“Shame thrives in silence, and wants more of it. The language of shame is silence.” – An Interview With Leila Chatti

I often engage with work that leads towards the embodiment of being holy. When I first read poems by Leila Chatti, I was drawn to the symbols and recurrent themes in her work.

There are intriguing intersections in her work that delve into varied streams of explorations. We conversed over the course of autumn about mythologies, form, our love for tea, and more.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

Congratulations on an exciting year of poems, dear Leila, and on beginning a PhD at the University of Cincinnati. How have you been?

LEILA CHATTI

Thank you so much! I’ve been fairly well, much better than I was for much of the year—I’ve finally got a routine in place that is grounding and helps keep me focused, less adrift, so things are looking up. So much of this year I’ve felt unsettled—of course!—and uncertainty is a large source of anxiety for me. The PhD has been a blessing in its structure and workload; it keeps me busy with work that interests and challenges me, which makes me feel closer to human.

 

SNEHA

Your poem “Upon Realizing There Are Ghosts In The Water” in Tunsiya/Amrikiya has a profound ending: “Darkness is like this; grief too. I cry / and the ocean spills from me—all along / a little sea roiling inside with its own / sad phantoms. For a summer I soaked in / its green warmth, wore its salt like gemstones. / Now the heavy shame: how I waded in / to your grave as if trying it on, / how, when the waves came, / they gave me back.” There is a musicality in this grief, the heavy oncoming of tidal waves, a reckoning with the invisible. The poem is written “—in memory of the refugees drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea”. Would you speak a little about the process of writing this poem and the response to our current political situation?

LEILA

My father’s eldest brother has a home on the Mediterannean sea, in Tunisia, and I spend my summers there. The sea is a constant, beautiful, presence—my room has a window that faces it, so all day it’s there, as I’m reading, writing, thinking. I also, as you might assume, walk down to swim in it. One day when I was swimming, I was struck by the sudden realization that this same sea was the source of pain and loss for so many people, how the privilege of my circumstance allowed it to be a place of peace, not a path of necessity, a graveyard. Many of the people who drown in the Mediterranean attempting to cross to Europe depart from Libya, Tunisia’s neighbor. It was only luck, chance—the randomness of my birth circumstances—that separated me from those who were desperate enough to leave all they loved in hopes of stability and safety, and that proximity, and vast distance, between us haunted me. I couldn’t look away, couldn’t unsee the sea that way.

Yesterday, I read the horrifying news that the parents of over 500 children still can’t be found, after being separated at the U.S-Mexican border years ago. It is despicable. The policies (and rhetoric) this administration employs are evil. The sea does not have agency; it has no brain, no heart. But we do. This country makes decisions, and it chooses to deny humanity—that of others, and our own, our own empathy and compassion.

 

SNEHA

There is immense strength in the fact that you seek to demystify the understanding of religious symbolism in your poem “Confession”, from Deluge. The lines: “Truth be told, I like Mary a little better / when I imagine her like this, crouched / and cursing, a boy-God pushing on / her cervix (I like remembering / (she had a cervix, her body ordinary / and so like mine)…” are retelling of the things girls must not engage in, and the shame associated with the body as a public spectacle and things women are taught are “unwomanly”, like cursing, for instance. In talking about the body, there is a correlation to the illness you experienced in your early 20s, in the form of uterine tumors, and dealing with oncologists. Mary appears in The Holy Quran as well as The Bible. What influence does gender and the combination of myth and faith have in your writing?

LEILA

I see the world through the lens of the person I am, and two major components of that are my gender and my faith. I don’t know what it is to live as anything but myself, can’t think and feel as anyone else. I write frequently about the mythologies of womanhood because those myths have caused me considerable suffering. The stories we are told about women are stories intended to silence, smother, and subjugate women. To be a woman is hard enough, and to be a sick woman is worse. The little value I had as a woman, societally, culturally, was wrapped up in two things: my sexuality and, once that was used up, my fertility. Both were threatened by my illness. So I needed, desperately, to construct a new story, and to excise from myself these myths, that sickness. (Of course, did I always believe I was worthless except for my body? No; I was loved, intelligent, had other gifts I cherished. But these myths are insidious—even if you don’t welcome them in, they’re in the air we breathe. They’re reinforced daily, and even if they lay dormant for a while, when vulnerable, they’ll arise again.)

