The best poetry comes when a writer is honest both with themselves and their audience, even if that truth isn’t easy to say or hear. It’s a credo shared by writer Marlena Chertock who, in talking about her second poetry collection, Crumb-sized (paperback), explained that her poems are “mostly autobiographical” and that she “believe[s] in radical honesty.”
To begin, what kind of poems are in Crumb-sized in terms of form and subject? Are they free verse about personal matters, haikus about our current political situation…
My poems tend to be mostly autobiographical about my skeletal dysplasia and chronic pain, which I use as a bridge to scientific poetry. I was born with a rare bone disorder. And I explore the rich images in science and medicine, threading genetics, space, and nature into my work. I use varied scales of nature, space, and deep into the body’s DNA to explore pain and being human. Crumb-sized delves into various aspects of my identity, including femininity, gender, sexuality, and disability. The forms vary, with a few list poems, prose poems, some couplets, but mostly free verse.
When you were putting Crumb-sized together, did you ever stop and think, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t put this out there for everyone to read?”
Not really. I believe in radical honesty and self-love. Writing is a form of catharsis for me. So getting it out is healing. I also believe in the power of sharing your story, telling your truth, whatever that truth is. That’s a big reason why I so strongly want to share my own.
Crumb-sized is your second poetry collection; you put out On that one-way trip to Mars last year. Are there any writers or specific books of poetry that you feel were an influence on Crumb-sized who were not as much of an influence on the poems in On that one-way trip to Mars?
I’m always inspired by space-themed books and science fiction. Books such as Tracy K. Smith’s Life On Mars, Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life In Poems, and more helped show me how sciencey poetry could really be. Smith’s book grieves the death of her father, who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. Padel, a great-granddaughter of Darwin, describes his discovery of evolution, his childhood, and life.
What about non-literary influences; are there any songs or other things that had an impact on the poems in Crumb-sized?
Oh, tons. I’m a huge Bowie fan. I love his older and last albums; they have a lot of spacey ambiance. And “Drops Of Jupiter” by Train is actually a great astronomical-themed song. My 6th grade science teacher played it for us on the first day of school and had us write each instance of planetary science. As a science and space nerd, I’m constantly devouring articles in Science News magazine, The Washington Post’s “Speaking Of Science” section, and listening to such podcasts as “Orbital Path,” “Outside/In,” “Radiolab,” “The Story Collider,” and “Transistor.”
And this is my last influence question, I promise. You’re also the poetry editor for District Lit. How do you think being the editor of a poetry literary journal has influenced your own poems, and especially the ones in Crumb-sized?
As an editor, I always try to take a step back and acknowledge my own biases and the fact that I’m in a gatekeeping role. That said, reading poems for our poetry contest and monthly issues has reinforced the language that I think is strongest. Clear, vivid images and a strong voice. Unique figurative language, or at least avoiding cliches. I try to write in my truest voice, with strong images. I don’t always succeed, but reading through piles of poems as an editor, it helps strengthen my own writing and hone into which poems we should publish.
Now, back when I wrote poetry, I often workshopped stuff by reading early versions at open mic nights and poetry readings. Do you do this as well?
Yes, reading and going to workshops are so important to me. I often read at open mics, go to community writing workshops, and have friends I trust from a writing program read first drafts of my work. All of my poems greatly benefit from friends offering their feedback on my baby poems. They really help me shape and improve them. It’s an important goal of mine to attend conferences, festivals, events such as Split This Rock’s poetry festival, AWP, and more because it is so vital to have diverse voices represented. The panels I speak on at these events often focus on disabled and diverse literature and how to build inclusive writing communities.
Finally, if someone enjoys Crumb-sized, obviously they should read On that one-way trip to Mars. But if they’ve read both, what book of poetry would you suggest they read next and why that?
The other poets and books that inspire me are so varied. I’m constantly reading science tinged books, such as Accessing The Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology Of Speculative Fiction, which was edited by Kathryn Allan; Jim Bell’s The Interstellar Age: Inside The Forty-Year Voyager Mission, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles; Menial: Skilled Labor In Science Fiction, which was edited by Kelly Jennings; Anthony Michael Morena’s The Voyager Record: A Transmission, Mary Roach’s Packing For Mars, and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler.
As for poetry: Beauty Is A Verb: The New Disability Poetry, which was edited by Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett, and Michael Northen; Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning; Danez Smith’s [insert] boy; Jillian Weise’s The Amputee’s Guide To Sex; and more.