An interview with Marlena Chertock, sci-poet extraordinaire
The first time I was introduced to Marlena Chertock was with her short story “Wonder Women,” an intimate construction of two friends as they don costumes for a comic convention. The real wonder woman, however, is Marlena herself. In addition to being a stellar short fiction writer and the poetry editor of District Lit magazine, Marlena has published two chapbooks: On that one-way trip to Mars from Bottlecap Press, and Crumb-Sized, out this year from Unnamed Press. Marlena writes with a clarity that makes sci-poetry digestible and as informative as it is relatable. After picking up her collections, you’ll feel smarter and stronger as you stand in solidarity with Marlena’s brilliant mind.
Alyssa Bluhm: Congrats on the release of your second poetry collection! Both of your chapbooks heavily involve science, and you do a great job combining poetry and technical information in a way that both are understandable—that can't be easy. What is your background in science? How did you get your start/is it part of your day job?
Marlena Chertock: Thank you so much! I actually do work at a science nonprofit, but didn’t major in a STEM field. I work in marketing for the Society for Science & the Public, where we publish science magazines, get kids into science fairs, offer funding and support for STEM teachers, mentors, and nonprofits, and more.
While I didn’t study science, I obsessively follow news about space, genetics, green energy, and more. I’m fascinated by the future and how science shapes it. A lot of the research or reading I do ends up inspiring my sci-poetry or sci-fi. The science is really interesting to me. I don’t want to write something that is very confusing for others, so finding ways to break down the science or tech and put it into a poem or story is fun.
My dad studied marine biology and works as a landscaper. So as a kid I gained a love of the natural world and being aware of plants and animals from him. I wish I could say I inherited his green thumb, but I’m not that great of a plant mom—I’m working on it!
AB: One of my favorite recurring themes in your poetry is the mention of bedroom ceilings decked out in glow-in-the-dark stars. Do you have any constellations, real or invented, on your ceiling?
MC: I totally do—I’m such a nerd. I had glow-in-the-dark stars on my walls as a kid, and as I grew up or we moved houses they got taken down. After college, I was remembering how cool it was to have your room lit up at night in fun designs. So I bought a pack and redecorated my walls and ceiling. I recommend it to anyone, at any age! There’s also cool packs now, like under the sea creatures or Halloween-themed.
AB: Between each poem in Crumb-Sized is a cross-section of a tree trunk that grows another layer with every page. Your writing uses a lot of tree metaphors too. How are trees significant to you and to this collection?
MC: I love trees! Always have. I really want to see the redwoods and sequoias—trees big enough for you to drive through? Count me in!
So much draws me to trees. They’re massive, but also very connected to their surroundings. Their roots spread out many feet, they even talk to each other, sending nutrients to those who need them. Trees are a microcosm of nature. Whenever I’m trying to describe an experience, I find that I often come back to natural or tree-related figurative language. Even though pain seems so removed from me, like an invader in my body, it’s a very natural process. And comparing chronic pain to trees or nature just makes sense.
The cross-section tree trunk design was the idea of my publishers at Unnamed Press and designer Robert Bieselin. It’s such a great way to break up the poems!
AB: I haven't been able to stop thinking about your poem "Harriet Tubman was disabled," where you write, "No one dares to call Harriet Tubman / a disabled person. But why not / the full truth?" I've been asking this same question for years—there are so many layers to it. What work can we do now to de-stigmatize and avoid erasing disabilities in literature?
MC: There’s a lot of work to do. But it’s really inspiring to see what’s already being done, especially by writers/readers of color, indigenous and native writers, queer writers, disabled writers, and more. Something I’ve seen a lot of are anthologies specifically themed around and by disabled writers, like: Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction edited by Kathryn Allan, Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction edited by Kelly Jennings, and Beauty is a Verb: The New Disability Poetry edited by Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett, and Michael Northen. These are powerful, important bodies of work. I’m hoping that more and more in the future, our voices won’t be relegated to anthologies or special disability issues only.
I’m hoping that more and more in the future, our voices won’t be relegated to anthologies or special disability issues only.
We have to continue to write more diverse literature. We have to continue to read more diverse literature. We have to continue to submit more diverse literature. We have to continue to accept more diverse literature—especially those of us in positions of power, in editor roles. We have to continue to buy more diverse literature. Support diverse voices.
This was a really important poem for me to write. I only learned that Harriet Tubman was disabled after graduating from college, after reading more history of incredible, powerful women. 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. We should be unearthing them and sharing their histories, sharing the truth.
AB: What steps can the lit mag and publishing communities take to be more accessible to people with disabilities?
MC: This is a great question. And I definitely don’t have all the answers.
Look to disabled writers and readers. Ask if you’re (your literary journal, your website, your submissions method) meeting their needs.
Lit mag editors should always keep pushing themselves, keep asking, "How can I be more inclusive? How can my journal be more representative and diverse?" Look to The Deaf Poets Society for superb accessibility. Each piece has text, an audio version, each photo has image captions.
Being open to criticism and learning new strategies is key. For example, at AWP I attended the Disability Caucus and learned that Submittable is not accessible to everyone. Blind writers, for instance, find it difficult to access even with screen readers. I brought this information back to District Lit, and we decided to create a second option where writers could email their work if Submittable proved inaccessible. It is these changes, tweaks, and larger ingrained biases that are important to be aware of and improve.
Editor’s note: For more information, check out Marlena’s guest post “How to Make Your Literary Magazine More Inclusive” on the AWP blog.
AB: You hinted to me a while ago that you were starting to work on a series of flash fiction pieces. What themes are you exploring in your fiction?
MC: I’m working on a collection of short stories called “Forecast.” They’re forecasts of different years in the future, filled with the effects of climate change, natural disasters, man-made disasters, eco-speculative science fiction, and more. I’ve been really terrified and inspired by recent weather and natural disaster events. Pilgrimage Magazine published a version of these stories in its Volume 40 Issue 1-2: Injustice and Protest.
AB: Whose work is inspiring you lately? What would you recommend someone read before or after picking up your poetry collections?
MC: There are so many powerful works by and about disability and science fiction. These are a few incredible poetry books by disabled and d/Deaf writers or writers with mental illness: Flare by Camisha Jones; The Amputee's Guide to Sex by Jillian Weise; Never Coming Home by Tyler Vile; Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Joy & Sexuality by the Black Ladies Brunch Collective; The Hospital Poems by Jim Ferris; The Uppity Blind Girl Poems by Kathi Wolfe; and many more. Check out the Disability Literature Consortium, which publishes and supports books by disabled writers.
I also really enjoy books in the crossover, that include elements of science fiction and disability/diverse representation. Books like Accessing the Future, Menial, Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, and TreeVolution by my friend Tara Campbell. Also, I’m obsessed with the Giant Days and Paper Girls comics, filled with badass female main characters.
Marlena Chertock has two books of poetry, Crumb-sized (Unnamed Press, 2017) and On that one-way trip to Mars (Bottlecap Press, 2016). She lives in Washington, D.C. and serves as the poetry editor of District Lit. Marlena is a graduate of the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House and uses her skeletal dysplasia and chronic pain as a bridge to scientific poetry. Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Breath & Shadow, The Deaf Poets Society, The Fem, Paper Darts, Wordgathering, and more. Find her at marlenachertock.com or @mchertock.