interview: Shira Erlichman
Shira Erlichman is a Brooklyn-based Jane of all trades: she works through a number of mediums, including watercolors, drawings, poetry, and music. Her most recent album, Subtle Creature, dropped in October, and she is currently in search of a home for her debut manuscript, Odes to Lithium. We spoke with her on a Skype call recently and she caught us up on her latest projects, her multidisciplinary interests, and her efforts to destigmatize mental illness.
While researching you and your work, the main thing that struck me is how wonderfully prolific you are. How do you manage your tremendous amount of creativity? How do you manage to focus on one art form at a time?
SE: I think that I don’t focus on one art form at a time. I think that I use one art form when another doesn’t want to have me over. So if music is kind of locking the door on me, maybe I’ll go towards painting, and if painting is locking the door on me then I’ll go towards writing. So it’s really need-based; it feels very much about necessity, and this kind of itch or ache to get something out in a certain way, get a feeling out in a certain way. I really see it as an extension of myself, so it’s not like I sit down and I’m like, I’m gonna intend to be creative, it’s… different lenses of the world, if that makes sense. If I’m able to pound out some noise on drums or keyboard, that becomes a friend to me in a different way than slapping colors on watercolor and paper, that becomes a friend in a different way. So maybe it’s just about being with myself and texture and sound and color more than it is about expecting to make something.
Do you find that any of your mediums work best with certain emotions? Or is it just that you feel the itch and have to pick an avenue?
SE: Oh man, that is awesome. No one’s ever asked that, and that’s a really cool question. Um, wow… It would be hard to trace that. Maybe if I looked through my work I would know. I mean, I know that with watercolor, painting, any kind of visual art, a lot of it has to do with helplessness, like when I feel that I don’t have words or I don’t have the capacity to kind of untangle a knot. Writing more so has to do with untangling or running wild, like letting all of my wild horses just go, and I think that music is more in the lines of letting all of the wild horses go and less with untangling, if that kind of makes sense for categorization? Maybe it’s more about why am I stepping to this art form, and that’s the emotion behind it. The emotion is like, why do I need this particular way? Music is so often a way to have a presence—a vocal, oral presence—affirm me or confirm me. Ever since I was little, even if I recorded a song I would play it back for myself on the tape deck because there’s a feeling of confirmation like, oh my god, that’s a friend in a different way, you know? And I think writing, lately, has employed a lot of discovery with things that feel wrong in me or within the world, like I will write in order to sort of be like, oh okay, this is the way the world had this moment unfold and I want to do it my way now. And I don’t think that’s true for music or painting. I think that with writing it’s like, oh I had this terrible interaction with a doctor so I’m going to write it down on a page, as history, as a way to document it or as a way to make my own surreal thing happen. What happens if I release balloons in that room? In this writing I can do that even though I couldn’t do that in the actual situation. So it’s a way of imaging something that gives me power.
That’s really beautiful. I think I know which ode you’re talking about with the terrible doctor situation, the one with the snakes in the arm?
SE: Yeah, exactly.
That made me so mad when I read it, how much he gaslighted you.
SE: Yeah, it was pretty awful.
My favorite poem of yours is “Stillness in Four Movements.” I love how the gradual inclusion of space slowly elicits a sense of stillness. Do you often think about space? Does it play a role in your process and/or practice?
SE: I think yes, in ways I haven’t fully processed. Your question is asking me to be aware of something I value but that I haven’t expressed yet. I think that I often am a person who crams a lot into a certain amount of space, and I work with overflow. I like to do projects that are way too ambitious for completion, like the 365 squares project I did: one a day for a year. That was like, to imagine something too big. Same thing with the Odes to Lithium—I’m doing 730, and that’s absurd! And so in the sense of space, I like to feel a sense of overwhelm with the assignment at hand. Because it then forces me to really, actually, paradoxically, go very small and intimate and precise. So when I was doing 365 squares, it was actually just one square at a time, and the square is just this big [she gestures about two square inches] of visual art. And so it forces a type of meditation or a type of stillness into that. So, I don’t know, that’s one way, but another way is that music is so bizarre because it enters you, it’s in your ears, it’s in your body in a different way than painting or even words, it can literally rock you, it can make you feel smooth or totally like a storm, so I think music for me can be a real place of stillness. When I am putting sounds on top of sounds is when I am sometimes the most immersed or present than I ever, ever am in my life, and so maybe I think about stillness and space as a quality or presence or a quality of being instead of just being quiet or not moving, if that makes sense.
