The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Shira Erlichman about her debut poetry collection, Odes to Lithium (Alice James Books, September 2019), writing the “unodable,” how visual images can accentuate poems on the page, and whether we need more poems about stone fruit.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Malcolm Tariq, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Danez Smith, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Ariel Francisco, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I’d like to ask about the conceit of this book. In the piece I wrote for The Rumpus as to why we chose Odes to Lithium for Poetry Book Club, I talked about the line “But why so many poems about it?” from the poem “89 Lines on a Bruise,” and how I thought that was a crap argument, but I am interested in how you came to the idea of writing these praise poems of a sort for this medication.
Shira Erlichman: To be mentally ill is to be reduced by popular culture. We are seen very flatly, and reflected back to ourselves very flatly. Years and years ago, I wrote an ode to my medication, as an exercise in writing to an “unodable” thing (term coined by Angel Nafis). I didn’t mention lithium. I just titled the poem “Pill.” I didn’t really realize it, but in that anonymizing, I had bought into society’s shame. I wasn’t specific; I wouldn’t admit what I specifically took. When I realized this error (and this was years and years later) I realized I had to multi-dimensionalize myself, because culture wouldn’t. I had to say lithium. I had to say it every single way I could.
Brian S: Yeah, I think about how blithely I’ve thrown around the word crazy—still do, even though I try not to—or have used insane as a descriptor and so on, and how dehumanizing that is. How ingrained it is in our language that you kind of get looked at sideways if you point out that it’s a dehumanizing word.
And I know what you mean about the challenges of writing about a thing you consider “unodable” (which is an amazing word). It took me a long time to be even willing to try to write poems about being molested as a kid, because who wants to read about that, right? When a big part of the problem was that I didn’t want to name the thing I needed to write about.
Liz: Shira, I’m going to toss aside my shame and admit I haven’t finished the book. (Old parents got sick! Chronic illness flared!) But I don’t want to miss the opportunity to tell you how much this book means to me already. My family has a history of bipolar disease and other mental health travails. This is such an important, moving, inventive book. I can’t wait to be able to sink into it.
Shira Erlichman: Oh Liz! Understandable! Thank you for these kind words. Luckily, the book will not disintegrate and only grow stronger in your hands over time!
Liz: Thank you!
Brian S: Do you still have some nervousness about writing about this subject? Or about reading these poems in public?
Shira Erlichman: Hmmmm. I don’t think I have nervousness writing about the subject. It feels like: What’s the other option? Silence? Caving inward? Shame? I feel like I owe it to myself, and to others who might be experiencing similar questions/issues, to put my best foot forward.
Brian S: Showing others that it’s okay to talk about it?
Shira Erlichman: I feel so much relief having finished this book, materialized it, made it real, a thing others can hold. That feeling of relief tells me: keep doing it.
Liz: Given how important medication is for so many of us, I’m surprised that there isn’t more literature exploring what it means for us. Is there anything I’ve missed?
Shira Erlichman: Jaime Lowe wrote Mental and an amazing article in the New York Times, “I Don’t Believe in God, But I Believe in Lithium,” that is really amazing. Kay Redfield Jamison’s entire body of work, but especially An Unquiet Mind. Those have all been foundational and affirming for my process. The poet Morgan Parker writes very casually about medication—and that’s a type of freedom to witness.
Liz: Of course, Kay Jamison! I’ll have to read that New York Times article. But I was thinking specifically about poetry, I guess, so I’m going to seek out Morgan Parker.
Shira Erlichman: Morgan! Is! Amazing!
Brian S: There’s at least one poem in the book with an epigram from Jamison, right? I just opened to it, the one titled “Perfect.” Can you talk some about how that poem came into being?
