Conversations with Contributors: Shira Erlichman

 Photo Credit: Alice Chipkin.
Photo Credit: Alice Chipkin.

1. To begin—we’d love to hear your story. What led you to first turn to writing? What led you to stay with it?

I immigrated to the US from Israel at the age of 6. Learning English was linked to learning a new world. I went through ESL and so English was intimately tied to survival, accelerating, fitting in. My earliest memories of writing are: keeping a moon journal for a 1st grade class assignment with the help of my mom (so, writing was noticing, logging, accounting for, in a together-way); writing a poem about the snow from my bedroom window (“the snow was like a man dancing in the street” – so, writing was inventiveness, delirium, joy); and a moment that left perhaps the greatest impression on me, writing a poem about my grandmother utilizing difficult words from a spelling group I was placed in (“August burned in her eyes, / May bloomed in her mouth, / April rained in her hair, / she was my grandmother.”) My mom framed the poem and still has it. But the reason it was such a pivotal moment for me was because my 3rd grade teacher was a bit stunned that a new immigrant had written it; she sort of second-guessed her decision to place me in the middle spelling group as opposed to the high one. The poem displayed control of language and depth of expression. That moment sticks out to me now not only because I was somewhat underestimated as an immigrant child, but also because language is so much more than learning how to ask “Where is the bathroom?” in ESL. It is a wild daring thing that, if we’re lucky, takes control of us. It shakes us and says, “Beyond what’s true, what’s possible?” That first poem was a symbol: I am not just getting by in your world, I’m reimagining it.

2. Since your name translates to “song” and “poem”, do you feel that your path towards the arts has been predetermined, or rather a conglomeration of decisions you’ve made?

Predetermined. My parents’ powerful love of music is what named me. My parents met on an organized camping tour of Europe in 1980. They’d sit together on the bus, became friends, and often would start singing until the whole bus would join in. My dad learned English by singing along to Led Zeppelin records. My mom was that teen with a guitar, serenading her peers in the Negev. She wanted to go to music school, but life lifed and she ended up working in the hotel industry, marrying my dad, having kids, you know, lifing. It took my mom decades, but eventually she got into New England Conservatory at age 51 for Vocal Performance. There are certain things––predispositions, I’ll call them, or callings––whether genetic, spiritual, same thing, that we simply can’t avoid. I think even if my name was Sheila, I’d be artistic. But Shira didn’t hurt. It added a dollop of destiny to the mix. Names are more than words we turn around for. Names are prescriptions. They are coded, intricate as snake skin, as DNA. Whether we’re aware of it or not, one’s whole life is a conversation with one’s name.

“Sky Smile” by Shira Erlichman.

3. Ode to Lithium #1: The Watchman is a wonderful piece to read, and incredibly rewarding, not only for its meaning, but also for its imagery—going through the poem is like unravelling a reel of old film from childhood. You’ve talked about how Pablo Neruda has influenced your ode series. In his Ode to ‘Andean Codillera’ Neruda writes, “I felt infinitely small in the centre of that navel of rocks, the naval of a deserted world, proud, towering high, to which I somehow belonged.” Did embarking on the project to write 720 odes feel similarly? And how has your approach to the odes evolved from this first poem, to your most current?

You know, I’m really grateful that you’ve drawn a parallel between that poem and the process of creating these odes. Neruda has been my guide in this project because of a tension this very line produces: how can one feel infinitely small, tiny in the centre of a thing so looming, and yet – belong? How can I face my mental illness, a ravaged decade of misdiagnoses / broken family / broken sense of self / deep denial / swallowed poison-stigma, how can I not only face it, but allow such psychic fragmentation to somehow become spiritual mosaic? How does a mosaic even become a mosaic, except for what is a single steadying hand saying you belong, you belong, you belong to each piece?

