This weekly series highlights people in my writing circles who are exemplary literary citizens. I encourage you to look them up, buy their books, find them in the library, or otherwise read or support their writing lives.
This week, we meet literary citizen Marlena Chertock
This month (the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month), I am making a more concerted effort to read whole collections of poems by individual poets.
My work schedule and brainspace don’t normally allow much time or focus or energy for this, truth be told. Multiple sclerosis has a way of robbing us of even the slight energy that reading books of poetry might require of someone with a healthy brain.
Nonetheless, I am mercilessly ambitious, knowing that the 21 books stacked in my office for reading are probably not going to make the cut. That’s okay… for me, it’s like being a lawyer, in that you always strive for more than you can actually realistically expect becaus—even if that goal isn’t achieved—you still get further along than had you not strived at all.
My eyes have been problematic for me these last few weeks… blurry vision (though my eyesight is 20/20), for one thing, and problems with being unable to comprehend words or misreading them, which are rooted in neurological “disharmony.”
Naturally, I reached for one of the smaller books because I can do small. Short. Brief. Concise. The title of this book whispered its promise so wonderfully: “Crumb-sized: Poems” by Marlena Chertock.
What is the size of a voice?
I became aware of this poet recently. She contributed to one of the panels I attended during the virtual AWP conference this year (Disability’s Influence on Literature: Realism As A Craft Concept, sponsored by AWP).
Marlena was engaging and honest and empowering in her contribution to the discussion both as a speaker and as a responder in the live chat. Her kind smile and supportive comments felt like digital hugs. I ended up buying her book from the bookfair.
It wasn’t until I started looking into her background that I recognized Marlena as a major literary citizen in plain sight.
Marlena represents in so many ways:
- She was born with a rare bone disorder known as spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia which has given her a lifetime of chronic pain and disability. These realities show up not only in her poetry, but in her work for the literary community as a panelist on topics related to writing with disability.
- She serves as co-chair for OutWrite, Washington DC’s annual LGBTQ literary festival.
- She is Communications Coordinator for the AWP’s LGBTQ Writers Caucus.
- Meanwhile, she sits on the board for the Split This Rock community, a network of socially engaged poets.
It’s because of the efforts of poets like Marlena, so willing to prioritize, represent, and give access to voices that have traditionally been marginalized, that poets are more likely—may less afraid, even?—to take up space.
How does she do it? I cannot fathom, but she does, and I’m in awe of her drive.
Despite the title of her poetry book, Marlena is hardly crumb-sized. The person I encountered through a virtual panel discussion seems almost larger than life, with a magnanimous heart, a joyful soul, determined, and authentic: the pure embodiment of fearless truthtelling. Thank you, Marlena.
Read Marlena’s work
Her work in Crumb-Sized: Poems may be short, but stature holds nothing over the power of truthtelling Marlena gives us with these glimpses into her childhood and the realities of living with a rare bone disease.
I love the design of this book, as well. I would give this book as a gift to anyone who needs it, and that’s a lot of people, frankly.
Her first book, On That One-Way Trip to Mars, takes the reader on a thoughtful and quirky vacation to outer space, a locale Marlena is fascinated with as someone tracking the future of space travel.
(Maybe this is also why I respond so well to her work: she has a science-meets-poetry vibe I appreciate and she loves science fiction.)
One-Way Trip may be out of print, but keep your eye out for it. Sometimes these books appear in our orbits; if you run into this one, you’ll want to snatch it up.