With these huge projects that you get yourself to do, is the sense of accomplishment greater in these instances where you achieve something so big?
SE: I think that it’s a way to tangibly track my process, and even if I’m not reaching the end yet, seeing something even a little, like even how many times am I jogging this week, I’m the type of person to have it be visual: I need to see my level of progress or achievement in order to motivate me. So it’s not so much the day that I reached 365—it may have even been the same amount of achievement felt in one month that it was in one year. For me it’s more a sense of, like, we are ephemeral creatures, and we disappear in a matter of decades, you know, not even a century. There are tortoises that are older than us. To be able to track our lives is a privilege, and I think for me it feels so tremendous to kind of watch that movement happen. But yeah, at the end of a project, something like Odes to Lithium or the squares project, there is a feeling less of like, oh I achieved this and more of an oh, look at my moments, look at my days, and that is something different than like, I finished an album. It’s more like, as a human, I feel proud that I was present for such tiny increments consistently, that I was willing to tackle something so difficult in so many ways over and over.
You hope to eventually include 730 poems in your Odes to Lithium. Does that number have any significance?
SE: Yeah! So every single person who’s on that medication obviously has a different dosage, and at the time that I started the project I was taking Lithium twice a day, and so a certain dose twice a day times 365 would be 730: two times a day, 365 days. So then I decided that every time I took the medication is its own particular poem. The Ode series started because of a kind of mistake, which is that I wrote one ode to lithium and I didn’t think about it for years, it was just a little ode I had, and then I realized that that is fundamentally a bad idea because it says that there is only one way to praise this thing that is very complicated, and when we have such flat and kind of grotesque demonstrations or ideas of the mentally ill we need to have like 730 ideas as opposed to one, you know?
When I was researching you it made me feel a lot more okay with taking medication for my depression, and I really appreciated that. Do you get a lot of people tell you that you’ve given them inspiration to start taking care of themselves?
SE: You know, I’m lucky in that way. I have talked to a lot of people who made some changes or just felt a little bit more release around having to be a certain way that they’re not or having to be perfect. Honestly, more than people telling me that I’ve done anything, people have just really stepped forward and shared what process they’re in. People will be like I’m just starting or my mom had to or things like that. And that’s most important or more important to me, like you can say that to me and I can hear that and you can feel non-judgmental with me and I can feel non-judgmental with you. Even just in this interview situation, to be able to do that is something I didn’t have a decade ago or five years ago, with close friends, let alone someone who I am just meeting for the first time, I couldn’t say that to them. I feel compelled to be a part of a world where it’s just what we talk about, it’s just a part of who we are.
I really love how you’re destigmatizing it, because it is really scary to share these stories and our troubles as people. While we’re on the subject, what was your process for writing the Odes to Lithium?
SE: In a couple of threads. I almost see it like there’s this nucleus and then these poems that sort of shoot out in different themes. So, certain processes. Like, if it’s something in my history, which is about a decade now… I was 22 when I first had a psychotic break and was misdiagnosed, misdiagnosed, misdiagnosed until about six years ago. So, in that history it’s very rich. It’s not like I’m writing the day after this all happened to me. I’m writing ten years into it, but still very close. I mean, my last break or my last issue with mental illness was only two years ago. So this is a constant readjusting to what my narrative is and what my story is and how I feel about sharing it.
So, one thread is to tell certain moments that would otherwise be erased or misunderstood. For example, “Snakes” is a moment that no one would know; it was just me and him in the room. So the idea is to have these narratives that are very grounded and stuck in the earth, that are of the earth, that showcase what it’s really like to live with mental illness and what kind of stigma we’re up against. So that’s one thread. Then sometimes I do the balloon trick. There’s a poem where I’m interacting with a flier on the wall asking for sperm donors but they don’t want anyone who is mentally ill, no history of mental illness. So in that poem, which should be a grounded one, instead I kind of make it surreal and make it a conversation that I’m having with the parents that are trying to not have me be their person who could house this baby, and what does that mean. So, sometimes one thread is very, very narrative and “true,” and sometimes the narrative is something that happened and then I insert something surreal into it. Another process has been just to go wild and let the horses run wild, and I’ll start with a little flicker, as I’m sure you might with painting or whatever form you’re interested in, where you have something stuck in your teeth and you’re like how do I get this out? and it will be a quote or a statistic and I’ll dive, not knowing where I’m going to end up, and go from there. For example, I just released a poem called “Perfect,” it’s an Ode to Lithium through The Baffler. It’s all about how Kay Redfield Jameson talked about choosing to buy a horse versus getting help from a psychiatric. So that’s just a quote that I read from a true thing she did, and I’ve done that. I’ve done crazy things instead of getting help, so that became the launching pad for that poem. It wasn’t something that happened to me, but it was something I could get really surreal and weird and wild about. And, I don’t know about you as a maker, but sometimes I look at a whole project and go, How can I really do this in the most ways so that I’m not pinpointed as one thing? How can I tell it straight, like the book Citizen by Claudia Rankine, she tells it very straight, and then how can I do it where I’m going out of my mind and kind of just in love and lusty and totally, you know, in this other realm? So I think you kind of look at the project as a whole and you say, How can I fill in these holes?
