Shira Erlichman and Angel Nafis are exquisite poets, gifted performers and everyone’s relationship goals. Fittingly, the couple met at a poetry reading six years ago and have been together since. This is their first tour as a duo. Starting from New York City, they have crossed the West Coast, Deep South and are finally coming back to the East Coast to wrap up their tour. On Tuesday night in the Hopper Cabaret, the duo performed slam poetry and Erlichman played several songs from her new album. After the show, the couple sat down with WKND to talk about poetry, music and interracial queerness.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in not just touring but performing together?
A: No matter how fun it is and no matter how nice everyone is, it’s still a job. Even though it’s the best job ever and I love what I’m doing, it’s still working. So I have to reconcile the part of me that’s like, I don’t want to do this, with the part of me that’s like, yeah, you do. But then the minute I’m doing it, all the “don’t wanna do it goes” away. But it’s literally like up until I say a poem, I don’t want to.
S: I think it’s weird to say it but the performance aspect is never hard. Especially if we have a really hard day — everything has gone wrong, we run out of gas on the highway — actually performance for me feels really strangely like an “on switch.” Maybe it’s being good at your job, but it’s cathartic and it’s good to look out at people. And you’re like, this is why I’m doing it. Like yeah, shit was crazy at that AutoZone we just went to to fix this mashed windshield but at least I get to look at these people and feel grounded.
A: We have good boundaries at home. The business stuff is just talking about bills for 20 minutes and then we can go back to just being us. But now it’s always business. You have to talk about everything all the time. And I hate all that shit. Because I just want to like play and like doodle and like snack. On the road there’s no boundary for it. Everything is kind of minutely work related, even our coupledom in some ways. So that can be tricky.
Q: Well, yeah, because you’re marketing the coupledom which I imagine has a different dynamic.
S: We’ve been really precious about not marketing our — anything. We’ve been together for like six years. We didn’t go on tour until now for a reason, even if it was subconscious. I’ve toured with other people for about the same length and no matter what, exquisite communication or dilapidated communication will be your success or your downfall. So I think it’s particularly important when that person is your person.
A: I always have such a huge foundation of admiration and respect for you so I can dislike you very much and still think, you’re probably right, and you’re smart. I’ve been with people before where I would just say, in fact, I’m mad, so I don’t fucking trust what you’re saying, and you’re actually not that smart, and scratch this whole thing. It’s really a blessing when at the root is an immense amount of respect and admiration.
S: I’ve said to Angel too that having a rough day and then hearing her work on stage makes me re-enter integrity. She has so much integrity — it brings me back. And that is really precious because who knows who you could be? Some bassist who I hate.
Q: What do you find inspiring about each other?
A: The thing that inspires me the most will always be — and I don’t think it’s something that you revel in the way that I cherish it. But she’s an artist and she’s always been an active artist. She’s been making things consistently since she was like 15 and she’s 32 now. So her pockets are so deep and wealthy with poems and stories and songs that she could do a different show every single night and never repeat stuff. If she wanted to. There’s something to me very demystifying about that. It makes me feel like art is for everyone; art is every day and art isn’t this precious thing where it’s like I have these 10 poems and maybe I’ll have another one in like 10 years — no. She’s just like [makes fart noise three times].
S: Mine is kind of similar.
A: Bitch, you can’t copy me. Nice try.
S: I know. But there’s a difference. There’s a way that people effort a voice — I’m speaking specifically about poetry — people effort a voice. They’re like I wanna sound lofty, I wanna sound poetic. But Angel taught me. Before I even knew her, I knew a little bit of her work. A friend read me one of her poems and I was really astounded. I was like, woah this is exactly what I like. And I haven’t heard it before, so how could it be that this is familiar and yet totally strange. But the authenticity and integrity of what she wants to say takes precedence and the poetry like gallops afterwards. Friends have joked that Angel talks in poetry, and that’s easy to dismiss, but I think much in the way that you grew up listening to sermons there’s a type of value on the spoken word and on the written word and on poetry that is entirely woven into the way we are. Not the way we have to be, or reach towards.
Q: Angel, you write a lot about race. How do you two navigate race in your relationship? And in your art?
S: I’m stuck on navigate.
