A Conversation with Leila Chatti
BY ANTHONY THOMAS LOMBARDI
Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) and the chapbooks Ebb (Akashic Books, 2018) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, and the Key West Literary Seminar, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Cleveland State University, where she is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing. Her poems appear in The New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
Anthony Thomas Lombardi, Interviewer: Before I get to Deluge, I wanted to preface this interview—and be upfront about—the situation we find ourselves in. I currently serve as a poetry reader for Adroit, as well as pursuing my own aspirations in the poetry and literary world, and you’ve found a great deal of success in the past few years, but I’m not sure how many people are aware that you also started off as a poetry reader for Adroit. How did being a part of the Adroit family influence you and your sense of direction in poetry? Especially as a reader, fielding quite an intimidating amount of extraordinary work from emerging and established poets alike; did that have any influence on navigating your own work?
Leila Chatti, Poet: That’s a great question. I don’t think a lot of people know that I got an early start at Adroit. In many ways, and definitely in terms of submitting work, that experience was very helpful. I came to writing—or at least the professional world of writing—on a different path. I was a special education teacher before I did my MFA, and I didn’t study creative writing as an undergraduate, so when I came to my MFA, I didn’t know anything about anything, basically. I’d read on my own, but I didn’t know how the industry worked. I didn’t even know that people were still actively publishing poetry; I just had this private hobby that I eventually figured out could be a career. So working at Adroit as a reader was very helpful, even simply by seeing things like, Oh this is how people put together their cover letters. This is how people organize their submissions. This is the variety of aesthetics, as well as why we take certain things and don’t take certain things—like when there’s strong work that doesn’t necessarily match what we’re trying to do in a specific issue. I didn’t know any of that, and it was really helpful for me, both just to see the variety of work out there and how things go on behind the scenes, but also to give me fortitude for my own submissions, because I saw how much good work really almost made it in, you know? It was good work, but it just wasn’t the right fit. That helped build my courage when I was sending out my own work, because I understood that it really wasn’t personal and that there was a team of people behind the scenes that were rooting for writers and wanting them to have success—it just became less scary and more fun for me.
ATL: Yeah, it’s strange because I’ve had sort of a similar trajectory. I’m going on 31, and I just entered higher education a couple years ago, and I had no experience in creative writing in that capacity, other than my own personal writing. Like, I dropped out of school when I was 13, and I didn’t go to school for 16 years, so everything I knew was through autodidacticism—I just read a lot at home and did my own research. So when I started submitting to magazines, I was in a similar position where I would take every rejection really hard, and now I’ve had a lot of work accepted in the past month or so—well, also last year, but especially the past month. On top of those acceptances, a lot of rejections—some with a standard rejection letter, but then another, where the editors are like, “We feel like it’s strong work, it just doesn’t fit with what we’re doing,” and instead of being like, “Oh, that’s bullshit, they’re just trying to let me down easy,” you’re like, “Oh, no, that actually means something.”
LC: Exactly! That’s like, “You should keep going.” That’s almost as good as an acceptance. Like, “Oh yeah, someone sees what I’m doing.”
ATL: Oh yeah, it’s very encouraging, and those are things that I feel like more people need to know. Which is kind of why I wanted to start this off with that, especially since Adroit started off, and still is to an extent, aimed at emerging writers—through programming like the Djanikian Scholarship, the Summer Mentorship Program, and the Adroit Poetry Prize. A lot of emerging writers are going to read this, and hopefully they’ll glean from this, “Even if you get a rejection, keep going.”
LC: Water off your back.
ATL: So, onto Deluge. So much of your book deals with religion—sometimes critically, sometimes as a lens to examine your own sense of self and values. But I noticed that while your chapbook was more explicit in terms of Islam and your upbringing, religion felt a bit more amorphous in Deluge. Was that a conscious effort on your part? Or was that down to the content of the poems?
