Poet Of The Week

Elizabeth Upshur

     March 7–13, 2022

Elizabeth Upshur is a Black Southern poet, storyteller and Fulbright alumna. She is an associate poetry editor at Okay Donkey Mag, a game writer at Romancing Jan and a lover of all things bread-based. She writes about race, colorism, gender and monsters when she isn’t decorating cakes at her day job. Her writing has won prizes from Gigantic Sequins, Brown Sugar Lit and Colorism Healing and also appears in the Mujerista, Pretty Owl Poetry, and elsewhere. Follow her @lizzy5by5 for retweets of writing opportunities and beadwork. Last summer, Upshur was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Robert Balun’s Ecopoetics workshop.

Costal Breath

 

I am almost thirty, and for thirty years

Bible-thumpers in the Bible Belt

said that the Earth’s temperature

always,

since time immemorial,

rose and fell in waves

as a way to refute

the change.

No, not so. And now, look,

and here comes

another wave.

A crescendo

if we leave

it to burn

us all

out.

This summer

was hot in TN

with two days under a heat-wave advisory,

and the fall was nonexistent, snapping

into winter and killing the last

of our red peppers in the garden.

I’ll see my breath in the air tomorrow morning,

on my way to the grocery store

where I work franking the shelves

and selling the cans of beans and all kinds

of meat and the toilet paper that barely stays

on the shelf anymore. In ten years,

what will be the price of this can,

this one way to keep hunger at bay?

Who will pay for it, and who might kill for it?

Breathing through a mask is a luxury

the planet no longer has; every factory

toxin is a speck of rot in the lung. I think

I hold my lungs a little higher

in esteem now, knowing the tightness

that the coronaviral load presses

into them, the pink fringing

coral around my heart; this too burning,

this too angry, this too frozen

in a state of nothingness.

A doctor in Cotonou once said to me

that women are like the lungs

of a city, the making and laughter

and everything of it. Small

surprise that we do nothing

for our Amazon lungs,

still

on fire.

The lungs shudder out smoke

with every tilting, lilting,

spin into the shadow

that the earth rotates.

That inferno dies.

The next year is hotter, longer.

The fire this time?

How many lives

does that phoenix

of land

contain?

 

Brooklyn Poets · Elizabeth Upshur, "Costal Breath"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I hunt for and am found by words, and when I stumbled across the word “costal” I knew I wanted to write something stemming from the coast, since I was born on the Pacific Coast in Southern California and had spent nine months in the port city of Cotonou, Benin, which also made me very aware of how Americanness and capitalism function. I also wanted to write about the Amazon in a way that was meaningful and authentic to me, how it was scary and yet just a blip in the news cycle. This grew into a stream-of-consciousness commentary that I struggled with as an essential worker in a grocery store, making things nice and tidy and knowing how precarious our food supply chain can be since it’s based on people; people who are not valued by the state. And of course, there’s that Southern, Bible-Belt denial of climate change, which is so interesting considering how many people casually garden and how our state has agriculture and river cultures propping up the economy.

What are you working on right now?

A book review of Nicola Vulpe’s Through the Waspmouth I Drew You for CAROUSEL. In my own poetry I’m tinkering with the ending of an old poem from my thesis that has never come out right but I know has good bones. Wish me luck!

What’s a good day for you?

A half-day at the bakery where I work, a nice lunch with my sister and the niblings, some time to read and write, dance-cleaning, cooking pasta or anything involving biscuits for dinner and, pre-Covid, I loved going downtown, but I also loved my early-twenties knees so there’s a lot of nostalgia there. I love when my poetry friends get good news that you can’t announce yet and it’s just us in our group chat hyping each other up and loving on each other.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

Home for me is mostly people, my family and my we’re-not-related-but-we’re-family family. I was born in Southern California and I grew up in Tennessee. Nashville is really booming right now, with people moving here to make it in the country music industry, so there’s a lot of infrastructure revamping. I like our focus on music here; while growing up I got to take guitar lessons once a week for fifty cents at the W.O. Smith Music School, and live music is such a natural part of downtown life. How does it compare to other places I’ve lived? Well, it’s louder and there’s more of a scene than Kentucky, but the biggest difference in place would be with Benin, where I did my Fulbright. I was close to the coast in Fidjrosse, so the change of temperature and greenery was a huge shock, but I loved living in a Black (African) country and I’d go back in a heartbeat. There or Albuquerque, NM: the weather is perfect, I loved trying fry-bread tacos, and it’s a walking town—I love those.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

