INTERVIEW: Leila Chatti. “Poems felt like little prayers.”

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Leila Chatti


nerd glasses with tape

Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet. The recipient of a scholarship from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop and prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest and 8th Annual Poetry Contest, the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, and the Academy of American Poets, her poems appear in Best New PoetsPloughshares, Tin House, Narrative,The Missouri Review, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she is a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.


Tell us a little about your background (where you grew up etc.) and your earliest experience/engagement with literature.
I was born in Oakland, California. My father, a Tunisian immigrant who came to the States for school, was getting his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, and my mother was a nurse. I spent most of my formative years in Michigan, though—East Lansing, specifically—after a year in Tunisia. I’d say I grew up between those two places: school years in the Midwest, and summers overseas. My childhood was quite true to my being a dual citizen; I am very much Tunisian, and very much American, and grateful for both halves.

As for my first experiences with literature, my parents reminisce about how, as an infant, I was obsessed with books. They would prop me up in my crib or stroller and give me a couple of books and I would stay entertained for hours—flipping through the pages and, they insist, really looking at them. I was reading by three, and writing soon after.


When and how did you realise that you wanted to be a writer and which author/s inspired you to pursue a literary career?
In Kindergarten, I was writing poems and stories, but claimed I wanted to be a pilot—likely because I spent so much time on planes! That turned into an interoest in paleontology (influenced by Jurassic Park), and a brief period where I wanted to be the first female president. I was writing and reading constantly during those years, but it was a compulsion; I didn’t have an end goal in mind. I was in fifth grade when I realized that one could have a career as a writer—that books didn’t just fall out of the sky, or get handed down to us from the long-dead. From that point on, I knew that was the life for me.

K. Rowling’s personal story of perseverance was greatly inspiring to me when I was old enough to look into it and I loved the work of Sylvia Plath, but the person who really convinced me to get “serious” about writing was Margaret Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school and promptly hunted down her other books. When I discovered she wrote poetry, it was like a light came on. I didn’t realize living people still wrote poems. I had never read the work of a living poet before; I didn’t know that was an option!

Soon afterwards, a teacher gave me a book of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems and I was blown away. Here was an Arab-American poet just like me, living and writing about a life that was so familiar, and I had never before seen myself represented like that.

It was immensely validating, knowing that stories like mine were worth telling. It also gave me the courage—the reassurance—I needed to believe I might be able to do it, too.

naomi-shihab-nye-shevaunwilliams-thumbNaomi Shihab Nye

Describe your early writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write. Have you noticed any differences/changes over the years?

As a child, I wrote all the time—poems and stories and diaries—without being aware of what I was doing. Then I had a very difficult adolescence, and writing was still instinctual but became also an act of survival.

In high school, I was a poor student; I lacked motivation and was severely depressed. Just about the only thing I did was write poems (often during class, when I was supposed to be working). My teachers recognized this, and that the poems were actually pretty good, and so encouraged my writing, going so far as to let me create an independent study where I wrote poems first period in the library. I recognize now that this was a critically important moment in my development as a person and writer; I felt seen and valued, and I started to take my life seriously.

I wrote through college, doing independent studies and a poetry thesis, and then graduated at twenty and moved back to California to become a high school special education teacher. While I loved my students, for the first time in my life I was struggling to find time to write, and was thus very unhappy. I wrote during my lunch breaks and on the train home, but it wasn’t enough. So I joined a weekly evening writing group led by Kim Addonizio, whose work I loved as an undergraduate and who also lived in Oakland. That led to me deciding to do an MFA, moving to North Carolina, and becoming a full-time writer.

I’ve never wavered in my motivation to write—I have a lot to say. It still very much feels like a compulsion. Now that it’s my career, however, I’ve taken a much more structured approach. I read and write every day (I like to read a book of poetry every two days, and for long stretches I write a poem a day), and I keep meticulous records: of projects I’m working on, deadlines, and how I use my time. I aim to keep offline until noon, and off social media until the evening. I also have a group of friends across the country I exchange work with regularly, not to comment on but to hold each other accountable—a check-in of sorts. My closest writing companion is also one of my dearest friends, Bryce Emley. He is enormously talented and equally ambitious, and we push each other. We’ve got a daily back-and-forth about everything from what we’re reading to opportunities the other might want to look into, and he’s the first person I tell my good news. It’s very helpful to have a friend with you in the trenches.


