Poets Talk: 5 Questions with Leila Chatti

Konya Shamsrumi: What is the process of writing a poem like for you? Is it a lot of hard work or easy?

Leila Chatti: It depends! There are some poems—rare, magical ones—that come down fully formed, as if some ethereal hand delivers them to me. It may sound absurd, but it really does feel like it comes from outside of me, or at least happens with its own agency, while I sit back passively. And it happens very quickly, in a surge. I find that I receive a number of these “magic poems” in the shower, so I keep a waterproof notebook there to catch them before they disappear.

I also have a practice of writing a poem every day for a month every other month, so six months out of the year I write 30 or 31 poems in a row. I do believe this exercise has made it easier for me to write certain kinds of poems quicker; I’ve built that muscle, and I keep that creative, leaping half of my brain from drifting too far. Often, I’ll write poems in bed, in the few minutes before I fall asleep, on my phone. I used to tell myself I was a morning writer, that I couldn’t write poems at night, but I’ve discovered that isn’t exactly true. I can write poems at night, but they are very different kinds of poems—hovering on the threshold of sleep, they are more lyric, imaginative, wilder and shorter. Writing before bed forces my more critical, rational brain out of the way and allows the stranger voice to chime in. It keeps me from worrying about whether or not what I’m writing is any good, or even a poem at all, and I’ve been surprised by how many poems I’ve kept after looking at them again, clear-headed, in the morning.

All that said, the other half of the time, the poems are agonizingly slow. This past weekend I sat for 12 hours working on one poem, nonstop. I am very meticulous about every choice I make—every word used, every line’s distinct meaning and meaning in the whole—and it takes me a long time to work my way down the page. I prefer to finish a poem in one sitting, so I’ve spent many days sitting at my desk from sunup to late evening, or later. These days are, of course, exhausting, but they’ve produced some of my favorite poems. Very rarely, I’ll let a poem sit and return to it weeks or months later, but this is not really my process and doesn’t often work out well for me—to write a poem, I seem to need to be in that headspace that it was first conceived, whether that lasts for three minutes or 15 hours. Small tweaks I can make later (word changes), but usually I finish a poem the day I start it—sometimes painlessly, sometimes after long torment.

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Poet, Leila Chatti

Konya Shamsrumi: Please describe your sense of identity in this or any possible world in imagery or metaphor?

Leila Chatti: I don’t believe my identity has a metaphor; it’s complex and resists simplification. Aspects of my personality, however, can likely be represented by other things. I think if I were an animal, for example, I’d be a housecat—I like long stretches of solitude, I’m fickle, curious, self-reliant, and prone to periods of unprompted moodiness, and I rarely go outside. If I were weather I’d be the sudden downpour and the sunbreak after. If I were a landscape I’d be a beach in winter. A time of day, 6 am. A colour, violet.

Konya Shamsrumi: If any of your poems could literarily save a person’s life, which poem would it be and can you describe the person whose life you think it would have saved?

Leila Chatti: Oh my, that’s quite a question. I don’t think I could predict something like that—I never know who needs my work, or what they might need from it. I’ve written a fair amount about my own struggles with mental health, and my chapbook Ebb centers on a specific depressive period, but I think one of my earliest poems, “Ode to Ugly Things,” is my most hopeful, or hope-adjacent. There is a lot of ugliness in the world, more than enough evidence for despair. I think survival depends on finding beauty and clinging to it.

Konya Shamsrumi: What does Africa mean to you, as potential or reality?

Leila Chatti: I would be foolish to try and remark on Africa on the whole—it is a massive continent with many, many different experiences and stories. My personal experience with the continent is rooted in Tunisia, though I have also spent time in, and have a great deal of fondness for, Mali, where I taught one summer. So, what I can say about Tunisia is that despite a history that has involved oppression and violence, Tunisians are resilient, adaptable, creative thinkers and problem solvers. I think it is important to acknowledge suffering where there is and has been suffering, but the West’s conception of Africa is a narrative of constant misery, and this is grotesque and over-simplified, an act of erasure. There is, of course (of course!), a great deal of joy and community and innovation and creativity and success found every day in Tunisia, and across the continent. I believe there have been a number of obstacles, and I also believe those obstacles will be overcome.

Konya Shamsrumi: Could you share with us one poem you’ve been most impressed or fascinated by? Tell us why and share favourite lines from it.

Leila Chatti: Ah, there are so many! But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Marie Howe’s Magdalene—there are so many brilliant, stunning poems in that book, many of them brief and powerful, like a punch. I’ve been thinking a lot about lovability and how women are loved or not loved and for what reasons. So, I was particularly drawn to Howe’s “What I Did Wrong,” a confession of forgivable transgressions followed by the startling and, to me, heartbreaking ending lines, lines reaching toward redemption: “Who would/follow that young woman down the narrow hallway?/ Who would call her name until she turns?”

 

Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of the chapbooks Ebb (New-Generation African Poets Series) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of fellowships, scholarships, and awards from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, the Key West Literary Seminar, Dickinson House, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, where she is the 2017-2018 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review Online, Narrative, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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