The Source, The Poet, and the Engineer:
A Meditation on Mike Smith and Brandon Nelson’s Zombie Poetry Project
Since Mike Smith and Brandon Nelson launched the Zombie Poetry Project (ZPP), I have found that I have become hopelessly addicted to the site. It isn’t just a fun game of “clicky poem;” creating a Zombie Poem is a journey into intellectual and creative waters that are too murky to be immediately understood by a first time user. Thus the process retains a certain mysterious quality that is enhanced by the site’s fantastical premise: the ZPP is hostile to the submitted text: the submitted text is a helpless victim that is being submitted to a violent and indiscriminate distortion mechanism, just as a human might be mutilated and made into a new, monstrous abomination after a zombie attack. In other words, the ZPP, by its very nature, encourages creative infidelity.
It would be silly to not mention how silly the ZPP is. That said, the silliness has a disarming effect that allows for the stealth passage of subversive, dark content. It is silly to use Donald Trump as a victim text, but distorting Trump’s words (or other established voices such as Dickens, Tate, Shakespeare, the New York Times, and so on) is a bluntly subversive gesture. Of course, the content in the resultant zombie poem (for example, the 6/8/2016 zombie poem, “from Trump University Mission Statement”) has high potential to be provocative and even grim. The silliness in such cases acts as a smokescreen for the zombifier’s less-silly expressive intentions.
The ZPP is a postmodern ontological look at poetry itself. Is a zombie poem a poem? Just because this website calls it a “poem” doesn’t mean it is one. Is my poem more or less “poem-y” than my submitted text? I imagine that if a Zombie version of a poem was so moving and so profound that it attracted the attention and admiration of millions, that it still would never be anthologized or considered “legitimate” (Now, gods, stand up for zombies!). What is additionally fascinating is that it’s never about JUST the zombie poem; the victim text is also given “stage time.” The ZPP has the clear intention of asking the reader to contemplate adaptation faithfulness by providing the victim text alongside the zombie text. The user can, of course, choose the order in which they read the two poems, or if they even want to read both, but most readers will read the victim first, the Zombie Poem second, and will naturally take to the comparative task set before them. But what does the reader hope to gain from reading the victim text? Does a reader hope for a feeling of “orientation” when subsequently approaching the zombie text? What if the victim text is itself disorienting? What if I used Lee Ann Brown’s “Foolproof Loofah” as a victim text?
I find that my zombie poem is an adaptive text that reflects much more on me than it does on the poem’s other collaborators (the victim text, the source poem, the poet, and the software engineer). I settle on a zombified line only when I feel that that line is somehow “like me.” This process leads me to examine my own artistic tastes in a way that I never had before. It’s an interesting self-study, almost like a Rorschach test. Which glop of textual nonsense makes the most sense to me or connects with me in a meaningful way? I’ll click the line, and then I evaluate the zombie line, but what are my criteria? How weird that I’m making a creative judgment and I don’t even really understand what it is that I’m thinking about when finally a line sounds good! It’s also interesting which typical zombie results I tend to automatically discard every time. For example, I personally will always hit the “re-z button” (as I have come to call it) when the phrase “her rag” pops up because I find the results to be vulgar and potentially off-putting to readers. This particular phrase is fascinating, of course, because in the source poem, “Zombie Ride-Along, “her rag” refers to a cloth wash-rag that a girl uses to clean; when zombified, the de-contextualized phrase’s secondary slang connotation typically dominates its primary, innocuous one.
For all of the introspection creating a Zombie Poem invites, it simultaneously poses the intellectual question, “who is the author?” The quick answer is “me,” but I didn’t write any of the Zombie poem’s text. While zombifying, I maintain textual and creative control, and when I deem the zombie poem to be clever enough, I declare to the world that I have authored a zombie poem by clicking the “Submit Post” button, but I didn’t actually write a poem, right? The ZPP’s baffling technology has allowed me to compose a poem without writing one.