I Freed Myself from Needing to Make Sense: A Conversation with Leila Chatti
The first thing you notice about Leila Chatti’s latest poetry collection, Figment (Bull City Press, 2023) is the chalky black cover, with a ghost-like title in the bottom right-hand corner. The poems within have unpredictable form and language, all mirrors of a recent tragedy.
“I was actively grieving, and miscarrying,” Chatti said. “The miscarriage that prompted this project was unfortunately quite prolonged, taking about a month to complete. I was trying to find language for the experience, for myself, because I felt I could not move beyond my grief until I could name it.”
Chatti’s physical loss inspired this collection of sparse, fluid poems, which appear in abecedarian form, all untitled. Words seem to wander on the page, unanchored, lamenting, and heartbreakingly organized. Figment conveys the silent devastation of pregnancy loss.
A Tunisian-American poet and author, Leila Chatti’s first full-length collection of poetry, Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), won the 2021 Levis Reading Prize, the 2021 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, and was long-listed for the 2021 PEN Open Book Award. Chatti is also the author of the chapbooks The Mothers (Slapering Hol Press), Ebb (New-Generation African Poets), and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press, the same publishers who have now brought us Figment.
Laila Chatti and I exchanged emails, discussed the process of writing through grief, how her publisher supported this risky project, why other poets inspire her, and the enduring joy of exploration, experimentation, play, and possibility she finds in writing poetry.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on this book! I was happy to see you working with Bull City Press again. Was there a feeling of coming home?
Leila Chatti: Ahh, very much so! I love Bull City Press, and they are an absolute dream to work with. When I finished Figment I knew that if it were to be published, it had to be with them. I truly was so afraid of publishing Figment—it is still difficult for me to talk about it, but because of the support I’ve received from Bull City, I feel comfortable opening up a bit more. I have yet to read from it. I had thought, actually, I would never do interviews about it, but here I am.
Rumpus: Thank you for doing this! Let’s talk about that title: Figment. Just the word has so many connotations! How did you arrive at that title?
Chatti: It may feel like a flimsy answer, but the truth is the word “figment” just appeared in my head one day. Miscarriage is challenging to talk about not only because it is, often traumatic, but also because it is an experience almost entirely unseen by anyone other than the person it happens to. Most women are encouraged not to tell anyone they are pregnant until they are twelve weeks along. Translated, this means three months of secrecy while something enormous is happening to you.
The reason for this imposed silence is, of course, because the woman may miscarry—one in five do—and the unspoken part of that “wisdom” is that others knowing about a miscarriage would be a terrible thing. Secrecy, though, compounds grief—it isolates the grieving person, and creates an additional burden of holding up a mask for its duration. When I first miscarried, in 2020, my isolation was extreme. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, not even my partner was able to be with me at my appointments, and the doctors themselves had barriers in place to keep us as separate as possible. The trauma of this total isolation, distanced from my partner and community, and denied anyone to reflect my experience back to me, made it difficult to believe it had really happened. If I alone saw the baby, felt the baby, lost it, could I be sure it was ever there at all? Knowing, too, it wasn’t yet a baby, it was the possibility of a baby—something, not nothing, and yet everything to me. Was I allowed to grieve something I alone could see, could imagine?
Women are conditioned to disbelieve and diminish their own experiences their entire lives. “Figment” is defined as something one believes to be real but “only” exists in their imagination. In my grief, the word burbled up.
Rumpus: Did you put this collection together as a testament to that grief process?
Chatti: The project itself was not intentional. I did not want to write about the loss. I had just begun a PhD program, however, and was mortified to realize I could not bring myself to write, despite impending deadlines. I was trying to force myself to write other kinds of poems, but quickly realized these attempts would continue to fail unless I wrote through the Big Thing weighing on my mind and heart. So, I decided I would write it out, privately, to process and be done with it. I fully and completely never intended to show it to anyone else. It was a purging I felt I needed to do before moving on to my other, public work. I found, though, myself immediately disgusted when I tried to write what I think of as “traditional” poems about the miscarriage; it felt too “poemy.” I was deeply repulsed by the idea of packaging this massively complex experience into something neat and orderly. It wasn’t orderly. It wasn’t content. I couldn’t articulate its enormity, and so I began to write down those attempts at articulation, knowing they were failures. Who cared? It was my private processing, after all.
Once I freed myself from needing to make sense, from needing to cohere this shifting, unspeakable thing in me into something that could be easily understood by someone else, words kept coming. Individual words, which I worked through in alphabetical order. This structure gave me a line to follow through the dark. I thought of these words as dots of paint, as in a Pointillist painting, that would reveal something when viewed as a whole and at a distance.
