Nickole Kerner Bobley: Thank you for Zooming with me today. I apologize ahead of time for not having my camera on. It’s been a long day and I didn’t do my hair. Tomás Romero: [laughs] No worries. My camera is never on. NKB: Right? Who needs them anyway? We’ve known each other forever, you know what I look like. OK, so, your new book, Does This Mask Make Me Look Fat? And Other Poems from the Lockdown, dropped recently on Amazon and it is, literally, my new favorite thing. Funny, real, emotional, it is like, the pandemic souvenir I didn’t know I needed. TR: [laughs] I lived through the pandemic and all I got was this lousy poetry collection? NKB: Yes! We need t-shirts! But I think it bears repeating, this is a book of poems. Poetry is alive and well in 2021! Thank you, Amanda Gorman! Seriously though, when most people hear the word ‘poetry’ their eyes usually kind of glaze over, but this book is like, David Sedaris and Tina Fey hilarious. So good! I feel like the pandemic is still such a strange and complicated beast for so many of us, but you seem to capture the absurd humor of it all really beautifully. There is an authentic, lived-in quality to the poems in Mask that really captures the tenor of the times, so to speak. But it is also a deliciously-funny page turner. Talk to me about how you struck that balance between comedy and tragedy in your book. TR: First off, thanks for all that. Wow! Honestly though, I think that balance was there already last year. I mean, everything about the pandemic and lockdown was so surreal and scary, it was like a bad movie. And we all lived with that weird kind of tonal duality everyday during lockdown. People were getting sick and dying and the world was falling apart all around us, but, oh yeah, we’re also out of toilet paper. It was insanity, and sometimes you’d just had to laugh… NKB: To keep from crying. TR: Exactly! Although the toilet paper struggle was a little too real sometimes. We had to barter with our neighbors for a couple rolls of TP more than once. In fact, our next door neighbor gifted us a single potato on St. Patrick’s Day (to add to the two we already had) and we paid her kindness back, when we could, with toilet paper. Oh, and flour! That was hard to come by too. But again, it goes back to that balance. There was all of this horrible news just raining down every day and on the other hand, there were these sweet, beautiful moments, where friends, neighbors and even strangers were helping each other out and your faith in humanity was restored – for like, a day or two. Lockdown for me was this constant balancing act of happy and sad, like those comedy and tragedy masks in the theater. Happy-sad all day, every day, for a year. NKB: Oh, so true. Talk to me about the title. Does This Mask Make Me Look Fat? Is perfection. I love it. What was the inspiration behind that? TR: The title is actually lifted from one of the poems in the book and, again, I think it kind of captures the general absurdity of lockdown. I mean even in the middle of this scary, soul-crushing pandemic some of us, myself included, were still worried about something as totally ridiculous as whether or not our mask made us look fat. [laughs] And I’m just as guilty as anyone else, I mean, I bought myself one of those LED ring lights like, week two of lockdown. NKB: Me too! If you must have your camera on, ring lights are definitely the way to go. TR: Right? Nobody wants to look like crap on Zoom. NKB: [sighs] Except we all do. I didn’t do it myself, but I love your poem “Celebrity Doom Scrolling.” Talk to me about that one. TR: It’s kind of terrible, but one of my favorite things to do when the real news was just too bleak was to scroll through paparazzi pics of movie stars looking like crap. You know, masked up at Whole Foods or walking their dogs in their $500 sweatpants. [laughs] I know it’s awful, but it kinda made me feel better in a weird way. NKB: No. I get it. There is comfort in numbers and, most days, we all looked like we were just barely getting by. Even Reese and Gwyneth! TR: Yep. Even Reese and Gwyneth. [laughs] I don’t know, I guess just seeing that everyone was in need of a good ring light made me feel less isolated and alone. NKB: Amen. So, aside from celebrity doom scrolling how did you cope when things got really tough? What was your go-to self luxury? TR: Oh, man, I’d love to say something cool like yoga or meditation, but mostly we just watched a lot of movies. Classics, comedies, foreign films, you name it. There’s a poem in the book about that too, it’s called “Late Night Film School,” and our mini movie marathons really saved my ass. Film is a wonderful distraction and sharing some of my favorites with my kid during lockdown was kind of magical. I also got really into poetry and, like everyone else, we baked a lot of banana bread and sourdough. NKB: Oh lord. I don’t think I ever need to eat banana bread again. TR: Yeah, I’m good for a while too. NKB: Speaking of new talents, some of my favorite poems in your book are about moms, teachers, and essential workers sort of reinventing themselves during lockdown. I loved the badass teacher masking up and heading into the classroom again as “tribute” in “Dystopian Non-Fiction” and poor, sweet Nina in “Nina Missed Her Stapler,” but “Pandemica Rose” really stuck with me for some reason. Talk to me about that one. TR: Sure. “Pandemica Rose” is actually based on a few different people I know who completely transformed themselves while sheltering-in-place, but one friend in particular started writing and her stuff is amazing. I'm like: ‘Holy shit! Where have you been hiding this?’ And she said that she’d just never had time to slow down and focus on her writing before. I hate to say upside in relation to anything to do with COVID, but I think one of the really positive things to come out of all this was the way so many people found their voice during lockdown. Whether it was music, art, writing, cooking or even starting a new business, people tried new things, they ventured out (figuratively, of course) like never before and it was beautiful to see. It’s still happening right now as people sort of settle into this strange new normal and I think it’s pretty incredible to witness. I also don’t think a lot of this reinvention would have been possible without this great pause we all went through. You know? NKB: Absolutely. I think the chaos of the past couple of years really opened people’s eyes and made them focus on what’s really important. TR: I think so too. NKB: But on the other hand, some of the darkest poems in the book are about men grappling with some of these same issues and they don’t always seem to fare as well as the ladies. Was that intentional? TR: [laughs] That’s probably more about where my mind was during lockdown. My wife and so many of my female friends seemed to really rise to the occasion during the pandemic, they were strong and focused and got shit done. Whereas I felt like I was just kinda going through the motions a lot, you know? I wasn’t savoring a beer breakfast every day like that poor dad in “Fine” but I’m not afraid to admit that I spent many hours contemplating my own mortality in the ratty, old, white chair in my kid’s bedroom while she slept. NKB: Oh? So “The White Chair” is based on a real-life white chair. TR: Yep. [laughs] It wasn’t all Zoom happy hours and Audrey Hepburn. NKB: Ah, if only. One of the things that really weighed on me personally during lockdown were all the devastating statistics we kept hearing about on the news. Did that keep you awake at night as much as it did me? TR: Oh, totally! I had some friends and relatives who became obsessed with sharing COVID stats. It was like: “There were this many new cases in Burbank, that many deaths in Glendale,” and at a certain point I had to tune them out. It’s not like anyone was going anywhere anyway but I went into full-on hermit mode more than I’d like to admit. [laughs] My wife and daughter would probably say I’m still in hermit mode. But, yeah, it was rough. Even those drive-by birthday parties totally freaked me out. NKB: Really? Oh my God, Tomás, as a mother, I freaking loved drive-by birthday parties. People drove up, threw a couple of gifts out the car window and left. I didn't have to clean up anything. It was so great! [laughs] I thought, this is how all parties should be. TR: [laughs] I never thought of it that way. But yes, from a clean-up angle, they were kind of awesome. NKB: Oh, planning too! No fuss, no muss. I loved them! Here in Texas, of course, drive-by parties were bigger. Kids would be hanging out of their sunroofs firing off giant water pistols and stuff, so you’d get a ‘Happy birthday!’ then a blast in the face with a water canon and a gift. But I still loved them. Speaking of Texas, you know, the pandemic is still very much alive where I live, we’re still in the heat of it. Our ERs are clogged and we have a lot of really scary, scary business going on here because of our politics. So, what’s great about a book like this, for me, is that it gives me comfort, because it's filled with hope and comedy and a collection of characters that feel very familiar and relatable. You know, this character reminds me of my mom or that character is just like my neighbor down the street. I feel like I know them. And I think a lot of people will agree, particularly folks living in some of the states, like mine, that are still in the thick of it. I think these poems will make them feel less alone because they’ll maybe recognize themselves and their friends and family in so many of them. TR: Wow. Thanks. I hope so. NKB: One more thing before we go, I have to confess that I am also a huge fan of your previous poetry collection: PTA Dad: Foul-Mouthed Poetry & Prose from a Real-Life PTA Dad. So, I was thrilled to see so many of the characters from that book pop up here as well. It felt like I was checking in with old friends! Talk to me about that. TR: Ha ha! Sure. There are a few cameos… NKB: A few? Sorry, “Parliamentarian Pam” deleting anti-maskers off her Christmas list is gold and “Kiki Mendoza” starting a Momtifa wall of moms group in San Diego? Of course Kiki does that! Hilarious! But then there’s my favorite, “Deena Chen Don’t Fuck Around.” How could you not love Deena Chen? TR: Yeah. [laughs] Deena has some pretty hardcore fans. NKB: So, Deena returns in Mask with “Deena Chen 2.0” which is a poem about the racism and anti-Asian bias that so many people in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are facing right now. And I have to say I love how you used this poem about this hilariously badass PTA mom to talk about something as serious as xenophobia and racism. Talk to me about that. TR: Well, since Deena was such a standout last time, checking in with her again during this really dark, crazy time in our country's history – not just for Asians, but anyone who's not a white, cisgender male – just felt really natural. I mean, COVID was hard enough, but then to have all of this racism and anti-Asian sentiment layered on top of it all was like, what the hell? But, as you know, Deena Chen don’t fuck around [laughs] and she was not gonna stand for that shit. So she took action and honestly, I found a lot of strength in her, you know, sheer badassery! NKB: Oh, me too! The world needs more Deena Chens! TR: Hell yeah we do! NKB: So, at the end of the day what do you hope people take away from the poems in Mask? TR: Well, ultimately I hope this book makes people laugh and that even the total maskholes in my extended Rolodex – yes, I said Rolodex, I am a thousand years old – appreciate the humor and humanity underneath it all. I mean, yeah, things are still divisive and crazy and this Delta variant and breakthrough COVID shit is scary, but I'm ever hopeful that we'll all come out the other end of this madness stronger and more connected than ever before. NKB: Amen to that. TR: But, mostly, I just really want to make people laugh. It's been a rough couple of years, I think we could all use a good foul-mouthed pandemic poem or two, don’t you? Romero’s poetry collections, Does This Mask Make Me Look Fat? And Other Poems from the Lockdown and PTA Dad: Foul-Mouthed Poetry & Prose from a Real-Life PTA Dad are available now on Amazon.