Katherine DiBella Seluja has just released her new book, Gather the Night, which is largely an investigation into the complex emotions around mental illness and addiction, particularly as it affects the narrator’s brother, Lou. While much literature has been devoted to the stories of people suffering with these and other illnesses, there are fewer stories that speak to the experience of the bystander, those caught in the orbit of the illnesses and getting the midnight ER phone calls. Katherine allows us to feel the full scope of how these situations ripple into the tangential and shared spaces.
Nancy: Can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Katherine: Dissecting the impact of mental illness.
These poems have a story arc—the nostalgia of childhood, the illness(es), and the aftermath. Did you write them in this order or did the order come later? How long have you been writing these poems?
I did not write them in this order. They came in all kinds of ways. I did arrange them in something of a chronologic order when I was organizing the book. The first poem was written in 2010 and the manuscript was accepted for publication in 2016.
The character of Lou is battling not only schizophrenia but also alcoholism. Is this typical?
Sadly, it is extremely typical for individuals with moderate to severe behavioral illness to also suffer alcoholism and substance addiction. The effects of these addictions then confound the person’s symptoms. It can be very difficult to know what you’re looking at, like a large plate of tangled yarn.
In the book as in life the poems extend beyond Lou’s death: our poet narrator continues to live to the end of the book and then beyond the last page. I almost see it as a book of celebration for those who live as much as a eulogy for those departed. Your thoughts?
It was important for me to have the state beyond illness and beyond loss and grief represented in the book. The writing of this book helped me to get to that place. My brother died in 2012, when the book was about 2/3 written. Completing the book definitely helped me work my grief process. Yes, the narrator lives beyond the book but Lou does as well. The last poem in the book, Luminescent, hopefully conveys that sense.
How does being a nurse affect your understanding of Lou and others like him? Did your brother’s struggles inspire your choice to go into the healthcare field?
I’m sure Lou’s condition impacted my caregiver side but the thing that I’m most aware of that influenced my decision to become a nurse is that our mother was a nurse. Listening to her stories of WW II era nursing student antics (stealing the life-sized skeleton from the anatomy class on Halloween, making blue jello in nutrition class, blue jello in the 1940s!) convinced me this career was gonna’ be a barrel of fun.
In some poems I get almost a sense of sibling (survivor) guilt—why am I okay and you’re not?—which is so relate-able to so many survivors of tragedy. How do you reconcile these feelings?
It’s hard to be the sibling, especially the younger sibling, of any chronically ill person and not think, how come I didn’t get it? Will I get it later? And I’m not sure complete reconciliation of these feelings is ever available. Writing a book about it helps.
Do you feel a sense of completion with this subject matter or do you continue to return to it in your new material?
I kept writing about Lou in the year or two I was waiting for the book to be born (can you say, obsessed?) Interestingly, since the book has been published and I’ve been doing readings, I feel a much greater sense of peace regarding this part of my life.
What would Lou say if he read Gather the Night?
I’m pretty sure he would love it, but he’d probably ask me why I didn’t have a poem dedicated to his uncanny ability to quote long stretches of dialogue from The Godfather.
This is your first published book! Congrats! Has it been like you thought it would be? Can you tell us about your journey to publication with the University of New Mexico Press?
Thank you. I think it has been pretty much the way I imagined it. A very good poet-friend went through the entire publication process with UNM Press the year before me. So I got a bit of a sneak peek on the different stages of production. My publication journey began with the incredible good luck of landing in an amazing weekend workshop with Hilda Raz, the poetry editor for the press. It was one of those moments when you know you are exactly where you are supposed to be. The people I met and the work we did in that workshop were life changing. That workshop lead to a longer manuscript class. Toward the end of that class, I began to hope that maybe the book would find a home with UNM. But that required lots of patience and many more drafts. A great thing about UNM Press is that they utilize anonymous peer review as part of the acceptance process. This process can be somewhat grueling but in the end I think it is so well worth it, as you can feel confident about your final manuscript.
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Be patient, take your time. We place so much pressure on ourselves to submit and publish. Honoring the process of creation and allowing the work to blossom is so important. We are not favoring a “culture of slow” these days, but it is vital to our creative process and the successful mining of deep life experiences. And if you’ve become an expert in patience while creating your book, you’ll be all prepared for the huge amount of patience generally required for production!
Anything else you want to add?
If you have something to say, say it. But be patient and work really hard. Set you standards ridiculously high. Stay true to your vision but be open to feedback from trusted sources. Don’t rush to publish. Let your work simmer. Let the flavors meld and the sauce thicken. Follow your instincts. Dig deep. And thank you, Nancy for inviting to do this interview!
My pleasure! Thank YOU!
Katherine DiBella Seluja is a poet and a nurse practitioner. She is the author of Gather the Night (UNM Press, 2018), a first poetry collection that focuses on the impact of mental illness. Winner of the Southwest Writers poetry award, her work has appeared in bosque, Broadsided Press, Claudius Speaks, Literary Orphans and Intima, among others. Her poem, “Letter to my suegra from Artesia, New Mexico” won honorable mention in the Santa Ana River Review contest, judged by then US poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. A collaborative poetry collection, We Are Meant to Carry Water, written with Tina Carlson and Stella Reed, is forthcoming from 3: A Taos Press in 2019. Katherine lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, her daughter and a cat called Fish.