Rumpus: The first poem in the book introduces the reader to the disjointed theme of grief, as the speaker is questioning a person’s existence: “I saw you shadow of / a shadow / maybe I thought / I made you / up.” These words appear on the page like ghosts, or drops of rain, or teardrops. Is the form as important as the words here?
Chatti: I love everything you listed here, as those are exactly the images I hoped to invoke—absolutely, yes, the form is essential and intentional. Ghosts, rain, and tears are all amorphous—they lack form, and in their formlessness, are slippery shapeshifters, something unable to be held. When seen through, they distort what is seen. The poem(s) originally came about this way, fragmented and disparate, like something glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Silence is as much a part of this as the words are, if not more so. Language and ideas came in wisps, and I tried to capture this accurately—words would appear, suddenly, and then vanish, sometimes mid-thought. This is the experience of miscarriage—out of nothing, back into. Writing this felt like collecting rain in my hands.
Rumpus: The definition of figment appears, along with the date of origin: 15th century? Is this to illustrate how ancient of a concept this is?
Chatti: I’m interested in origins—this is, after all, a work puzzling over creation. Figment’s root is the Proto-Indo-European deigh: to form, build—to create. Other words sharing this root appear in this collection, as I found their kinship telling: fiction, faint, fictile, effigy, figure, paradise. Interestingly enough, “lady” is also of this family, though I did not dig into this in Figment.
I’ve always been interested in etymology, because where a thing comes from teaches you a lot, and this is as true of words as it is of people. I’m interested in the pieces that form a word, its DNA, and the meanings sloughed off or layered on with time. For as slippery as a “figment” may be, the word itself is quite static. There really is only one use for it: “figment of (the/one’s) imagination.” Its marriage to imagination intrigued me, and I wanted to highlight and spend time with this idea.
Rumpus: The poems are untitled, but one that appears early in the collection begins with “amorphous,” which means, “without a clearly defined shape or form or focus.” Was this your intention with the book’s structure?
Chatti: I’ve struggled to define Figment, which is no surprise, as it seems to elude language at every level. I didn’t stop to think about what it was while I was writing it, because I had no intentions of publishing. I didn’t really care what exactly each page “was,” and I didn’t feel a need to impose any recognizable framework on it. I just wrote. Now, looking at it, I think of it as one long poem, because it is all of one sustained utterance.
From the beginning, I wasn’t thinking of it through a publishing lens, and because of this freedom, I allowed it to be mysterious to me. I suppose I think of the little “poems” within Figment as rooms, perhaps as in Scooby-Doo—remember? When they’d run through one door and appear running from another, run through a far door and be somehow back again? They’re connected, a corridor of mysterious, transportive doors.
As for the alphabet, I’ve been obsessed with the abecedarian for some time. It is an ancient form. It is also one of origins, as we learn the alphabet, of course, as children, our introduction to the world of written language. It is our first ordering system. I didn’t think much about this when writing, though. It simply presented itself. So I followed it.
Rumpus: One of the poems has the word “grief” written, over and over, alongside other “g” words (genesis, germinal, gesture, etc.). It ends with “gone” –the real reason for this poem. The shape of the poem looks like a backwards “f” (figment?) Is this important?
Chatti: Oh, that’s so interesting! I’ve learned by now my mind is smarter than I am, than my conscious self—it’s doing all sorts of things in there, unbeknownst to me. I often tell my students that the poem knows better than I do, and so I shouldn’t be arrogant enough to think I’m in control.
I write best when there are two writers present: my conscious mind and my unconscious, both with a hand on the keyboard. It is very possible my mind was creating that shape in a nod to the letter that came before it, doubling back—who knows! I do know that my conscious mind wrote the left side first, the other “g” words. I stopped just before “gone” when I realized that there was one ultimate word that an alternate Figment could have been comprised of entirely, one that was pressing on me so intensely it couldn’t just be uttered once, and that was “grief.” So, I gave it the space I had, which wasn’t enough. Then “gone” arrived, and that was a kind of closure. Figment has taught me that with some things, maybe everything, there aren’t neat beginnings and endings. Sometimes you can only go as far as you can and then stop. This part of the poem is like that; I could say only “grief” for the rest of my days. But I had to make a decision, for craft or time or my own self, to stop. So I stopped, for this moment at least, here.
Rumpus: One of my favorite poems says, “not all suffering was done / to me some suffering / I wrought myself.” This appears in the midst of grief, words continuing to cry out: “…hours white morning poured over my body I didn’t move I / thought it might help to be helped I thought / I must make it clear I am helpless…” I related to this poem, and wondered, “How often have I become immobile, thinking it was the only way I could justify asking for help?”