When did you realise that you had a passion for poetry and who was your biggest inspiration in this field?
I would say that was in middle school, when I first discovered the work of Sylvia Plath. I liked writing stories enough, but poetry thrilled me. It felt much more important—it helped me make sense of the world, of myself, in a way that fiction did not. There was freedom in poetry. I liked the honesty of it, and the strangeness. I also like that so much can happen in such a small space; brevity appeals to me.

Poems felt like little prayers.


Some authors find it hard to achieve a work life balance. What do you like to do to relax (or switch off from your work)?
Haha, good question! (Do I ever relax?!) I love photography and collect film cameras; I think my interest in photography stems from the same impulse writing does—to preserve and document my life, to make something beautiful from it. I also travel, frequently, and am a bit addicted to second-hand shopping.


Your poem ‘Confession’ recently won the 2016 Ploughshares Emerging Writers contest; what was your inspiration behind the poem?
I had a serious health crisis for two years, beginning when I was 22. There was a pair of tumors in my uterus believed to be cancerous (sarcomas). I suffered from a number of intensifying symptoms those years, the most disruptive of which were constant bleeding and severe pain. Having been raised very religious (Muslim), I turned to my faith for answers, but found little solace there. I felt betrayed by God. If the tumors were indeed sarcomas, the prognosis was very poor. I was also told that it was highly unlikely I would ever be able to bear children. It was an incredibly lonely and terrifying time for me.

In this year since the final surgery and the all-clear (so strange to think it’s already—and only—been a year), I’ve examined more closely those religious impulses. During my illness, I had become fascinated with Mary. My mother is a lapsed Catholic, and Mary had thus always intrigued me, but this intensity was new. I felt Mary was kindred to me, though I also resented her; we were similar in what I felt was our lack of agency over our bodies at the hands of God, but crucially different in her ability to not only conceive but also in the miraculous nature of it.

I had written poems about Mary while sick, and continue to write into that obsession. One day I reread the passage in the Qur’an where she gives birth to Jesus (the story is very similar to the Christian one) and I was struck by one noteworthy difference—while giving birth, in immense pain, Mary moans, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” I was so startled by this admission; it complicated the version of Mary I had known all my life—a Mary who never doubted or complained, a Mary so good you could forget she was a human, fallible child—and I felt a wave of admiration for her. What bravery, to challenge, even momentarily, God’s will! Then I considered what that meant about me, to be secretly rooting for her defiance, to be comforted by it. The poem tumbled out of that.

Stained glass depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”

Whilst talking about your poem ‘Confession’ judge Marianne Boruch said that you ‘Upset conventions in a most kickass-lively way’ – do you like to push boundaries in your work and why?
I think I have two very different sides to me, and they are constantly at war with each other. One part of me feels very loyal to tradition. I was raised, as I mentioned earlier, in a religious environment. I was reading the Qur’an at the age of 5 and had a heightened awareness of sin, of what was expected of me and the consequences if I went astray. Islam means literally “submission, surrender”—total obedience to God. I wanted to be good. I prayed and fasted and avoided things forbidden to me. I was a serious child and believed in the value of order, restraint, and rules.

The other part of me, however, rebels. Not to cause trouble for the sake of trouble, but because when something feels unjust or unreasonable, I refuse to accept it. I feel, too, a true tension between my desires and what I am told I cannot be and cannot have.

The result of these conflicting halves was, for a long time, a great deal of shame. And frustration. Now I swing between being devout to being suspicious, wobbling the majority of the time somewhere in the middle. I’ve been able to come to a semblance of peace with some of the ways I have “disobeyed”; others, I feel still troubled by. But regardless of whatever guilt I struggle with, stronger is my devotion to my truth. It just so happens that my truth often pushes boundaries—I write about fervent and implacable desire, I write unflinchingly about my body and female ailments that remain taboo, and I write about doubt and anger and disappointment with God. I write, too, about my love for my faith, but that isn’t the whole story, so it’s not the only story I tell.

So I’d say I like pushing boundaries in the same way I like telling the truth after a too-long silence—it is a relief to be your whole self, to be seen exactly for who you are.


