The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this first interview, I.S. Jones speaks with Tunisian-American poet Leila Chatti about the governing principles of her debut, Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020)—the process of putting together the manuscript, how faith and shame operated in her book, and how Chatti had to transform her thinking to view Mary, the book’s central figure, as a fully formed woman, not unlike Chatti herself.
Deluge by Leila Chatti: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain
Jones: Prior to Deluge, you had two chapbooks Ebb & Tunsiya/Amrikiya. I am interested in how these chapbooks prepared you to take on a larger body of work. Was the drive to create Ebb different from the drive to create Tunsiya / Amrikiya?
Chatti: Yes, very! At the beginning of 2016, I set a resolution to put together a chapbook by the end of the year. I didn’t know then what that year would look like—violence across the world and in the United States (Nice, Brussels, Orlando), massive numbers of refugees displaced and endangered, and intensifying rage and despair during the presidential election, which of course culminated in Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States. I spent much of 2016 deeply unsettled and distracted, overwhelmed with the chaos and devastation I was witnessing. I had come to Provincetown, Massachusetts, in October to begin a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, but spent those first two months unable to focus, caught up in the news and my feelings about the news. When December came around, I remembered my promise to myself and decided I would try to meet that goal, to try and pivot in the direction of something good to dedicate my energy and attention to. I spent a week at my kitchen table in Provincetown putting Tunsiya/Amrikiya together. I had written most of the poems for it already that year and the year prior, and only had to write a few more, to balance the manuscript. I had originally thought of Tunsiya/Amrikiya as being two sister chapbooks—one titled Tunsiya, and the other Amrikiya, and actually still have the original files named that way—but when I sat down to look at my poems, I realized I couldn’t easily categorize them as being Tunisian or American, and that separating them that way would be impossible. The point was, of course, I was both; trying to separate what of me was Tunisian and what was American would be like trying to split myself in half.
Ebb, on the other hand, came about completely—ah, unwillingly? What I mean is, unlike the poems in Tunsiya/Amrikiya, which I had been publishing steadily before putting them together as a manuscript, the poems in Ebb were private, secret poems, and I had not intended to ever share them. I had also written those poems in 2015 and 2016, but they had been what I consider “diary poems,” poems to make sense of things for myself (because poems are the form in which I process the events of my life, primarily). Ebb came about because a week after Tunsiya/Amrikiya was accepted for publication by Bull City Press, I received an e-mail from Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani inviting me to submit a chapbook for the New-Generation African Poets series.
Both projects, looking back on them now, prepared me for the much larger project of Deluge. I actually also wrote a substantial chunk of the poems in Deluge during 2015 and 2016 as well—it was a period of both great difficulty and great creativity for me. Looping back to the first story, my resolution in 2016—that spring, I was living with Dorianne Laux and Joe Millar, and things were still mostly calm in the world at that point, and I was happily getting ready to think about a chapbook. I looked at my poems and grouped them, as is my way. I realized I had all these Mary and health poems that were clearly in conversation—the illness at the center of Deluge had only just resolved, more or less, in the spring of the year earlier, 2015, and I had been writing poems during and following that experience—so many that I was right up against the page count for a chapbook. I brought them to Dorianne, who knew of my goal, and said I had enough poems for a chapbook but felt I had only just gotten started saying what I wanted to say, so what should I do—should I cut and condense? She took one look at it and said, “Leila, this isn’t a chapbook, this is your book.” And I was very, very afraid of that answer, because I didn’t feel I was ready to be writing my capital B book, and I certainly didn’t want it to be about that.
Jones: Can you tell me when you realized you were in the middle of a book project? Sometimes a poet will be swept up by an obsession that they don’t understand they are in the middle of until they have drafted multiple poems speaking to each other. You were plagued by a severe chronic illness and dealt with chronic pain. I appreciate how you confront the complicated history of medicine when it comes to women’s bodies. When did you see Deluge begin to form into a full body of poems?
Chatti: Another pivotal moment for me in thinking about the book came when I was on a flight with Ross White, who would become my editor for Tunsiya/Amrikiya at Bull City Press but was not yet. We sat next to each other—I had gone to graduate school in Raleigh, and Bull City Press is in Durham, so we had met briefly before—and he asked if I was working on anything, and I showed him the first 20 or so poems of what would become Deluge. He read through it and then said I had two threads—faith and medicine—but he felt there was one more thread, one I hadn’t figured out yet. I was very interested in that thought and mulled it over for the next year in Provincetown, where I continued writing poems engaging with faith and illness. It wasn’t until right at the end of writing the book, when I was in Wisconsin, that I realized the final thread—shame. It had been there the whole time by not being there—like the white space that makes possible the trees. I had been avoiding talking about it directly without being consciously aware I was writing around something.
