An interview with Leila Chatti, poet and former RCAH student

October 19, 2015

Poet and RCAH graduate Leila Chatti’s poem, “What Do Arabs Think of Ghosts” was recently selected by Tracy K. Smith to appear in the annual anthology, Best New Poets. RCAH Center for Poetry intern Kelsey Block interviewed Chatti, who now lives in France, via email about the upcoming anthology:

KB: What first interested you in poetry/writing?
LC: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in poetry, so part of me thinks it’s innate, like a fondness for music or dance. As an infant, my parents gave me books to entertain myself with, and there are a number of photographs of me in a stroller or crib with a book open in my lap. I began writing poems when I was first able to write—my family saved some of my poems from Kindergarten, most them involve animals—and I guess I just never stopped! I do think I developed an ear for the music of poetry through my faith, however; I was raised Muslim, and began reciting the Qur’an at age 5. I was fascinated with the rhythm and rhyme of the recitation and I think hearing it around me every day had a significant impact during my formative years. To this day, I write first with my ear.

KB: In the true RCAH way, you seem to be interested in a lot of things – poetry, teaching, writing, photography, fashion, travel. How do you coordinate all of that into a career?
LC: Haha, thank you! I have a lot of interests, that is true (perhaps it has to do with my Gemini sign?). As far as turning that into a career, my father gave me the best advice when I was first beginning to ask that question; he said, “Do what you love and you’ll get where you need to be.” What I love most is what I work hardest at, and what I work hardest at is what I’m best at (which leads, hopefully, to a job!). Also, letting go of my need for a predetermined path lead me to opportunities I never imagined; I just followed my interests with feverish perseverance and dedication and, without “trying,” suddenly I’d accumulated knowledge and skills that I could apply towards a career. Does that make sense?

Of course, though, it’s a little scary to be in the field of arts and literature! You’re likely going to have periods of being broke, unless you have some rich benefactor (anyone out there looking?), and I don’t mean to downplay that bit of information. This isn’t a path to riches. But it’s also not impossible; I keep doing the things I love, and some of them make me money, and some of them “just” make me happy.

KB: This is always a fun one. Tell me about your best day.
LC: That I’ve actually had, or that I can imagine? Here’s both:

Real: I’m lucky to have had a lot of great days, but one that stands out was a sunny day in May a few years back, when I was teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area. My partner Henrik (another RCAH alum!), his best friend, my best friend, and I spent a day at the beach and then got a delicious lunch (at Burma Superstar, check it out if you’re ever in Oakland) and ice cream, and we laughed a lot that day and got that nice kind of sunburn that pinks your cheeks but doesn’t hurt. We took this Polaroid photo that still is a running joke with us because it developed overexposed and one of us only had eyes and a smile, and we thought this was hilarious (still do). It maybe seems unremarkable, but it was a really great day.

Imagined: Something similar to the above! I’m fond of beaches, warm weather, and my good friends. Maybe I’d have it in Tunisia so that I could also have my family join in. And I’d start it with writing poems in the early morning before anyone’s woken, and end it with dancing.

KB: This one’s a little more intense… But it helps me get a sense of who you are as a person: Tell me about your worst day.
LC: Unfortunately, I have also had a number of bad days. The one that remains the worst day, and I think will always be so, was the day my aunt died. It is the day that separates my life into two distinct parts: before, and after. I don’t think I can imagine a worse one.