LC: With Tunsiya/Amrikiya [Chatti’s chapbook published by Bull City Press], I wanted to talk about where I came from, I guess—I think of that chapbook as being very much, “This is how I came to be who I am,” at least certain parts of how I came to be. Faith was, and is, such a big part of my life, in a very structured way when I was a child, and faith has been, for me, quite married to ethnic identity, being both Arab and Muslim—those things were constantly intertwined in my childhood. Tunsiya/Amrikiya was very explicit: “This is me as a Muslim-Arab kid trying to navigate the world.” Maybe I was trying to explain to someone else who I was, whereas with Deluge, I was trying to understand myself, so I feel like my reaching toward God or religion was coming from a real place of not knowing as opposed to, “This is the thing I know very well.” It was sort of looking back through my traditions, trying to make sense about what was happening to me in the present.
When I was sick—a lot of the poems in Deluge were written while I was sick, and some of them were written in the years after—I was literally going through scripture, looking for answers, so I did read the Quran, I did read the Bible, which I had read before, but I read through it like a detective [laughs], like trying to figure out, “Where’s the stuff I need to help me or to make sense of what’s happening?” Whereas in Tunsiya/Amrikiya, it was sort of faith as it had been handed to me. I think of Tunsiya/Amrikiya as being very celebratory about my faith, and I think my relationship to faith in Deluge was much more complicated, and it’s more of an adult version of looking at my personal relationship to faith and the enactments of faith—historically and culturally.
ATL: That’s interesting, because now that you say that, it kind of presents itself a bit more—it’s a little more tangible. Because what I really appreciated was how you were able to show great reverence for your religious upbringing while still using a critical eye towards some of the scaremongering that religion is sometimes denounced for. In “Mubtadiyah,” there’s a striking line: “I was newly twelve and wise / enough to be frightened.” I think acknowledging the flaws in anything that we hold in such high esteem is so important—it grants, in people especially, humanity, humility, and allows for a more critical understanding of sociocultural mechanisms. However, religion is often looked at as the final word, an ironclad value system without room for interpretation. People have died for that cause. But you’re able to translate this sense of deep admiration while allowing for your own doubts. I found this remarkable. Can you tell me a bit about that?
LC: I have a lot of respect for my faith, even when I’ve had complex feelings about parts of it. When I was a kid, I was very obedient. I just sort of did what I was told to do, and when I got older, I wanted to understand it better. I think especially as a woman, there were complicated practices and value systems—and I couldn’t tell if they were from my faith, or if they were cultural, or what was going on. And that was part of my grappling. I’d had great faith, but I also was frustrated with how I was treated by some people of my religion because I was female. It was hard. I think we’re put in a very difficult position as Muslim women—in the United States, especially—because there’s constantly this narrative that Muslim women need to be saved, that the faith is absolutely oppressive, and this is reductive and offensive. I know there are plenty of women who have very good relationships with their faith. So, I’m trying to push away this racism and Islamophobia—like, “You don’t speak for me,” you know, random commenters on the Internet. But that aside, I do have some issues with parts of my faith, and it’s hard to be able to say, “Not all of that is true; I need to have room for some criticism, for myself.” It’s hard to carve out that space without people using it as evidence to condemn an entire culture and faith. Muslim women face criticism and scrutiny both from within the religion and outside it. It feels impossible to navigate.
I started to really grapple with that complexity when I became sick. In Islam, there are very clear rules about what women who are menstruating are able to do and what they cannot do, and when I was sick and bleeding non-stop for about two and a half years, because I have such respect for my faith, I wanted to follow the rules, but I also felt very ostracized and punished. I couldn’t understand why this had happened to me. I think maybe because I was very much steeped in my faith as a child, the only reason I could come up with as to why I was sick was that I was being punished by God, that I had done something wrong, that it had been a gendered error, since it was such a gendered illness. I felt I was being punished for being female, and specifically due to something sexual—that was the only area I felt that I had stepped away from my faith, by having boyfriends, those sorts of things, which is forbidden. So I had very complicated feelings about turning toward God during this time of need, while also feeling very angry and abandoned by God because of this illness—and because of the ways that women are bleeding and women who are infertile, how those kinds of women are treated culturally. It was a difficult balance; I felt like I needed God, but I was also very angry. I felt pushed out, abandoned.
