We asked our 2021 Winter Poetry Contest winner, Elizabeth Upshur, some questions regarding her piece. Because she included some insightful and nuanced responses, we decided to include the whole interview as an Author Spotlight.
You informed us when you submitted this piece that the “zombie” in this poem was inspired by the Haitian/Vodun version of the term, rather than the Romero-esque kind. How do you feel this version of a zombie fits into today’s society and culture? And what does it mean to you, in the context of this poem?
“Yes, the zombie as we know it (viral spread, brain eating, undead) is relatively young, and learning about the Haitian/Vodun progenitor of the myth last year has put a lot of ideas simmering on the right burner for me, which led to this poem. I wanted to talk about consumption, right from the title, tending is all about nurture and creation, while a zombie is a second death.
“For example, how does one ‘tend’ the former body of a person-now-a-zombie, how is it anything other than a comment on the violence enacted to create this level of docility and the continued power imbalance that benefits the bokor, the zombie creator. So, I had this idea of care, how it is enacted or performed for merit in capitalist societies like ours, while denying the physical, mental, and emotional needs that so many people have. There’s how we consume too, the speaker is young, but the only one to see that her grandfather has become this zombie and has a growing awareness that there may be zombies that go by other names, like the factory workers who may have made her doll’s dress.
“Overall, this kind of zombie has a lot to say about where we are as a society, racially (because of the specific intersection of Blackness and zombies) and as consumers. I think a Haitian/Vodun inspired zombie is more holistic than what I call the American Zombie, because usually the American zombie’s origin is unknown and the disease spreads because people are greedy, selfish, corrupt, whereas with the Vodun zombie there’s an acknowledgement of the extreme violence and terror inherent to the creation and continued control of a zombie; people know who and how one might make a zombie. I hope, as we see more Afro-futurism and Black speculative writing, more African jujuism and African futurism, that we get to see more takes on what our original zombies looked like and further complicate the entire mythos.”
The theme of our issue is “injustice.” How do you feel you respond to injustices as a poet?
“Anger. Most days, the more I learn about the world and the ways in which Indigenous peoples are fighting for power, respect, and basic liberties, the more I acknowledge that anger is a necessary emotion to process what is happening and to offer what I can; donation, education, and my voice/signature to amplify efforts. My angriest poetry is some of my most honest work, just hurt connecting directly to the page, and since that anger has to leave the body, what better way than to attempt communication and say how wrong being hurt is (which we know) but also how wrong the desire to hurt is and its ripple effect through time and through bodies?”
Aside from poetry, what are some other genres and mediums that inspire you?
“So many! Firstly, surrealist art is a great inspiration for ekphrastic poetry. Like, I could write an entire chapbook of art based ekphrastics! Maybe I will one day. I still think about a prompt from a workshop last year using ‘The World,’ 1958 by Remedios Varo. I still think about the fishtail and the white wing centered on the page by the artist, and what that image pulled from me for my own page. We bring a lot of our emotions and our own subconscious to art, so in the case of an ekphrastic it’s more a focused channeling of certain emotions to the page, which is really cool. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be a painting; there are so many gorgeous places in this world I’ve gotten to experience through photography too. Secondly, journalism. I like to read news headlines and use them as a prompt for a poem. And lastly, pop culture analysis or trope commentary; because it always teaches me something, it always says something about art from the audience’s POV, and it says ‘here is how high our bar is for good writing,’ so it gives me a goal to strive for. And I’m a Capricorn, so goals are kind of my love language.”