KB: Now, I want to be a little more specific about your career as a writer. You recently earned your MFA, and there’s a lot of discussion going on about the reasoning behind advanced degrees in arts and humanities fields. What is your take on it? As in, was your MFA worth it (and if so, what did it help you do that you couldn’t have learned on your own)? Or do you feel like you could have been successful without it?
LC: I highly, highly, highly recommend an MFA. Getting my MFA was the best decision I have ever made. What a gift to be given time to write, funding to support myself, and mentorship to guide me! You could manage a career without one (many have!), but if you get the opportunity, why not take it? My writing improved significantly, I now have an incredibly supportive writing community, and there’s the added perk of a degree that could get me a job—the MFA is a terminal degree, so you can teach at universities with one. There’s not a lot of a downside, in my opinion—but I absolutely do not recommend paying for one. It’s not worth going into debt for because it’s not a degree that will make you any money, and with so many programs out there that will fund you, there’s no need to shell out thousands of dollars. I’d advise anyone interested in an MFA to apply, and apply again if you don’t get in the first time (or second or third)—the odds are small, but not impossible, and plenty of great writers get in after a few years of rejection. Persevere! And if you don’t want to get an MFA, you can create a similar experience by reading everything you can get your hands on, joining or creating a writing community to exchange work with, and finding a mentor. There are many paths to a career in writing; I’m satisfied with the one I chose! J

Oh, and a little pitch—I received my MFA in poetry from North Carolina State University and I can’t say enough positive things about it. My mentor, Dorianne Laux, is one of the most brilliant, generous poets teaching today. You also receive full funding, Raleigh is beautiful, and the writing cohort has been consistently friendly and talented throughout the years.

KB: Who would you say have been your mentors so far? In what ways have they helped you shape your writing?
LC: Can I take a moment to say how grateful I am to all the talented writers out there giving their time to those just beginning their careers? It is a labor of love, and it makes all the difference. The support and guidance they provide is invaluable.

My first writing mentor was my high school English teacher Marianne Forman, though I’m not sure she knows it! I will never forget the day we first met: I was in the eighth grade, a “troubled” student who didn’t fit in or turn in schoolwork, and she approached me in the hallway to tell me she had heard I wrote poems, good ones. She said she was looking forward to having me as a student. And sure enough, when I got to the high school, she lent me books of poetry, met with me over coffee, read my poems—she was the first person who made me feel like I had something worthwhile to say.

In college, my mentor was Anita! But “was” is wrong, she is my mentor—I still look to her for guidance, and I am so grateful for her warmth, insight, and enthusiasm. You all are very lucky at the RCAH to have her! Anita insisted I read, read, read, which is the best advice anyone can give a poet. My thesis was a collection of poems on the topic of “Home” and those pieces were the first seeds of my later work—poems about family and culture.

When I moved to the Bay Area to teach high school special education, I went a whole year without a writing community, and it was hell. Luckily for me, one day I was reading a book by Kim Addonizio, a poet I greatly admired, and I noticed she lived in Oakland too; I sent her an e-mail, and a couple days later, I began studying with her! Serendipity. J Kim is funny, quick as a whip, and so generous; some of my fondest memories of Oakland were those Monday nights drinking wine and reading poems aloud to her cat, Vincent. She encouraged me to write the poems I was most scared of, which made me a much better poet. She also encouraged me to apply to MFA programs, in particular one that a friend of hers taught at—Dorianne Laux.

Dorianne is my poetry mother, sister, guiding star. I recently called her my poetry fairy godmother, and that sounds about right because she’s definitely got some kind of wonderful magic in her. She has the best ear I’ve ever encountered; she can hear a poem once and know exactly where it needs tweaking, and just how to do it. Magic! I have learned more from her than I can list. My favorite piece of advice: be strange.

John Balaban, the other half of the poetry faculty at NC State, is responsible for my love of formal poetry. He pushed me to master classic European forms like the sonnet and villanelle, as well as forms from my part of the globe like the ghazal and rubaiyat. I write a lot of formal poetry now, something I previously had felt intimidated by; I find that forms help me control difficult subjects.

This summer, I was lucky to gain two new mentors: Joy Harjo and Mary Szybist. They are wicked smart, fiercely kind women. Their advice has been similar: write the hard poems, listen closely, and nurture yourself. Joy is astutely observant, and taught me how to tune in to my body and the natural world. Mary, through gentle guidance, led me to the project I’m currently working on. Both have had a profound impact on my work in a very short amount of time.

