September 14–20, 2020
Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) and the chapbooks Ebb (New-Generation African Poets) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Cleveland State University, where she was the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing. She is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati, where she is a Provost Fellow. Her poems have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review and elsewhere. On Wednesday, September 23, Chatti will read online for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Dell Lemmon and Vievee Francis.
Portrait of the Illness as Nightmare
No matter how many times you ring the bell in the bad dark,
no one will let you in. You face the fun
house with its mirrors on the outside
so everyone can see. And everyone looks. You are in your underwear
and the room is cold. The doctor’s stethoscope pressed to you
becomes suddenly a snake. Your heart hisses in its cage. Your heart sputters,
a doused flame. You are drowning in your blue paper gown, which recedes
in the back like an ocean, your skin a bank of hot sand.
The horizon bleeds and the days and you
wander lost in a city of scalpels where everything glitters
and pills fade like moons on your tongue. You sidle through
sterile labyrinths and piss in a cup. You wait in a room like a chapel
or the belly of a beast. Either way, you think
something will save you, you believe this the whole fearsome time.
Your god comes and he is ordinary and terrible. He confers
with the doctors at your kitchen table and tells you to eat
your clots, round as peas. You want dessert. You want to
deceive him, but he, like you, has eyes, and uses them.
You are grounded, in the ground. The pit is a tub
and you are washing in your body’s black water. You rise
like a fever. You writhe on a bed on a stage, the strings reaching
toward heaven. There is a momentary break for everyone
else: intermission. They chatter in the lobby. You babble
symptoms in a white confessional. You fall from a great height and land
on a gurney. You are at the front of a classroom and you are stripped
to your bones. The doctor points to your pelvis. You model
the tumors—in this light they look pretty, like jewels.
—From Deluge, Copper Canyon Press, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem in response to a prompt my friend Rebecca Bornstein sent our group of MFA friends; she’d sent us the following words to use in a poem: model, momentary, deceive, strings, drown, ruler, doorbell, round, swim, nightmare.
I had never written a “dream” poem before, and I suppose was a little resistant to the idea, but as soon as I saw the word “nightmare” on the word list, my mind leapt at it. So often, when I would describe my experience, the response would be something along the lines of “Oh my god, that sounds like a nightmare!” I was interested, I think, subconsciously, in exploring that—leaning into the metaphors of nightmares to reveal more clearly the terrors of my reality.
What are you working on right now?
Ha! Speaking of the terrors of my reality … After I wrote the final poem of Deluge, which was indeed the actual last poem of the book, the cento, I fell into a deep depression. I had been riding a high in the months leading up to that moment that was not sustainable, a period of heightened creativity and energy, but during which my health was strained by the intensity of the work. I crashed. It was hard for me to write anything that resembled, to me, a poem for a long time after, and this caused me great distress. I actually spent the next two years reading a lot about cognition, creativity and the brain, trying to research my way out of writer’s block. All this to say—up until very recently, I wasn’t working on much and desperately trying to be! This year, I realized I was too tightly wound (I think this surprises no one who knows me) and decided to stop trying to create some kind of literary masterpiece every time I faced the blank page, and to instead start playing games, writing word doodles or poems with wild constraints, like a daily Sudoku puzzle to keep me sharp and entertained.
Reframing the process of writing (“I’m not writing, I’m playing!”) opened things up for me, and now I’m working—slowly!—on a handful of projects, I think five at the most recent count. Most of these projects are strange and unlike my previous work, which I think is a good thing. I just started a PhD program, and being in workshop again has been a helpful nudge to write a little faster, but I’m still keeping much of my work private for now. Only my partner knows what I’m working on, and I’ll likely continue to keep these projects close to the vest until I’m ready to send them into the world, when they’re finished.
What’s a good day for you?