ATL: In the book, toward the end, you start using direct quotes to point out those conflicts and the perceived misogyny in a lot of it. There’s a lot said of illness as punishment and illness being synonymous with sexuality and womanhood, but you also tie that back to the medical field, and I found that to be a really powerful commentary on how that which we see as crucial to our survival is also intrinsically tied to the oppression of women. Were you able to come to better terms with those conflicts while writing the book, or even in your own personal life?
LC: I’ve been a feminist from a very young age. I always knew there was mistreatment of women, but I was surprised to experience it in such a blatant, confusing way, in a context I thought would be professional, safe, and in service of my care. When I was sick, I consistently came up against sexism from my doctors and the general medical field that had really obvious consequences because it had to do with my health and my wellbeing. Even from the first moment—when I first came to the hospital, when I had been bleeding severely (I was hemorrhaging, and that’s where I think of everything starting) and my partner was with me, and he was freaked out, and we were both freaked out—the doctor kept talking to my partner, asking him the questions. “How much has she been bleeding? How much pain is she in?” Very personal questions, and my partner would say, “She’s right here, you can ask her.” That was the first time we were engaging with the medical world on this long journey, and it was very eye-opening—the assumption my partner knew my experience better than I did. That his opinion was more valued than mine.
I was applying to graduate school around the time I got sick. Actually, the day I went to the hospital for the first time was the day that nearly all of my MFA applications were due, the 15th of December, and, luckily, I’d done all the work beforehand. So, before I went to the hospital, in this pain haze, I just hit submit, submit, submit, submit, submit. When I said, some months later, I was going to go to graduate school, the doctor told my partner that he should tell me not to go and to instead have a baby because it might be my only chance, and I was in the room. It felt like every conversation about my health was about my body as something apart from me, my self—what it would look like if I had surgery, or my ability to have children and how that should be put first. And I wasn’t trusted about my knowledge of my body. There was a lot of doubt about if I was really serious about how much I was bleeding, so I had to prove what I was saying was true. And there was also doubt about how much pain I was in—until I would faint. I was constantly met with doubt that I was a competent and trustworthy person. When I went in for my final surgery, I had a stack of papers. I had researched my tumors, because I wanted to know what was safe and what was not. At the time they thought the largest one was a sarcoma, and the life expectancy they gave me was less than 10%, so I was obviously taking this very seriously. And when I brought in my stack of research, to say that I didn’t think the procedure they were recommending was safe, the doctor smirked at me and said, “Well, you’re a smart one, aren’t you?”
He told me that I would want this procedure because I would look better in a bikini—you know, that that was what was important. I was shocked; I knew, and knew he knew, that if the tumor was a sarcoma, which is what they were treating it as, and they did this procedure, all the evidence indicated that I would likely die within a year or two—it would disperse the tumor cells everywhere and uterine sarcoma, when spread, is very lethal and hard to treat with chemotherapy and radiation. So I went to another doctor for a second opinion who basically said, “That’s incredibly dangerous that they would have you do that procedure,” and during that weekend between seeing one doctor and a different doctor, the FDA decided that that procedure—morcellation—should be banned because so many women were dying. This sexism had real consequences: first that there wasn’t even close to enough research being done, and also that people weren’t listening to women who had concerns about the procedure. Or they were manipulating women who didn’t know the risk, because they wanted women to be able to be back on their feet to take care of children and go back to work more quickly, and they’d sell it by saying, “You’ll look better this way because it’s a smaller cut.” This is all very much built around not believing women and also preserving the parts that they thought were important about women—childbearing and their appearance, but not necessarily their lives.
