2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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Leila Chatti worked six years to create Deluge, 52 poems that the esteemed Copper Canyon Press will publish next year as her first book.

Michael Wiegers, editor of the press that publishes Jericho Brown, C.D. Wright and W.S. Merwin, called Chatti in March to give her the news.

“I’ve been happy-crying for the past hour driving to the prison I teach at – I’m so very, very excited to say my first book, DELUGE, is going to be published with @CopperCanyonPrs,” Chatti tweeted. “This feels like the best dream. I am so wildly grateful. Praise to God in all things.”

Faith is a strand that weaves through her first two chapbooks and rises in Deluge. Chatti, 28, is the daughter of a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. When her father heard that the Copper Canyon editor — whom his daughter has met just once at a brunch as a 22-year-old student in North Carolina — had selected her manuscript, he saw that brief introduction as fate.

Deluge pronounced itself from the start as a book with a bold vision, unafraid to wrestle faith, myth, embodiment and multiple taboos,” Wiegers wrote in an email interview. “In several poems Chatti imagines the Virgin Mary as a mother, very physically, and painfully giving birth, and contrasts this personal elsewhere with her own body, blood, pain, and belief. It’s a sometimes startling, often vulnerable, seldom blinking debut collection that marks her as a promising talent whose artistry will continue to reveal itself.

“This is a very special book by a dedicated and talented poet. We’re thrilled to bring her poems to a larger readership.”

Chatti grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, a citizen of both the United States and Tunisia. She is midway through her two-year Anisfield-Wolf fellowship in writing and publishing at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. The editing, she said, is already influencing her, liberating the form on the page of some of her newest poems.

Deluge is the title of two poems in the manuscript,” Chatti said in an interview. “The book is about my illness in my early twenties when I had a number of uterine tumors. For about 2 ½ to three years I was dealing with that. I was dealing with oncologists. One of the first symptoms I had was hemorrhaging, and when I went to the hospital, they referred to it as a flood. This was one of the most humiliating symptoms, and I bled for almost three years. Because I was brought up in a religious household, I thought about the flood, which was used by God as punishment.

“And that was very much how I felt, that I was being punished by doing something wrong, namely living with a partner unmarried. This was my sin, a specific kind of flood. Deluge is the Biblical term for flood.”

As Wiegers mentions, several poems dwell with Mary, a central figure in both Christianity and Islam, the only woman named in Qur’an.

“I consider Mary as my co-pilot in this book,” Chatti said. “She is extremely present in this book. Several of the poems are called ‘Annunciation.’ I am very interested in Mary from birth to the moment she gives birth to Jesus, Mary as Mary, Mary as a girl of 14. When I was sick, I was thinking a lot about fertility and chastity . . . I was very interested in this idea of Mary the human, faced with this massive imposition on her body.”

When Ploughshares published “Confession,” poetry judge Marianne Boruch wrote that Chatti “managed to both honor and upset convention in a most kickass-lively way. The sheer nerve and wit of what’s said – the whole piece feels wonderfully spoken.”

Here is Confession:

“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”

—Mary giving birth, The Holy Qur’an

Truth be told, I like Mary a little better

when I imagine her like this, crouched

and cursing, a boy-God pushing on

her cervix (I like remembering

she had a cervix, her body ordinary

and so like mine), girl-sweat lacing

rivulets like veins in the sand,

her small hands on her knees

not doves but hands, gripping,

a palm pressed to her spine, fronds

whispering like voyeurs overhead—

(oh Mary, like a God, I too take pleasure

in knowing you were not all

holy, that ache could undo you

like a knot)—and, suffering,

I admire this girl who cared

for a moment not about God

or His plans but her own

distinct life, this fiercer Mary who’d disappear

if it saved her, who’d howl to Hell

with salvation if it meant this pain,

the blessed adolescent who squatted

indignant in a desert, bearing His child

like a secret she never wanted to hear.

Mark your calendars for a newcomer to Cleveland’s poetry scene — poet Leila Chatti will be at Loganberry Books December 13 for an intimate reading of her new and celebrated poems. 
 
Chatti, a dual citizen of Tunisia and the United States, became the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Editing at Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center this fall, beating out nearly 90 other applicants. The newly created position was meant to develop a pipeline for a more diverse workforce in the U.S. publishing industry, which is 89 percent white.  
 
“Once I was discouraged from writing early in my career for being too female and too Muslim, by those who were neither,” she told the selection committee, “an instance of the systemic silencing in writing establishments and publishing that I hope to combat.” 
 
Listeners will have the chance to hear poems like Chatti’s recently published “Testimony,” a meditation on her faith, a reoccurring theme in her work. 
 
Join her on Thursday, December 13 for a riveting evening of poetry.