Tommy Pico and Carmen Maria Machado investigate horror as a reflection of the American psyche

For Document’s Winter/Resort 2023 issue, the writers delve deep into our collective subconscious to reveal the inextricable link between desire and fear

Tommy Pico’s poems keep going. They’re not easily constrained to a few lines on a page; rather, they flow forth with momentum, reimagining the tradition of epic storytelling in the syntax of the modern day. Following a semi-autobiographical character, Teebs, Pico’s first book IRL grapples with the reverberations of history: exploring the present realities of crushes and Grindr hookups, in dialogue with echoes of colonialism and the violence still visited on queer Indigenous people in America. Deftly navigating complex themes, Pico leverages words like a fulcrum, turning language on its hinges to pivot from profanity to profundity without so much as a line break in between.

Despite appearing stream-of-consciousness, Pico writes poetry that’s informed by a keen understanding of structure, having studied the rules of form religiously before breaking them. After publishing several award-winning books, he’s expanded beyond poetry, and is now writing for the screen. These characters break rules, too; among Pico’s TV projects is Reservation Dogs, a series following the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers who steal and rob in order to fulfill their dream of escaping to California. He’s gotten some flak for depicting minority characters who aren’t always virtuous, but when it comes to representation, Pico feels strongly that it’s important to allow queer Indigenous people on-screen to be as messy, imperfect, and flawed as their straight white counterparts—because by framing marginalized people as unilaterally ‘good,’ we run the risk of creating characters who are robbed of complexity and, therefore, humanity.

While its effect may be paradoxical, the instinct to represent marginalized people in a positive light derives from a long history of negative portrayals in media, with both queer and Indigenous people often depicted through one-dimensional stereotypes (an issue Pico interrogates on his podcast Scream, Queen!). This is especially true of the horror genre, which functions not only as a cultural bellwether, but also as a reflection of the American psyche: the subconscious thoughts, fears, and obsessions of a society that is, ultimately, built on stolen land. The stories we seek to tell—who we consider to be a monster, and why—are a reflection of the times. This is visible over the course of the genre’s trajectory, from early folkloric horror films that are rife with literal monsters, devils, and religious taboo, to the rise of science-fiction and psychological thrillers, brought on by the societal fear of technological advancement after World War II. In today’s fractured culture, where so many aspects of modern life are defined by invisible forces outside of our control, films like Get Out and Parasite zero in on the perfect facade, and the dark reality that lies just beneath its surface.

Carmen Maria Machado is—to put it lightly—not afraid of the dark. Situated at the intersection of horror and psychological fiction, her short stories feature the enthralling interplay between sex and death, desire and destruction—often at the hands of villains who are, above all else, unnervingly human. It’s a tension she also mines in her bestselling memoir In the Dream House (2019), a love-turned-horror story in which Machado chronicles her haunting experience of domestic abuse in a lesbian relationship. Her other work, such as the acclaimed short story collection Her Body and Other Parties (2017), explores the fissures of human psychology: our darkest impulses and deepest desires. “As a writer, I feel really curious about what makes people break. That can be fear and anxiety, but it can also be pleasure and accessing the deepest self,” she says, noting that the two are helplessly intertwined—though many people, especially Americans, seek to deny it. “Through both pleasure and fear, you access hidden parts of the psyche,” she says. “You get to have this sort of controlled descent into yourself, and maybe you’re surprised at what you find.”

Camille Sojit Pejcha: How do you conceive the role of horror in the American subconscious—its connections with cultural fears and dreams?

Tommy Pico: As a queer Indigenous person, if you look at the history of film and television, we were the bad guys. We were the villains, we were the monsters, we were the thing that went bump in the night. I don’t write horror, but have a proclivity for it as a viewer and consumer of media. I like safe danger; I like roller coasters, I like hot sauce—the things that burn a bit. I found [horror] was a way to compartmentalize what was actually scary in life.

Carmen Maria Machado: When you are the boogeyman—an Indigenous person, a queer person, a person of color—you serve a villain role, and there are ways this has manifested historically. It began with villainizing queerness as a form of depravity—but at the same time, there’s power in the queer villain. There’s something beautiful about the way they tend to endure, and look good doing it. I’m really interested in complex representations of queer identity, and that includes bad behavior!