ATL: It’s alarming that the two sectors that we’re talking about, religion and the medical field, are so pivotal to survival in both a literal sense and a spiritual sense. Obviously misogyny is widespread across the board, but they’re so prominent in these two spheres that people see as pertinent to their survival.
LC: Yeah! Literally life-saving institutions that are not serving women the way that they could and should.
ATL: In “Litany While Reading Scripture in the Gynecologic Oncology Waiting Room,” there’s a line—“good / is a woman with fruit / in her womb and not / in her hand”—which I interpreted as the dichotomy, but also the overlap, of the utility of women and the utility of the body. So much of this book is about the ways in which our bodies—maybe fail is the wrong word—but hinder us. I found it interesting how these elements co-existed in the book. Through living this experience, this visceral experience relating to those themes… How did you navigate that balance?
LC: In the beginning, I didn’t know that I was writing a book. I was writing poems while I was sick, and the majority of that experience took place during the two years of my MFA. I ended up defending my thesis two days before my final surgery, and really all of my MFA was overshadowed by my illness. I’d go to my workshop, and I’d go to my doctor at the hospital after. I was writing poems in the middle of it, to try and understand what was going on, and then the next year—I graduated in 2015—in 2016, I was living with Dorianne Laux for the spring, and I had this goal that I wanted to write a chapbook, and I was looking through my poems to see what poems were sort of thematically similar, and I realized I had all of these health-related poems. So I gathered them together, and I showed them to Dorianne. I said, “I’m almost at a chapbook, but I don’t really want to stop. I feel like I barely got started saying what I want to say.” She looked at it, and she said, “This isn’t a chapbook. This is your book.” And I panicked, I immediately thought, “There’s no way that people are going to want to read this.”
There’s a lot of mythology about the importance of your first book. Some of it is true, but a lot of it is overblown. At the time I had this idea that my first book had to be really important and really impactful if I was going to have a career, and I was devastated, thinking, “How can I do that if my first book is going to be about this extremely feminine thing?” People don’t even like to mention periods in conversation, so who’s going to read a book about my bleeding? I thought, “I’m doomed! No men are going to read this book, and probably not a lot of women will read this book, either.” I’d actually had an older male poet tell me, explicitly, that no editor would want to publish those poems, that feminism was over and that it was too graphic to talk about blood and editors wouldn’t like it.
ATL: Wow. He couldn’t have been more wrong even if he tried to be.
LC: [Laughs] Yeah! So the final parts of the book ended up being about shame for me—those were the final poems that I was writing—though I didn’t understand when I started that what I was really approaching was looking at shame. At that time, that shame was very present in me, and I felt very ashamed about the idea of sharing those poems, about being dismissed as a too-female a poet—you know, cast as someone who’s going to smear her menstrual blood on the wall for the spectacle, someone “hysterical.” So I made this plan for myself—I decided I was going to send out a couple of these poems to a couple of journals, and if nobody was interested in them, I was going to drop this project and work on something else, because I needed my first book to be good; and if nobody cared, then that was a sign that I needed to give this up. So I sent out poems very nervously to a few places, and then “Confession”—the first poem in the book—won the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Prize. That was my sign from God, or from wherever, that, Okay, maybe there’s something to this. I’ve been very surprised at how well the poems have been received by all sorts of folks, whom I didn’t think would be interested and whom I didn’t imagine as a possible audience.
I guess that’s a really long way of talking about how the book started, from me not planning anything, just having all these poems that were raw and reactionary. Then when I started to realize it was the book, when I accepted that it was the book, I had just gotten to Provincetown, at the Fine Arts Work Center. I started to think about it as a project. I asked myself, “Okay, if this is going to be a book, and I already have this core of poems, what is it that I haven’t talked about? What is it that I need to talk about?” I made lists and charts. I’d talked about some of the physical experiences, but what were some of the contextual experiences of myself as a woman, with my partner and men generally, and the messages I had received? I was interested in looking back before the illness to think about what set me up to feel that way, because I know not everyone who gets sick would think immediately, “I’ve been cursed by God.” That’s a very specific reaction and I wanted to understand why I had it.
