Crumb-sized reviewed in the Chicago Review of Books

It’s pub day for Crumb-sized and I’m over the moon!

Already, Yasmin Gunaratnam has written a beautiful review in the Chicago Review of Books. She calls me a space nerd exploring my inner cosmos — and hits it right on the head.

Marlena Chertock, a self-confessed “space nerd” based in Washington, D.C. “I don’t need you/landing your probes or rovers/or feet on me. I exist without/being catalogued”, declares Chertock from the perspective of the feisty, fiery HD 189733b. Having lived with disability and chronic pain throughout her twenty-five years, Chertock knows about the intrusions of being categorized, probed, and investigated.

Voyaging between her daily life and science, bridging and entangling elements of both, Crumb-sized subverts—or ‘crips’ in the terminology of disability theorists—the putting in place of people with disabilities. Chertock’s particular gift is to play with scale, trying by turns to nudge and push at and ultimately to scatter perspective. You come away enchanted, unsettled, and a little dizzy.

You can read the full review here.

Giving voice to survivors

As the rain poured in Washington, D.C. Wednesday night, a group of a couple dozen people gathered in Chinatown to share poems, songs and artwork dedicated to surviving.

The second Art as a Voice event, hosted by the Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP) at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, raised awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault in the Asian/Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.

DVRP Interim Executive Director Tuyet Duong shared a painting based on the year her father spent in a Communist concentration camp and his love of gardening — a bonsai tree sprouting from the top ventricles of a heart. He experienced a lot of suffering, she said, but he loved gardening. Bonsai trees grow in unexpected ways, and Duong tried to capture this in her painting.

“I am undocumented, a human with a story.”

“In high school, I found out I was undocumented,” said queer spoken word artist Ken Gonzales. “The usual narrative, I couldn’t get my driver’s license.” Gonzales performed a piece called “9 Numbers of Freedom,” signifying the numbers that allow him to move through this country freely. His poem was littered with incredible figurative language, like native tongues being sliced on an English cutting board. “Despite the win with same-sex marriage, there are still undocumented LGBT folks in detention centers undergoing abuse,” Gonzales said.

A trio sang original songs of love, trials, and triumph and covered India Arie’s “Break the Shell.” Elisha Brown performed a song called “Long Distance Love,” dedicated to her love who lives across the country. “We’re in different time zones, so I sleep by my phone,” she crooned softly, seemingly unaware of the power of her voice. “You’re my long distance love.” Singing is new to Brown, she said, as she focuses more on spoken word poetry.

There was also a table featuring A Letter for You project, where people can anonymously write survivors letters to let them know they matter. The project defines survivors as people who have experienced a traumatic event, including violence, abuse, rape, bullying, illness or others. Several audience members wrote notes addressed to survivors before the event began, and were invited to write more after the performances. The letters are archived on the project’s website. You can write and email your own letters to letters@aletterforyou.org or mail them to:

A Letter for You Project
P.O. Box 472
Garrett Park, MD, 20896

Learning from Education Week Teacher

Last week I wrapped up my five-month stint at Education Week Teacher and reflected on the projects I’ve produced and what I’ve gained from the experience.

Web production

Working with Bricolage has allowed me to see the variety of CMS capabilities. Some older systems, like Bric, can be more limiting to news organizations in the age of endless scrolling, magazine-style photos and interactive  graphics. Other systems boast their multimedia capabilities. But the staff at Education Week, especially the web team, find ways to make Bric work for them and still produce incredible interactives and multimedia stories.

During my internship, I used Bric to help produce the New Directions in Assessment report as well as the video collection page on classroom assessment techniques. For the report, I also designed an infographic explaining key differences in the PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing consortia.

Reader interaction

To engage readers during Pi Day, I created a crowdsourcing effort asking educators to share how they  celebrated the day. I compiled the responses into a Storify.

I also encouraged teachers to share classroom activities and resources for teaching poetry during the month of April. With these reader suggestions and my own reporting, I provided an overview of ideas for teaching National Poetry Month.

Blogging for teachers

Writing for a niche audience of teachers and educators on the Teaching Now blog was an incredibly challenging and fulfilling opportunity. I have written for specific audiences before, at my college newspapers, at The Writers’ Bloc literary-themed paper I created at the University of Maryland, and at The Gazette. But this was a higher level of specificity. The blog posts focus on education news, tips for teachers, and teaching trends. I tried to offer useful information for teachers in each post.

I truly enjoyed becoming a sort of poetry reporter for National Poetry Month in April. I pitched ideas relating to the month to my editors, led a crowdsourcing effort to find how educators teach poetry and eventually became inundated with pitches from readers and organizations. I wish I could have followed up on all of them. I covered a traveling poet who speaks in schools, an effort to eliminate gender-marketing in books and a freshman English class in California that self-published an e-book poetry anthology.  View my Education Week Teacher clips.

