Interview with Poet and Editor Marlena Chertock
WG: Marlena, District Lit is a relatively new journal. For those who are not familiar with it, can you describe how it got started and how you came to be its poetry editor.
MC: District Lit was founded in 2011 by Diana Bolton (who recently had her first two chapbooks published!). Diana envisioned an online community and space to promote emerging and established artists and writers. District Lit publishes writing that smashes down the borders in which we district our lives. We publish poetry, fiction, and visual art from local and worldwide artists. We work with local events and organizations like Split This Rock, The Inner Loop reading series, Barrelhouse's Conversations and Connections, other literary magazines, and more. We have been experimenting with special themed issues and contests, and we're hoping to do more. I'm proud of our upcoming disability and illness issue and our first-ever flash fiction contest. These opportunities allow writers who are often underrepresented to share their voice and potentially win prizes.
I joined as Poetry Editor in 2015 after a speed date with Diana at Barrelhouse's Conversations and Connections speed dating an editor session. It's been a whirlwind of learning how to be a better editor ever since! Shout out to Diana for managing such a strong literary magazine, and for keeping it going. The community of writers and artists we've built is really a testament to her leadership.
WG: As you are well aware, there is no lack of literary journals for writers and readers to choose from. What do you think that District Lit brings to the table that might be missing from other journals? Put another way, why do you think that District Lit is a necessary journal?
MC: District Lit is necessary because the more literary journals we have in the world, the better. I'm not just saying that because I happen to work with one — it's true. The more literary journals there are, the more emerging writers will be published, the more voices get put into the world, the more literature and art is shared.
I think it's incredibly important for editors to be aware of their biases and work to counteract them. As gatekeepers, we must be opening our literary magazines up to underrepresented and marginalized voices. I believe District Lit tries very consciously to do this. We're not perfect, of course, no literary journal or editor is. But we're consistently trying to broaden our contributor base, post calls for submissions as widely as possible, make the submission process more accessible, and feature important voices in various themed issues.
Because District Lit is an online journal, we are able to play and try things out. We started including a creative nonfiction column from Jen Maidenberg, who lives in Israel, that explores the boundaries between reality and dream. We hold poetry and flash fiction contests, offer prizes to winners, and see what sticks with our contributors. We try to recognize our writers through nominations and in our end-of-the-year reader's choice chapbook.
WG: As poetry editor for District Lit, aside from quality work, what are you looking for in a poem when you read a submission? That is quite a broad question, I know. Perhaps it might be easier to answer if I also ask what you are not looking for…what kinds of things might be red flags for you.
MC: I want to see, hear, smell, and taste what's going on in a poem. The old mantra, "show, don't tell," is always ringing in my head when I read our submissions because it's true. If I can't visualize, or smell, or hear the poem, it's very hard for me to connect.
And those are the kinds of poems we want to present to readers of District Lit. Poems that you can connect with, raw, visceral poems. When I read a poem, I want to relate or understand the speaker or subject, be transported to a different world, view life from another angle. When a piece is powerful and concise, vivid with a clear voice, it has a strong chance of being accepted.
Sometimes, we come across complete stream-of-consciousness pieces. I think this can be hard to do effectively in poetry, not impossible, just hard. Often, this technique takes me as a reader out of the piece and home of the poem.
We do see a lot of sapling poems — poems that, given time and revision, might turn into strong pieces. I'm always a bit sad to reject these poems because I see myself several years ago in them and the poet who submitted. But, looking back, I know my earlier poems needed work. I hope that a rejection from District Lit, or any literary magazine, doesn't discourage writers completely. Often the poems need more nurturing. I hope they get the care they need, and then are submitted out to the world again.
WG: Earlier this year at AWP you were part of a panel subtitled, "Editors of Literary Journals Speak Out on Disability." Can you talk about what District Lit has done specifically to encourage the publication of writers with disabilities? Are there particular writers you?d like to mention that you have published whose work you think needs to be better known?