KB: Your work deals with culture quite often, and I read a bio that referred to you as a Tunisian-American poet. Does your background ever provide inspiration for your writing? In what ways?
LC: I would definitely say it does. I think every writer is influenced by their background: it shapes our beliefs, preferences, and even how we perceive the world. Every poem I write is an “Arab” poem or a “Muslim” poem—or any other identity I claim—because I can only ever experience the world through the lens of who I am. I make a point to always identify first as a Tunisian-American poet because, growing up, I couldn’t find literature written by someone like me and that made me doubt whether my experience was worth writing about. I also think it’s helpful in breaking stereotypes about what can be part of the Arab/Muslim experience; there is one narrative that pervades, and it is one that is told by an outside, oppressive voice (that Muslim women are meek and obedient, that Arabs are violent and barbaric). I’m hoping to contribute to a greater conversation of voices that challenges these assumptions and diversifies the stories told. So when I write a poem that’s about desire, or grief, or the body, I want people to realize, “Oh yeah, her too.” It’s not all bombs and camels.

I do, though, write poems that are recognizably influenced by my background: I write about my faith and the rituals that were iconic of my childhood, such as fasting for Ramadan and the daily prayers; a number of my poems are set in Tunisia, where I have spent nearly every summer of my life and lived for a year as a child; and I write poems in response to the present political and social issues that affect my community, topics such as refugees, prejudice and violence in the United States, and the Arab Spring. I write what presses on me, and these provide steady pressure.

KB: You’ve won the Academy of American Poets Prize earlier this year, and the Pablo Neruda Prize, along with being featured in a number of other publications. Do you remember the first time you were published? What was that moment like?
LC: Yes I do! Vividly. It was May of 2014; I was packing up my apartment in Raleigh to move and was stressed to the gills. I took a break to check my e-mail and when I saw the message from Rattle I let out this huge scream. Henrik nearly had a heart attack, and my roommate came out of her room to see what was the matter. I spent much of the night afterwards dancing. There’s no thrill quite like that first one. 

KB:Your poem, “What Do Arabs Think of Ghosts?” was recently selected by Tracy K Smith (a former poetry center guest) as part of the Best New Poets anthology. What were you doing when you found out?
LC: I was in Tunisia, and was actually in a really bad mood. My cousin Hend was with me, and we were just idly surfing the web on our computers. I screamed (evidently that’s my M.O.) and once I read it again to be sure and explained it to Hend, she made me read the poem to her.

KB: What does it mean to be selected as a part of this particular anthology?
LC: To me, a lot! It’s been a long, difficult year. I was advised to divert all my energy into poetry whenever things were particularly difficult, so I spent months just writing and reading and sending work out to distract myself. To see that work pay off as I was finally emerging from the worst of it was immensely rewarding. I cried later that day; it was such a sudden, clear relief.

KB: I think you’re also working on a book, is that correct? Is it a book of poetry? (Just clarifying!)
LC: I am writing a book, and it is a book of poetry!

KB: How far along are you in the process of writing/publishing?
LC: Well, that’s a little complicated. I’m working on a long poem that may end up being the entirety of the book, but I haven’t decided yet. I’m also working on a series of poems that would work well in conversation with the piece, so maybe I’ll have the book include both. When I’m not working on those projects, I’m getting work together for a chapbook. I guess you could say I’m juggling a few things at the moment and focusing on writing first, organizing later.

KB: And now you’re living in France. What inspired the move?
LC: I needed a break from the U.S. I’d had an exhausting year and I needed a change to get my head back on straight. I find that being in a new place helps me get better in touch with myself and my goals when I start to lose track of it in the hubbub of daily American life. (We’re too busy in the U.S.!) Also, I had no plans for a job after graduation and I wanted to focus on writing, and, because of family connections, it was actually cheaper for me to go abroad than to stay in the U.S. So, multiple reasons! It’s been a very good experience.

KB: What advice do you have for other RCAH students?
LC: Don’t worry too much about the future! Or worry, and use that energy to do something about it; use it to motivate you. Don’t feel guilty about pursuing what you love, or ashamed if it doesn’t make you a lot of money. And don’t let failure stop you—I’ve failed many more times than I’ve succeeded. I just keep going at it.