Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Great Right-Here by Ellyn Touchette and also had an opportunity to interview Touchette about the work. (University of Hell Press)
It’s kind of funny (not ha-ha funny) that we, as a society, have put a stigma on being open and honest about our mental health. We’re expected to quietly suffer, keeping this kind of pain confined to the offices of professionals (if we can even afford that), but it’s almost frowned upon to try and talk about this stuff in any sort of candid fashion. And to that, I say, Thank Christ for poetry.
Ellyn Touchette’s The Great Right-Here is an honest portrayal of someone coping with their mental health. She is fighting for a better life, but she doesn’t minimize her struggle for the sake her reader’s comfort. Using humor, she presents a well-rounded collection of poems that will inevitably crack you up, bring you down, and give you a whole new perspective on what people go through every single day.
I was lucky enough to ask Ellyn a few questions about her book and poetry.
Writing about mental health and painful moments can be cathartic, which shows a benefit in the act of writing, but it doesn’t always translate to good poetry or prose. What impressed me about The Great Right-Here is the craft is so impressive. You’ve written about these struggles and you’re still able to compose excellent work. What is your process?
If I could figure out my own process, I would probably be a much more prolific writer! I have endless notebooks full of false starts and weird premises—it’s very rare that I’ll sit down and bang out a full poem. I like going back through all of my one-liners and teasing them into full pieces.
Do you have thoughts about writing as a coping mechanism?
I sincerely believe that many people find writing to be an effective method of healing, to the point where I almost feel like a traitor when I admit that I’ve never found that to be the case—the writing happens, but getting something down on paper doesn’t usually make me feel any better, because it’s still just as much of a secret. For me, the actual recovery comes during and after the sharing process. I’ve found that telling a story aloud, even once, can soften pain that I’ve carried for years.
The Great Right-Here is a great conversation starter, I wonder if you’ve had any noteworthy discussions since its publication?
Absolutely! Recently, a high school kid saw me carrying some advance copies of my book while we were waiting in line for the same bus and asked what they were. We ended up talking for most of the three-hour ride about our shared experiences with mental illness. I’ve cried on a lot of busses, but that was definitely my all-time favorite bus-cry.
This is an effective and poignant book with these great shots of humor woven into it. How much thought did you put into these moments of levity, and did you include them intentionally to make the work as a whole more accessible?
Humor has unequivocally been my most frequently used coping skill, for better or for worse. The book covers a lot of scary ground, and I find that turning something into a joke allows me to meet it head-on while simultaneously dodging the worst of it.
What do you hope people get out of your book?
For neurotypical readers, I hope that I can open a window. I’ve seen depression and anxiety slowly become more and more normalized in the eyes of society, and it is a dream of mine that the same thing will happen for bipolar disorder.
For readers who see themselves in the book, I hope that I can open a door. The most game-changing affirmations I’ve had during this twisted little journey have come from folks who are walking the same path. If I can do that for even one other person, I’ll call the whole thing a success.
You’re putting yourself out there with this book. How do you practice self-care while examining yourself in your writing?
Self-care for me looks like taking my meds, going to therapy, and setting an example that people with bipolar can be perfectly stable/employable/safe to invest in emotionally—the irony being that these are also some of the most draining things I have to do on a regular basis.
What are the top 5 books you’ve read recently?
In no particular order:
- Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
- Soft Science, by Franny Choi
- If My Body Could Speak, by Blythe Baird
- Night Sky with Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong
- The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida
Get yourself a copy of Ellyn Touchette’s The Great Right-Here now.