But, suddenly, it was so clear to me—what was conspicuously unsaid. Truthfully, it was very hard for me to write about shame once I understood shame was what I had to write about. I was afraid of looking at it, afraid of engaging with it for fear that it might overwhelm me if I let down my guard (if we’re using a flood as a metaphor, it was the enormous wall of water behind a dam I could not imagine opening without losing control). I was also very aware of audience now, both people from my background and not, and was afraid of how both would react. A Muslim woman talking openly about her body and sexuality, her anger and hunger for God? No matter who looked at me, I was wrong—neither secular nor devout enough, not fully free nor obedient, the wrong kind of Muslim, the wrong kind of woman. I was afraid of being seen clearly. I was ashamed of my shame. But I knew if I wanted to write the real book, not the easy book or the book I “wanted,” which is the book I felt I could control, I had to address shame. Once I began to do that, that’s when Deluge opened up beyond my plans for it, became what it wanted—needed—to be.
Jones: I am fascinated with how shame functions in the book as it relates to the body and faith. I am not Muslim, but many of the teachings in the Celestial Church of Christ mirror those of the Islamic faith: women are not to sit next to men in church, women must cover their heads in God’s house, women who menstruate cannot touch the Bible or enter the church until they have been sanctified by a man in the church. In this way, Deluge is a deeply personal book for me, as it is a book for and about women, especially women whose lives are deeply intertwined with the Divine. I didn’t know this until Deluge, but Mary is the only woman in the Qur’an mentioned by name. The way your work makes parallels between the speaker and Mary—to humanize her—is incredibly powerful. I think it is critical to note that what is so powerful about Deluge is its commitment to reposition women (specifically Mary) in a way where they are human, more than a mere vessel to usher in the Savior of Man.
Chatti: There’s something interesting about shame—no one seems to want to bring it up, but when we start talking about it, it’s hard to stop. I’ve had so many conversations—whispery, deeply intimate, trusting conversations—the past few years with women sparked from these poems, women who seem, like me, relieved to finally be talking about it, to know we’re not alone in this. It’s easier, now, for me to talk about it—shame doesn’t like being revealed to the light, and loses much of its power once it is. That revelation shows up in “Questions Directed Toward the Idea of Mary”—once we see our shame, understand it, we gain power over it, and that power can be made useful to us.
I think if you’re raised in a faith, deeply, you never really shake it off; it becomes part of your DNA, a lens through which you see the world. Whether or not I want it, my experiences with religion, its values and stories, remain with me, are central to who I am. When I became sick, I turned to faith because that is what I had been raised to do, and when I had questions, my questions were directed toward God—what else could be expected? In the Abrahamic traditions, women are not the central players; the female experience is a secondary one, a narrative subsidiary to the masculine default. Nearly all other women are referred to by their relationships to men—wives, mothers. While I was not necessarily explicitly told I was less important, the ways the stories of my youth were told to me led me to believe this. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emphasizes the importance of names: “You will be called on the Day of Resurrection by your names and the names of your fathers, so have good names.” So what does it mean, not to be named? Who calls for us? It’s an erasure, a silence.
For a long time, Mary was an idea more than a woman to me. I think it’s often like this for children—it’s hard for children to imagine those above them, those with power and respect, to be fully-fleshed out human beings. When I became sick, I was twenty-two years old, only just beginning to think of myself as not a child, primarily because I was in a context that forced me to view myself that way—I was a high school teacher, and the presence of actual children made it clear that I was no longer one. Once I felt that shift, once I was transformed into an idea by my students and knew, of course, that I was more than that, I had this realization that kept unfolding: first that the adults I knew must be more complex than I, as a child, had imagined them, and then that everyone was. This eventually led me to consider more deeply Mary. If I were to believe in my faith, I needed to believe that Mary had once existed, was a real woman—and a real girl—and that opened all sorts of questions for me. Could I imagine, for example, Mary’s menarche? Mary playing, Mary experiencing desire, Mary afraid? When I became sick, I felt stripped of my agency, and I wondered about how Mary felt, “blessed” with a child she hadn’t asked for. How would it feel to be chosen by God, to be faced with an angel, in adolescence? What choices would someone realistically have in that context? It all really broke open for me when I returned to the Qur’an and read the passage I quote in the epigraph of the first poem of Deluge, “Confession:” while Mary was giving birth, she cried out, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” Mary’s pain made her human. I was struck by Mary’s vulnerability, her fierce refusal—that there was a moment, at the very least one, where she would have rejected God’s plan for her, where she would have chosen a different story.