In your piece on Nomadic Press, which was amazing by the way, you speak of how your illness is not the only thing that motivates your work. I was wondering, what other things influence you?
SE: You mean art-wise?
SE: I guess in the very trite, traditional, cliché way, love, definitely. Whether it’s a crush or full-blown infatuation, that guides the ship often. A lot on my new album feels rooted in falling in love with the person I’ve been with for the past five years. I think this sense of cosmic connectedness. It might sound kind of cheesy, but it’s always felt really fascinating to me that we’re here at all, let alone all the details like my water bottle next to me, you in front of me, and the window and the sky, like all of that feels like we take it as a given every day, but when I sit down to write or to make I am suddenly deeply in touch with what it’s like not to know, to have possibility, to be intimate with myself, to be intimate with something, for a lack of better word, divine, something that is so, so, so unfathomable I could never even touch it with my mind. And I think that there’s spirituality for me— I find it very comforting to not be able to fathom God or be able to fathom this world. I think that is part of some of the magic that is available. A lot of my work that has nothing to do with illness has a lot to do with looking around and being like, what are we doing here, you know? I would also say that a large thread has to do with social justice and just giving a fuck about what is happening on the planet. Like, just looking around and saying how can I not be implicit, how can I speak up about what’s really unjust in this world?
In that Nomadic Press article, you mentioned how experiencing mental illness has created in you a greater sense of empathy. Could you elaborate on that?
SE: I guess that it’s really easy—and I think I was guilty of it—to judge others for what they can’t do, [based on] our perceptions of their effort and our perceptions of willpower. Our culture is really, really fond of willpower. We really believe in climbing to the top if you just work hard enough, and bootstrap ideas. I think that mental illness and all kinds of things throw a wrench in that because it doesn’t become about willpower. In fact, people suffering from mental illness probably have way more willpower than those who don’t. So, for me, the empathy comes from you, as somebody, and I as somebody, have had to traverse something that is so misunderstood, and it creates a sense of acceptance and willingness and wrestling, like wrestling with why this is true, why this part that I so identify with is flaking out on me or betraying me. And when you have to deal with those questions, which people without mental illness don’t have to really deal with, it creates a sense that that pondering, that journey, wherever you are on it and whatever diagnosis you have, I think it creates, if you let it, some space to not know, some space to, I don’t know, touch into a certain kind of strength, the strength to bear with what is not explained. We still don’t know so much about why this happens or how come it happens to certain people. So I think, for myself, looking back on this 10 years that it’s been, I just want to hug old me and be like, oh my god. I mean, even two years ago, five years ago, I just want to be like, relax your shoulders, and feel your heart, and know that other people want the best for you and you can know the best for you. I think that’s what I feel for myself, and I can extend that to anyone wherever they are, whether they’re just freshly dealing with this or whether they’re 75 years old and just now taking medication for something they’ve been dealing with for 30 years (which is someone I know). So, I don’t know, I think that whenever you are willing to not be rigid and to let unfathomability in, wonder can come in, too; joy can come in, too; relief can come in, too, and it just makes you bigger and able to contain more.
We are so excited to present a new video for your song "Dreams of Hearts." Can you tell us about it?
SE: This video was a collaboration between myself and the artist Katherine Finkelstein. She is primarily a photographer, and it was her first foray into video. I love the tenderness and intimacy of Katherine's photos and was honored to experiment. We both prize the preciousness of liminal time—that in-between space of an afternoon, lounging with a close friend, sharing wisps of dreams and song, cultivating true togetherness in a fast, fast world. "Dream of Hearts" was on my 2013 release Shouts & Sparks as a lighthearted, up-tempo electronic tune. Lately, I'd been playing it on guitar to myself, syrupy and slowed down. We spent a day and an eve shooting—talking about cat calling, friendship between women, and of course, music—luxuriating in the changing sunlight as it shifted across the room.
Interview by Shy Watson.