How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to “solve” the poem?
I was just talking about this recently with the poet Major Jackson! It is an important topic of conversation. I certainly don’t believe in purposely making a poem more difficult to understand. I believe language should be used to communicate, or at least that’s how I intend to use it. Often I write about others, and I am also writing for others—my family, my community, my countrymen. It would be, I think, unethical to write about, say, my community (Arab, Muslim, immigrant—whichever) and then deny them access to what I’m saying. I write because it is useful to me; I publish in hopes that it will be useful to someone else.

I strongly disagree with those who disparage “accessible” poetry—I think that attitude is elitist at best, oppressive at worst. I don’t think accessible need be synonymous with “simple” in its most negative connotations. There are poems dismissed as accessible that I would argue are rich and thoughtful; the fact they are easily grasped upon a first or second reading does not negate their value or skill. I am also distrustful of any impulse to shame people out of reading poetry. Poetry has brought me so much joy and comfort; why would I advocate for limiting the audience to only those with extensive experience reading it? If my poem is the only poem someone might ever pick up in their life, I sincerely hope they are able to get something from it.

That said, I don’t go out of my way to simplify my work, either. (I simply choose not to obscure anything more than comes naturally.) Early in my writing career, I was given poor advice to cut out all “difficult” references—a thinly veiled suggestion to whitewash my work. I was pressured to keep Arabic words out of poems and to avoid any religious or regional subject matter that wasn’t readily familiar to an American audience. I fully push back against that kind of thinking. The only way these things become “familiar” is if we who are “unfamiliar” are able to speak of them. I reject the centering of white, Christian experiences and the expectation that I must cater my work to that audience. We are blessed to live in the time of the Internet, and I mean that in all sincerity. It allows writers from minority communities to write for (and reach) whomever they choose, and for those outside of those experiences to access resources for their own edification.

To think all poems should be easily understood by you is an entitled (and bizarre) viewpoint; just as I think there’s nothing wrong with poems easily grasped, I also believe there is nothing wrong with having to put in additional effort. I think it’s good, actually, to allow ourselves to be challenged—it’s easy to get comfortable solely seeking out what’s familiar, and that impulse can lead to exactly the sorts of problems I mention above. If editors and literary gatekeepers only look for work that mirrors their own experiences (the majority of whom are white), it perpetuates a cycle of pushing out minority voices. We should make an effort to read outside of what we know, too.


Your poem ‘The Words Come, They Choke Me’ is a poem I have been aware of for a while. It’s extremely powerful, beautiful and unsettling. You wrote this whilst grieving over the terrible shootings / execution of Muslim students in 2015. With the current plight of the world; refugees, suicide bombings, shootings, dictators etc. do these events help fuel your creativity; and does poetry form of type of therapy for you?
Thank you so much; that’s very kind of you. My work draws from my own experience; I’m wary of the “confessional” label for its problematic (and often gendered) implications, but that is more or less what I write. I have many poems involving perhaps more obviously personal material: heartbreak, family, mental and physical health, etc. However, as a Muslim and an Arab-American in this current cultural context, much more becomes personal as well. Racial violence, war, and Islamophobic policies and rhetoric are part of my personal sphere without my wanting them to be. I write about what I am concerned about (and I am often concerned), and though I don’t consider this consciously while I am in the act of writing, I do think it is important to have those who are experiencing these things to be the voices talking about it.

It’s been a toxic and, frankly, exhausting year in the United States. Tensions are high, rhetoric is ugly, and it’s become increasingly more difficult to feel safe in this country I was born in.

I’ve never before felt so isolated or targeted. What may come closest to therapy is not actually writing about these tragedies, but in the conversations that happen after the poems are out there in the world. I’ve had many Muslim and Arab Americans reach out to me in the past year, and that has been deeply comforting—to feel I am doing right by my community, that I may be doing some small good. It’s also reassuring and empowering to know that people are out there listening; in a time when there is a large faction of the country trying to make you feel impossibly small and subhuman, it is an act of resistance to tell your story. I keep these words from AudreLorde close to my heart:


and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

So it is better to speak


What are you trying to communicate with your art?
I suppose at the heart of it I want to be understood, or at least seen—who I am, what I feel, and how I experience the world. Maybe this isn’t a unique motivation, but it feels the most truthful. I write for a variety of reasons (generally as a way to sort through my thoughts, or to pay witness), but I think what I’m trying to communicate is my particular experience. Included in that experience is a multitude of things, and I focus on a few themes in particular (grief, longing, faith), but that’s the simplest summary; I want to communicate the ways in which my experiences are universal as well as the ways they are not. I don’t think I am any more special than anyone else, but I do think that voices like mine have, historically, been left out of the conversation. And, following that train of thought, I realize what that really means I am trying to communicate is that I matter, too.