Jones: I am curious about the decisions made while ordering your manuscript, which seems to follow an ordering by word association. For example, in “Mother,” the final lines are “And I’d tell you the shame of it: / the feminine failure / its ache a reminder—at the center the tumor / ballooning like hope.” This then brings us to the poem “Tumor.” Can you speak more to the choices and the logic behind the structure, the arc you wanted readers to follow? How did you bring together poems that may have been written years apart from each other?
Chatti: A great question! The ordering was a significant challenge for me. I did write the poems over a period of time—the first one came about in 2013, the last in 2018—and had not, in the beginning, imagined I was writing a book. I didn’t have a plan laid out. I actually reached out to some mentors and friends about how I might think about ordering; I say “actually” because I’m very, very private about my work while I’m working on it, and rarely reveal anything unless I’m certain it’s done. Gregory Pardlo was someone who helped talk me through different ways of thinking about the arc and order. I knew the obvious answer was to order it chronologically—first I became sick, then I got sicker, then it was fixed, and at the end, I was better—but this didn’t feel right, and Greg agreed. He said something that really stuck with me. He said, “You know, that you’re okay in the end isn’t a mystery you have to hold out from the reader—of course you survived! You wrote the book!” It clicked for me. The turning point toward wellness wasn’t the climax, the great reveal—once I was freed of that idea, I could think about what I was actually working toward, outside of the linear structure of time.
Originally, the first draft of Deluge did not have sections. That version existed for maybe six months after I finished its final poem. It felt thick, swollen, without room to breathe, and I knew it wasn’t right but I didn’t have a sense of how to correct it. I was in Ireland for a residency that summer when I began to think about sections, and the version I organized it into there is the one that is now the book. I had this extremely complicated system of notes and categories—a number of charts in my notebook, in addition to the entirety of the book on notecards, with a poem on one side and a complex series of symbols and color-coding on the back—and this system helped me to have a really clear view of what was happening in the book both on the poem level and overall. I was very deliberate about my choices; I appreciate that you noted how “Mother” leads into “Tumor,” which was part of this thinking. It was a daunting task, to pull together all these poems with different registers and shapes and concerns. I thought about images as links from one poem to another, but also tone. I didn’t want a series of poems that were all left-aligned blocks, or a number of traditional forms or prose poems in a row. It was important for me to think about breath in the manuscript, moments for silence or pause. In my first version, it was too intense for too long—the book, I think, is pretty intense overall, and even I who created it felt I couldn’t keep reading at that heightened level for more than a handful of pages—so I wanted to fold in moments of quiet, if not relief; tension and release, tension and release. The sections allowed for that, both within them and at their breaks. Having sections also allowed me to pivot—the second major section, for example, kind of does a circling back to pre-sickness, to adolescence. It interrupts the chronological narrative.
One last note about my thoughts and intentions in regard to structure: the massive poem, “Awrah,” was an interesting one to place. I’d received some suggestions to put it in the middle of the book. I chose to put it near the end, because I wanted there to be this energy near the end, that the end is never really the end—while one might expect relief following the surgery and recovery, I wanted to disrupt that expectation for a comfortable, complete resolution. The truth is, it (what I experienced, what I learned, what I felt) isn’t over—it’s just different, at a further point in a story still revealing itself to me. And “Deluge,” the final poem, the hefty cento—that poem was the only poem that could have been there. The ending had to be messy, to be uncertain, overwhelming. The cento goes in many directions, the speaker(s) within often contradicting what is said earlier in the same poem or even in the line prior, and this is intentional, it’s how I felt—yes, God, I need you, and yes, God, I turn my back, and yes, God, where are you, and yes, God, you are here, oh God, my God, no, yes, O! Everything at once.
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), winner of the 2021 Levis Reading Prize, the 2021 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, and longlisted for the 2021 PEN Open Book Award, and the chapbooks Ebb (New-Generation African Poets) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. She holds a B.A. from the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University and an M.F.A. from North Carolina State University, where she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, and fellowships and scholarships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place Conference on Poetry, the Key West Literary Seminars, Dickinson House, and Cleveland State University, where she was the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Publishing. Her poems have received prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative’s 30 Below Contest, the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, and the Pushcart Prize, among others, and appear in The New York Times Magazine, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, POETRY, The Nation, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review Online, Narrative, The Rumpus, Best New Poets (2015 & 2017), and other journals and anthologies. In 2017, she was shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. She currently serves as the Consulting Poetry Editor at the Raleigh Review and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is the Mendota Lecturer in Poetry.