My faith—its texts and its adherants, some—passed on some of these myths to me, but by no means all, or even most. The ones I received from my faith perhaps wounded me the most because it came from something I loved, a belief I turned to for comfort, and being wounded by the very thing you turn to for aid is a traumatic thing. I think many women of faith have experienced this. I needed to explore this conflict for my own understanding, my own healing, and Deluge is the result of my first inquiry into this. There may be more to come; I can’t know.

 

SNEHA

Your poem “Etiology” grips the reader in the gaps and erasures— the block of black evident against the page. Would you speak a little about the incorporation of form in this poem?

LEILA

While writing the book, I became aware I had been writing around something, getting close but never engaging with it directly. I was ashamed of acknowledging my shame, and afraid of digging further into it. But, once I saw this, realized I had been avoiding discussing shame while it was so essential to every aspect of my experience, I wanted to write a poem about that erasure, that self-silencing. Shame thrives in silence, and wants more of it. The language of shame is silence. I wanted to incorporate silence, and silencing, into a poem, and was able to approximate that by blacking out language. What is unsaid becomes a visible absence—the hole I was writing around.

 

SNEHA

I’m going to ask another form question for the concrete poem “Tumor”, shaped like one, and beginning with “On the scan a monochrome nimbus of indiscernible material—my own, of course, but its intentions / opaque, its mouth not a mouth but a zero, a cipher, a space / indicating a question it will not ask of itself, it requires me like a child”. In what ways does form begin to incorporate in your poem— is it an active choice you make before the construction of a poem, or afterward? I’m sure our readers would be keen to engage with your thoughts.

LEILA

Great question! I love form, and I find it very generative to work with. Generally, I begin with a form—setting its bones up on the page when necessary—and let the form unearth what I need to say. I usually have an idea of what form and why I’m using it, and the “why” can range from “I’d like to engage with the obsessive qualities of this form” to “this seems fun and/or I haven’t tried it before.” With “Tumor,” however, I came to the form when I was partway through writing the poem. The poem had started out with these wildly variable-length lines and I was frustrated; I knew I couldn’t break the lines differently, but they looked odd and jagged and just weren’t working for me, and I got hung up on it and couldn’t progress. Then I had this thought, “What if the lines didn’t have to be horizontal?” and I realized moving them into a spiral allowed the lines to be longer in the beginning, then getting shorter and shorter. The form follows the content: it’s an obsessive poem, one that circles without going anywhere except deeper—into the interior, into the thing looked at. Once I figured this out, and could see the lines organized this way, the rest of the poem flowed out immediately.

 

SNEHA

I’ve written your poem “Tea” on a A4 size paper and I ensure it is inside the drawer by my bedside. There are several instances of resonance here— in talking about the heritage and the allusion to history, of the significance of drinking tea in Tunisia. The lines: “Five times a day, I make tea. I do this / because I like the warmth in my hands, like the feeling / of self-directed kindness. I’m not used to it— / warmth and kindness, both— so I create my own / when I can. It’s easy. You just pour / water into a kettle and turn the knob and listen / for the scream. I do this / five times a day.” There is a parabola pattern etched in the syntax, of returning to the tradition as a mode of creating space for oneself, for practicing kindness that the world does not offer. The juxtaposition of memory with joy is a practice filled with incredible tenderness. How do you seek joy through the sometimes fog?

