We’ve never met Shannon Cuthrell in person. We’re in Minneapolis; she’s in North Carolina, where she attends college at Appalachian State University. But we feel like we know her through her poems. She sent them to us last summer, with illustrations, and we fell for them immediately. They’re wry and vulnerable, surreal and vivid. They document a two-year period in which she struggled with bipolar disorder. They’re gutsy, filled with boys with espresso eyes, demons at cocktail parties and all manner of emotional turbulence and mental health challenges. We’ve never read anything like them. Cuthrell calls the collection The Great Repression, which is a reminder to herself to own her past and not push it down into her subconscious. We’ll be publishing the book soon, and Cuthrell has requested that a percentage of sales go to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. We’re also delighted to present our conversation with her today, which happens to be World Bipolar Day.
TP: When did you decide you wanted to batch these poems together into a collection?
SC: I realized that I had a lot of untitled and unfinished documents on my laptop that needed a place. So I compiled all of the poems together in December 2013, organizing and shaping them into exactly what I wanted them to be. Then I sent the full manuscript out to dozens of publishers, hoping to one day get noticed. And you got back to me.
TP: How do you feel bipolar disorder has influenced your poetry, as a writer and both as a reader of your own work? Do the interpretations change?
SC: It definitely has provided a lot of experiences to write about. But I think creativity in mental illness is often romanticized. There’s nothing glamorous about it. It’s difficult to have so many racing thoughts that you can’t focus on one long enough to make something out of it. It’s endlessly frustrating. When I was manic, most of my writing had a lot of rich ideas and imagery, but it wasn’t pieced together clearly and it only made sense to me. When I was depressed, my writing was just as unclear. But after becoming medicated, I was able to recycle those images and make them into something relatable, understandable and even better than before.
TP: Is it difficult to write about painful experiences, or is it cathartic?
SC: Writing about difficult experiences actually comes natural to me. I think it’s because I was wildly angry throughout childhood, so most of my writing, recorded in journals was very much a release of emotion. Later, that venting writing style developed into something more complex. I learned to hone my anger through my writing and because of that, it isn’t really triggering. What’s more triggering, though, is verbally talking about painful experiences. There’s something more intimate and delicate about it. You can always delete or edit the written word, but you can never retract the spoken word. It’s also hard to trust people. I’ve been misunderstood a lot through talking to people, but not often through my writing.
TP: I love how much music informs your work, and what it means to you. Are there artists and songs that you play to get in a mood to write?
SC: I have a playlist of songs that I listen to when writing. I have a personal rule that songs in that playlist must be wordless and I have to know them by heart. When I listen to songs I haven’t previously heard when writing, I often get distracted and caught up in the newness of them. Listening to new music is almost a religious experience for me, and should happen at a time when I’m not writing. I’m particular about my music. I think that’s why there are so many musical allusions in my writing. It’s a big part of my life. I listen to a lot of electronic remixes of my favorite songs and so much Four Tet, Tycho and Caribou.
TP: Do you have a structure to your writing life, or do you capture thoughts as you get them?
SC: I usually think of a lot of ideas while driving and I write most when I visit home in Raleigh. My writing at school tends to come across as professional, like a term paper would. But at home, I lock myself in my room and turn on Christmas lights hanging up on my walls so I’m mostly surrounded by darkness. I’m able to think more clearly at home than at school. It’s weird, you’d think home would be distracting, being surrounded by so many memories — good and bad. But those memories motivate me. Raleigh will always be my safe space. That’s why I got the skyline tattooed on my wrist. It looks like an EKG heartbeat scan and it’s a reminder that home will always be pumping through my veins.
TP: How have your poems been received by your friends and family? Do any people get defensive?
SC: I get a lot of positive reception of my poetry from friends and family, even from those who don’t prefer poetry as a medium. One problem I have, and this will probably continue as long as I’m writing, is that, sometimes, people often think that some of my more relatable, generic poetry is about them, but it isn’t. That’s always frustrating.
TP: When you were struggling with mania, how did you manage to hang on to reality?
SC: I’ve never been able to hang onto reality well, even now that I’m medicated. I think that’s always something I’ll struggle with. When I was manic, my biggest issue was lack of sleep, which left me in a consistent trance-like state. I remember telling my mom through a Skype call my freshman year that my friends would always ask me if I was on drugs. That always hurt me that they would assume that, but now I see why. My behavior was very similar to someone on a psychedelic binge of sorts — distant from reality and far from normal.
TP: Who is the writer that means the most to you?
SC: The writers that have influenced me the most are not poets at all, but they are most certainly wordsmiths. Hunter S. Thompson has profoundly shaped my writing into what it is today. His unique voice found me at a crazy time in my life when I needed some substance, something to cling onto. Sometimes you hear or read something and you think it’s exactly what you’ve been searching for your whole life. That’s who Thompson is for me. I own almost all of his books and have done days of research about his writing, his life and his personality, and I just can’t get enough. Bob Dylan has also played a big role in inspiring me to create original, unique images like he does in his music. When I need inspiration I listen to his spoken word poem called “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie.” Every word is so finely chosen. He’s magnificent.
TP: I love that you’re planning to pursue a path in neuroscientific journalism. What is it about cognitive studies that most appeals to you?
SC: The idea that, despite technological advances and new studies being produced every day, we still have so much to learn about the brain — miles of information is waiting to be discovered. I was raised in a more liberal arts home, so science was never really an interest for me until I became diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It’s incredible how intricately complex and different each brain is, while all being part of a whole system, all operating similarly. Immersing myself in neuroscientific studies and getting to write about it is the perfect combination for me for a career. I have so much to learn.
TP: When was the last time you felt you might be slipping into some scary inner thoughts? And what do you do to be kind to yourself?
SC: It’s important to tell yourself that you’re going to get through it. Even though I’ve been medicated for almost two years, I still haven’t even scratched the surface of having control over my thoughts. I often catch myself slipping into dark or unrealistic scenarios in my head. It’s necessary to tell yourself that these tendencies are normal and that’s OK. No one is as perfect as they seem. And it’s important for people to realize that being medicated is not being cured, even though it’s a step toward happiness and healthiness. That’s something that needs to be more emphasized in the mental health awareness community.
TP: What would be the number one top-of-mind thing you will tell you poets about how to describe their feelings?
SC: Look for people who inspire you and hold on to them. Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all … For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.” So much of my writing has been influenced by amazingly creative people with whom I choose to surround myself. Get the most out of your friendships — swap ideas and stories and learn from people, really learn from people. Have an open mind and a listening ear. There’s nothing more respectable in a writer than embracing criticism and compliments. Read everything. And don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of anything or anyone, even yourself.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.