Tomás Pacheco wants to build something to last when he’s gone

The rising poet and journalist, who co-headlines a performance at Streetlight Guild on Saturday, March 9, understands that his story is only possible because of the work done by those who came before.
Tomás Pacheco
Tomás PachecoCourtesy the poet

Tomás Pacheco has always had a fascination with language, recalling the childhood hours he would spend rearranging word tiles on the magnetic wall painted in his bedroom. From those earliest days, Pacheco said he was drawn to things like alliteration and form, struck by the way different constants would roll off the tongue, tracing this interest in part to the hip-hop music his mother would play in the house, which he viewed as existing hand-in-hand with writing. 

“Rap was like music with poetry,” said Pacheco, who will co-headline a poetry showcase at Streetlight Guild alongside Matter News columnist Scott Woods on Saturday, March 9. “In my head, I was like, these are two rooms of storytelling that really connect with each other.”

This interest was turbocharged in middle school when Pacheco caught the 2010 documentary Louder Than a Bomb, which delves into the competitive high school poetry slam scene in Chicago, a city Pacheco’s mother lived in before moving to Columbus and which the younger visited regularly throughout childhood. In high school, Pacheco began to participate in poetry slams, learning at the elbow of Sidney Jones. But even then, he said it took a couple of years to begin to find his own voice within the form, recalling how it started to emerge in his junior year, when he composed a slice-of-life poem about hanging out with his friends.

“I titled it for the bus stop that I would get on to go over to their place,” Pacheco said. “And really, other than poetry, that was the only thing I was serious about. With school it was just about finishing up and getting out of there.”

This shifted dramatically once Pacheco started classes at the University of Chicago, where he enrolled in Poetry and the Human, a course he said forced him to consider how words could live on the page rather than in the air – a challenge he took on with explorer’s verve, auditioning all manner of sonnets and odes and free verse structures. As Pacheco absorbed these various poetic rules, he also learned that they could be broken, pointing to the collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes as a Rosetta Stone, of sorts, in that it helped him discover the various ways a sonnet could be cracked open, mutated and transformed.

“It was different, and form then became this thing you could play with,” he said. “And that, in short, is how I would condense all that writing I did in those four years. I continued to learn and study and practice.”

But even as his verses took myriad different forms, Pacheco said a through line existed in these more exploratory poems, informed by his experiences and a desire to find a way for his own story to live on the page. Sometimes it would surface in nostalgic stanzas about childhood movie nights at his mom’s house, or in verses that traced his later interest in blaxploitation cinema back to a character from the Japanese space western “Cowboy Bebop” he encountered in adolescence.

More recently, this backward look has extended even deeper into the past – to decades before Pacheco was born – with the poet framing his own still-developing tale as one born of decisions and connections that took place many years before he was even a glint in his parents’ eyes. 

“All of these spaces that were formative to me – the open mic at Kafe Kerouac, the CCS poetry slams – they all came about because there was an effort made to create a community space for Black artists in Columbus where there was none,” Pacheco said. “And my story, I feel, starts there. It’s not just the story of my life. As a writer, and someone who wants to do this work, that’s the appeal of community. You come together and you make something that can last after you’re gone. Snaps and Taps was a parking lot before I even heard about it. … But in writing about it, I got to talk to Dr. Jones and Scott Woods and Mark Lomax about all the things that made this place possible. And in doing that story … I learned about myself. And I learned about all of these things that made me love writing in the first place. There’s a lot of serendipity involved, but it reminded me that my story is only possible because there were a lot of artists before me who believed in the same things.”

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