Chatti: Pain is bewildering, and in that bewilderment, I often have the most startling thoughts. One of these thoughts was this: in order to be helped, I must be totally helpless. At a different stage of pain, not in its immediacy, I can see where this came from; since childhood, I’ve been “tough.” I’ve endured significant difficulty and continued to perform as if I were fine. I’ve prided myself on my ability to do it all myself, to never ask for help, and because I’ve been “okay” without help, no one really thinks to offer it. I am understood to be someone who is “strong,” and my history of adversity (and overcoming it) has been used to define me. So, faced with something I was not sure I could overcome, I felt intense desperation: in this private moment of suffering, I now needed someone, something, greater and/or other than myself, to help me. And I thought the only way I could receive that help would be to completely yield, to submit, to accept there is pain beyond my capacity to endure. This, too, was an acceptance that there were things outside of my control—I thought if I believed I were responsible for my pain, I could feel some power over it, but this wasn’t true. This pain was unlike any I’d ever encountered. It transformed and humbled me. A word that keeps pushing on me right now is “broke.” So maybe that, too.
Rumpus: “O omen / O otherworld / object /O permanence / please O pleas / O passing / pulp palpable pain / O! O!” This poem seems to carry a sacred, primal cry. How does language/spelling/enjambment inform this poem?
Chatti: “O” as a sound, a glyph, evokes an open-mouthed cry. It is indeed primal; that sound, in pain, is what language reduces to. To be literal, possibly graphic, there were times while miscarrying where the pain was so severe this was all I could say. It’s a sound pregnant with so much: pain, yes, as well as shock, lament, and prayer. C.S. Lewis wrote God “shouts in our pains.” I shouted back. I absolutely pleaded with God: to make the pain stop, to save the baby. There is visceral horror in the experience of miscarriage that is hard to look at—for the person enduring the real thing, but also for others, to read or imagine. In some ways, though, it offered a sense of twisted validation—this gore was proof that something had existed, had been lost, could be seen. No longer an idea, but something tangible. This is the part that makes it clear there was no figment of the imagination. It is validating and agonizing. Like the real thing, this section starts and stops.
Rumpus: When I finished this book, I read it again, from back to front. I kept looking for resolution, but there’s no conclusion. There are only enough words for the speaker to present a topsy-turvy and heartbreaking reality…
Chatti: There is no resolution. How can there be? This is something I am learning to accept, as it is necessary to eventually move beyond my grief. I wish there were an answer—why the baby died, what that life could have been, who I would be had this not happened. I can’t ever know. There are some questions that go on forever. My unwillingness to accept this vast not-knowing is a root of my suffering. What I do know, I put down in language as best I could. The poem isn’t meant to be the answer. It is an answer, to questions I can’t ask and don’t fully understand.
Rumpus: You thank the poet Jean Valentine at the end of this book, saying her, “words and silences helped me discover my own.” How did she do this? Is it important for poets to openly appreciate the work of others?
Chatti: What I’ve always admired about Jean’s work is how much she doesn’t feel the need to say—there is space for the unsayable, for thoughts interrupted or tucked back away. Her work is spare. It trusts the reader, or maybe it doesn’t particularly care about the reader? Either way, I admire this; these poems don’t fight to be understood. They simply exist, and I, reader, encounter-er, am owed nothing. Her poems are things of beauty, even if—or because—they are not wholly revealed. I think, generally, there’s too much fuss about “understanding” a poem. I’m often content just to experience them.
It is incredibly important to appreciate the work of others—with real, genuine appreciation, not blanket, performative appreciation. Not everyone’s work will resonate with you, and that’s perfectly fine. I believe in uplifting work that excites me, but I don’t waste my time or energy tearing down that which doesn’t. I also understand my opinion can change! Some things I didn’t love the first time I read them, and then years later, got quite a bit out of it on a second or third read.
It’s important to seek out work that interests, excites, or moves you. We’re not writing alone; we are part of one ancient, ongoing conversation. Read who came before you, and the work of your peers, and those coming up behind you. If you love someone’s work, tell them so (I guarantee they don’t hear it enough). If someone’s been an influence on you, credit them, so that others can read and appreciate, too, this work that has changed your life.
Rumpus: What is your process like? Do you have a favorite discipline or schedule? Is it less structured?
Chatti: This is ever-changing. I had a solid routine for a number of years. When I wrote Deluge, I was supported by a string of fellowships and had a great deal of time and few obligations. I was also in good health at that time. The last three years have been a time of tumult, globally and personally, and I have suffered from chronic pain, due to my health condition worsening with interrupted and delayed medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because my life and body have become quite unpredictable, a routine has become nearly impossible. I resisted and grieved this, angrily, for a long time, but am coming to accept I need to adapt.
Now there is a less strict routine, but there is a fluid one! I always write in the morning as soon as I wake up. I open the shades (I need natural light, not artificial), make myself a cup of tea, and sit at my desk. I need isolation, or at least the illusion of isolation.