In asking me about my process, you chose a poem in which Neruda surveys the magnitude of the Andes with compassion, humility, sensuality, and multiplicity. You infer that I must also be embarking on observing something tremendous, even terrifying. Yes. Lithium encapsulates all of these things. So does Bipolar Disorder. Shame itself encapsulates these things: too huge to bear. And yet, you’ve done a great service to me by drawing this correlation. You understand that to approach this mountain one cannot only be terrified, or they miss the whole terrain. Neruda describes a “school of stone” that he can learn from. He is, first and foremost, the giant’s student. I am Lithium’s student. I’m not writing a book because I know something. I’m writing a book because I have a relationship with something. It just happens to be Lithium – salt, medicine, stigma, wound, treasure, all at once. That relationship is worthy of my eye. It is just as real and impactful to me as a person.

I take Lithium’s “bread” as Neruda puts it, “the bread of your grandeur,” seriously. I chew the immensity of my teacher’s knowledge. Ultimately, as I’ve discussed far and wide and you can find online, my first ode, the one you published, was a mistake. It was a  one-time experimental ode to something I didn’t love so much. It turned into a series because a poet’s spirit can’t help but ask, “Are you sure that’s all?” Writing the series has been a way to restore dignity to something tarnished. I joke that Odes to Lithium is really just a rebranding project. Ultimately, it’s already dignified, it’s medicine. I’m here to unfold dignity. The poet’s spirit, Neruda’s spirit, which is entangled with mine and guiding me, says: there are always more ways to love.

You’ll notice that at the end of his ode to the Andes, all of the loving language he uses about the mountain range, all of the incredible gratitude and compassion he possesses lands on something separate from the mountain, that even rises above the mountain: “the condor / raising / his powerful / wings, / his dignified / flight / over vigorous heights.” Isn’t that awesome? Like, that huge looming thing, that wilderness you’re chipping away at? There’s more to the mountain than the mountain.

4. We live in a society that still seems to carry a taboo over mental illness and its treatment. Through your Lithium Odes, it feels like you’ve been able to deconstruct this, creating a counter-link against stigmatisation. How have you balanced the personal and universal in your work? Where has your writing aimed to exist on that spectrum?

When I hear that my Lithium Odes are being discussed in group therapy by a social worker, I feel that my intentions are being realized. Over the last decade, I’ve been hospitalized twice for Bipolar Disorder, so when strangers ask me how they can get their friend or child a copy of my poems as they’re being discharged from a mental hospital, it has particular resonance. In large part, I’m writing these odes because I needed them and didn’t have them when I was discharged, newly diagnosed, deeply ashamed, and living in tangled silence.

I’ve written so many poems over my life; some are purely thought-experiments or conceptual puzzles. That just as valid, and it’s fun. A poem is, hopefully, always a thing of beauty. But with this particular project, it feels that I haven’t really succeeded if the poem is not functional: a salve, a tool, an ally, something that could be carried out of a hospital and into the world with a sense of companionship. My poems are really for these folks, the mentally ill, whose experiences of the mind are unfathomable or variant, the ones fighting for survival and voice. Their families too, the ones that love them and want to support them. It’s not exactly about being anyone’s hope or being brave, really. It’s about: We’re here. It makes me feel safer to turn to my left and right and speak with others who are Here, as opposed to all of us tip-toeing around our own existence for the sake of the Rest of the Them, those judging us. Instead of centralizing the public’s worries and ideas about Bipolar, I started to centralize my own truths. For me, to be explicit in my poems that I have Bipolar Disorder and take Lithium feels like looking at the tsunami of Shame, the culture’s toxins, which has towered high as the sky and is hovering, just ready to demolish me, and saying to it “So what?” I know who I am. Shame is afraid of that.

It’s been a process–––it wasn’t always easy to be explicitly personal in my writing. And there are poems that the public will never see, poems that may never be published, that I needed to write just for me, for my process. I still get to choose. Not everything that’s happened to me or everyone that’s been involved needs to be out in the world. And I have plenty of projects that are not confessional, expository, or even nonfiction. That is the whole point: I’m vast. Multitudes, you know. In their multiplicity and tangential-ness, that’s what the Lithium Odes are supposed to herald as well. You can’t pin me down. Again, the condor over the mountain whose wingspan is breathtaking.

“Liminal” by Shira Erlichman.