MC: This is a good and hard question, because I always feel like I can do more. As a disabled editor, at least there is someone on the "inside" reading from a more open perspective. But I think editors should always keep pushing themselves, keep asking, "How can I be more inclusive? How can my journal be more representative and diverse?" It's a huge issue in the media and literary community at large. One person won't solve it, but continuing to challenge yourself and your journal is an important part.
I was on this incredibly important panel at AWP 2017 called Not Invisible: Editors of Literary Journals Speak Out on Disability and Building Inclusive Writing Communities, and we explored some of these issues. Being open to criticism and learning new strategies is key. For example, at AWP I attended the Disability Caucus and learned that Submittable is not accessible to everyone. Blind writers, for instance, find it difficult to access even with screen readers. I brought this information back to Diana and District Lit, and we decided to create a second option where writers could email their work if Submittable proved inaccessible. It is these changes, tweaks, and larger ingrained biases that are important to be aware of and improve.
This spring, District Lit held a call for submissions on disability, chronic illness, medical procedures, and more. We wanted to show that while we are always open to these types of submissions and writers, we also wanted to showcase these voices since they are often underrepresented. We were overwhelmed, in a good way, with impressive submissions. And we can't wait to share them in the summer.
District Lit also partners with several local literary journals and series for readings. This allows our writers to spread their work to others and be seen, which is such an important part of building and supporting a literary community. Last year we held a poetry contest and printed the winning poem on a postcard. Sarah Katz, a deaf poet, won. Not only is she an incredible writer, she helped found The Deaf Poets Society — a vital journal that publishes disabled writers. They are a journal to look up to and learn from, in terms of accessibility. Each piece has text, an audio version, each photo has image captions. There's still so much I need to learn and I'm grateful to know of strong resources like The Deaf Poets Society.
WG: Your point about Submittable is an important one – one that I hope a number of other journals take into consideration as well. There are a few well know writers with disabilities who have been working on this problem – John Lee Clark, Jillian Weise, and Kathi Wolfe, to name a few — but it is still an issue. And, of course, Sarah and The Deaf Poets Society are doing great work.
I?d like to turn now, though, from your role as an editor to that as a writer. Last year you had your own collection of poetry published. Can you tell us about it?
MC: I agree — it's so easy not to know that others struggle with something as widely used and lauded as Submittable, which has truly revolutionized the literary magazine and publishing game. So it's important to listen to these conversations and learn from people with disabilities and underrepresented writers when they say something isn't working.
It's really been a whirlwind of a year for me! My first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars , was published last May by Bottlecap Press. It's a version of the Voyager spacecrafts' Grand Tour of the solar system, if the spacecraft had skeletal dysplasia like me. I was born with a rare skeletal dysplasia called spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, and I use the chronic pain it causes as a bridge to scientific poetry. I'm a space nerd, so these poems explore living with a body that deteriorates, other life forms, and the fact that NASA has height restrictions to become an astronaut, and that I'm too short for them.
Bottlecap Press, a small press in Illinois, has been so kind and excited through the whole journey. Since they're a small press, it's really about what I put into the book and marketing too. They help however they can, and they've had some amazing ideas, like sales on certain holidays and an anthology with samples from several of their authors from 2014-2016. I'm so grateful for my editors/publishers, all of the reviewers, and all of the readers who have bought my book. It means so much to see a reader taking a book-selfie with your book, to see that people are reading and connecting with your words. It's what I always dreamed about since I was in 3rd grade.
And, big news, my second poetry collection, Crumb-sized will be published in August by Unnamed Press! It is another look at my body, at what it's like to live with a bone disorder and chronic pain, to experience arthritis and mobility issues as a teen and in my 20s. The poems, of course, explore natural and outer space themes, because I am constantly inspired by nature and the larger world — and universe — around me.
You can pre-order Crumb-sized on Amazon and review it on Goodreads. Look out for a book launch party in Washington, D.C. and other events nearby.
