Shira Erlichman Reflects on Odes to Lithium
Foglifter Press had the opportunity to interview the queer poet, musician, and artist Shira Erlichman in advance of her first book of poetry Odes to Lithium being released from Alice James Books in September.
Shira Erlichman is a writer, visual artist, and musician. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been featured in The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed Reader, Nomadic Press, The Rumpus and PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series, among others. She earned her BA at Hampshire College and was awarded a residency by the Millay Colony, the James Merrill Fellowship by the Vermont Studio Center, and the Visions of Wellbeing Focus Fellowship at AIR Serenbe. Her first children’s book Be/Hold is forthcoming from Penny Candy Books. She is half of the Odes for You Tour with poet Angel Nafis. As a musician she’s performed across the US, sharing stages with TuNe-YaRdS, CocoRosie and Mirah. She’s independently released seven albums, including Subtle Creature which premiered in BUST Magazine and was hailed as a “spectacular mystery.” Born in Israel, raised in Massachusetts, she now lives in Brooklyn. Learn more at www.officialshira.com.
Read two poems from Odes to Lithium, “Ode to Lithium #107: Cliff” and “Ode to Lithium #600: Side Effects” [HERE], republished with permission from Psychology Tomorrow, “a magazine that examines the work of thought-changing practitioner—academics, philosophers, writers and artists in regular columns, features, essays, profiles, interviews, and reviews, as well as showcases works by contemporary visual and performance artists who examine issues of identity, self-reflection, sexuality, consciousness, and interpersonal relationships.”
The collection’s direct address to Lithium is uniquely intimate. How did that relationship—which is queer in so many ways—evolve over the course of writing the book?
It began with shame. Years ago, I couldn’t say the word Lithium aloud. Let alone write about it. I challenged myself to sit down to write an ode to my less-than-beloved medication. But even amidst an attempt at gratitude and admiration, I titled it “Pill.” To name is to reveal. To reveal is a vulnerable act. In the moment, it felt vulnerable to write this poem, it was a step. It took years before I noticed that—because of the title—I was still hiding; my ode was incomplete, because essentially it still functioned within the parameters of silence and shame. So I asked, what would it be like to really claim Lithium?
Because of the nature of having a mental illness—the rupture in identity, the kaleidoscopic stigma imposed by culture, the personal struggle with being a reliable narrator in one’s own life, the intoxication and for some liberatory nature of mania, the encounters with life’s most startling enigmas (the mind, the self)—there could never be one all-encompassing ode. Realizing that my experience, and my self, could not be reduced was profound. When I realized this, I started to wonder, how many different ways can I claim my experience? It’s very like me to swing toward creative extremes, to assign myself rigorous and nearly impossible assignments, quantity over quality, I always say. At the time, I took Lithium twice a day, so the writer in me who loves structure and limitations, said 730 odes. That’s 365 times 2. Let’s start there. The preposterousness of the assignment was itself an ode.
This process changed my life. The process of naming, of reclamation, of speaking directly to Lithium, made of shame: curiosity. Made of an enemy: a teacher and companion. Your question is beautiful because it accepts the “relationship” as valid. It is! Why should only our fellow human beings be encompassed in relationship? I have a relationship with every bite of food, inhale and exhale, fabric against my skin, stranger whose orbit I momentarily inhabit. There’s interdependence. This is, as you intuit, inherently queering.
As I mention in the book, Lithium is an element in the periodic table, it is unpatentable and doesn’t require capitalization. It didn’t occur to me until half-way through writing the book that I’d been subconsciously capitalizing Lithium, like a proper noun, because I had developed such affection for it. I saw it as a body deserving of a real name.
The collection feels as if it was written sequentially—but also as if it was planned and executed as one discrete project—how did the writing process unfold? Did you learn anything unexpected during it?
Thank you. I really struggled with order, for years. Writing? No problem. I felt endlessly excited and curious about Lithium; it is endlessly fascinating! I turned stone after stone over with regards to my experience, but also the science and (literal) nature of it. I wrote hundreds of odes: long, short, successful, disposable. I mean, I’m still writing the Odes and I know I always will be. (Which was a whole other issue in my process: “When do I stop?”) I kept writing, looking for where something new was being unfolded versus where I might be repeating myself, attempting to cull, as any writer does, the sharpest, most vital batch from the mass.
Two major things happened. From the very beginning I was numbering the odes, which I did because of my own organizational bent, but also so that when I published them individually in journals, my reader could not be deluded into my first mistake: the belief in a single, all-encompassing ode, and so, the diminishment of complexity within a mentally ill person. It was a political move to always remind the reader that this was, intrinsically and necessarily, a series. This first major shift happened years into the manuscript in realizing that (within the book-object itself) the numbering was cluttering and vestigial. I got rid of them and retitled every poem, and it was like immediately the book could breathe.
