
the mic bc the feeling gets
bigger than my voice n
the feeling I think it’s her My God
‘s shadow walking down a hall-
way away but like I said I lost
my voice n don’t know
her name Maybe it’s
Wa’ashi or Pemu,
says this clairaudient
to me apropos of nothing
But I’ll never know 4
sure So I can’t call after her
n then I’m like, crying
at a Beyoncé song
r u kidding me Teebs get
it together bitch
My dad grows
his hair long Black waves
cascade down his back Bc knives
crop the ceremony of his
grandfather’s hair at the NDN boarding 
school I cut mine in mourning
for the old life but I grow
my poems long. A dark
reminder on white pages.
A new ceremony. I grab
the mic back from 
Maud Flip for a new song to
flash across the karaoke 
screen Fist breath low 
n ready James
is finally following me
back on Insta so I take a
somewhat risque
selfie send it DM
n right after message 
OOOPS! omg I
meant to send that
to someone else gosh
so embarrassed oops!

He responds w/
a pic of his computer
screen His phone #
on it so we
text n he’s like
come over n I’m like
do u have A/C he says
Yes n I just straight up
drop the mic 
n Leave.


Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).