Poetry Can Change and Save Lives
Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of Tunsiya/Amrikiya,
Congratulations, Leila, on your Brunel shortlist. Where were you when you received the news? And how does it feel? You mentioned in a Facebook post that you phoned your father in Tunisia to share the news. How exciting. What was Baba’s joy like? Do you mind sharing?
Thank you! I was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where I’m currently a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. It was a thrill to get the email—I danced around my apartment for much of the afternoon. When the public announcement went out a week or so later, I was in Philadelphia on a short trip, and up early for the long drive back to Provincetown (about 7 hours). It was 5 a.m. my time, but because my father was in Tunisia, I knew he’d be awake, so I called him. He was very excited. My dad tends to laugh when he gets good news, which I think is a great reaction. He also thought the timing was pretty special—him being in Tunisia when he received the news that his daughter was being recognized for being a Tunisian poet. He goes between Tunisia and the States throughout the year.
In the same post, you pointed to a pride in your country. That was interesting. How do you manage the homesickness?
It’s difficult—up until very recently, my father’s entire family lived in Tunisia, and I am very close with them. (I now have cousins in Paris and Montreal, and one in Boston, so we’re spreading!) When I was a child, I spent my school years in the States and my summers in Tunisia. It’s been the rhythm of my life, bouncing between both places. I love my family and I love Tunisia, and when I’m in the States too long, I start to get restless. I feel that homesickness acutely when spring rolls around; my body is simply used to being there each summer. As an adult, I spend a month or so in Tunisia each year, and I intend to continue to all my life.
Do you find these feelings a struggle to permit into your poetry? Because I see in your poem, ‘Motherland,’ a loud cry for country with ‘mother’ as major metaphor. In the poem, there is the child-mother relationship pointing to a country-citizen affair; and deep into the work, the poet voices a discontent with their motherland and then says “I want to mother / my mother”. What impulses did you contemplate while writing this poem?
I have a much more fraught relationship with the United States than I do with Tunisia, and that is likely because here I am an unfavored minority. In Tunisia, I am also noticeably “different,” as someone raised primarily in the US and an English speaker, but this difference is not perceived as negative and I am not regarded as a lesser citizen. To be Arab and Muslim in the States has always meant Otherness, but recently there has been increased hostility and government-backed exclusion; Muslims have been targeted and ostracized ruthlessly with harmful rhetoric and policies. The election of this most recent president, whom I prefer not to name, encouraged the worst factions of this country, and it is difficult to feel at home here, though it is the one I was born in.
The poem ‘Motherland’ was written about a real phone call I had with my mother in the days following the election. Because my mother is my American-born parent (my father, of course, is Tunisian-born), I take the term “motherland” to heart—my mother’s land—and think of Tunisia as a “fatherland.” I want to be loved by this country that should, yet does not, mother me, and it’s that need that creates tension. I both love and resent this mother country, as a child does the mother that fails her.
I think it’s interesting when the word “mother” is attached to something that does harm. Today, an enormous bomb was dropped on Afghanistan, the largest non-nuclear one yet, and it was called the “mother of all bombs.” In addition to my deep horror (I don’t think I can wrap my head fully around the enormity of what happened), I am interested in the use of that word, one that generally is associated with nurturing and the production of new life. To call something “mother” that does not create life but instead destroys is so terribly perverse that I have to be interested, I keep trying to puzzle it out. It does not escape me that this bomb was dropped on a Muslim country, or that a few days back, the President mistook which other Muslim country he bombed while remembering his chocolate cake. And, of course, I do not forget that this motherland of mine has banned countless Muslim children trying to escape that kind of violence.
How short does it take you to complete a poem?
I’ve been writing a poem every day this year, so I’ve learned how to be quick with them—sometimes, a poem will only take me 5 minutes (these are generally not very good poems). When I actually want to slow down and work deeply and thoughtfully, however, it can take me anywhere from 15 minutes to 6 to 7 hours. Beyond that, I generally take a break and return to it later. I like to write poems in one sitting, but I’ve had poems that I put away for months, half-finished, only to complete them much, much later. On average, I’d say it takes me about an hour and a half/two hours to get a poem to my liking. But of course, that doesn’t count all the hours that led up to the poem—hours reading, or thinking, or simply paying very close attention to the world around me.
How long have you been writing and publishing now?
I’ve been writing poems since I was first able to write anything, so since I was five years old. I decided to pursue poetry full-time when I began my MFA program at 23; I had been teaching high school special education prior to that. So it’s been about 4 years that I’ve been a full-time poet. I didn’t start publishing until about 2 years ago, though; I had had my first 2 poems published in 2014, but didn’t begin sending out work in earnest until after my graduation in 2015. I had been very sick that final year, and while I was on bed rest for a month, my doctors encouraged me to focus on my writing to distract myself. That period of intense writing, revision, and submissions was what really set me on the path of my publishing career.
It must have been a difficult period for you that time. Can you remember a poem you wrote or read during the sickness that stood out special to your heart?