5. There is still a sense that we apotheosize the “tortured artist.” Do you think we’ll ever be able to move away from that trope – and, if so, how as a community can we help to dismantle the romanticism of mental illness?

Yikes. This is a big one. I see this trope all the time and it honestly bores me. For one, if you love someone, you don’t define them by their suffering. You acknowledge their suffering, which is different. If you need someone (yourself or another) to suffer in order to be an artist, you need to ask yourself what you really think art is. Is art an emotional state? Is art immersion in pain? Is art brokenness? No. Just watch any child make art.

Pain can be an incredible teacher. It can show us things pleasure will never show us. But if you think pain is the only or best teacher, that’s limited. If I serve you a delicious pie and you gobble it up: Yum! If I throw a pie in your face: Yuck! That’s the human experience, pies in the face, pies on your plate. But the artist doesn’t say: just throw pies at my face. The artist savors questions–––that’s all. The questions can be about why someone would ever throw a pie in your face or what astrological sign this pie might be.

Beautiful, necessary art has come from Van Gogh’s mental hospital window and from Beyonce’s alchemizing power re: her cheating ass husband. Beautiful, necessary art has also come from an entire album dedicated to one state (Hi, Sufjan Stevens, please marry me) and elephants playing with paint. Ultimately, I want all of it. Because I want a healthy world. Healthy means whole. Don’t give people a reason to stay sick, to believe their illness is who they are, that their talent rides on their suffering. We’re done with that world view. We now know the reality of mental illness as truly an illness, not some Realer Emotional State. We now know that you can be medicated and creative. We now know that if Van Gogh had lived today he might have had the resources to heal, maybe even had a dynamic career while alive. Had he been understood, supported, and treated we might have known a fuller Van Gogh. Why would you want to rob anyone of their fullness? What––––for a painting you like? That is beyond insulting, it’s dangerous. I’m not a darkness-a-thon. My life is sacred. Beyond what anyone else says to me about where my art should or shouldn’t come from, I’m the one living my life. I deserve to be healthy and creative and not have those be cultural contradictions.

My advice on how to dismantle the romanticism of mental illness is simple: take care of your own mental health. Allow yourself to be so sad you paint. Allow yourself to be so happy you write. Go to therapy. Trick yourself out of the hypnosis that you make your best work when upset. Challenge yourself to make something every day, whether your mood ring is purple or green. Ask your dentist if she does her best work while weeping. Find out facts about your faves (Cobain, Khalo, Lamar, O’Keefe) that illustrate their full humanity, not just their worst days. Be an example of fullness, so that when someone tells you “Oh, personally I think all artists make their best work when Depressed,” you pity them. Because at home your pile of work is growing. Because you’re not interested in just drowning along.

Simultaneously, while learning how to be proactive and real about your own mental health, challenge others when they are uninformed. Learn from the mentally ill, read our books, listen to how we support and contradict each other. Say the words Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Mental Hospital. Don’t let realities go unnamed. Don’t let vagueness (fear) win at language. Don’t cloak real diagnoses, people, or stories. So many people are uncomfortable acknowledging that mental illness is real, has scientific premise, and affects literally millions of us. Be clear. This outspokenness has been a priority in my work and in my life because it opens all the windows and lets the air in. The truth is more important than comfort, or pain, always. The truth has a way of becoming a third lung.

6. We have a number of young readers in our readership audience. What would you say if you could say one thing to Young Writer Shira, and what would you say if you could say one thing to Younger Person Shira?

I’m going to cheat and do a run-on sentence for both Shiras: There’s no shame in body hair Your sensitivity is not a weakness When you’re bored in class it’s a sign of coffined curiosity not personality default I love that you’ve diligently kept a daily journal for years I love the beautiful purple stone cover what a lovely choice It’s okay to have a crush on Kathryn Your parents’ limitations are just that not your fault What frustrates you What scares you What angers you You don’t have to be as natural casual or blasé as Claire Danes to be cool Be more daring in how you protect bullied classmates The liminal space to wonder about life that you cultivate before falling asleep at night will have a lasting impact on you Ask for help more Keep collecting everything sea shells keychains rubber bands POGS baseball cards Keep reading every sad book in the library Keep honoring your quietest creative impulses But I don’t need to tell you that

7. Listening to one of your older albums Elephant Waltz (congrats on your new album, Subtle Creature, by the way!), I was reminded of two things: 1. The band Cyberbully Mom Club, and 2. The synaesthetic quality of the sound. Out of painting, poetry and music, which process do you feel is the most immersive and palpable? Any advice to young writers working also in other artistic mediums?