No, as in not yet. I admit to being more than a little jealous about how vibrant the art scene is in Brooklyn, and I’d love to spend some time there when the world is a bit safer.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

A poetry community means a group or groups of poets who practice mutuality, workshopping together, reading together, editing, sharing and educating one another, all that jazz. I think it’s like family, you have the immediate family, then cousins, then distant family, those distinctions and levels of familiarity but of course people can always become more known to you. So, you have close peers, peers whose work you’re familiar with but maybe don’t know personally, big names, etc. I don’t have a poetry community physically in my area, but I’m really lucky to have my Okay Donkey Mag family of editors, my BIPOC group chat, and tons of peers and inspiration I’ve found on the bird app.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

I adore Christina Olivares. She’s such a light and I’ve learned a lot from just observing her read when I was a baby poet at the Frost Place, where we met during the 2016 Conference on Poetry, and then reading her book No Map of the Earth Includes Stars. Through Christina I met, as in actually fangirl-met, Elisabet Velasquez, who is the most electrifying reader. Elisabet writes about serious, heavy topics like the mother wound and making it, and I always feel goosebumps reading her stuff. She’s magnificent. Fangirl for life here.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Dr. Cheryl Hopson and Dr. Rebbecca Brown. I would not have survived grad school in any meaningful way without them. I was writing a thesis about Blackness and respectability politics and the ways that violence infiltrates and hammers at identity, very coming-of-age stuff, you know? And my audience, my cohort, my everything were so white. I was the first Black “diversity” in my program, so having their support, their suggestions for who to read and who they saw me in conversation with in the Black writing canon / history, their belief that my work was worthy, that was everything, because I wasn’t getting those messages elsewhere. I also think poetry peers can be as important as mentors, because cross-pollination is important for pushing and redefining what poetry can do, so shoutout to poetry peers, too.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Well, tonight I started fellow Brooklyn Poets Fellow Haolun Xu’s chapbook Ultimate Sun Cell, and the opening poem is marvelous. I’ve been thinking about the poem’s ending:

I think I’m doing this for my soul.
I’m going to save the world like this.

It’s absolutely otherworldly in the best possible way, earnest and sentimental and hopeful and yet so straightforward, which is what I’m always trying to pare my writing down to.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I need to read Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and just more of everything Camille Dungy’s written because she’s one of my favorite eco-writers, and that’s where some of my work is leaning towards these days.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

A mess. I typically read one poetry book at a time, the exception being my Lucille Clifton anthology, which I dip in and out of all the time, and Poem-a-Day. I prefer the heck out of physical books, but that’s also because I really try to be kind to my eyes these days and not spend so much time looking at screens, and because I like to take notes in the margins on allusions I spot, what makes me cry and techniques I’m inspired to try. I am taking recommendations on a good pen that doesn’t smear for note-taking; I haven’t found one I love yet!

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Less to try and more to finish, but a sestina that didn’t make me want to burn it. Maybe it’s because I’m so horrifically bad at math, but some formal poems just don’t gel with my writing. Rhyme is not a problem; I can write decent sonnets, and I even wrote a decent shitty-first-draft pantoum in a workshop with Taylor Byas, but the sestina is beating my ass and laughing about it, so there’s that.
 
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I had some beautiful reads on my little porch in Fidjrosse catching the setting sun with the breezes and the scent of Atlantic Ocean air, that was a really magical and inventive time. It’s not particularly exciting, but I’ve gotten a good bit of work done on my lunch breaks at the little picnic table at my job, and it’s nice to get into the writing headspace even if it’s only for ten or fifteen minutes. I’d love to spend some time in the mountains again; the Smokies are gorgeous and not too cold if you go at the right time, plus the Internet is really inconsistent so I won’t get distracted with Twitter, although I might get stuck if I was doing a science-heavy poem that I needed to look something up for.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Forgive me that this isn’t Brooklyn, but I’ve wanted to get up to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture ever since I learned about it.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the fact that silence breaks down blood to the smallest atom

and what I despise about you lives in the round handheld mirror, every piece,

for every prayer petitions me as good: as you