Tommy: In Reservation Dogs, it was really important to [director] Sterlin [Harjo] to put the story first—to allow people to be messy and imperfect. I mean, the show is about a bunch of little thieving criminals! We’ve gotten some flak for that—people being like, ‘You’re glorifying bad behavior. People are going to assume that all Indigenous people are like this.’ But I don’t think anyone actually thinks that. I’m all for profane representation—I want more of it!

Carmen: Representation is important, but it’s the bottom rung of a very tall ladder. There’s so much more above you; there’s so much more beauty and grace and incredible art to be found up there. Representation is the beginning, not the end result; it shouldn’t be anyone’s artistic goal.

Camille: Tommy, your epic poems engage with your own heritage, and the broader cultural history of storytelling. Can you speak to the significance of this format, and what it’s been like to explore types of writing outside of it?

Tommy: I realized that when it came to writing poetry, I was getting in my head—whereas with a text message or an email, you have an audience, which gives the writing a sense of velocity. There’s a person on the other end for whom you might have a shorthand, so you [can] be more informal. That was a way for me to trick myself into taking the stakes out of writing—by doing it in areas that I wouldn’t necessarily consider literary. People tell me that [by putting pop culture and tweets in poems] I’m going to date myself—but that’s the project! I want what I write to be a product of its time, and if that means you need a companion guide to understand it in the future, so be it—that’s what they gave T.S. Eliot. I feel like bringing the profanity of life to the table—you know, getting face-fucked in a pizza parlor bathroom and putting all into a poem. Is that not literary? Is that not worthy of a record? When I’m writing, I can’t pick and choose—I want everything to be the subject of the poem, and subject to the poem.

Carmen: I’m not a poet, but I’ve been writing poems to avoid the book I should be finishing. I needed to create a discrete, beautiful thing that felt accomplishable in one sitting. I write fiction primarily, and poems have a reputation for being autobiographical. But I keep reminding myself that poems can also be fiction.

Tommy: Whether or not they’re fiction, there’s going to be some level of artifice—but there’s something about the feeling that’s always true.

“I want what I write to be a product of its time, and if that means you need a companion guide to understand it in the future, so be it—that’s what they gave T.S. Eliot.”

Carmen: Fiction [and] nonfiction are distinct in some ways, and mutable in others. The two inform each other. And I feel like—even with fiction, even if I’ve invented something whole cloth—there’s always some seed of a thing that actually happened. Ultimately, all nonfiction has its own kind of artifice, because it’s mediated reality: the world filtered through a single person’s mind.

Tommy: It all comes down to believable characters. I’ve heard it said that characters have their own life, and I’ve always been a little bit skeptical. But writing for screen now—anticipating, understanding, listening to a character—I sometimes feel like I’m not even inventing it.

Carmen: Each character is a manifestation of one part of your subconscious; you’re accessing an unknown part of your mind that understands something about a relationship.

I’m a big believer in the idea that things like tarot are not accessing something supernatural, but are an expression of the subconscious. Your mind is this mysterious thing, and it’s going to track archetypes in your reality—we’re pattern-seeking creatures.

Tommy: I don’t necessarily believe in tarot; I’m a skeptic towards everything. I feel like once I realized that Santa Claus and God weren’t real, I was like, Ugh, I don’t believe in anything! But I like [any system] that helps people understand themselves or the world.

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Carmen: It’s a psychological experiment, like a Rorschach inkblot test. When I do tarot for myself, I think: What is this evoking in me? Where’s it directing me?

Camille: As a writer, do you feel that specific constraints, like a form or structure or genre, sometimes allow you to go further—to access something beyond?

Carmen: People get very focused on the boundaries of genre. But to me, genre is a tool that I can use. I’m an all-powerful god who gets to manifest whatever I want on the page. That’s what my job is.

A lot of people think of genre as having power over them. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Subversion is the point: When a reader expects a thing to be one way, I can take that and run the other direction with it, and use that expectation to create a really dramatic effect. I was in a grad-level class at some point, and when I shared something I wrote, another student looked at the teacher and asked, ‘Is she allowed to do that?’

I feel like some people think so small, but this is the kind of work I find exciting as a writer, as a reader, as a viewer. I don’t let these things limit me—I make them powerful in my hands.

Tommy: I love constraints. I think a lot of writing for television is like problem-solving. Ideas start to spark once I’ve got some sort of boundary.

When I first started writing poetry as a teen, I was obsessed with form, so I learned them all backwards and forwards—sonnets and couplets and haikus and everything else. I made sure I could write every single one of them. And then, when it came to actually writing as an adult, I wrote so completely outside of form!