LEILA

Oh, this is so heartening to hear—thank you so much for giving such a lovely life to my poem! Seeking joy has been an active practice, because joy doesn’t come easily for me. I’m prone to long periods of fog, as you’ve called it, and if I don’t seek (and make) light, I would stay in it even longer, would possibly never emerge. I swear by keeping routines, which includes taking care of my body—eating enough, sleeping and waking at regular times, getting fresh air, that sort of thing. I also put limits on things that smother my joy; for me, this is primarily the internet, which provides endless messaging that I am not doing enough, am not good enough, and just generally steals my attention and energy, which I would prefer to use on things which nourish me. I believe in the power of creating small joys, instead of waiting for a big one to arrive miraculously in your life. I made a list of these joys so I can refer to it when I’m deeper in the fog, like a menu to order from. 100 joys. They’re simple, but effective—things like bubble baths, calling a friend, dancing, buying flowers, eating dark chocolate, a cup of tea. Some months, I have to challenge myself to meet a quota, when I’m feeling very down. It helps. Little step after little step. Little light after little light.

 

SNEHA

There is a lot of landscape with water in your poems, even the title of the book “Deluge”. In the poem Deluge (are there more poems with the same title in the book? If yes— my apologies, and will correct the question accordingly), the lines: “…before the deluge came, those left / behind, as from their homes / the unspared—perhaps one of them / a woman, my age—looked on / with something close to wonder, / unaware of what approached.” There is an engagement with trauma and violence here, with an almost open-mouthed “wonder”. How do you reconcile violence in your poems and writing? What are the aspects that take you through this journey of reengagement with sorrow?

LEILA

There are two “Deluge” poems—the second one is a cento, and the final poem of the book. J

Wonder and terror are close emotions. “Awe” is dread and great reverence combined. I like awe—it reminds me of my aliveness. If I don’t feel awe, I’m afraid I’m not really paying attention. There’s so much to dazzle and destroy you in this world. We’re so small, so vulnerable, so brief, so alive—how easy to knock us over, as God knows.

I try to pay attention to everything, to feel everything fully, violence included. It’s difficult. I am not able to tolerate graphic media because I take too much in; I feel it’s my responsibility to feel, to experience the pain inflicted on others when I witness or know of it, and I can only endure so much. The violence in my poems tends to be about bodily violence, at least thus far. “Violence” is linked to “violation.” Much of what I experienced—the intrusions on my body, my privacy—felt a violation. I wanted to write about this terror. But there’s wonder there, too—the body made strange before me, its own beast. Alive.

 

SNEHA

What advice would you give to writers from varied geographical places who have no institutional support, or resources to enrol for an MFA?

LEILA

Great question. An MFA is by no means the only way to learn or find community. As devastating as this pandemic has been, one thing that has come out of it is a bounty of virtual resources. You can take workshops now from anywhere in the world, attend readings, organize writing groups. I would absolutely advise writers to take advantage of this. The vast majority of these readings and craft talks are free, and many are recorded. You can also create and find community in virtual spaces—Twitter is perhaps one, but there are others. (I’m a fan of Instagram myself, where I can see poems and pictures of poets’ cats.) When the world eventually resumes in persn, God-willing, there are still ways to foster your development. Before I began my MFA, I would sit in the poetry section of a bookstore and read for hours, just picking up books that looked interesting. I went to my library and checked out stacks. When I found references to other poets by poets I liked (in epigraphs or acknowledgments), I would go read that poet, too. I was a special education teacher before I pursued poetry full time, and the way I got onto this path was through a community writing group—I had reached out to the poet Kim Addonizio, and spent a year talking about and sharing poems evenings in her Oakland home, writing poems on the subway or on my lunch break. She is the one who guided me into the professional world of poetry, first one to tell me what an MFA program was and where and how to apply. The MFA was great; it provided me with mentors, likeminded peers, time to write. But you can snag moments of time, and you can find mentors through workshops, readings, and local groups. There are so many peers in the world writing and thinking about writing, and you have a home among them. Find your people, make time to write, read. That’s the way.

 

SNEHA

Grateful for your support and participation, dear Leila. Thank you for your generosity.

LEILA

Thank you so much!

Leila Chatti

Leila Chatti was born in 1990 in Oakland, California. A Tunisian-American dual citizen, she has lived in the United States, Tunisia, and Southern France. She is the author of the debut full-length collection Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Her poems appear in The New York Times MagazineAmerican Poetry ReviewVirginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the Consulting Poetry Editor at the Raleigh Review and lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati as a Provost Fellow.

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