When the book was just beginning to develop, I was on a flight to AWP and I sat next to Ross White (who would end up being my chapbook editor at Bull City Press but wasn’t at that point), and he asked if I was working on anything. I said I was pretty sure I was starting a book, and I showed him maybe the first twenty poems that I’d written, and he looked through it and he said, “You know—you’ve got faith, and you’ve got medicine, and you’re missing one more thing. I think there’s a final thread, and you haven’t figured it out yet.” I thought about that a lot, what the final thread was. I felt it too—that the book was good, or going in the right direction—but there was this shadow that was being talked around or something, and I could kind of see that there was this hole, but I didn’t know what went in it. Then, when I was in Wisconsin doing my fellowship, it just clicked. I started thinking about sexuality and how that tied in.
Because of shame, I didn’t want to look at the sexual element, I didn’t want to address it, but once I started thinking about it, I couldn’t stop. I was ashamed of my shame. It was especially hard because I did have this deep faith, but I was living in a very secular world. I don’t think I come off as being particularly religious because I’ve had boyfriends, and I don’t wear the hijab (which is a very visible marker of faith for folks in this country), and I think people assumed that my relationship to my faith was very distant and mostly just cultural, that I didn’t actually have any real stake in it or any real connection or guilt. But I did. I had all of this baggage that a lot of my friends who weren’t raised in a conservative way didn’t. And I felt ashamed of that. Everyone else seemed really chill about sexuality and able to enjoy it, reclaim it—the ease and ubiquity of experiences like Tinder and hookups and everything—and I felt like a weirdo to have this overwhelming issue with it. I thought, “I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want to look at it, I want to act like I don’t feel any shame, I’m just fine, I’m just walking around the world unburdened by this.” I didn’t want to accept that my shame was real—and enormous.
ATL: Being able to finally not only confront it, but figure out what to confront—that leads me into a question that I was thinking about while reading the book. During the third section (which I assume is tied to finally being able to drag that shame out into the light), you start to touch on themes of rebirth and recovery. What I found to be really startling and effective was, in particular, the poem “Storm.” It puts itself so viscerally into the natural. You’re interacting with the world again. So much is abstract prior to this moment in the book that this corporeality feels important, feels earned. Was that in response to being able to have this tangible element that you’re finally able to confront?
LC: The poem “Storm” really happened. I know poets aren’t supposed to say that—“it really happened!”—but it did! [Laughs] I was in Tunisia after I’d had this surgery, and there was this wild storm one night, and I went up to the roof, and I just remember feeling so alive, but alive in a way that was both filled with awe and wonder but also deep terror. It felt like I’d been given my life back, but also that I had great responsibility. Again, I was in control and out of control. It felt extremely bodily. I felt very in my body in a way that my illness prevented. I think I was fairly dissociative during that period of my life. I didn’t want to be present. I didn’t want to be in my body. I was so much in my head in a way, to sort of reject the reality I was experiencing. I felt so much shame about my body during those years. I was angry at it. I was constantly terrified of people knowing what I was experiencing. I was afraid of hemorrhaging in public. I had a lot of anxiety when I would actually think about the reality of my body, so I couldn’t be in it. That night, in “Storm,” that’s when I felt so suddenly back in it, because there was all this sensory stuff happening—you know, the wind is blowing, there was this wildly purple sky, there was lightning everywhere, and there was this sand whipping. I could feel it. I could hear the waves and see the lightning, and I was just so there for the first time in a long time. It did feel like a kind of breakthrough moment, like, “You’re here and nothing is going to save you. You’re on your own.” There’s a lot of power in that.