Illustration by Ramses Morales

We have been watching with interest the Presidential Campaign and we were wondering what you think of Donald Trump and do you think he will be successful in running the super power that is America?

I felt myself physically recoil just now, so that may be the most apt description of my feelings regarding Donald Trump. No, I do not believe he would be successful in running this country. It’s been horrifying, really, watching this election unfold. I have complicated feelings about Hillary Clinton, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is preferable to Trump—he is alarmingly volatile and disrespectful, as well as plainly unqualified. I thought, after 9/11, that I had seen the worst period of anti-Arab and Muslim rhetoric, but I have been shocked and disappointed by how much worse it has gotten. I absolutely believe Donald Trump is divisive and plays on people’s fears and prejudices, and that cannot be tolerated.

He is a dangerous man, and his candidacy has unearthed some devastatingly disheartening strongholds of prejudice in this country.

I would be genuinely afraid to continue living in the United States if he were elected; my family and I have seriously discussed our plans for what we will do if Trump wins. I don’t think I can adequately express how sad that makes me—that we’ve reached a point where families like mine even have to consider leaving this country we love for oursafety and freedom.


Are there any tips you can offer to first-time writers on the structure of poetry and how best to stand out from the crowd?
I’m generally an advocate for tightening—I like to think of myself as pretty ruthless in cutting out excess from my poems. There’s a lot of bloat in writing that gets in the way of “the good stuff.” When I taught poetry at North Carolina State University as a graduate student, that was my primary piece of advice: be concise! And be accurate. Nothing kills a poem for me faster than a sloppy metaphor, one that is close but not quite on the mark. Of course, these are personal preferences, but I find they are nearly always useful to consider.

Dorianne Laux, my mentor and poetry mother, gave me a piece of advice early on that I continue to remind myself of: be strange. The first thought is rarely very original—we all grow up with the same clichés and images and “go-to” associations, so these are usually the first to arrive in our mind. Hold out for the fourth or fifth or even tenth thing to come to mind. Say something that hasn’t been said.

As for how to stand out, that’s a little more difficult to answer. It may sound simple, but I really do believe some of the best advice is to stay true to your own voice and not worry too much about publishing during the writing process; I think trying to write like someone else will always fail, and that focusing on a potential audience in the process of creating can paralyze art. There have been periods where I have felt hyper-aware of the publishing aspect of poetry and that was not an enjoyable place to be in, nor a productive space for me to be creative. It’s good to take time without concern for publication to experiment and grow.

That said, once you do feel you’re ready to send work out, I think there are a couple helpful things to keep in mind to get your work into the hands of the right readers: read many books of poetry (and the journals you want to publish in), have a simple cover letter that doesn’t distract, place your best poem first and your second-best poem last in the submission packet—those kinds of things. Apart from that, I don’t really know—it’s kind of like magic. The people who are drawn to your work are not always the audience you expect, and the poems that you overlook sometimes make the biggest impact. It’s part of the fun of this whole thing. So have faith in your work and don’t try to sound like anyone but yourself and write the poems you want. Revise. Read (and read and read.) Your work will find its way to where it needs to be.


What does “being creative” mean to you?
As a person or an action? In regards to people: I believe we all have the capacity to be creative, but that the “gift” becomes stronger the more we pay attention to it and use it. I believe that the current American school system squashes the creative impulse in children by standardizing everything and focusing on the regurgitation of facts. I believe there are many, many ways to be creative, and some are woefully underappreciated.

