I read Marlena Chertock’s second collection, crumb-sized, in one sitting on a Sunday morning. I teared up, furiously took notes, and underlined entire stanzas. Then, I waited impatiently for my husband to wake up so I could show him a few particularly gorgeous science poems – we’re big fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson and all things astronomical.
Several poems mention Marlena’s strength, how she endures chronic pain and the issues that result from her curved spine, and strong is the perfect adjective to describe her voice and message. This collection exhales each line confidently. Each poem belongs, creating a diagram of how science is in fact our every day, how we only exist because of the universe’s great mysteries, its black holes and ever-expansion and iron.
I love the cosmopoetry at work in this collection, using an outward and space-ward theme to look inward, to cast yourself (or your persona) into a different realm. Can you talk about the research process involved in writing these poems, as well as your advice for blending the cosmos with the personal? What can be gained from using the universe to evaluate and speak to our identities?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going for! 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.
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. I try to share this through both of my poetry collections.
I read about space, science, technology, and more in my free time and at work, where I interview young and established scientists. The research is fun for me. I’ve grown up researching my bone disorder, down to the very arm on a specific chromosome that causes it. The fact that one letter switched, one amino acid swapped, and I could be a completely different person both captivates and terrifies me. In a way, my poetry is always working through these thoughts and emotions.
Mixing terrestrial and space elements, and exploring these senses of scale, is powerful. A lot of writers use space, mysticism, astrology and more to try to explain things or describe themselves. I think science is really useful in poetry because it’s just a way of trying to understand the world, and at its heart that’s poetry — poets distill images in the best possible way.
The chronic pain and discussion of strength and weakness in your collection is compelling and inspiring. I’m sure other readers will agree that your poems create empathy and challenge thinking and stereotypes about health and disability. Chronic pain seems to be a largely invisible challenge, one that others don’t notice or know about unless they ask.
Could you talk about the intimacy of writing poems that impart such personal knowledge to a general audience? Have you found community and acceptance in other writers or poets, perhaps in The Deaf Poets Society?
So many of us experience invisible illnesses or chronic pain. We hide it, hide from it, or it goes ignored. Our pain isn’t well understood by our doctors, our loved ones, ourselves. So it’s important for me to try to get as close to accurate as I can in my work. 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 nature just makes sense. Sharing my experiences is important to me because chronic pain can be isolating. I want others to know they’re not alone.
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 and people are resilient. We have incredible strength.
I’ve found a really vibrant, diverse community of disabled writers and artists online, at literary festivals and conferences, and in Washington, D.C. Literary magazines like The Deaf Poets Society are incredible — not only do they publish beautiful work by disabled artists and writers, but they have superb accessibility. Each piece has text, an audio version, each photo has image captions. Many of the publications that have published me have a focus on disabled writers, or explicitly state that they accept/are open to work by disabled/diverse writers.
“GiftGas!” is a shocking poem that explains and questions the brutality of gas chambers during Hitler’s regime. I, for one, did not know that the gas used was actually a pesticide, nor did I know the physical effects it had on victims. I don’t have words for this horror. When and perhaps why is it important for poets to reteach history accurately? What can we gain from relearning past events via poetry?
There’s a quote from Ezra Pound that I appreciate: “Poetry is news that stays news.” After the news articles have been written and TV news moves onto its next 24-hour spot, the poets will write lasting verse. Many poets respond or interact with the news in some way. What comes to mind is Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, written in the voice of Hurricane Katrina, poetry anthologies against war, and many more. Some of this can be seen in Rattle’s Poets Respond series.
All of this to say, yes, history is terrifying. And I’m constantly learning more about my own personal history and the wider history of humanity, the Earth, and the universe. My dad has a black and white photo of his family from Poland. When he covers half of the photo with his hand, those are the ones who died in the Holocaust. Half of his family, half of my family. This is history, but it’s still current — it still impacts our family and the millions of other Jews, gypsies, disabled people, and more that the Nazis murdered.