Thank you to the incredible staff at Education Week for all of these opportunities!

Rereading “Fahrenheit 451”


Yesterday I reread “Fahrenheit 451.” It took me most of the afternoon, through the night. I read in the car, as my mom guided us through terrible traffic, while my stepdad watched a basketball game, and alone, in my room. It’s the first book I’ve reread.

Reading a book again is an interesting endeavor. Passing through each part of the novel triggered bits of the upcoming plot in my memory. I remembered branches, but not the whole tree, not the leaves of the ending.

I first read “Fahrenheit 451,” my introduction to Bradbury—as I’ve since been scooping up his short story collections at used bookstores—in 9th grade. I knew then that this book was very different. Books had stuck with me before, but this one seeped in and became a part of my internal organs. It was a necessary book.

Being older, and having studied more craft, I appreciated Bradbury’s descriptions more. I realized how much poetry makes up his prose. Some of the most memorable moments of the novel can be boiled down to a sentence, a line, an image, alliteration—poetry. As mainly a poet, and a journalist, I gained renewed admiration for his style.

And one of my favorite literary quotes, which I have hanging on a piece of paper on my bedroom wall, still made me pause, smile and nod along, and reread it again. Bradbury has that affect, no matter how many times you’ve read him.

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”

The book happens to be a special 50th edition, which includes an interview with the author and an update when Bradbury revisited the characters in 1953 for a play. In it, Bradbury describes how he wrote the book over a week in the basement of the UCLA library—yes, he wrote a book about burning books in none other than a library—on a typewriter that cost 10 cents for 30 minutes. The typewriter had a coin slot and then ticked away. What a completely changed world from today’s, where many of us have laptops or tablets that we type away at constantly.

An interesting thing happened yesterday to me and the novel. I placed the book on a doctor’s examining table when the doctor came in to see me, and when he saw it he picked it up, beaming, saying, “Bradbury! I haven’t seen this book in a long time. I love science fiction.”

I often get asked why I don’t own a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad, or any other electronic reading device (other than my smartphone). My mom recently suggested a Kindle for my birthday present. But staring too long at screens gives me headaches, or worse, migraines. And the recollection and connection I had with my doctor yesterday might never have happened if I was reading “Fahrenheit 451” on a Kindle, then shut the display off when he stepped in the door. And what a terrible second-death to Bradbury, to read his novel on a screen like the ‘parlor walls’!

I’ll stick to printed books for now. Ones I can stuff in my purse for a Metro ride, underline my favorite quotes, crease the pages to mark great descriptions, buy cheaply at used bookstores, lend to a friend, and allow my doctor to see and share a love for. I think Bradbury would like that.

An Approach to Teaching Poetry With Afghan Women Writers

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Alaha Ahrar recites a poem in English and Dari. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

On March 29, in a Saturday morning panel at the 2014 Split This Rock poems of provocation and witness poetry festival, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project shared words and curriculum from Afghan women poets with a group of about 25 women and two men in the Human Rights Campaign building.

Formed in 2009, AWWP offers women in Afghanistan a community to share writing and learn the craft. AWWP is working to help Afghan women become professional writers by offering them a space to work on their craft and share their writing among themselves and others. Afghan women who participate in the workshops can write in English, which is unique, since many women in the country don’t learn English, said Richelle McClain, the panel leader and executive director of the project.

Split This Rock participants’ passionate engagement in a variety of diverse panels demonstrated poetry’s power as a political and educational tool for articulating and sharing sensitive personal and cultural stories. This potential for poetry to breach social and cultural barriers was exemplified in the poems Afghan women writers shared in the panel.

McClain discussed AWWP’s “Lessons from Afghanistan: A Curriculum for Exploring Themes of Love and Forgiveness,” available online, which contains five sections, ranging from personal definitions of love to exploring forgiveness in the face of abuse that these women face in Afghanistan because of their gender. The curriculum provides poems, objectives, classroom activities, writing prompts, and sample questions to explore love, forgiveness, and other themes. It also offers a list of suggested resources. Some activities include questionnaires, small group discussion, and writing individual or group poems about themes like self-love and effective communication.

Educators can use the curriculum’s prompts for writing exercises in their classrooms. Teachers can download individual poems or the entire curriculum by requesting permission from Stacy Parker Le Melle at stacy@awwproject.org. The project also encourages theatrical readings of the work.

During the panel, McClain asked festival attendees to recite several poems from the project. Alaha Ahrar and Mahnaz Rezaie, two Afghan women who attended university in America, read their poems in English and Dari, one of the official languages in Afghanistan.

Poetry has a long history in the country. Ahrar said her great-grandfather was a Sufi poet, part of a deeply mystical tradition. As several recent news articles attest, writing poetry is a gravely perilous pursuit for many Afghan women.