ATL: There’s a reason those things have a kind of omnipresence or ubiquity in so much art. Those storms? They’ve been around longer than we have, and they’re going to be around long after we’re gone. There’s a reason those things are powerful. That was one of the points in the book where, when I got to it, I was like, “Oh shit. We’re flipping this now!” And even toward that area of the book, you become more immersed in that. In “Exegesis” and “Questions Directed Toward the Idea of Mary,” you open up what I read to be a sort of hostility toward God—which I found interesting, as it’s usually the opposite after someone with illness has their life spared. You subvert that here. One line, “Did your worship falter once you were sure you were good?” deals with this topic rather directly. Was that anger—or maybe frustration is a better word—vital to your self-assertion?
LC: That’s interesting, yeah. I think that I knew that the traditional narrative would be, “You’re sick, you get better, you’re grateful, and then everything’s good.” You know? In a story, there’s the rising action, there’s the conflict, then it’s resolved and everything’s fine. I felt that impulse, to tie everything up in a neat bow. I remember my dad, at one point, saying, “Well, wouldn’t the book be interesting if you ended it with you getting pregnant?” If I decided to have a child, you know, that could be the ending. It could be a happy ending for this thing. I said, “Yeah, but that’s not what’s happening. I’m not having a child.” I understood that impulse, to resolve, but I just didn’t feel that way. It wasn’t the truth of things. I think that the disassociation, during my illness, where I was just in such a heightened level of panic and stress—I didn’t feel like I could actually risk being mad at God at that moment. I was frustrated, but moreso I thought, “Oh, my god—God, I need you!” and once I was on the other side of that, and I was able to slowly come back into my body, my thinking changed to “Okay, I survived that, and now I’m mad. What the hell was that all about? Why did this happen?”
I had become sort of obsessed with Mary during my illness, but even though I felt a great deal of admiration and kinship with her, afterward, I couldn’t help—as I was facing more of the reality of the fact that my fertility was going to be threatened—the more I started to understand my shame around my sexuality and my body’s ability to bear children, the more envious I became of Mary. I felt like she was on the opposite end of a spectrum, where if Mary is perfect because she both got pregnant immediately, with the most important child there’s ever been, and she’s also a virgin—she’s doubly as great. She’s impossible. She’s chaste and she’s also the best mother. So what am I if I’m completely diametrically opposed to this? If I’m not a mother, and possibly never will be one, and I’m not chaste? You know, it was childish sort of anger towards Mary, because it wasn’t Mary’s fault. She never asked for anything. That was the conclusion I came to eventually. But in culture and faith, because Mary’s lifted up as the most perfect woman, people use that—men use that—to push down all other women who inevitably don’t measure up. So I felt great frustration with that being the definition of what the best woman would be and mad at God for setting up this situation. You know? He says so, in various texts, that Mary is supposed to be the one who’s chosen, right? She’s blessed. So, I had these questions, this anger. “God, why? Why is she the best one and the rest of us are dirt? What’s that all about?” And so with Mary, I had this—I wouldn’t say love-hate, because I don’t hate Mary—but the way you would feel about a girl who’s your equal that you’re maybe constantly being put in competition with, and you’re finally able to confront her.
ATL: There’s more of a resentment over the comparison than the actual person.
LC: Exactly. It’s about the situation as opposed to the person herself, and once I realized that—when I realized that my feelings of frustration and anger were being misdirected, again, by a very masculine, misogynistic narrative, which is, “Women, you should be like [Mary], and if you’re not, it’s your fault.” The way we’re raised, as girls, you’re supposed to hate your competition, and that was sort of the easiest path to fall into, rather than, we’re both victims of this line of thinking, these beliefs. Neither of us asked for what happened to us.
ATL: People are more easily manipulated when they’re divided.