This is why it’s so important for poets to, like you said, reteach history accurately. So many either don’t know about or believe horrors like these happened in the past — but this is what really happened. The fact that neo-Nazism and alt-right ideologies are regaining followers is even more important for me and others to tell their stories, to retell and unearth history. To write about it in no uneven terms, with the most accurate, searing, vivid, devastating, disturbing words.
“Jello” is a really lovely, albeit tragic, poem about your grandmother. Personally, I have a hard time writing about my family without the poem becoming a cheesy, unshareable mushwich. What’s your advice for honoring family members and other loved ones without slipping into Hallmark gushland?
It’s incredibly difficult to honor family, friends, or pets in a way that doesn’t become too mushy-gushy. I don’t know that I achieved it in this piece, which is autobiographical about my grandmother, Bubbie. I just try to remain true to whoever I’m writing about.
I studied journalism in college, and grew up writing on my high school and college newspapers. This style of writing and adherence to the facts influenced my poetry. Things like Alzheimer’s, a disease/illness, or aging are inherently tragic. I dig into that tragedy in my writing, trying to strike at its gut, since my own is being gutted in reality.
I don’t think every poem I write about my dead dogs or such will or should be published. Only the really strong pieces that can resonate and connect with a wider audience are worthy of my time revising and submitting, and then maybe some people reading them. I guess my advice is to just write. Be honest or truthful. We’re people, and people crave understanding or recognition of their situations and emotions.
I love your poem “Things that don’t suck” after Andrea Gibson. How often do you use others’ poems to influence or shape your own? What ways does responding to poems with poems deepen the conversation?
Thank you! I’ve been attending Split This Rock’s community writing workshop for over two years now, and we’re often given prompts to write a poem based on or inspired by another writer. Months ago, we read Andrea Gibson’s “Things that don’t suck” and then wrote our own version of things that we think don’t suck. I really enjoyed the way her piece allowed me to appreciate the mundane things. I’m constantly 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. Responding to other artwork with your own art becomes a sort of collaborative project. Poetry is one great ongoing collective.
“Harriet Tubman was disabled” is Crumb-sized’s mic drop poem. I am teaching this poem in every classroom I possibly can for the rest of my life. I love that it revels in its own “taboo” topic, rejoices in the very thing that so many Americans avoid talking about, even find shameful or embarrassing.
Thank you for kicking conventions, and for re-educating readers about such an important historical figure. Where else has disability been silenced, avoided, and ignored? What’s your advice for writers who want to right injustice in their work?
Wow, thank you for saying that. I think it’s so important for young people to learn the real history.
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. The stories of women in history, people of color, Native and indigenous people, LGBT people, and disabled people often are hidden or unknown. We should be unearthing them and sharing their histories, sharing the truth. I also think reimagining histories and futures are important. Poems like “Harriet Tubman is a Lesbian” by Saida Agostini and “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay question what we’re told, what we think we know.
Disabled voices and bodies have been silenced from most of society for a long time. Only recently through the ADA did disabled people gain some access to public life, jobs, and transportation. But often the ADA requirements aren’t nearly accessible enough, and many institutions don’t comply. There’s still a lot of work to do.
That’s why it’s so important for us to be sharing our and others’ voices. We need to hear more about the disabled experience. We need to support diverse literature and art.
For me, it’s been 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. These are powerful, important bodies of work. But I’m hoping that more and more in the future, our voices won’t be relegated to anthologies or special disability issues only.
If you’re in a gatekeeper position as an editor of a literary magazine, be aware of your position of power and privilege. I wrote about ways to make your magazine more inclusive in AWP’s The Writer’s Notebook. Lift marginalized writers up with you. We have to support each other.
crumb-sized [Unnamed Press] is available in softcover for $11.99 plus applicable shipping or request it from your favorite local bookseller!