AWWP pays for Afghan women’s transportation to and from writing workshops in Afghanistan, because it is dangerous for them to share their opinions and write in the country, McClain said. The workshops are held in an undisclosed location for increased security. Ahrar added that many of the women remain anonymous when they write. Due to these safety concerns, AWWP only recruits in the country through word of mouth.

Some of the women bring their daughters to the workshops, to expose them to the open atmosphere, McClain said.

Ahrar ended the session by reading her poem titled “Desire for World Peace,” first in Dari, then in English.

“Afghan women have a lot of hope for their country,” she said. “We are very optimistic.”

Striving for recognition, asking not to be invisible

The story of an undocumented citizen

By Marlena Chertock

Vargas writes about being an undocumented immigrant living in America, and the countless others who are as well. Photo courtesy of TIME Magazine.

First published in The Writers’ Bloc.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, came out of the closet when he was in high school. But it’s taken him 12 years to come out of the “illegal” closet.

In 2011 Vargas wrote a story about his status as an undocumented Filipino living in America for The New York Times Magazine. Vargas is an accomplished journalist. He’s been published in the Washington Post, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He was also on the Washington Post team that produced Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Virginia tech shooting.

He talked about his path to founding Define American and the struggles of living as undocumented in America in Hoff Theater at the University of Maryland Tuesday night.

In a lot of ways, Vargas’ story is about searching for home. He left the Philippines in 1993 when his mother sent him to America in the hopes that he would have a better life.

Continue reading Striving for recognition, asking not to be invisible

The importance of place

Chimamanda Adichie tells true, personal stories

By Marlena Chertock

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Chimamanda Adichie explained the importance of place and truth in her writing at the Worldwise Arts & Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series on Tuesday night at CSPAC. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

She tries to tell the Nigerian story, her Nigerian story, through fearless honesty.

Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer known for her realistic fiction and her TED talk about the danger of the single story, explained her inspiration for writing for about an hour Tuesday night as a part of the 2012-13 Worldwise Arts & Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series, offered by the College of Arts and Humanities. The CSPAC Gildenhorn Recital Hall was filled; tickets had sold out last week.

Adichie first read a short excerpt from one of her lesser-known works about her Uncle Mai and his death, which was published in the Financial Times.

She called her uncle “my link to our past.” A past that is connected through family, heritage and place.

Continue reading The importance of place

Visible Brush Strokes: Impasto Painting

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By Marlena Chertock

“I feel like I hit a wall,” says junior Hannah Methvin in room 3312 of the Art/Sociology building at the University of Maryland. The 24×36’ canvas she painted in red hues stands before her on an easel. There are lips, the curve of a nose and a brown-red border.

She’s trying to paint a collage she made, the first step in this project on expressive painting — an eye with dark black lashes, flipped on its side, with a woman’s nose, lips, teeth and chin showing through where a pupil would normally be. There are quotation marks around the woman’s lips, like she has said something or is just beginning to speak. The paint is smooth and the reds blend together, forming creases and shadows.

Painting, like many creative endeavors, is more than putting brush to canvas. It’s about risks, taking the artist’s hand out of the creation — the process is very difficult. It’s allowing the painting to become it’s own being, separate from the painter.

Continue reading Visible Brush Strokes: Impasto Painting

Sandwich serving and salvaging furniture: Two Olney sisters’ restaurant

Sisters’ Sandwiches & Stuff is owned and run by two local sisters. Most of the food is named after their family members or friends. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

By Marlena Chertock

March, 2012

Some people do everything to avoid their siblings. But two Olney sisters who opened a restaurant and restored furniture store two years ago work together to provide homemade food to local patrons.

Kim Carlson and Tammy Prestipino, the sisters who own and manage Sisters’ Sandwiches & Such in Olney, Maryland, talked to their husbands for years about opening a furniture store or restaurant, according to Prestipino.

“They said, ‘Just do it already,’” Prestipino said.

So they did, opening up the store in the historical Higgins Tavern on Georgia Avenue in June 2010.

Continue reading Sandwich serving and salvaging furniture: Two Olney sisters’ restaurant

Changing careers for the love of poetry

Once a civil engineer, Zein El-Amine made a career switch 5 years ago

By Marlena Chertock

First published in The Writers’ Bloc.

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Zein El-Amine started a poetry career after working as a civil engineer for 20 years.

Five years ago one poetry professor in the University of Maryland’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House discussed paint colors for a fraternity bathroom for 15 minutes with his Residential Facilities supervisor.

“All I could think was do I want to spend my time doing this?” said Zein El-Amine, who worked in Residential Facilities from 2004 to 2007 and was a project manager and civil engineer for about 20 years. “The culture in Residential Facilities was becoming oppressive or it was always oppressive and I just didn’t notice it.”

He knew then he needed to change his career.

Continue reading Changing careers for the love of poetry