For myself, I think “being creative” as an action means just that—creating! When I write, even just scribbles in a notebook, I am being a “creator,” one who creates. Because poetry is my primary medium of expression, I generally think of anything I do that is related to poetry as being part of my creative process—I am creating when I am reading and thinking about poetry, when I am taking a walk and playing with lines in my head, when I talk with friends about poems, and when I research obsessively that which interests me. But I also feel creative when I step away from the poems and live the life that feeds them. When I take time to cook a nice meal, or organize a party, or throw together a really snazzy outfit, or photograph my family,or send my friends letters or drawings or even Snapchats, I am being creative because I am putting into the world something that wasn’t there before and am taking joy in it.


What’s your favourite thing you’ve ever created?
Oh, that is a difficult question! In high school I made a series of videos for school projects, generally for my literature courses. One of them was a really ridiculous Beowulf adaptation—a musical in which Beowulf was a playboy and Grendel was the true protagonist. A girl friend and I played all the roles (I played the queen, an assortment of townspeople, and Beowulf dressed in yellow spandex bellbottoms), and it was very long, half an hour at least, and ended with an epic dance-off. I think it remains one of my favorite things because it is so playful and we were just thrilled to be making something. Adulthood sort of clamps that wild energy; I don’t know if I’ll ever again feel that free to pursue silliness, so I look back on it with fondness.


Which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?
I would love to learn to paint! My best friend is a painter, but it is a skill that completely eludes me. I keep carting around watercolor paints as if the gift will suddenly strike me—as of yet, no luck.

What are your favourite book and poetry collection?
There are so many incredible books in the world that have changed and bettered me—to pick a favorite is impossible. But, there are books that come to mind first when I read this question, which might be close enough. I tend to think of favorite books as books that were important to me early on; I’m a bit nostalgic that way. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was very important to me in young adulthood, as was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Poetry, though, has been as a genre much more influential in my life. My life-long favorites are Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Sharon Olds’ Satan Says, Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, Dorianne Laux’s Awake, and Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine.

What is the one piece of advice you would give aspiring poets?
Read at least three times as much as you write. There’s a strange belief I’ve encountered in a number of young/aspiring poets that reading poetry will somehow “pollute” their innate voice. I think that is very silly, to put it kindly. Your voice is your voice and your story is your story; you don’t need to be paranoid about losing it.

If you love poetry, you should love poetry other than your own, and you should know your place in the lineage of poets before you.

Read. Your work will improve. You will know which journals and presses are drawn to work like yours. You will be sustained through periods of drought. Trust me on this.


What’s the best advice you ever had about how to be more creative?

The best advice I’ve received is to write every day. You can’t sit around and wait for the Muse; you have to hunt her down yourself.

When I was younger, I thought of creativity as some kind of magical phenomenon that struck me once in a while but that I otherwise had no say in. Creativity comes with practice; the more you’re working creatively, the more naturally it comes. If you sit down at the desk every day (or in your bed with your laptop in your lap, which is my preferred position), you increase the chances that something magical will arrive, because you’re actively seeking it out. Even writing for 20 minutes every day will do wonders.


Are you currently working / writing anything new?
I’m always writing something new! Right now, my primary focus is my first book of poetry. The manuscript deals with the cancer scare in my early twenties; I’m interested in the taboos surrounding the female body (menstruation and infertility in particular), as well as religious beliefs regarding purity, shame, and ultimate trust in God. I’m always juggling a number of side projects as well, of course; I like to have a variety of things to fiddle with.


What are you presently reading and what would you recommend?
I just picked up Monica Youn’s Blackacre after reading a fascinating conversation between her and my friend Belle Boggs on the subject of infertility in their new books ( I know it will be wonderful, but because I haven’t read it yet, I’ll recommend something I have.

While I know it’s popular to read/recommend things that are new (and by all means, read just-out literature!), I have a habit of reading out of order. For example, I recently read Joanna Klink’s Raptus and adored it, as well as C.D. Wright’s Steal Away. Cathy LinhChe’s Split is also very, very good (and was recommended to me by a friend, so I’ll continue that literary good Samaritanship by passing that excellent suggestion along!). I’ve been reading and rereading Adonis’ work throughout the past year, and I also am fond of leafing through Muriel Rukeyser’s collected poems. Mostly, though, I’ve been reading a lot of scripture—both the Bible and the Qur’an—which has been an interesting experience. I sort of wander through literature, and I suppose that “method” is my recommendation!



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Interview by Ross Jeffery


Coming Soon!

STORGY Interview with award winning author Carys Bray.

Available online from 27th November 2016.

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