ATL: I feel like one of the most important lines in the book is in “Testimony”: “When asked my religion I answer surrender.” While Islam literally means surrender, I gleaned a more layered subtext here, as well. A certain amount of emotional survivalism depends on surrendering, and as themes of illness and mortality (and especially the acceptance and understanding of illness and mortality) permeate the book, I wondered if you were also using religion as a metaphor or a tool here. As the book progresses, you seem, at least lyrically, to relinquish some of the more structured formalism of your religion. In your examinations on survival and surrender, it almost felt like the book was a form of your Kübler-Ross model—the five stages of grief. Did you feel like writing the book helped you recapture some of what you felt like you had relinquished during the more difficult moments of your illness, or come to a greater understanding of it?
LC: That’s great. I definitely first started writing the book in a place of great desperation, and when I was in the middle of writing it, I was in a place of confusion and anger and grief, but when I came to the final stretch, it felt like I was fighting for my life. I wasn’t happy, and I was very agitated, and I’d pore through these notebooks, trying to figure out, “What is it that I need to say? I know that I’m right up against something and I can’t figure it out.” Then I wrote “Awrah,” and that’s when I had the breakthrough: “Alright, we’ve talked a little about shame, but let’s talk about shame. Let’s go into this. It’s not going to be a one page, left-aligned poem. Let’s fucking do this.” How that poem came together was in pieces. I’d written scraps of things in notebooks. I have all these quotes that I’d write down as I was trying to understand these things over the years. I’d write in my phone at night in my bed to try and catch my less controlled thoughts. So that poem came together by circling and circling something, by thinking, “Alright, let’s look through all this and see if I can start to figure out where the pieces are coming from.”
It just spilled out of me. It was very messy and emotional, and I was very nervous about that poem. It was formally doing all sorts of strange things for me that I wasn’t used to, like segmented sort of sections, you know, that poem is quite long, but I felt like I was purging something. It felt like it just kept coming out. That was the second to last poem in that burst, and when I finally finished it, I felt very exhausted, and then the day that I think of as the day I finished the book, I stayed up all day into the night trying to write “Deluge,” the final cento. It really did sort of look obsessive—it was obsessive. I was going through all my books and many notebooks, it was like I was in a trance or something, and I didn’t know where I was going. When I finally got to the end of it, it was visceral, like my body finally came up for air—“and I’m done.” I can’t explain that sense, but I knew, “I’m done. The book is out of me.”
I got very, very depressed following that. The next day, it hit me, “and now what?” This thing had consumed so much of my life and there was this intensity, especially that last burst, it was really like, boom boom boom boom. All of my time and energy was given to the book. It was ratcheting up in speed and it got faster and faster as it was finishing, and then it was all of a sudden, just silence. It was as if I’d been running toward a cliff and I’d jumped off and then it was nothing. Scene black, lights out.
I originally thought the book would answer everything, and I’d be better after I wrote it, and I do think in some ways that’s true, that it does feel like it was a way to contain some of that trauma, to say, “You’re not in that place anymore.” There was a long time where I really kept looking over my shoulder, scared, thinking, “Am I actually okay?” I just kept expecting something to go bad. I think when you have a near-miss with something like that, you feel like it’s sort of surreal and you don’t really believe it. When I finished the book, when it became an object, it was a relief. I could finally say, “[I’m] safe and it existed and it’s over there now. I don’t need to think about it all day everyday now.” In that way, it resolved some things. But part of what “Deluge,” the final poem, is—is that it’s not clear. Some parts of it are angry towards God, some parts are very beseeching, and that’s how I felt. I thought I would have this clear revelation at the end—now I’m cool with God, or now I’m done with God—and really what that poem showed me was that my relationship with my faith will continue to be difficult. I’ll have moments of doubt, and I’ll have moments of strong faith. I haven’t finished reckoning with God, but I’m also not cutting him off. There was no neat ending. I learned that I’m in a different place, but it’s not the end. I’ve moved beyond some part of it, but there’s still a lot more ahead of me.