The second shift came in the ordering itself. I had been just utterly lost. How could this feel like a poetry book and not, as my partner (poet Angel Nafis) said, “an anthology.” I tried everything. I followed other writers’ advice. But often the logic that applied to their books didn’t sing with mine. I tried to move from instinct, or formulate intense flow charts, or toss them in a pile and shuffle them around, only feeling less clear with each attempt. Finally, instead of asking “What is the order?” I asked, “How do I see the world?” The world of this book, and also the greater cosmology vivid to my heart, the world of being, appearing, disappearing, trying to appear, to belong in a body. At the center of this book is a mentally ill person that the world of family, friends, doctors, and the general public, deeply misunderstand (if they are trying to understand at all). I decided the book would be built on concentric circles of relationship, with my sense of my self at the center, my relationship with Lithium in the next outer circle, then family, then friends, then the medical world, then culture at large.
Think of a stone dropping in water. I’ve always loved stones. Let’s say the stone is Bipolar Disorder. It will have various ripples of intimacy. Where it drops through is the most intimate center: me, the one who is ill. But then, it affects everyone around it. My book is ordered on the basis of this rippling. Poem to poem, I move from one circle to another. My hope is that the reader is immersed in an inescapable circle of reckoning, as I have been since my initial diagnosis. To be implicated in the reckoning, that was the ethos of the order. No safe distance.
Many poems in the book—like “Perfect” or “On This End”—use form to capture a particular mental state. How do you approach structure, momentum, and pacing in your poems—does that approach change depending on the mood you want to convey?
Poems are poems because they defy linear text (and with that, linear thinking). Poems are a different way of “making sense.” I’ve always felt sheltered by that. The way a poem tightens or sprawls is a huge part of that sense-making. Poet Tara Hardy really exposed me to the fundamental relationship between content and structure, and how to play with their mirroring so both are heightened. So, to take your example, in “On This End,” the content is word for word the very first exchange between my mother and I, via email, after a long estrangement. To mirror estrangement, the email has been clipped into fragments, separated by caesura. The structure mirrors the fragmentation of the relationship, as well as the physical space (caesura) between us. This is a craft any writer can learn. I made the choice that the emails, in their new fragmentation, would be written out backwards. So in terms of pacing, I wanted the reader to be thrown into a liminal space, to not fully understand what the hell was going on, as they read. This is what it feels like to reconnect with someone you’ve been fissured from: you float with desperation on an invisible bridge you hope is sturdy enough to keep you.
Poet Aracelis Girmay spoke to me of my own poems as various bodies, and I love that. Each body has its own logic and law that I want to be loyal to. There is no single prescriptive rule. They are asking different things of me. If they are to become, to breathe, I have to listen. Half of becoming a more attuned writer is listening. I wonder if the analogy of a doula is appropriate.
I play, over and over, with shape and strategy, first to thirteenth draft, to cull what the poem is efforting to become. It takes time and failure. But playing is never a waste of time. Aracelis also mentioned to me Toni Morrison’s idea of “imaginative strategies.” We need strategies to reach beyond our assumptions, our brokenness, our deeply constructed walls. To imagine is the greatest ode. I have a practice of looking up at the sky and trying to imagine, to really feel in my bones, how far up the sky really goes. It’s overwhelming. Because it never stops. Can you feel that possibility, that impossibility, the truth of vastness? How much on this earth can’t be accounted for. How deep the mystery is. And then, to take it personally, to think: I am that. I am just like that sky. For any person, but especially for a mentally ill person, to say “I am wild,” is dangerous in our culture, which needs to contain and label us. But this uncontainable quality is so potent in any human life. We live in unpredictable, untamable space. So then: many houses, many bodies, many keys, for our poems-to-be. This is an obsession of mine: seeking various imaginative strategies for expression. I will not be limited. I will not be deduced. If one map doesn’t suit you, here’s another. I trust my manyness.
You are quite the polymath—a poet, artist, and musician! Do you find that certain impulses lend themselves to being expressed in different mediums? For example, how do you know when something is a song versus a poem? Is there a time that you’ve thought you were writing a song and it became a poem or vice versa?
I think it’s like .00001% of the time that a poem has become a song. A song has never become a poem. I paint when I don’t really want to talk. When I’m creating in one form, I don’t think too much about other forms. If art is a playground, I’m not trying to slide down the money bars. But I do want to try every ride, toy, see-saw, bouncy bridge, pole, etc. It’s weird, I grew up an athlete, and no one was like “You’re a soccer player, how come you also run track? Or play basketball?” It’s clearer to us that athleticism transfers. So does creativity. Creativity is inherently unspecialized. Its only prerogative is adventure. So I believe it’s more about delighting in exploration than it is about some freakish quality. If you enjoy the delicious delving, you’re not overly concerned into what.
Preorder Shira’s Odes to Lithium now from Alice James Books.
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