Leila Chatti, a poet who grew up in Michigan, will be the first Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Editing, beginning her appointment this fall at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She has dual citizenship in Tunisia and the United States.
She was chosen from among almost 90 applicants.
“I am drawn to this fellowship in particular because I almost did not become a writer,” Chatti explained in her application. “As a child, I loved books, but because I had never encountered any written by or about people like me, I didn’t believe I would be able to write them; I thought writing was an occupation for other kinds of people, and that, by extension, my experience — my story — was not worth telling.
“It wasn’t until high school that I saw myself reflected on the page. An English teacher one day brought me a stack of books by Naomi Shihab Nye, and it was as if the world shifted. For the first time, I felt I, too, could do it — because I had seen it existed, I now knew it was possible.”
Chatti is currently living in Madison, Wis., where she is the Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the state university. Her poems are collected into two forthcoming chapbooks, Ebb and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. Readers can find her work now in Ploughshares, Tin House, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review Online, Narrative, and The Rumpus.
The fellowship will have a community engagement piece that Chatti will design in Cleveland as she works on her first book.
“Once I was discouraged from writing early in my career for being too female and too Muslim, by those who were neither,” Chatti told the selection committee, “an instance of the systemic silencing in writing establishments and publishing that I hope to combat.”
Caryl Pagel, director of the CSU Poetry Center, called Chatti “a very gifted writer” and expressed her enthusiasm for the new position. “We hope to help address the longstanding lack of diversity in U.S. publishing, expand our literary service to the Cleveland community, and help raise our city’s profile as a center for innovative poetry and prose,” Pagel said.
Her sentiment was echoed by Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards: “The U.S. publishing industry is structured so that its members are 89 percent white, according to a 2014 industry-wide survey,” Long said. “We are delighted to address this inequity with something new under the sun: an editing and writing fellowship housed in the resurgent Cleveland State University Poetry Center. We see this as a new on-ramp that will benefit the literary arts, Cleveland and Leila Chatti herself.”
The fellowship runs two years and will bring the poet closer to her hometown. “I have a deep love for the Midwest, and a sense of responsibility to give back in any way I can,” Chatti said between sessions at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. “I am so thrilled to return to my part of the country, the part that raised me.”
Here is her poem, “Fasting In Tunis”:
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
– ROBERT HASS
My God taught me hunger
is a gift, it sweetens
the meal. All day, I have gone without
because I know at the end I will
eat and be satisfied. In this way,
my desire is bearable.
I endure this day
as I have endured years of days
without the whole of your affection.
Your desire is one capable of rest.
Mine keeps its eyes open, stalks
through heat that quivers,
waits to be fed.
The sun burns a hole through
the sky and I am patient.
The ocean eats and eats
at the sand and still hungers.
I watch its wide blue tongue, knowing
you are on the other side.
What is greater: the distance between
these bodies, or their need?
Noon gapes, a vacant maw—
there is long to go
until the moon is served, white as a plate.
You are far and still sleeping;
the morning has not yet slunk into your bed,
its dreams so vast and solitary.
Once, long ago,
I touched you,
and I will touch you again—
your mouth a song
I remember, your mouth
a sugar I drink.