Shira Erlichman: The epigraph to that poem is all about MAJOR DENIAL. Jamison admits she’d either have to go to a psychiatrist to sort out her issues, or buy a horse. She literally buys a horse. I thought about how the illness tricks me into buying the horse. “Buying the horse” as a metaphor for whatever keeps me from healing, from admitting I need help. The whole poem is an exercise in imagining a horse, named Perfect, who keeps me trapped in its lust and power and overwhelm in its mania. That epigraph is from An Unquiet Mind. I couldn’t believe Jamison was admitting that. Buying a horse? And yet. I could relate.
Brian S: There’s that line “Perfect is the kind of bitch-horse to remind you Starry Night’s moon is not astronomically correct,” and I feel like that’s just an exact description.
Shira Erlichman: LOL. That horse can shapeshift into any kind of fuckery necessary!
Liz: I always felt that depression was talking to me, seductively insisting nothing could help, I shouldn’t try, stay with it in the dark. I like the idea of the horse better.
Shira Erlichman: The horse is dangerous. The last line is “Perfect is a terrorist disguised as a horse. I prefer choosing terror to a terror I didn’t choose.”
Brian S: The horse gives you the false impression that you could escape from things, just get on it and ride away anywhere, no need for money or gas, just you and the horse until you actually think about trying it.
Shira Erlichman: Yeah, there’s the idea of: I’ll choose not getting better, not admitting this is an illness. I’ll choose this wild horse. I’d rather go down this route than the route of the terror I didn’t choose, my illness. Choice: that’s also the horse.
Liz: Devious. Yes.
Shira Erlichman: Devious! Indeed! Writing lets us play inside this deviousness, honor it, instead of feeling ashamed.
Brian S: But that’s not a realistic option, which is why the horse is named Perfect. Because it doesn’t exist? Does it have a cousin named Utopia?
Shira Erlichman: Hahahaha. Yes, and Utopia is very close to Insomnia.
Brian S: And Paradise, which is what I grew up believing in, which meant I didn’t really have to think about the crap of the world around me. That, and being a white male.
Shira Erlichman: Yes. Delusions are present whether we’re ill or not.
Brian S: Did you draw the illustrations in this book?
Shira Erlichman: I did.
Liz: Wow. I love them.
Shira Erlichman: Thank you!
Liz: Did you work on them as you wrote the poems?
Shira Erlichman: I was done with the book, but trying to order it. I was on a residency in Georgia. I tend to think very visually, and had started painting again. I thought, why not draw some of the things I see in the book? Some of the metaphors? The images? Just as a way to think differently about them, see into them more intuitively. So they came later, as an exercise, a conversation with the poems. I didn’t think I’d include them with the book. But they ended up feeling pretty integral.
Brian S: I keep coming back to the one that precedes “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phineas Gage,” where it looks like a person pulling something over their head, maybe a restraint? But as a result we don’t see the head, where so much of the poems happen, in a way. It’s just a fascinating image to me.
Shira Erlichman: Yes, Brian, pulling a sweater over his head. I was drawing a lot of “liminal” drawings. Meaning, something in-between. Neither completed or begun, half-way. A real feeling I have in life! Often!
Liz: Did you find yourself making any changes in the poems thanks to the conversation you had with the art? I love the idea of engaging with the poems in different ways.
Brian S: Side question: is it like a rule that every poet has to do a Thirteen Ways poem at some point? I mean, I have one in my book (At least I think it’s in my book? It’s been a long time… I know I’ve written one.)
Shira Erlichman: Definitely. A hard and fast rule. Poets who don’t do it are BANISHED. I didn’t make changes in the poems, Liz, but it did help me with the order! I started to feel that the drawings gave breath, pause, metaphor, new meaning, depending on what they were beside.
Brian S: Required by MFA programs the world over. You have to write a sonnet, a ghazal, a sestina, and a Thirteen Ways poem or no diploma for you.
Liz: Liminal—such a creative space, but can also be so unnerving.
Shira Erlichman: So for example, the image Brian references. There’s a part in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phineas Gage,” where he is taking off his shirt. But I didn’t think of that while drawing. It just happened to pair. Liminality is so fascinating!