A fun question to consider! I’d say: waking up at 7 AM feeling well rested, having breakfast made for me while I write in my office with a cup of tea, going somewhere new (I move fairly frequently, so there’s often a lot new to explore—right now, it’s autumn, so I’d love to explore an apple orchard or pumpkin patch), picking up ice cream, coming home to cook dinner and watching a movie or playing a video game in the evening. Basically, I like days where I get to write, see new things and eat.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I’ve moved a lot, so home is both hard and not hard for me to consider—the only place that’s really been constant is my hometown, East Lansing, Michigan, where I lived for most of my childhood. I spent my twenties moving all around the country, and briefly abroad. About a month ago, I moved to Cincinnati, so I suppose this is my home, though I feel a bit of a fraud saying that, as I hardly know anything about it yet. I live in a very beautiful old building, and it has a turret, which is where my office is—I claimed it, because how cool is it to have an office in a turret? I feel like Yeats or something, up in a tower writing poems. The neighborhood is very sweet, though I haven’t been able to take full advantage of much because of the quarantine. I do very much enjoy the old-fashioned gaslight lamps that line the streets, which I find charming. My first impressions of Cincinnati are that it’s very green, has a surprising amount of hills for a city allegedly in the Midwest, and is quite hot. The people I’ve encountered, at an appropriate social distance, are wonderfully kind. I’m looking forward to settling in here for a bit.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Very little, regrettably! I only began venturing to New York really in the past five years, visiting for various writing-related things (after visiting maybe twice for vacation before that). I seem to only find myself in Brooklyn when it is very cold and snowy. Most recently, I was in town in December, to read with Marie Howe and Yehoshua November at the Brooklyn Public Library. That was really a magical time. Marie and I were there early, and there was a big snowstorm outside, and we weren’t sure if people were going to make it to the reading—we’d been getting messages from folks stopped up by the snow. So we took the platters of cookies that were going uneaten—it was Marie’s very good idea—and took them upstairs to the main part of the library, where most people were using computers. We brought them around to folks and chatted about all sorts of things during the exchange, rarely poetry actually, and I was very charmed by all this, that this was my life, talking with strangers and eating cookies, and then going downstairs to read poems about God. What a dream! Then afterward, I went trekking through the snow with two friends, one of whom I’d just met, and found a little restaurant still open, and we ate and talked into the night. It was wonderful, truly.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
Because I move all the time, a lot of my writing community is at a distance. I was lucky to have had a really wonderful MFA experience and cohort, and am still very close with my classmates. In particular, my two best friends—Bryce Emley and Samuel Piccone—and I have a great creative friendship on top of just really liking one another as people. Despite living in different states for these five years post-graduation, we’re good at keeping up correspondence and keeping each other accountable with writing and submitting work. We send each other books and literary journals in the mail and do poem-a-day challenges every other month. We also send each other our good news, disappointments and questions. It’s really a beautiful thing, to know you’re not in this alone. And it’s been exciting, to see us move together along this path, growing alongside each other from unpublished babies to, well, whatever we are now.
I’ve just begun my PhD, and really, really enjoy my cohort here as well. Though we’re at a distance (quarantine!), the students in the program have made such wonderful effort in reaching out and building community with us newcomers. The faculty has been great, too, and though I’m not even a month in, I feel very well taken care of here in Cincinnati. I’m hoping we’ll soon be able to gather in person, but am enjoying making community at a distance for now.
I’ve also been blessed with a robust community online, some folks I’ve met adventuring around at writing conferences or readings, and some I’ve yet to meet in person. As someone who moves so often, I’ve really appreciated having an online community because it remains constant wherever I am. It helps not to feel so isolated. I view my own role in an/the online writing community as one in which I lift others up, either through direct engagement or by sharing work I love. The world is miserable, and so often I feel that misery acutely, so I turn my efforts to positivity and encouragement. I just don’t have interest or energy for cruelty or competition; I came to poetry from a place of love, and I want to protect that spirit.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
What a tough question! Isn’t everyone in Brooklyn?! The first person to come to mind was Tina Chang, Brooklyn’s first female poet laureate. Tina selected my poems for a contest at Nimrod early in my career, my first big success—I had been living in France that fall, and flew back to the States to give a reading and workshop in Tulsa as part of the prize, and met her there. I was so grateful for the whole experience, but was grappling with some real imposter syndrome, and Tina was so encouraging and welcoming. She made me feel like I really belonged there. That meant so much to me.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I have had such wonderful mentors, and they continue to guide me! My first was my high school English teacher Marianne Forman. She found me as an eighth-grader and told me she had heard about me and the poems I wrote, and was looking forward to teaching me; I had a very difficult year that year, so hearing that I had been noticed, especially for something I cared—and was immensely shy—about, was huge for me. Later, as her student at the high school, she slipped a stack of Naomi Shihab Nye books into my locker, and that changed my life.
