Shira Erlichman’s “Odes To Lithium” Is A Beautiful, Complicated Look At Mental Illness

“I will name names. I will be explicit.”

Shira Erlichman’s debut book, “Odes to Lithium,” is out September 17th and is a moving testament to the medication for Bipolar Disorder and the sometimes sexy, sometimes painful ways the stigmatized body moves through space. I first encountered Erlichman’s poetry at an Association of Writers’ and Writing Programs Conference panel entitled “The Future is Femme and Queer.” Far from the overly academic jargon people sometimes slip into at events like that, there was a simplicity in the way Erlichman spoke. She had a powerful stage presence and a way of being so totally honest and forthright that it stunned the crowd. As she read, a man walked out.

“Have a good mental health day!” she shouted out after him.

We got the chance to catch up with her and hear all about what inspires her in her work and her day-to-day life.

GO Magazine: This is your debut book of poems, right? But it’s far from your first creative endeavor. You also have six albums out, tour widely as a musician, and have a children’s book called “Be/Hold.” How are all these projects alike or different to you?

Shira Erlichman: Indeed, this is my debut book of poetry! I suppose the best way to answer this question is to say that I’ve never felt like I needed someone else to officially stamp my work for it to have a place in the world. All of my albums were self-produced — some on my bedroom floor on a 4-track recorder, others in professional recording studios. Ever since high school I’ve been lucky to belong to DIY music and poetry scenes that encouraged sharing, experimentation, and togetherness. I’ve always found myself in tight-knit squads that felt fueled by each other’s constant making. Creativity was never an end-goal; it was the point itself, no matter what the product would end up being.

The difference now, with “Odes to Lithium” and “Be/Hold,” is that I have presses at my back. I’m a part of a different kind of team, one that is designed to propel my dream. So instead of DIY, it’s like DIT: Do It Together. I have support, and that’s a beautiful thing. So much of my art-making has been a way to ask the universe a question or to put my hand on the cave wall [and] make my mark.

GO: I’m always interested in books as projects. Was this book something you set out to do, or were the Lithium poems just something that spawned organically out of your writing?

SE: “Odes to Lithium” began accidentally. I was teaching a one-on-one class, and the assignment was to write an ode to something you hate. I wrote alongside my student. At the time, I was very conflicted about my medication. I could barely utter the word Lithium; it felt taboo. My ode didn’t mention the word Lithium; it was titled “Pill.” That ode is now called “The Watchman,” and it lives inside the book. I didn’t think much of the poem. It was just an exercise. In fact, I didn’t think about it for years.

Then, years later, while compiling older poems for a manuscript submission, I came across “Pill” and had a double-epiphany in the shape of two questions: How could there be one definitive ode to Lithium, when it’s a medication I take every day (at the time, twice a day), 365 days a year? Isn’t that reductive? And isn’t reduction a tool of popular culture, when it comes to stigmatizing people with mental illness? The second question was: Why is this named “Pill”? It’s not an anonymous pill that I take every morning. How can you write an ode, a poem of praise, and not name the praise-ee? I sensed, in this question, shame’s capacity for sabotage. I thought, “Well, let’s address this.” I will fill in what I originally reduced. I will attempt to fall in love from many angles. I will name names. I will be explicit.

GO: This book does something I’ve never seen before: It talks about illness in what seems to me to be an almost companionable way. There is suffering and moments of real excruciating anger and fear, but there is also sweetness. In the poem “Unwished For,” for example, the speaker is having a conversation with a poster seeking a surrogate, but demanding that no one with a history of mental illness apply. “What They Don’t Want Of Me” responds, makes a case for this life, this body, and this brain. Can you talk about that more?

SE: I love the idea that the illness is a companion. I’ve mostly thought about the medication being a companion. So, thank you for reflecting that to me. In popular culture, mental illness is often seen as a fault, a weakness, something to be feared and avoided at all costs. Someone “crazy” is even de-legitimized as a human being. I bought into culture’s ideas about me. But in the process of writing, I started to see my illness through a more tender lens: My illness is my vulnerability. Should I hate it, for needing help? My illness is my alienesque sensitivity. In retrospect, inside the safety of wellness, there is so much to learn from the brain’s kaleidoscopic powers. My illness is my most desperate recklessness, a wild horse trapped in a small dark room, who can sense the hills and stars beyond. It wrecks everything. Should I berate it for kicking and trying to run, or could I understand its deep confusion and desire? It is illness’ skill to mercilessly plunge us into the vivid id. That’s unfathomably frightening, but also worthy of a loving gaze.

Without romanticizing it, it is not hard to see that illness can have a refining power in our lives. I love who I am, not in spite of having Bipolar Disorder. I can’t extract my illness from me, and I don’t want to anymore. I guess it’s simply about acceptance. The darkest thing accepted becomes a sort of companion. Bipolar Disorder has shaped me and taught me major, unswerving facts of life: vulnerability. Groundlessness. And too, our inherent dignity as human beings. Perhaps the “sweetness” you call forward is just that: worthiness. A sense of belonging to life, even in illness. That’s what “Unwished For” is about. In it, the speaker says, “I would never wish Frida to not have been hit by that trolley.” Because she belonged to life, even in illness.

GO: Throughout the book, there are several pages with some kind of visual art: a photograph, an illustration, a collage, or even just one little insect making its way across the page. Can you talk about the process of creating these and deciding to scatter them across the book?

SE: While touring with my partner … for the early part of 2017, I started to keep a drawing notebook. Late at night, sprawled on a hotel bed, I could turn off the wordy part of my brain and just draw. The simple act of keeping a drawing notebook propelled me into returning to a long-ago love: visual art.

Right after tour, I finally had time to finish my manuscript, and while I did so, I took breaks to strum my electric guitar, watch British Bake-Off, wander the red Georgia dirt paths staring at murky puddles, and make ink drawings and strange collages. It was a wildly free and creative time for me. I made these ink drawings and collages in conversation with poetic images from “Odes to Lithium.” I wanted to see what responding to my own poems’ imagery with drawings might illuminate for me about the order of the book, its themes, and perhaps, its secrets that my conscious mind couldn’t be privy to. When the hand moves to draw, at least for me, the thinking mind can rest a bit.

GO: At the center of this book is, yes, medication, but also your many relationships: your grandmother, a young summer camp romance, and your mother. Can you talk about these relationships, their importance to you and to the book?

SE: You’ve caught on to something! Centering relationships was a structural choice. The book very purposefully weaves between different types of relationships. Poem to poem, it builds on concentric circles of relationship. At the core is the most intimate relationship, Lithium, as it literally goes into my body. The next outer circle is my self, or rather, my experience of my self. Outside of that is my family, then friendships, then the medical community, extending outward to the greater cultural understanding of mental illness that envelops me.

My question was: How does stigma play out in each concentric circle? How does my relationship to my illness change depending on which circle I’m encased in? I wanted the reader to feel as I do, working my way through the world as someone with mental illness, negotiating concentric private and public spaces where vulnerability and care (or lack of) play out. Instead of the reader ultimately landing on a thesis about the mentally ill experience, I wanted these various relationships — whether with a doctor, or my mother, or my partner — to disturb a steady narrative. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is credibility. To be mentally ill is often to be treated as if you are less, unintelligent, [or] no longer credible. “Odes to Lithium” is my search for self-worth and self-definition within ever-expanding circles of judgment and oppression. The question is pressing. How do I, as someone who has lost her mind, and so her credibility, experience self-worth? Certain recurring figures — my grandmother, my mother, my medication — appear as co-conspirators. They too, have much at stake in this question.

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