Brian S: That was your subconscious doing the work.
Shira Erlichman: Exactly. I trust it!
Brian S: I think it’s great when stuff like that happens. It’s extra fun, I think, when someone else notices it before I do.
Shira Erlichman: Yes! It’s part of the magic: not knowing, watching puzzle pieces float toward one another.
Brian S: We talked about something similar last month in our chat with Hanif Abdurraqib. He’s against explaining his poems to audiences because he doesn’t want to get between them and the work and limit their entryways into it (I’m paraphrasing wildly here), and I agree.
Shira Erlichman: That’s a wonderful way to put it.
Brian S: I think it’s awesome when someone finds a thing in my work that I hadn’t intended but is still unquestionably there.
Shira Erlichman: Definitely! I just had an interviewer ask, “So what’s with peaches? I counted like four or five in your book!” And I had to reflect…
Liz: Oh sheesh!
Shira Erlichman: I’m like… ”Well, there’s a hidden pit to every outward story…” LOL
Liz: Is that what lead reviewers are doing? Counting the peaches?
Brian S: William Carlos Williams already fucked up plums for the rest of us, so you laid claim to a different stone fruit.
Shira Erlichman: OH YEAH. WHAT AN INDUSTRY!
Brian S: I’m writing a dozen pluot poems tonight. DON’T STEAL MY IDEAS!
Shira Erlichman: Definitely had to look up pluot…
Liz: I read every Twitter version of the plum poem and each one delights me.
Brian S: What rhymes with pluot?
Shira Erlichman: Ahem “Pluots, apriums, apriplums, or plumcots, are some of the hybrids between different Prunus species that are also called interspecific plums.” I’M LEARNING.
Liz: There are a lot of hybrid stone fruits just waiting to be poetized.
Shira Erlichman: One thousand percent!
Brian S: I feel an anthology coming on.
Shira Erlichman: Hahahaha.
Brian S: Can you talk some about how “On This End” came into being? It’s another one of the poems I zoomed in on for that piece I wrote.
Shira Erlichman: That is the oldest poem in the book, probably eight years old. It was the last to be added, actually.
Brian S: Funny how that works, too.
Shira Erlichman: The text itself is literally an email exchange between me and my mom after a long separation. I knew I wanted to work with the text—because some text, some letters, just define your life. This was one of them. I thought: how can I make this into a poem? And have it be readable? Have it be interesting?
I thought a lot about how distance fragments us. How we feel separate, and are, but also aren’t, because we belong to those we love/that love us. I decided to play with disorienting the reader by having the letters move backwards, and in fragmented chunks, so that the reader doesn’t really know what’s crashing over them until they put the puzzle together. I want the reader to have the experience of disorientation, separation, loss, not just be told about it. The title also shows us that we all have a side, an “end” that we’re on
Brian S: How do you deal with the challenges of putting people from your life into your poems? Like, I’ve written some poems with my family in them and in some cases I’m super careful, like with my kids, and in other cases I’m more like get a helmet, depending on how close I am to them.
Shira Erlichman: Haha, yes, this is such an ongoing process. My partner, Angel, just says, “Tell the truth. They were there.” I think that’s helpful. I’m just one person, telling my truth. I’m not condemning them. I’m not defining them. I don’t even have the power to do that! But I have to be real about my narrative, my “end.” I’m very close with my mom, and that helps.
Liz: “I will call” is something I’ve said to my kids and my mom so often and I never heard how haunting it is, in its promise, in the irritation we often feel about obligations.
Brian S: While acknowledging that their version of events, let’s say, might be totally at odds with yours, and that their version is no less true to them…
Shira Erlichman: Exactly. It’s healing to hear each others’ “end,” and to acknowledge that they all exist and are real for each person. But i also have poems I won’t publish, that I keep just for me. They are exercises, and I at times don’t feel a need to “expose” those I write about. It’s a personal process with no fixed rules.