The Sufi mystic Rabia wrote, “It helps, putting my hands on a pot, on a broom, in a wash pail. I tried painting, but it was easier to fly slicing potatoes.” It’s really all about Presence. Isn’t writing amazing? You can get lost for hours. Isn’t painting amazing? You can get lost for hours. Isn’t music amazing? You can get lost for hours. Anything is immersive and palpable if you approach it openly, like a kid, without too many shoulds.

In another poem of hers called “Hey,” different parts of the universe, like the grass or a squirrel, say ‘Hey’ to each other; she closes the poem with, “I have been saying ‘Hey’ lately too,  to God. Formalities just weren’t working.” It’s a really radical idea to address God with “Hey.” I think we should be able to switch between mediums with that kind of casualness. Don’t put so much stock into what others say about your creative choices. Think of it as creative dexterity. You should be able to learn and explore however you want! Build tiny furniture for mice. Be a writer who paints. Slice potatoes. What Would Rilke Tweet. Rupaul said, “We’re all God in drag.” I feel that way about creative expression. Music, painting, writing – they’re Presence in drag.

I must be all about quotes today, because now I’m thinking about “Everything in moderation, even moderation.” What I really hear in that is, Everything in contradiction. I guess a lady with Manic-Depression might know a little bit about that. Contradiction strengthens you. Live in the liminal hum. Ritualize wonder. Be honest as mud. Submerge fully. Be your best audience. Enjoy doubt. Become familiar with terror. Focus on the task at hand and be eternal. Have no clue and try it anyway. Be slowly powerful. Lean into what you love. 2% Milk isn’t called 98% Water for a reason. Small efforts count.

“Halo” by Shira Erlichman.

8. When I first draft my poems I always have to write them into my moleskin using a blue Uniball pen. What’s your writing process, and do you have any traditions?

I write most easily on the computer. Pen and paper often feel too slow for me; it’s like my hand can’t catch up to my thoughts. While pen and paper force me to slow down, it often feels stifling, like a clogged pipe. It feels too self-conscious. I like to feel loose, like I’m in the bath, or playing with a puppy. So I fly on a computer.

I don’t have any major traditions. I like to employ the practice of being able to write anywhere, anytime. I don’t want to feel like I need a fresh breeze, a quiet room and a perfect cup of coffee to get going. These help. But forcing myself into less-than-perfect writing situations is more realistic to my life, and I want students I work with to feel less like Goldilocks and more like those freaky fish on the ocean floor who over centuries start to develop their own inner-luminescent light that guides them.

I guess you could say I have internal tweaks that I do in order to get comfortable. They are very subtle, almost imperceptible and have more to do with my attitude than my environment. Firstly, I absolutely hate the idea that the blank page is our enemy, so I make a point to silently, actively befriend the blank page. I sigh, relax my shoulders, feel true relief, This is my time baby! I enjoy the possibilities before me. I tell myself that even if no one ever sees it, what I’m doing is important. I think about writers that have left a timeless impression on me (Szymborska, Anzaldua, Clifton, Lorde) and I think, ‘I’m just like them.’ I don’t mean that like, I’m a genius. I mean that ultimately, what they did was just sit down and write. Over and over. No special sauce. Just take a seat, keep your willingness fertile, and write.

Chloe Elliott

Chloe Elliott is a first year undergrad at Durham University. She is on the Durham Slam Team where she works alongside, and under the mentorship of, her beloved team members, attempting to craft some nice words. She is the winner of the 2019 Timothy Corsellis Prize and is currently trying to figure out how to write a funny poem.

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