Marlena Chertock talks about embodied poetry
and writing On that one-way trip to Mars
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
I've always been writing about my body in some way. When I was first learning how to write short stories, I created characters who had my same bone disorder or elements of it. They weren't always me. But when I wrote stories completely focused on disability or the body, they were lacking something that I think poetry offers.
It’s easier for me to describe the experience of what it’s like to live in a body, a different body, through poetry. I can use breathing space, line breaks, and various shapes to more accurately explore my voice, pain, movement, and inflammation. I don’t always set out to write in specific forms, but sometimes a couplet or prose poem works best to clarify a feeling or experience.
What’s worked for me is radical honesty. That may be impossible or not work for others. Poetry enables me to distill clear, visceral depictions of my bone disorder. Through my writing, I try to embrace all my body has done and can do, even amidst all the pain.
I’ve never read a book structured like this! The way this book is arranged like the solar system seems to be a reflection of the far-flung territory and subject matter that it covers. Can you say something about the process of ordering the manuscript and what that was like for you?
On that one-way trip to Mars was really fun to arrange/rearrange! It didn’t start off in that solar system structure, at all. I think it went through several other arrangements (more chronological or sections). But slowly as I was piecing the manuscript together, the poems seemed to be broken into chunks of emotion, theme, and voice. Many of the poems dealt with space or space exploration in some way. That happened before I came up with the ordering idea, because I’m very inspired by nature, space, and the unknown.
I wasn’t writing to fill in each planetary body of the solar system. But once I had that form, I went back and rearranged or added poems where needed. The photos in front of each section are public images from NASA. I started thinking of it as my own version of the Voyager mission (the Voyagers were launched in 1977 for flyby missions of many of the planets in the solar system, and they’re still traveling out there in space now!).
I’m working on several other manuscripts now, and it already seems like my process has been very different for each. Assembling poetry is a difficult, time-consuming process. There’s never one right way!
Some themes that echo strongly throughout this book are that of the unruly body, specifically the body with a disability and the woman’s body, and the way these two realities impact / are impacted by the ideas of connection-disconnection that ripple throughout the book. Can you please talk about these themes as they relate to your work? Feel free to reference specific poems!
My poetry focuses on chronic pain, disability, and how to remain strong in the face of bodily challenges. I was born with a rare skeletal dysplasia that’s caused more mobility issues as I’ve grown older, so I have a lot of material to work through in my writing. For me, writing is cathartic. It’s a way I can understand (or try to understand) my pain. Most of the poems in On that one-way trip to Mars dealt with disability or pain in some way, even if it was not always completely obvious. Many of the space poems included a sense of sadness that people with disabilities may not ever become astronauts or explore the stars. (Some of these poems include: “On that one-way trip to Mars,” “Application to NASA,” “Short curve,” “Short curve II,” “Scoliosis,” “Crumb-sized,” “Body remembers,” and “A speck of pain”).
ON THAT ONE-WAY TRIP TO MARS
If I didn’t have a bone disorder
I would go to Mars
and never come back.
I would go to Mars,
send an application to NASA,
tell them my coding is so-so,
I’ve never peered into a robot’s circuitry
but I’d like to learn how.
I would go to Mars,
someone who has to
look and write and revise
to understand. Someone who believes
there’s other life out there,
not because of scientific proof
or a god told me, but because I want
humanity to feel less lonely.
I would go to Mars and send back news
of the Sols. I’d create the first
Martian newspaper, publish
the first book of Martian poetry,
paint the Martian soil with my words.
I would go to Mars if I wasn’t too short
for NASA’s height restrictions.
I’d tell them you can fit more short people
into a rocket. Don’t worry
about my bone deterioration rate,
I had arthritis at 13. Walked like an old lady
at 20. It’d be nice to float
and give my bones a break.
I would go to Mars
if I didn’t have bones
clicking against each other
if I was a jellified blob. If the genetic
letters within me
didn’t spell out feeble,
different, unfit for space travel.
A lot of my work also explores gender, sexuality, and feminism. I have several poems describing periods (“On it”), a historical period piece (heh) where women throughout history experience menstruation differently (“On it II”), and in my newest collection I have a piece titled “It should be called womenstruate.” I feel very connected to periods and my body as a woman. I believe in self-love, and that comes out in my poetry. In On that one-way trip to Mars and forthcoming Crumb-sized, I also explore bisexuality and queerness in various poems and extended metaphors (including in: “Star searcher,” “Bedroom constellation,” “I want to date an astronomer,” “Exhibit exploration,” and “At 13 I lived in the forest”).
These themes commingle and also have their own poems, in my work. I can’t separate the fact that I’m a disabled bisexual woman -- not only a woman or someone who’s disabled or queer. I’m all three, at the same time. This reminds me of when we fill out census forms -- people aren’t broken up into categories in real life; we live in the intersections. And that’s how I try to write my poetry.
My astronomer forgets
to eat dinner,
the gaseous stars fill her up.
If I had 62 percent
more gravity, would she revolve
in my downward force.
She scrutinizes starlight,
it keeps her up at night.
Presses her face to scoped pinholes
to see tens of trillions of miles away.
She names constellations
and ones that don’t
exist yet. Name me tonight.
My astronomer spends eight hours a day
filing amicus briefs, neverending
paperwork. On the margins she sketches
hab designs and orbital transfer equations.
She’s grounded, always dreaming ways to escape
her atmosphere. My astronomer
looks for quirks in the light,
impossible bends that reveal gravity,
another planet pulling light close. Closer,
bend into me.
My planet hunter, star searcher, my multiverse
muller whispers how much she'd weigh
on Mars as she lies awake.
How much would we both weigh?
She tracks the waxing moon
in her skylights. Track me waning
as she sleeps on cloudy nights.
You mentioned you have a new collection, Crumb-sized, coming out soon. Can you say something about this collection, including to what extent it relates to material from On that one-way trip to Mars?
Crumb-sized, which will be published in August by Unnamed Press, is another look at my body, what it’s like to live with a bone disorder and chronic pain. My second collection of poetry embraces my crumb-size. This is a book about overcoming the challenges you were born with. The poems explore life with a rare skeletal dysplasia and use natural and space imagery to quantify pain better than the 1 to 10 scale. The themes are similar to my first collection, with expanded pieces on aspects of identity, including femininity, sexuality, and more.
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
I can cut it down to 11.
1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (also everything else by him)
2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
3. Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith
4. Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
5. anything by Sharon Olds
6. Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral
7. Beauty is a Verb: The New Disability Poetry edited by Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett, and Michael Northen
8. Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias
9. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
10. Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction edited by Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad
11. Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction edited by Kelly Jennings and Shay Darrach
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Know that your body is valid. And all bodies are different, so just do your best to describe your experiences. There is no right or wrong way to create art or writing about the body.
Writing about bodies, about your life, is often looked down upon by the literary establishment, considered “women’s writing.” But we all are bodies. We all experience life through our bodies, and some of us, a large minority, have disabilities, illness, and chronic pain. These lives -- our lives -- are valid and real and deserve to be shown in writing and art.
Start creating. And keep submitting. You will get rejected, but that is just part of the process. The world needs more diversity and representation. So stay persistent. As I wrote in my editor’s note for the recent District Lit Disability Issue, “keep sharing your truth.”
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.