Brian S: You said earlier that “On This End” was about eight years old and it was the oldest poem in the book. Have you been working on this book, more or less, for that long? Or was there a shorter period where it mostly came together?
Shira Erlichman: It’s really been a process since 2014. That poem was from 2011. It was an outlier!
Liz: And how did you know it was done?
Shira Erlichman: I feel that I’ll always be writing Odes to Lithium. Always. But the book felt done once I saw myself repeating myself, repeating themes instead of unpeeling them deeper and deeper. The order started to solidify and I saw that it was cohesive
I’m a big believer in Einstein’s quote, “Make it simple, but not simpler.” I really try to use that as a guide when creating, and ordering.
Brian S: That’s a great saying. I’ve never heard that before.
Shira Erlichman: So it just reached a point where to add more would complicate.
Liz: I was a journalist at a newspaper, so it was clear when most pieces were done—when the editor stood behind my chair with a stern facial expression.
Shira Erlichman: LOL. Einstein = My boyfriend. Super smart.
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? What should we have our eyes out for?
Shira Erlichman: I just finished Annie Dillard’s book For the Time Being, an old one, but I’d never read it. It blew my mind. Sharon Olds is dropping her newest book Arias soon, and i’ve peeked at the galley; it too is phenomenal. She’s just… WHEW. Obviously, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, just tremendous. And I keep dipping back into anything by Aracelis Girmay. But on my mind especially lately, and specially in conversation with Kaminsky’s book, is Girmay’s The Black Maria.
Brian S: Deaf Republic was a Poetry Book Club selection earlier this year. Amazing book
Shira Erlichman: It’s a feat.
Liz: Deaf Republic forever
Shira Erlichman: Amazing, amazing book. The Black Maria is a journey much like Deaf Republic for me. Equally vast. Equally stunning.
Brian S: Yes. I’ve never read it cover to cover, but I keep picking it up and reading a poem and then just sitting back with it.
Shira Erlichman: Yes! I love the Sealey challenge!
Brian S: I made it about twenty days and then the semester started and I crashed hard into the land of technical writing and first-year composition.
Shira Erlichman: Whew, twenty days is awesome though!
Brian S: I cheated early on by finishing books I’d already started lol.
Shira Erlichman: Hahahaha.
Liz: Shira, thank you for this book (and your generosity towards the student who didn’t do the assigned reading).
Brian S: Are you working on a new project now? Or just steeling yourself for the book tour?
Shira Erlichman: I have a long-loved manuscript (about eleven years old at this point) that I’m still marinating on, dreaming about, diving into, leaving alone, constantly. But really I’m focusing on celebrating this book, diving headfirst into tour, honoring the work that went into Odes to Lithium, not rushing full speed ahead (capitalism style) into the next next next. I’m so excited to tour, to share these poems!
Brian S: Well here’s hoping you find a massive audience for this book and these poems. And maybe some respite from the news cycle, which seems to be trying to drown us lately.
Shira Erlichman: Thanks Brian! Yes, the news is….. an abyssofterrible.
Liz: This conversation has been a welcome reprise.
Shira Erlichman: So grateful!
Brian S: It’s a lot, which seems to be my go-to phrase lately. Everything is a lot right now.
Liz: Everything is everything. We left a lot behind months ago.
Shira Erlichman: Yes, it’s so important to take time for things like this, just talking, just connecting, for art.
Brian S: Thanks so much for staying up late and joining us tonight, and for this wonderful book.
Shira Erlichman: You’re so welcome. Thank you for your questions and thoughtfulness, both.
Brian S: Have a great rest of your evening. And thanks to you, too, Liz for your questions!
Shira Erlichman: Good night crew! Cheers to breaths of fresh aiiiiiir!
Photograph of Shira Erlichman by Hieu Minh Nguyen.