“Sky Country” helps slacken the knots inside us

Christine Kitano’s Sky Country, published in 2017 by BOA Editions, Ltd., is one of my favorite gently moving collections; I read it in the fall and reread much of it in December. From poems about divorce and enduring to pieces that explore the pains and sufferings of Christine’s family who “fled Korea and Japan” and lived through internment camp incarceration “during WWII”, this collection tackles heavy content with grace, thoughtfulness, and hope. Take this gorgeous line in “Insomniac in Fall,” for example: “If I prayed, I’d pray: let me leave you, let you / leave me.”

And in “Insomniac in Winter”: “Your breaths slow and multiply, each one / thickening the air between us.”

The collection also explores immigration, opening the all-too-often impersonal issue to a moment between lovers or an exchange between parents and their children. In “Gaman,” she writes, “But what we don’t anticipate / is how the dust of the desert will clot our throats, // how much fear will conspire to keep us silent. / And how our children will read this silence / as shame.”

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “A Story with No Moral” which is broken into “Los Angeles” and “South Korea” subsections. The LA poems examine the fractured relationship a young daughter has with her mother, namely by comparing herself to her friend Lauren, whose hair is “buttery blond, fluffy and soft” and who is “completely absorbed in her own image”, an image that the girl yearns to be herself. My heart goes out to her and to the young women in the South Korea poems, who have their own desires and struggles.

I interviewed Christine last week about these poems and her next plans.

Who is the speaker in “I Will Explain Hope” and why did you write it?

“I Will Explain Hope” is one of the last poems I finished for the collection. It began as an ekphrastic poem after the work of Chiura Obata, a painter who was incarcerated at Topaz Concentration Camp. The poems in this sequence of the collection take place at Topaz, so I wanted to use Obata’s work to help fill in the landscape, both physically and emotionally. When I first started drafting this poem, I envisioned the speaker as a bit of an outsider, that is, a contemporary person looking at a painting by Obata. But as I kept writing and revising, I found myself returning to the mind and voice of the speaker I had been working with, a persona who is loosely based on my grandmother. Working through this speaker, I found my way to the word “forgive.” It surprised me, but it also made sense.

Thanks for sharing that. I wasn’t aware of the depth of influence behind those poems. How deep — and how heartbreaking.

“Monologue of the Fat Girl” was one of my favorite pieces; not only did it explore the strains and desires of marriage, but it also celebrated and lamented the body and the hardships when one is confronted by the body’s imperfections. I find this poem immensely comforting because it feels like womanhood solidarity. How does this poem relate to the other mother narratives in Sky Country?

Many of these poems were drafted in my first two years in Lubbock, Texas, and I was interested in telling the stories of individual female personas. I experienced a bit of culture shock when I moved to Texas; I was surprised to be surrounded by women my age (mid-twenties) who already had two or three children. When I was invited to someone’s house for dinner, I learned it was customary to ask to “see the nursery.” At the time, I had not even considered whether I wanted children or not, as it simply was not on my mind. Coming face-to-face with assumptions about my gender influenced many of the persona poems in Sky Country.

I’m also finding that people my age — I just turned 25 — are starting families, even though I feel only marginally older than I did at 20. It’s a little strange feeling like a parental outsider, even though I nanny for seven families. 

Anyway, back to your book. I enjoyed the different places these poems centered on, and I thought a lot about life-in-motion while reading. Where do you write? Is the “on-the-road” feel of “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” a poem about your own travels?

I usually write in my office, which is un-Romantic, but I’m a practical person when it comes to my writing. I like routine, I like quiet, and I like having most of my books within arm’s reach. But it’s in this space that I have the time to remember moments when things weren’t as comfortable. “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” comes out of a road trip my partner and I took when moving from New York to Texas. It was the middle of July and we were in a Jeep with torn windows, so it was hot and dusty the whole trip. I remember driving through Roanoke, Virginia and passing through a stretch of shade on the highway, which gave me a fleeting moment of peace. The poem grew out of this memory.

I love the freedom in poetry to be able to tell the story however it needs to be told; “This is not the whole story, / and yet, it is true,” you write in “1942: In Response to Executive Order 9066, My Father, Sixteen, Takes”. I’ve heard some poets campaign for only telling ‘your own stories,’ but I think that kind of policing is detrimental to what poetry can do and is for. How do you approach the non-fiction/fiction elements of poetry, and what advice can you offer other poets who write about cultural and social issues?

It requires a great amount of responsibility to write about cultural and social issues. Doing so requires research. In the introduction to Beloved, Toni Morrison explains how she based the novel on the real-life Margaret Garner, but then had to move away from the historical record. She writes, “The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space there for my purposes. So I would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual…” (xvii). For me, writing about the Japanese American incarceration required years of research. But at some point, I had to move from “fact” to “truth,” a move I wouldn’t have been able to make if I hadn’t done the necessary research.

Mmm. That’s powerful.

So Sky Country came out last year. What’s next for you?

I’ve been working toward my next collection, which I envision to be a prose/poetry hybrid. I’ve been thinking about inheritance, about land, about the responsibility humans have for the land we live and work on. I’m not sure where this is going yet, but I’m enjoying the process of embarking on a new project.  

I look forward to keeping tabs on your next works! Thanks so much for your time and thoughts.


Sky Country is available from BOA Editions, Ltd. for $16.

“crumb-sized” packs powerful observations, facts, & experiences into 29 poems

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.

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 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.

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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!