Carmen: We love constraint; I think that’s just an aspect of the human animal. We love rules, because then you can operate with infinite variation within them. The blank page can be really daunting and overwhelming, but given one or two good details, you can do whatever you want.

Camille: Carmen, your work has mined the tensions between desire and disgust, sensuality and horror. How do you conceive the relationship between them?

Carmen: Horror and sex feel so intimately entwined, especially in my fiction. The sex scene is a very telling character study. The same is true when you push up against a character’s worst fear; you’re seeing some part of them that, normally, they would conceal.

As a writer, I feel really curious about what makes people break. That can be fear and anxiety—these dark impulses—but it can also be pleasure and accessing the deepest self. Through both pleasure and fear, you access hidden parts of the psyche. And horror is the same way—that idea of safe danger. You get to have this sort of controlled descent into yourself, and maybe you’re surprised at what you find.

“Through art, you get to take the thing that frightens you, that arouses you, that causes you shame or guilt, and manifest it into something else.”

Tommy: Have you noticed that every fight scene is kind of a sex scene?

Carmen: A lot of horror movies are explicitly sexy, and I think that eroticism is a way to access the self. In Midsommar, there’s this moment where the women are on the ground, screaming in unison with each other. It’s an unbridled expression of grief and anguish, yet this is such an erotic scene—with the women undulating together, sharing this moment. I’m like, This is just like an orgasm! It’s all so intertwined, which is something a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge.

There’s a level of hysteria, when it comes to manifestations of sex, that is distinctly American. My memoir has a scene with a dildo in it, and when the book was being banned in Texas by a school district, a parent brought a strap-on to the staff meeting and brandished it while she yelled about my book. It’s like, Why are you so focused on the momentary presence of a sex toy in a book that’s largely about domestic violence? They always come for the perverts first. I feel like Americans are so prudish, compared to other places. Is it just the Puritan streak?

Tommy: Americans are in such denial of everything. I think it’s the essential quality of this country, having been built on genocide, and chattel slavery, and just taking advantage of as many people as possible. I imagine that you can be estranged from your pleasure if you’re also estranged from your guilt.

Carmen: This is why BDSM is so powerful, because you take things like shame and guilt and make them work for you. It’s like, I’m going to take this thing that had a death grip on me, and I’m going to use it to achieve my own sort of pleasure and access to the self. I was joking earlier about how writers are gods of the page—and in the same sense, you are the god of your own sexuality. Through art, you get to take the thing that frightens you, that arouses you, that causes you shame or guilt, and manifest it into something else.

Tommy: For me, art is the reason why a young queerdo growing up in an Indian reservation thought, I too want to be in the world, to have my voice heard. [Art] asks me questions that don’t lead to answers, but to more questions. That, I find, is the best form of conversation, and it helps me feel less alone.

Carmen: I’ve always understood my life through art, and I feel like I don’t know any other way to be—I’m always existing in relation to the story. I found lockdown to be incredibly difficult, because I was not having the day-to-day experiences that feed my mind. I’m so busy right now that I’m barely writing, but I was thinking about something that happened to me, and started jotting things down, so that I could keep doing my fucking emails—

Tommy: Aaaaaghh! [In response to emails]

Carmen: I know, what a goddamn nightmare we live in. That’s life. You know what, no—I reject that! Emails are not life. Emails are bullshit. They’re not real. They’re fictional, and you can totally ignore them.

Tommy: [Laughs] You know what I miss? In the ‘before times,’ I’d go to a bar once a week and just listen to people talk. I remember one time, I overheard someone saying something about the process of developing your own signature, and it was an incredible metaphor to me. I miss things like that. It’s something I wouldn’t have independently thought about—but of all the conversations going on around me, I picked up on that one. I think that’s an important thing to remember: Not everyone notices or hears or fixates on the same thing, and that’s how you know you’re developing your voice and your craft and your ability to read things.

Carmen: I feel like there’s something to be said for the beauty of stealing from things you’re experiencing. So much of writing is that curation: reaching into the muck of life to access details and conversations with strangers—all the things that make it worthwhile—and finding something you can hold on to. There’s something beautiful about that: plucking something out of context and putting it in a new context. That’s my favorite part of writing.

Tommy: Me too. The ‘not writing’ part of writing.