Digital Book Tour: New Books by Leila Chatti, Heather Treseler
Fam, times are weird—so many of us have to figure out new ways of doing old things. Book launches, an established feature of our wonderful community of writers, have been particularly hard hit, and we’d love to make room for authors to share their work with the world. Our limited Digital Book Tour series will serve that end! Today, we’re sharing excerpts and interviews from Leila Chatti’s Deluge and Heather Treseler’s Parturition.
An Excerpt from Leila Chatti’s Deluge
“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.
On What the Reader Will Walk Away With
Leila Chatti: What I’d like readers to know might depend on the reader. I certainly wrote this book with an intention to inform people of the misogyny still present in medicine and its dangerous consequences. Sexism hounded me at every turn—it prevented doctors from believing my assessment of my own pain and symptoms, and my condition and its treatment were woefully under-researched. Women died for years from surgeries like the one nearly forced upon me because of a lack of research (and a failure to listen to women who sounded the alarm). The ways the medical field continues to fail women are unacceptable. So I would like readers to be informed, in order to push for change for others, and also in order to advocate for themselves. I also want readers to confront their ideas about, and experiences with, shame. I had a number of men read portions of Deluge and inquire about the importance of shame—why was I bringing it up, and why did I feel it? That shocked me, because every woman I spoke to about the book immediately began talking about shame, how it manifested in their own experiences and how relieved they were to be able to talk about it. Shame is central to my experience as a woman—as a sick woman, as a woman of faith—and I am not alone in that. Shame haunts us all. It is a lie we believe and harm ourselves with. I hope that this book may encourage readers to examine their own sources of shame in order to take them apart, and to understand more deeply the shame that wounds and binds other people.
On What the Writer Walked Away With
Leila Chatti: The early poems, truthfully, helped to keep me grounded. I was dissociative during those years of illness; often, it felt as if what I was living was not really my life. The poems written during my illness connected me to reality; they engaged directly with what I was seeing and experiencing, and helped me to process—and accept—what was happening. (These poems were more narrative, “fact”y poems—the hospital looks like this, the tumor is this size, etc.) Following my surgery, writing poems helped me grieve, and it helped me ask (and answer) questions, about what I felt, why I felt it, and how my experience related to larger societal, cultural issues. I was able to put a great deal of pain, fear, and shame into this book, and it served as a container—not that those things are entirely gone, but they don’t bleed as readily into my present. I think experiences need a place to live, and I didn’t want those experiences to continue living in my mind and body; by putting them on the page, I freed myself a bit of the burden of carrying all that around.
On The Book’s Biography
Leila Chatti: I began writing this book before I knew I was writing a book—that is, I was writing poems only to process what was happening to me, with no vision or intention of a project. I was ill for the entirety of my MFA; I had a first surgery the day following my acceptance phone call, and a second surgery two days following my thesis defense. The two years in which I was intensely learning how to write were the same two years I was most intensely sick, and so I was, unsurprisingly, writing poems about my illness. It wasn’t until a year later, however, when I was living with Dorianne Laux for a spring, that I realized these poems were the beginning of a book. I had gathered them together with a chapbook in mind, and was startled to realize (and have this realization confirmed by Dorianne) that I was not wrapping up a project but instead opening one up, and that it would be much longer and more complex than I had imagined. I wrote much of the book while in Provincetown from 2016 to 2017, and then finished it in Madison, Wisconsin, at the end of 2017. I finished the book on November 1st, right before midnight—I consider this the end date because I was feverishly writing the final poem for a few days leading up to this, a cento, and that night I finally reached the final line in what felt like a real burst of energy, and then a release, as if the book pushed me out. I feel that way with poems, too, that they kick me out when they’re finished, and this was a more intense version of that. The book was done, and done with me. (The final line of the poem, and so the book, is “And the angel departed from me.” It very much felt as though it had.)
I did tinker with the book a bit in the months following that night—I added a poem, removed a poem, and during the summer of 2018, while at a residency in Ireland, restructured the book into sections. I sent it to Copper Canyon Press right after, and in January of 2019, I got the phone call.
So, from beginning to end: the first poem in the book was written in 2013 and the book came out in April of this year. A seven year journey!
On The Book’s Family of Support
Leila Chatti: There are so many people who made this book possible, and I encourage readers to read the acknowledgments (it’s always a delight to see the community behind a book). For an abbreviated version, the book definitely would not exist without the guidance of Dorianne Laux, who brought me into the MFA program at North Carolina State and taught me the vast majority of what I know about writing poetry. Sharon Olds’ work was deeply influential to me in that it gave me permission to write about my body frankly, and then revealed to me my own hangups about this work, which led me to scrutinize my shame. Mary Szybist’s work (and presence!) influenced and encouraged my investigation of Mary. I had a wonderful community of people who loved me and supported the work, some by holding me accountable for writing poems (my best friends Bryce Emley and Samuel Piccone have been great for this), and some by making me meals while I worked, or giving me space, or encouraging me to keep going when I felt defeated. My surgeon took great care of me, which allowed me to be here writing anything at all. And my parents, who gifted me the framework and stories of their faiths, which formed me very early and forever changed how I view and respond to the world.
