The CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services is also an accomplished poet
I fell for your ginger hair
the same way birds went for it
during nest building.
It made me think in Spanish—
of the sun falling asleep on my pillow
and the sun waking.
Of la puesta del sol
and el amanecer.
Of the masculine and feminine.
Of broken chairs that needed a man’s touch.
— from “Oranges,” by Kita Shantiris
By Andy Vasoyan
As CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, Dr. Kita S. Curry oversees a nonprofit that handles more than 55,000 calls a year on its 24/7 Suicide Prevention Center hotline and provides crisis counseling, support and referral services to as many as 90,000 adults and children. She’s testified before the California Legislature, led professional association boards and rallied supporters at annual fundraisers.
Google “Kita Shantiris,” however, and you’ll get results from an entirely different life. That Kita is an award-winning poet; her work is dark, introspective, often seductive and sometimes disconcerting.
“Something edgy and intense haunts Kita Shantiris’ poems, always threatening to flare up just outside their frames,” writes poet Amy Gerstler, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award.
On Sunday, Kita Shantiris joins actor George Segal (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) at Diesel Bookstore for a reading from her first book of poetry, “What Snakes Want.”
You’re a psychologist, a CEO, and a poet; some would think it unusual to find each of those aspects together in one person. How did all of these things become part of your life?
It’s actually not that unusual, or it didn’t use to be! Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. T.S. Eliot was a banker. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. It seems less common now, maybe.
Back then, it actually came about in a pretty orderly way. I entered college at the University of Pennsylvania as a Chinese major, but I quickly learned that I didn’t want to be an academic. I discovered psychology by accident. I took a yearlong course and it was amazing! I say that it combines poetry and science because there’s the intuitive, emotional part of psychology, and there’s a very scientific part of it too. I knew I wanted to go to grad school for that, but I was also an on and off writer, so I changed my major to English and took statistics and psychology courses. I’m one of those people who like math and English, and I like that in math you know when you have the right answer: it’s like a spreadsheet, all beautiful and organized. A poem is not at all a spreadsheet.
Did you go straight into getting your PhD and working in psychology?
Oh no, I spent four years working. When I finally did go to grad school, I actually started getting distracted during my lectures, thinking about poems I could write. After that I found the writing scene in L.A., at Beyond Baroque in Venice. This was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I took a leave from graduate school, wrote and published, went to Spain, taught poetry, all that.
Went to Spain?
Oh yes, isn’t that what all writers do? I went there not knowing Spanish, just wandering around, and I even ended up at the home of the poet Robert Graves. He tried to get me to stay in this little expatriate town. I wanted to learn Spanish from the locals, so I left.
Eventually I came back to L.A. and started teaching poetry in schools, while also working as a bartender at a fern bar in Venice. They called me “Daytime Kita,” because I wasn’t allowed to bartend at night.
So you’re a bartender, a teacher and a writer; where does psychology reenter the picture?
In the schools. A lot of my friends from Beyond Baroque were also teaching in schools, coming in as guest poets, and I was too. I realized that I didn’t just want to help kids write about their feelings, I wanted to help them deal with their feelings, too. I went back to graduate school after that.
Was there something about working with kids and teens specifically that made you reconnect with psychology?
When I was young I had depression, and my mom told me not to tell anyone about it. I got treatment at a community mental health center. For a time, we didn’t have a roof over our heads, and we weren’t supposed to say anything about that. My sister has bipolar disorder, although she won’t acknowledge it. We still haven’t escaped the era of when mental illnesses were things caused by demons or possession or whatever. If we didn’t understand something we were afraid of it. The same thing is true about the things that happen in people’s lives: Don’t tell anybody that we had the lights turned off, don’t tell anybody that dad beats mom, don’t tell anyone that you made a suicide attempt. Mental illnesses and the problems in people’s lives shouldn’t be their shame; that’s my approach to writing and that’s my approach to leading an agency trying to erase the stigmas associated with mental illnesses.
How do you find time to do both your work in the agency and your writing?
I like to work in the middle of the night, because it’s quiet — there’s no distraction and you can be alone. Poetry itself is very solitary, unless you’re doing a reading. But for a while I thought the poetry well had run dry. I hadn’t written in many years. I was immersed in my work, and then I wrote one poem, and then another, and I found it again.
Now that you’re doing both jobs, who are you? Are you Kita Shantiris, or Kita Curry, or do you contain multitudes?
Both? (Laughs). Yeah, both! It wasn’t the case at first, because at work I wear suits and everyone at work only sees that narrow slice of me, and then there’s the part of me that was a writer. By now, most of the people have seen me read or seen my work. I did have to think about, “Oh God! Maybe I shouldn’t read this sexy poem in front of them,” because that is not something I would do as the CEO. But then, I was like, “Well, sex is in everyone’s life, so why not write about it?!”
So is that what snakes want?
Oh, snakes want lots of things! There are male and female snakes, and they have various needs … but in the case of the title, that’s not what snakes want. You’ll have to read the poem to find out.
Kita Shantiris reads from “What Snakes Want” from 3 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 6, at Diesel, A Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit kitashantiris.com.