“Writing these futures makes them reality”: An interview with Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock is a skilled poet whose work mixes the literary with the scientific, the personal with the astronomical. Her debut collection, On that one-way trip to Mars, was published by Bottlecap Press in 2016. Calamus Journal published her poem “The martian comes to me” in its second issue, and we recently interviewed her about her creative process and unique style, as well as her latest collection, Crumb-sized, available now from Unnamed Press.
Calamus Journal: Crumb-sized, much like your previous collection, On that one-way trip to Mars, is heavily rooted in astronomical themes and imagery. What about space do you find particularly fascinating and potent to draw upon when crafting your poetry? There are also several pieces in this manuscript that shift their focus from the cosmic to the earthbound. How do you hope this mixture of terrestrial and outer space elements will affect readers’ experience of the poems?
Marlena Chertock: I’ve always been very inspired by nature, space, and the unknown. When I walk home at night, I always look up to the stars and the moon. I’m a stereotype. But looking up reminds me not to think so big of myself, brings me rightfully down to size in the immensity of the universe. Surely, there must be other life somewhere out there. Surely, other people will understand or relate when I’m in the midst of the worst pain of my life.
I’m constantly thinking of these scales — of how much self-love I give to myself, and then of how small and insignificant I really am on a floating rock in the vastness of the Milky Way in the unending universe. It helps make pain seem more insignificant, even when it’s all I can think about. The vastness and inscrutable reality of these scales are somehow comforting. I try to share this through both of my poetry collections. That’s why I think mixing terrestrial and space elements is so effective. I hope that these scales, which offer me perspective, offer others a window into the way I view the universe, pain, and some solace as well.
I do think science was always bursting underneath my skin. I’ve grown up researching my bone disorder, down to the very arm on a specific chromosome that causes it. Genetics, medical treatments, and DNA are fascinating. The fact that one letter switched, one amino acid swapped, and I could be a completely different person, I could have been born without SED, both captivates and terrifies me. In a way, my poetry is always working through these thoughts and emotions.
Calamus: Could you tell us about your method putting Crumb-sized together? How did you decide what poems to include or not include; did the manuscript go through any significant revisions?
Chertock: Crumb-sized went through several restructurings. It was very different than the first collection. Typically, I want the first few poems to act as an introduction to the theme or tone of the entire collection. The order kept shifting right up until it was printed.
My editor at Unnamed Press offered advice on how an outside reader might view and understand the order of poems. Originally, poems like “Crumb-sized” and “Unfold me gently” appeared in the middle of the manuscript. Moving them to the beginning shifts some emphasis, and offers important context for a reader coming in with zero understanding of my bone disorder. I wanted to keep poems like “I give a cosmic middle finger” and “Rikkud,” which have an undercurrent of anger and regret/jealousy of other bodies, in the middle of the book. The flow of these poems have an emotional arc.
Calamus: A lot of your poetry’s emotional resonance is enhanced by your use of scientific themes and language. Have you always mixed the scientific and the literary together, or is this style one you developed over time?
Chertock: I love science fiction, and I think scientific poetry is gaining a following and more writers are experimenting with it. Why shouldn’t there be sci-poetry? Just like The Deaf Poets Society’s recent “Crips in Space” issue and “Accessing the Future” anthology of disabled people who are a main part of all kinds of futures.
That said, no, I didn’t always write mixing scientific themes into my work. I’ve honed this over time, while reading more science fiction, speculative fiction, graphic novels, comics, cyberpunk/solarpunk, and more. I’ve been reading and seeking out diverse narratives. Science fiction is so powerful because it’s where writers are able to imagine potential futures, ones where marginalized communities are a part of the future, traveling through space like everyone else, working in more equal environments. All of these thoughts converged into my own style.
I recognize the power of creating more diverse, representative worlds of the future, futures where accessible devices and environments help people with disabilities more readily participate in society, futures where people of color and women have power and leadership positions. Writing these futures makes them reality.
Calamus: One of our favorite poems in your new collection is “Harriet Tubman was disabled.” Could you tell us about the process writing it and your goals for the piece?
Chertock: Thank you so much! I never knew Harriet Tubman was disabled. I only learned this after graduating from college, after reading more history of incredible, powerful women. I was angry that this fact isn’t shared in textbooks, in classes. Just like historical women, people of color, Native and indigenous people, LGBT people, and more aren’t often shared or written about, disabled people in history are hidden or unknown. But we should be unearthing them and sharing their histories, sharing the truth. That was the impetus for the piece.
I think it’s so powerful to know the full truth of Harriet Tubman. She was disabled by her slave master, who threw an iron weight at another slave, while she jumped in front, and ended up hitting her head. She suffered from migraines, sleeping spells, dizziness — she had a traumatic head injury. She was a disabled black woman who saved hundreds of slaves.
Calamus: A lot of Crumb-sized, even its title, chronicles a narrator’s mission to acknowledge the painful aspects of their life while still reshaping that pain into a source of strength. To what degree do you personally consider poetry to be a space for and of healing?
Chertock: Writing is cathartic for me. Being born with a bone disorder, I do experience a lot of pain. I have early-onset arthritis, my joints have faulty cartilage, and I’ll mostly likely need hip and knee replacements soon. These are the realities of my body. Writing and sharing my story has always interested me, even when I was first learning to write in third grade.
Like “How to feel beautiful” attempts to voice, I really do believe that my body is strong, even with all of its pain and limitations. Bodies, humans, are resilient. This is ultimate, incredible, beautiful strength.
Calamus: Your poem, “Things that don’t suck,” lists Andrea Gibson as an inspiration. What attributes and/or specific pieces of her work influenced you, and how did the process of writing that poem differ from your other work?
Chertock: I have been attending Split This Rock’s community writing workshop for over two years now. We’re often given prompts to write a poem based on or inspired by another writer’s. Months ago, we read Andrea Gibson’s “Things that don’t suck” (which for the life of me, I cannot track down on the Internet) and then wrote our own version of things that we think don’t suck. Gibson’s is a list poem of seemingly unconnected objects, and events, and images that, when read together, really evoke a sense of everyday life and how varied our lives are. I really enjoyed the way her piece allowed me to appreciate the mundane things. I don’t always write list poems, so this was a fun exercise. I’m always inspired by other writers and artists, so when I use their methods, or a line, or title, I do my best to attribute it back to them. Poetry is one great, big ongoing collective.
Calamus: Are you currently working on any new projects/books? Do you have a website or social media presence where fans can follow your work?
Chertock: I am! I’m not always this prolific, but I’m going through a lot of deep thinking. I’m working on another poetry collection, this time based on the hippy Jewish summer camp I attended for many years. What happens at camp stays at camp, so why not share! Another completely different project I’m in the planning stages of is something I’ve been calling “Forecasts.” They are short stories from different years in the future, filled with the effects of climate change, natural disasters, man-made disasters, eco-speculative science fiction, and more. Pilgrimage Magazine published a version of these stories in its Volume 40 Issue 1-2: Injustice and Protest.
You can find my work and blog at marlenachertock.com and follow me at @mchertock on Twitter.