A: You do navigate it though. You’re careful. And you’re not careless. That is a form of navigation. You’re very thoughtful. I know that’s a way that you navigate it. And I navigate race in our relationship by always saying what I think.
S: Always. Always.
A: I never try to figure out how to say it, I just say it. And I think that is the two prominent ways.
S: I think that’s correct. Explicitness, especially on your end. And the capacity for myself to pause. I think if I didn’t have that we couldn’t be in a relationship.
A: No we certainly could not. But, you know, it’s more that you pause that makes it — it’s like, she’s not really perpetrating, She’s not doing shit that she needs to pause, per se, it’s that she pauses that makes love possible. It’s like, it’s like — you know when the bar is so low that you’re like, as long as this dude isn’t putting a roofie in my cup, what a guy! It’s almost the opposite of that. She is so caring and careful with my heart and my personhood that it almost never gets to the part where she needs to pause. But she still does. When someone takes extra care beyond what is necessary there’s a freedom and — I don’t even want to say safety — I just don’t feel trapped. I feel so fucking trapped so often. I’ve been in relationships with other people of different races and I have felt like they were deeply considerate, deeply aware people. But I’ve never been with someone before where I’ve felt that who she is is fundamentally appalled at the things that would make me smaller. Beyond race, beyond anything. Her goal when she’s talking to me — it’s in not wanting to make me feel fucked up and small. It emanates out of her in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a consideration.
S: She’s also not confused. She’s not confused about loving herself and prioritizing blackness as a part of what makes her feel whole. And so stepping into that is kind of different. I’ve been with white folks who have been really confused about who they are. And that makes it difficult to have a single, straightforward conversation. My family has always said to me, Angel’s really good for you because she’s really straightforward. And that can be really jarring but it’s ultimately the biggest gift to just tell someone who you are and what you think. It shows immense trust and care to show that. I think about just being white and what it means to feel implicated separately from Angel in issues of racism and oppression across the board. I feel like I need to be 150 percent correct with myself in how implicated I am with those movements and how I conduct myself daily.
A: I just want to challenge that. I mean it’s great what you’re saying— there should be a room full of people hearing what you’re saying. I’ve been in relationships where it’s like, wow this person’s really sweet; I know they care about me deep, deep down but at the same time, like, shut yo white ass up. Like shut up, like shut the fuck up! And I’ve never felt that way about you. I haven’t felt it in my heart. There are moments where I’ve been like that’s the whitest shit I’ve ever heard, Shira. I think at the end of the day you have to be with someone who, when it comes down to the essence of it, you’re not thinking, shut your white ass up, and the other person isn’t thinking, can we just drop it.
S: Whatever implication means, it can’t be cerebral. For example, it’s hard to explain that dating you changed me. And I was always prepared to date you. Those two things can exist at the same time. And part of that is how implicated I am in you. You said I don’t make you feel small. I could flip a table in front of you because we’re implicated in each other so deeply. I can’t imagine you feeling small — it has nothing to do with race, even though it does, you know? So, level at which I want to hear you should always outweigh anything else.
A: That’s what I’m saying. Even if this bitch wasn’t “woke,” she so deeply wants me not to be annihilated that that would sing louder than any lexicon she had. Even if she wasn’t like, oh, the system, blah blah blah, she would just want me to be heard. And that is it. And that’s the root of her work too. That’s at the root of what I’m making. So if you’re tryna be on some partner shit, that’s what you have to have.
S: It can’t stop with you. I hate it when I see white people be like, my partner or cousin or friend’s daughter who’s black and it just has to be wider, obviously. If you only cared about my bipolar that would never work. It has to be that you value language in the world and the way mental health is treated in the world. You’re a helpful force for me.
A: Well you believe in me.
S: Well you believe in me, too. And we’ve had conversations where your frustration is actually faith in me.
A: I think that’s it. I could be with people who aren’t you and it would be fine and it would keep going but it would be like, that’s my work and that’s my relationship and these are my friends. But with her, she’s — she’s my life. And that level of admiration and equivalency. I feel like I’m looking at someone who’s looking at me is what makes it impossible to compartmentalize.
This interview has been edited for flow and clarity.
Contact Coryna Ogunseitan at firstname.lastname@example.org .