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 TheNew York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
An Excerpt from Heather Treseler’s Parturition
Years after recovery, you encounter a sinewy woman
in a Lacan seminar who can’t shut up about desire,
drive, deferral, her eloquence a kind of death-flirting
performance like Charles Blondin tightroping
across Niagara in a blindfold. You see the ropy veins
in her hands and face; iliac crest visible through
corduroy pants; two shirts under a floral summer blouse;
the bird’s nest of chest bones: classic midlife disease.
Yet you listen intently, each week, drunk on the sherry
of her florid speech that mimes tones of authority.
Voice, voice fishing beyond the body for a kind mammal
or patch of land on which to breathe, shelter, stand.
You don’t allow yourself, looking, to feel marvel or pity:
your lack of envy a measure of health, though your
smugness at her suffering disgusts you. Not too long ago,
you were the anorexic hiding out in blowsy clothes,
a war zone’s barrack of bones. Looking at her, you recall
what the old bearded Jungian half said, half sang
to you, insistently, in your worst year, “Wholeness,
dear, not perfection,” and how your addled ear
heard “holeness,” siren song of negation more perfect
to you than a body, even a baby’s born without
flaw into the wild startle that must be air in virgin
lungs. Your hard wish to slip appetite’s nanny,
girlhood’s noose, stride across the sky’s broad stage,
mouth’s incessant gorge, sure in your mastery
of gravity, footing, lines strung above roaring water,
as you angled to step beyond self and hunger.
(first published in Cincinnati Review)
On What the Reader Will Walk Away With
Heather Treseler: Parturition is the clinical term for the process of childbirth. Less literally, it is the act of bringing forth, of making. This is my first book, and it grapples with what makes art a necessity: hunger and loss, but also that need to assuage our condition with language, to assert agency in a world in which choice can feel hedged in and delimited. I hope readers might feel, on some level, recognized for their own complexity, for what does not fit into commercial narratives of “the good life” but is nonetheless at its core. This includes who we allow ourselves to be, whom we love, and how we measure a life’s meaning, midway.
On What the Writer Walked Away With
Heather Treseler: The chapbook is an excerpt from a longer manuscript, which I’ve been working on for several years. A friend saw the shape of the chapbook before I did, and I was surprised to find that these twelve poems—from different parts of the longer manuscript—had coherence. It is a great relief to have this portion completed; it gives me gumption to tackle the rest of it.
On The Book’s Biography
Heather Treseler: Recognition from editors and contest judges lent me confidence in the work as it came together, slowly, over five years.
The earliest poem in the manuscript, “Voyeur in June,” is about three women going skinny-dipping. And the failure to skinny-dip while your friends dive in. It dates back to 2015, and it won the Frank O’Hara Poetry Prize. The last poem I wrote was “The Lucie Odes,” an elegiac sequence of poems for a woman I loved dearly who died two years ago. Lucie Beaudet led an unorthodox extraordinary life, and we were close for over a decade. These poems won The Missouri Review‘s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in 2019.
“Louisiana Requiem,” which won Frontier Poetry‘s Summer Prize in 2018, introduces one of the chapbook’s themes, which is the role of mothering beyond its strict biological definition. “Shorelines,” the poem that concludes the book, was also chosen for a prize in 2018. In it, the narrator visits the rocky shore of southern Maine. These geographical shifts—from Louisiana to Maine with scenes in Missouri and Massachusetts—trace the arc of the narrator’s story, her sense of exile and search for permission.
On The Book’s Family of Support
Heather Treseler: I studied with the poet Michael Harper for several years while I was in college. He taught his students to “use trouble,” to borrow from the archive, to think about public history alongside personal event, and to read for (and against) one’s literary ancestors. He modeled, in his own practice, the responsibility of a poet to read widely, to stay attentive, and to look to other disciplines for angles of perception, for taxonomies of metaphor.
Harper also took me seriously: I was a scholarship student, working several jobs, and he encouraged me to apply to grants, summer fellowships, and later to graduate programs.
I organized my doctoral work in literature around questions in my poetic practice, and I was very lucky to work with Maud Ellmann and Jahan Ramazani, whose scholarship informs how we read poetry now. Learning how to think—and write—about poetry as a critic let me approach my own work from another perspective, to be my own reader and contrarian.
Support from the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, the Boston Athenaeum, and the T. S. Eliot House lent me additional colleagues, access to archives, and congenial places to write and revise.
Lastly but not least, I learn almost continually from my students at Worcester State where I teach courses in creative writing and American literature. They bring sincere curiosity and desire to studying literature and writing; teaching them means I am perpetually a student.
Heather Treseler‘s chapbook, Parturition, won the Munster Literature Centre’s chapbook prize in Ireland (2020). Her sequence, “The Lucie Odes,” received The Missouri Review‘s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in 2019, and her poem “Louisiana Requiem” garnered Frontier Poetry‘s Summer Poetry Prize in 2018. Her poems also appear in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, PN Review, Pleiades, Southern Humanities Review, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Western Humanities Review, among other journals. Her essays about poetry appear in the Los Angeles Review of Books, PN Review, Boston Review, and in six books about American poetry. She is associate professor of English and the Presidential Fellow for Art, Education, and Community at Worcester State University and a visiting scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She has received fellowship support from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Boston Athenaeum.