I read a lot during that time, so much that it all seems to blend together. The books that do stand out, however, are Jennifer Richter’s “Threshold,” Louise Glück’s “The Wild Iris,” Anne Sexton’s collected poems, and the Qur’an, which I pored over. I clung to Louise Glück’s poem “Snowdrops” during that time. In it, she writes, “afraid, yes, but among you again/crying yes risk joy”—it’s become the mantra of my life.
Your poem, ‘Narcissus Brings Me Flowers,’ carries a line I find profound. The line reads thus: “I have had enough of beauty.” This reminds me of Anne Sexton who said in one of her poems that, “Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself.” In both Anne Sexton and yours, a bold refusal to conform to social theories of beauty is what I sense. What is beauty to you? What is it about beauty we are not exemplifying?
I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way, though I do love that Anne Sexton line, as well as one right before it (“I am queen of all my sins/forgotten.”) I’m not actually particularly interested in beauty; rather, I am interested in desire, which I don’t believe requires beauty. Many poems written about the myth of Narcissus center on Narcissus’ centering of himself, but I am not concerned with vanity so much as obsession and its resultant grief.
You’ve attended writing residencies, and you are starting as a 2017-2018 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. How have these opportunities helped your writing? Will there be a stage in your writing where you’ll not count these awards and prizes as useful?
I’ve found that the greatest gift is also the simplest—these residencies provide me with time and money so that I may focus on writing and writing alone. I don’t think that will ever not be valuable to me; I will always cherish time relieved of the responsibilities of “normal” life so that I can focus fully on my work. Of course, it’s absolutely possible to do great work without a fellowship or residency, but I believe it would take me a good deal more time to do so, because I would have distractions and other obligations.
If you’re to arrange a picnic or take a long walk at the beach with one favourite poet of yours—whether dead or living—who would that be?
I would choose my mentor, Dorianne Laux. I’ve learned so much from just sitting on her front porch or walking through town together. She’s the most observant person I’ve ever met, hilarious, and wicked smart. Plus, I just love spending time with her.
People ask about one’s favourite writers; let me ask you something else: what five books do you still regret to have read and you never recommend these books to people?
I don’t know that I have five books that I dislike that much. I’ve learned that I can learn something from almost any book I pick up and have pushed myself to search for that “lesson” in books that bore or challenge me. I also have adopted a policy of putting the book back if I really can’t get into it; life’s short, and if a book isn’t working for me after decent amount of effort, I move on to something else.
You travel, too. What five cities would you call your heavens on earth?
One of my favorite cities is the city I’ve considered home in my adult life, the city I was born in—Oakland, California. I moved back to Oakland when I graduated from college to teach, and then back again this past summer before coming to Provincetown for the fellowship. If it were up to me, I’d live in the Bay Area for the rest of my life, but for the moment I’m happy bouncing around other places.
My other favorites, big and small, are Tunis, Paris, Saint-Martin-de-Pallières, and Båstad. I love to travel to new places, but these cities are the ones I return to again and again, places where the people I love are.
You teach as well. Is there something you’d like to be improved upon in schools or to be entirely discontinued?
Oh, there’s a lot that would benefit from some changes, but because I’m a poet, I suppose I’ll start with that. I’ve seen a disturbing trend away from the arts—and creative thinking in general—in schools as everything becomes more and more standardized and education continues to suffer massive funding cuts. I dislike the intense focus on regurgitation of information and test-driven classrooms. I think, of course, teachers should be paid more, class sizes should be smaller, etc. But on a very, very small scale, I would love to see poetry taught in schools—taught well, I should say. I had two teachers who were enthusiastic about poetry, but the rest made me never want to read poetry again, even as I was writing it feverishly. I think people are afraid of poetry, likely because they weren’t taught it particularly well, and that cycle continues. But poetry is fun. Poetry can change and save lives. I think it’s an incredible time for poetry, and young poets especially, and it would be wonderful to see schools having a larger hand in introducing students to that world.
Some people solicit for some advice. So far in your writing, what advices have you turned down? And what advice would you never give?
I was once advised to cut the Tunisian references from my poems because they weren’t familiar to a “general audience.” It was damaging to my self-esteem and to my sense of self, and I’m glad I was wise enough not to take it. I believe these things aren’t familiar to a “general” audience (read: white/American) because we perpetuate this idea that some experiences are different/foreign and others are normal, the default, which are the ones we then consider “relatable” or “marketable.” We shouldn’t read only things that are familiar to us, especially considering a history of silencing female and minority voices and a literary canon that has been dominated by a very narrow perspective. I’d advise to write as much of the “Other” specifics as you want; people can Google it.
It’s been a wonderful time chatting, Leila. I think we should end this on a playful note: as a child I loved hopscotch and I don’t see myself stopping now, skipping was and is another favourite thing of mine, mango another thing; what children’s game did you hop around the house for in joy?
It’s probably terribly unoriginal, but I was a huge fan of video games as a child, particularly Pokémon. I just charged my 3DS and it’s sitting on the couch beside me. I have a lot of work to do this week, but it sure is tempting.