WG: Marlena, scientific poetry is not something that you come across every day and that is especially true when add disability into the mix. As you probably know, there has been a recent interest in disability-related science fiction that tries to counterbalance the goal of science that disability is something to be eliminated (and everything that implies). Do you feel that your poetry pushes back at this viewpoint as well? Can you give an example of a poem where you do this?
MC: I think scientific poetry absolutely has been gaining traction. We have science fiction, so why not sci-poetry? There's even a Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association! The addition and mixing of science disability poetry is only natural.
I just try to write my truth, and science/science fiction helps me do that. That's why I think we're seeing books like "Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction," "Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction," "TreeVolution," "Because You'll Never Meet Me," "Ink," "How to Live on Other Planets," and more; literary journal special issues like The Deaf Poets Society's "Crips In Space"; and literary magazines like Monstering, Medical Literary Messenger, Tiny Tim Literary Review, The Human Touch, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, Breath & Shadow, and Wordgathering.
Science and creative writing go hand in hand. Science is full of minute details, precision, and so is poetry. They are both vivid, raw representations of our natural world. Writers draw from the natural world and science offers more vocabulary and ways to understand. Most of my poetry, and some of my prose, focuses on science in some way. I'm obsessed with space, devoured science/speculative fiction as a kid, and love wondering about the future. I use my skeletal dysplasia and chronic pain as a bridge to scientific poetry, exploring the rich images in science, medicine, genetics, space, and nature in my work.
We're even seeing more science and poetry in everyday life. For instance, at the recent March for Science, I helped bring science poetry to the public through the Poets for Science. Jane Hirshfield was the mastermind behind the idea, and I'm grateful I was able to bring her dream to life.
A sort of series of poems where I push back against the idea that in order for humans to progress, we must eliminate disability/different bodies is On that one-way trip to Mars; and "Application to NASA". These poems are conversations bouncing off each other, off myself, to the public, to the government, to other life forms. An underlying thread questions if in order for science to progress, we must make humans the same, "optimal," and all "work right." There is no right and wrong with bodies — there is only our truths, our experiences. The idea that disability is wrong and the disabled body must be fixed/cured is a long-held one. But it is not the only idea, and certainly not the main idea within many of the disability science poems and stories I've been reading. In "On that one-way trip to Mars," I pose the possibility of "if I didn't have a bone disorder," what I might be able to do. But I was born with a bone disorder, so "Application to NASA" addresses this fact and that I'm still strong, "one of the strongest / candidates you've ever had."
I can't say that I'm always a disability advocate. Maybe sometimes I wish I was born without my bone disorder, that I had less pain. But that doesn't change the fact that I have chronic pain and still need to find a way to live in my body, with all its challenges and limitations. It doesn't change the fact that I love my body and all I've done with it.
WG: A little while ago you mentioned the upcoming publication of your book Crumb-Sized. What you can you tell readers about that? How does it differ from your first book?
MC: Crumb-sized is tired of being called short. My second collection of poetry embraces my crumb-size. These poems explore life with a rare skeletal dysplasia and use natural imagery to quantify pain better than the 1 to 10 scale. This is a book about overcoming the challenges you were born with. These poems are recipes to reduce pain and rearrange your DNA. These pages give a cosmic middle finger to chronic pain. They surround you with an orchestra of knuckle cracks as you look through telescopes to spot (in)hospitable planets. Crumb-sized tells you how to feel beautiful, reveals Harriet Tubman?s disability, and Buzz Aldrin?s depression after returning from the moon. These poems apply to NASA regardless of its height restrictions. Share in the seeping with them.
WG: Marlena, it sounds as though you have a lot of interesting work coming up both as a writer and editor. Thanks for taking the time out for this interview. Before we close is there anything you would like to a dd to what you?ve already said?
MC: Just keep writing and submitting your work. Even if it gets rejected. Keep getting feedback and persist. The world needs more diverse voices.