Leila Chatti

What made you decide to attend the RCAH?
I wanted a small, rigorous, flexible program, but also wanted the resources of a big university. The RCAH began my senior year of high school, and because I went to school right down the block, word of its existence reached me fairly quickly. My friend’s parents were the first people to recommend it to me. I met some of the faculty, and saw Snyder-Phillips, and knew it was where I wanted to be.

Do you have any favorite memories?
Anita Skeen’s Harry Potter class!  And all of Dean Esquith’s jokes.

What were your academic interests in RCAH?
Poetry—and, more broadly, literature! I was majoring in education as well, so I was also very interested in courses dealing with childhood and development.

What were your favorite aspects of the RCAH experience?
I loved everything about it! It was wonderful to form close relationships with the (very talented) faculty and to be a part of a tight-knit community. I was grateful for the variety of pathways available to us, and the ability to customize our courses to suit our interests. The civic engagement component was formative for me and my career. It was the best academic experience I could have hoped for.

Did you ever take part in Study Abroad/Study Away at MSU? If so, which programs?
I did! I went to Mali as part of the Ethics and Development program. It was incredible.

What have you done since graduating and where are you now?
After graduating in 2011, I joined Teach for America and taught high school special education in the San Francisco Bay Area. I then received my Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at North Carolina State University. Since finishing graduate school, I have been in residence as a writing fellow at a number of institutions. Currently, I am the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing’s Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow and teach poetry and fiction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This summer, I will be moving to Cleveland, Ohio, where I will be the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing at Cleveland State University for the next two years.

Which RCAH experiences influenced the work you do today?
I worked closely with Anita Skeen, who really opened up the world of poetry for me and continues to be one of my most cherished mentors. Studying with her, and completing a creative thesis under her guidance, started me on the path I am on today. Stephen Esquith’s courses also pushed me, both in what I read and how I learned to think.

Did you know while you were in college that you wanted to do the type of work you’re doing now?
I did, though I didn’t think I could make a living doing it! I always wanted to be a writer and teacher, but I thought teaching would be my profession and writing would, sadly, take up whatever space was left over. I had no idea that writing would instead be my vocation, and that teaching positions would come from my creative work. It’s been a dream.

How did RCAH prepare you for what you're doing now?
The RCAH prepared me to be an independent, creative thinker. As a writer, I have to be creative in many ways—the work, of course, but also in how to build a life and, at times, how to make ends meet! Most of my time is unstructured, so I need to create and meet my own deadlines, and I need to be able to juggle many different projects at once. My creative process also involves a good deal of research, and the rigor of my RCAH classes prepared me for this.

What do you enjoy most about your current job?
What don’t I love?! (Probably e-mails, come to think of it.) I love writing and I love thinking. I love having the freedom to structure my days the ways that best serve my creative process. I love poring over books and taking notes. I love teaching students to love poetry and fiction. I love being blown away by student work. I love readings and conferences and workshops and talks. I love the places poetry takes me, and all the people I get to meet. I love that my work is always exciting and new. It’s the life I’ve always wanted, and I’m very grateful for it.

What are some of the challenges?
One of my biggest challenges has been managing my time. I have a variety of tasks and assignments I am responsible for at any given time, and there is no real “end” to my workday, so it can be difficult to carve out time to relax and be a human being. It also is a very unstable career path, in that there is no clear path. I have been lucky to have received financial support through fellowships, but fellowships are extremely competitive (and there are only a handful) and the academic job market is grim, so there is no real financial security for emerging writers. To be a writer, you have to endure uncertainty and rejection on a daily basis. I experience much, much more rejection than I do success. Rejection can be hard, because the work is often personal. You learn to grit your teeth and forge ahead regardless.

What kind of hobbies do you have outside of work?
I should have more! Writing was my hobby, and now that it’s my career, my relationship to it has shifted a bit (and it has taken reading with it!). I enjoy photography and collect film cameras, and I also love to travel. Currently I’m in a hip hop dance class, as a way to get out of my head and push back against my perfectionism. I really like thrifting as well—not even necessarily buying something every time, but just sifting through the items. I like the window it gives me into the lives of others—and, of course, the strange and wonderful treasures I encounter.

If you could plan an event for alumni in your area, what would you do?
Not sure! I’m not a particularly gifted event planner. J

What words of wisdom do you have for current RCAH students?
Be open to the ways your life might surprise you, and know it’s okay to be unsure where exactly you’re going. Be flexible and patient. Chase what you want, and live your life in the meantime. You’ll get to where you’re meant to be.