I usually read poetry and keep a couple books on my desk that I feel may be particularly in line with the subject matter or “feel” of what I’m working on. I always type, never hand-write poems, and I save multiple drafts. I do have a handwritten journal where I write down everything I find: interesting quotes, words and facts. Another journal, where I purge my personal thoughts before I write. I brainstorm or write diagrams to work through my nascent ideas. I almost always have some knickknacks related to my project on my desk as well. I dive deep, writing for hours uninterrupted. If I eat, it’s at my desk, and it’s nibbling. I go through at least five cups of tea, often far more.
When I’m with my partner (we currently are living in different states, while I teach at Smith), I close the doors to my study, put on headphones, and play classical music in order to block out any possible indication he is home. He knows not to interrupt me in the mornings. If there is loud noise, as happens occasionally outside, I will put on those bulky shooting range headphones to further block out the world.
Rumpus: Do you have strategies for dealing with distractions?
Chatti: I never have my phone near me; I silence it and put it out of the room. I don’t check social media in my office, but I can access the internet for research, and frequently spend a good deal of time doing that. I have over five hundred tabs open currently.
I keep sticky notes above my desk with reminders about mindset and creativity (“You have time” is a frequent one), and I also frequently keep word and question lists, images, and mood-boards within view when I’m deep in a particular project.
I greatly prefer to write in my own home, never cafés or public places. I’ve found writing residencies very helpful as well—the primary need is isolation. Sometimes a change in location can be very fruitful for my work, so long as its long enough for me to get settled—a week to three months somewhere else is the sweet spot for me. I do like writing in hotels, too, when traveling for readings, but this tends to be short, one-off poems. I prefer to write toward a project, and always am working on many at once (currently, the count is seven different manuscripts), but I won’t push away a “random” poem if it presents itself to me. I know by now that I can’t always predict what will ultimately be part of a project, so I let them all in.
As for the poems themselves, this process stays the same. I write from the first line and follow it until the poem kicks me out. I never know where I’m going. I do not revise in a typical fashion. I don’t return to poems later and start rearranging their innards. I revise as I write, making my way down the page. I think of a poem like cement: when it’s still wet, I can tinker without any trouble, but when it’s hardened, it will break. I write propelled by sound, so changing even a single word can cause big problems—rhythm can get thrown off, internal rhymes, all sorts of things. So, I move very slowly, making sure each word is perfect, before moving on. I pay close attention to every word, making sure each one is exact. When I finish a poem, if it isn’t quite right, I don’t try to force it into a new version. I keep the file for my records (I’m an insufferable packrat), but I abandon it, and move on to another poem. If it’s an idea or subject I’m still interested in, I’ll try a different approach in a new, blank document, never recycling from the old poem. I’ve written many poems that I do nothing further with. Writing them was exercise, throat-clearing, and getting through them allowed me to get to a poem that is fully formed and ready to be in a project and the world.
Rumpus: If an emerging poet asks you how to find their voice, or put a collection together, what would you say?
Chatti: My advice is to relinquish a little control. Let yourself be surprised! It’s good to have a vision, but that can easily slip into something restrictive. I know poets who envision the “point” of a poem or project before they have even begun, and then they’re doomed. Writing the poem teaches you, and if you assume you know where you’re going, you won’t learn a thing. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Ego deflates a poem faster than just about anything. Write as exploration and let yourself be led by where the poems want to go. I discover things when I’m in the middle of a writing project. I suddenly realize, “Oh wow, I’ve written a lot of poems about ____, I wonder if there’s something to investigate there?”
Keep following that, to discover what’s waiting for you. You may understand the first layer of a project, but there are almost certainly layers beneath that you need to write, unknowing, to unearth. You might be able to write a decent book with an idea you think up. A great one will likely be the one you stumble into.
Other, briefer, pieces of advice: read a ton, and then read more. Create some separation between writing and publication. It can be easy to become discouraged early in a project by rejection or outside feedback, so I tend to keep my poems close to the vest until I’m halfway through a project, at least. This schedule may not work for you, but I do recommend some kind of boundary to protect your work when it is still fresh, and you when you are still vulnerable.
In regard to publication, savor the time you have before you begin publishing—it’s a time for exploration and experimentation and play and possibility. I have spent a great deal of energy trying to recreate those conditions on the other side. Try things that feel beyond your abilities. What’s there to lose? It’s just a poem— you’re not performing brain surgery!
Find and treasure good friends who support and encourage you. Write what interests you, not what you think others are interested in. I’d much rather read a book about dirt by someone who loves the hell out of dirt than a performative, soulless book about something I’m interested in. Protect your heart and have fun.
Author photo by Aric Velbel