Katherine DiBella Seluja is a nurse poet obsessed with translating years of health and illness experiences into flashfiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Adobe Walls, New Mexico Poetry Review and Santa Fe Literature Review, among others. She is currently working on a flock of pieces dedicated to her schizophrenic brother.
Katherine DiBella Seluja Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
These pieces are from a manuscript you dedicate to your schizophrenic brother. The way you experiment with and cross genres in these pieces seems appropriate in this context and given the meanings of the pieces, which are enhanced by the forms you've used. I think it's very cool when I see an artist successfully cross genres. Could you tell us a bit about the form and genres you've chosen and why you chose them?
There are three primary voices in the manuscript: that of the psychotic brother, the sister and another authoritative voice. Many of the poems are from the point of view of the sister and seemed to naturally fall into a couplet form. The mania that comes through the brother's voice seemed best represented by blocks of prose that I think of as prose poetry on LSD. The authoritative "factoid" voice became apparent in His Melting Face when small fractured pieces of lyric essay began to appear. Originally, I wanted every page and every piece to look drastically different in order to better reflect the experience of living with mental illness, but I was getting feedback that perhaps this would be too confusing. I am still considering ways to heighten the contrasting forms within the manuscript.
One thing that I love about these pieces is that they form a larger narrative in which the voice[s] changes, generates and degenerates, while much of the imagery recurs. I also love that, in these poems, some of those images have qualities that we don’t normally associate them with – purple can be ice-cold; water can scream. I love the sensory mash-up this voice creates as it progresses. Does the journey of this voice reflect your own journey, or maybe a collective journey?
One aspect of psychosis is that the senses may be experienced very differently from what you or I might feel. Work is currently being done in the field of neuroscience looking at the so called laxity of the frontal lobe and the part it plays in mental illness as well as great artistic ability. There are similar frontal cortex responses during episodes of mental illness as during periods of great creative manifestation. The sensory mash-up you mention is representative of this cortical connection. I began to see the beauty in this psychotic voice and felt it could lend itself well to poetry. Hopefully, the poems provide some understanding of the world behind the locked ward door. They are also speaking for the mania that is often experienced by the family members of someone who is living with mental illness. I open the manuscript with a quote from Carl Jung that resonates for me: A schizophrenic is no longer schizophrenic when he feels understood by someone else.
Is your development of these voices sustained throughout the manuscript you are working on? Could you tell us about your concept for the manuscript?
Word Salad, Sing to Me and The Answer are all part of a suite of poems within the manuscript that represent that psychotic state. The overall concept for the manuscript is contrasting and sometimes merging the voices of the psychotic brother and that of the sister who is witnessing the complete disintegration of her brother, a surreal experience unto itself. There are also interludes of another authoritative voice, overlaying or interrupting the "craziness" with a narrative of factoids.
Your bio says that you translate your experiences as a nurse into flash fiction and poetry. I’ve been curious over the years to understand how that process works – how writers convey that part of the human experience without breaching confidentiality or infringing on anyone’s privacy. Could you tell us the story of your creative process – from the formation of an idea to the fictionalizing/poem-alizing of the experience?
Every nurse and most health care workers recognize that they carry many of their patients' stories within them. And there are always a few that really stick. I usually start there, with one of those stories that have been walking around with me for much longer than I may have even realized. The seed for a piece may be an image, a name, a diagnosis, a set of symptoms or a certain smell (I love the way the hospital smells in the early summer). Then I let that guiding thought unravel and see where we land. After many years in healthcare and several personal illness events, I began to realize the cupboard was getting pretty full and I needed to find a way to honor, respect and release some of these stories. The nature of nursing, particularly when caring for critically ill individuals, is one of rapid intimacy. We are often required to reveal much more of ourselves during an illness process than we normally would in our daily lives. This intimacy is a propelling force in my writing. In terms of privacy, many of the individuals I write about are no longer alive. I see no infringement of privacy but only the highest form of honoring them and our process together.
I’m always happy to find writers who are not teachers (don’t get me wrong – I have a profound respect for teachers, and I used to be one). But it’s wonderful to find people in other professions who are writing and publishing. Why did you choose writing, particularly poetry and flash fiction, as opposed to any other art form or form of expression?
I did originally choose the musical arts. I studied classical piano for 15 years and frequently wrote lyrics. I believe my sense of rhythm in poetry is related to this early musical training. But my life took a turn and I entered healthcare. About 10 years ago, I participated in a very powerful monologue process for caregivers. In the space of two weeks, we each composed, rehearsed and then performed on stage a five minute monologue. This allowed me to experience the power of the written and spoken word in a very physical way. I then became drawn to the notion of describing harsh life events in poetic form and was inspired by the work of Marie Howe and Dorianne Laux, for example. This style of placing intense or horrific life events into lyrical form excites me and gives me hope. It shows me that there are ways to manifest aspects of trauma with beauty and grace.
His Melting Face
Spring 1975: I was 15 when my brother had his first psychotic break.
I was scalded by his liquidating mind. He taught himself the mandolin.
A teacher had shown him a few chords. Maybe because it was spring,
maybe the F string was tight, but the sheen in his eye made me
want to white out my tongue.
I waited several days before telling my parents Lou had turned into wax.
From a very young age Madame Tussaud was trained in the art of wax anatomy.
Due to her great skill with pliable material and the human form, she was introduced at Versailles in 1802.
Tight strands on larynx: Residents of Greystone Psychiatric Hospital were the mortar that crumbled from the building's facade. As a student nurse, my mother was plaiting a patient’s long grey hair. Suddenly, the woman grabbed the braid and wrapped it tight around my mother’s neck. She also grabbed the shiny scissors from my mother’s starched white pocket.
ICE CANDLE RECIPE: Prepare the container of your choice, old milk cartons work best. While the wax is heating, place crushed ice into carton. Pour melted wax into container. As molten meets frozen, ice retreats, leaving behind a labyrinth of caves. Work carefully, hot liquid combusts without warning.
Sharp buzzer, curt wave: There exists exact procedure for allowing entrance into any restricted space. A precise system of signals and responses is strictly followed when entering a psychiatric ward. Double-paned glass, magnetic locks and a sense of melting lung were all part of the cascade of motion called visiting hour.
It was stunning truly stunning all that purple red purpled red purple blew up all over the sky but then Einstein was up late that night on the roof working on the box it's gonna' take time travel
to the whole next level something like wax and ice cold purple that stings if you get too close it never talks out loud because you know what happens if you don't whisper all the stars watching
every night but Einstein doesn't care he just keeps on burning and splashing new thoughts thoughts and words that gleep gleep schloom schloom I told him when he was in the bath tub
he should turn the radio off the water screams way too loud.
Sing for me
The soap went down the drain into the mud the rats the people living there really living and breathing in the drains all over the city I never knew there were so many that's where they go like the girl with the hair at the hospital she's been in that drain before she has that look that I can't fit my body through these little holes that open up at night look big enough for the whole floor to drop through that's why wood is so precious now wood and gold hammering on the roof Einstein asked me to bring up more nails but who knows what nails sound like when I got up there he was swinging his feet back and forth back forth I could see it wasn't really that far I could sweep my fingers right through the stars
and that's when I knew I had the answer.
Why the girl in the drain
why the strings move like worms
why the stars sing when it rains
a special sign between us
when I'm cold or hungry
the stars talk and I know a gift is coming
a blanket or shoes or not getting slammed in the face
why if I get there first I can find a spot in the tunnel
a really good spot so the mandolin can finally get some rest