Anita Skeen was my mentor at Michigan State University, and I worked with her to complete my first manuscript of any kind, my honors thesis. She’s an amazing, incredibly supportive teacher, and was the first person to introduce me to literary journals—I still have the list she wrote me of places to submit to!
I met Kim Addonizio while teaching high school in the Bay Area. I had reached out to her in desperate need of a writing community—I was reading one of her books one day and realized she lived in Oakland, and so found her website and sent her an email—and she welcomed me in, introducing me to a whole world I had never dreamed of, including the possibility of an MFA. She’s the one who encouraged me to pursue poetry professionally, and recommended I study at North Carolina State University, where her good friend Dorianne Laux taught.
Dorianne Laux is my poetry “mama”—a mentor, yes, but also one of the dearest humans in my life. I don’t think I can begin to detail everything she’s taught me over the years because it would take up the entirety of this interview. She is deeply wise and incredibly supportive. Being her student was one of the greatest blessings of my life, and I continue to learn from her all the time.
I met Mary Szybist and Joy Harjo within a week of each other, and Naomi Shihab Nye the following year. All three have been wildly supportive, brilliant guides, often at a distance, as we have never lived in the same city at the same time. They have taught me a fair deal about writing over the years, but more than that, they’ve taught me how to live as a writer—how to protect and nurture myself and my work, how to do the work kindly and generously, and how to, sometimes, step away from it. Their love and support for me as a person in addition to my self as writer has been such a gift, and has carried me through times of doubt and difficulty.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently returned to Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters and was stunned. That book is a masterpiece! I was so impressed by the way those poems command attention, and engage complexity, without punctuation—there’s such great urgent energy in that book.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Oh man, so many! I have a pretty substantial library, at least half of it unread. I’d say, off the top of my head, I’ve been meaning to read the entirety of Muriel Rukeyser’s work, as I’m a completionist. I’m currently working my way through Adrienne Rich’s, and am about halfway there. I’m also trying to finish reading all of C.D. Wright’s books, and am at about the same point. When I find someone I like, I want to read everything they’ve ever written, so I tend to focus more on writers than standalone books when considering my “to-read” pile.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I mentioned above being a completionist in terms of the body of work of writers, but this applies to individual books, too—I read from cover to cover, including forewords, notes and acknowledgments! Because of this, typically I read one book of poetry at a time. This goes completely out the window for prose—I’m eternally partway through at least ten different books of prose, most of which are for research. I have lists of books for research that I work my way through, but for poetry, I’m often intuitive, reaching for whatever feels right in the moment. I can only read physical books and am an avid note-taker; I have specific notebooks designated for notes while reading, and a whole system for how I take those notes. My notebooks are among my most prized possessions.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
A sonnet crown! I’ve never written a single sonnet I’ve liked, let alone a whole sequence of them. If I achieve that, please award me a Pulitzer.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
That’s about it! I talk out loud while I compose, so it’s downright impossible for me to write in public without people side-eyeing me. I have trouble focusing around other people, so reading (poetry) is often a challenge for me out and about. I do, however, enjoy reading in Tunisia, at my family’s homes. There’s something magic about it, I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s real and I miss it, having not been able to return this year. I think it has to do with the time difference making it so that my distractions are asleep back in the US when I’m working, as well as the general pace of life; it’s less noisy and fast paced, and I’m not constantly connected! I’ve read many, many books by the pool or at the beach—the days seem to stretch on forever, in the best way.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I was very enamored with the public library—how beautiful! Aside from that, all of my experiences in Brooklyn have involved me staying inside because of the weather or randomly wandering into restaurants and very much enjoying them, but because it’s always unplanned, never remembering where I’ve been. I’ll have to have a proper tour one day when quarantine is lifted and it’s not under two feet of snow!
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate resilience,
And what I survive you survive,
For every blessing blessing me as good blesses you.