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 uses her skeletal dysplasia and chronic pain as a bridge to scientific poetry. Her poems and short stories have appeared in Breath & Shadow, The Deaf Poets Society, Noble/Gas Quarterly, Paper Darts, Rogue Agent, Wordgathering, and more. Marlena is the communications coordinator for the LGBTQ Writers Caucus and is on the planning committee for OutWrite. Find her at marlenachertock.com or @mchertock.
Marlena’s guest post is part of our regular “Concerning Craft” series.
Every night, a tidal wave fills my apartment. Floor after floor consumed by waves so much higher than me. I struggle to swim amongst my furniture, take a last breath of air as the waters rise in my bedroom. Since I was a kid, I’ve had repeated nightmares about natural disasters.
Maybe it’s my brain working out extra stress from the day in my dreams. Or all those scary movies I’ve only seen the trailers for seeping into my subconscious (Day After Tomorrow? Never watched it, but, wow, do I have intense visions about it).
The fear is ingrained in me. I haven’t lived through a major climate event myself, but over the years I’ve witnessed their increasing frequency and toll. Hurricanes that swallow islands, knock out the power supply for almost a year. Wildfires that destroy Paradise. Droughts that turn farmers to suicide, drive mass migration, and destabilize countries so much they start wars.
Daily I’m suffused in news about the growing threat of climate change. These threats aren’t hypothetical—they’re happening worldwide. Climate change is already affecting the poorest first and hardest—injustice made visible, since these countries and people are the ones who emitted the least greenhouse gas emissions, yet they’re facing the worst effects.
The reports and researchers say we only have 10 years left to stop the worst of it from becoming our reality.
This eco-anxiety compels me to do something. That something is writing. Yes, I feel guilty that I should be doing more, something that will actually make a difference like attending climate strikes, lowering my meat consumption, using less plastic, living a greener life. But writing raises awareness of the issue and helps humanize the confusing facts and numbers behind the science of climate change.
Writers translate our wildest fantasies and the most unfathomable truths of reality. One piece of advice writers often hear is write what you know. Well, I don’t know climate change like a scientist or someone who’s lived through a climate disaster. But the poetry and fiction I write is steeped in social justice and urgency.
The images, sounds, and existential threat of climate change creep into my lines. I’ve been working on a poetry manuscript that portrays climate change not as a hoax, as those in power often want us to believe, but very present and dire. Little Patuxent Review published one of these poems in their Winter 2019 issue. “Ode to the Eastern Shore” laments how much the coastline of Maryland, my home state, will change due to sea-level rise. In this poem, I personified climate change as the Chesapeake Bay licking its lips, devouring land, taking inspiration from Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler and her incredibly powerful personification of Hurricane Katrina.
Over the past five years, I’ve also been writing a collection of cli-fi (climate fiction) short stories. In each of the stories—I call them Forecasts—some sort of climate event occurs or is reflected upon. Here’s just a sampling: in 2035, fresh air is sold in bottles; in 2071, the UN Kids Council passes a resolution that climate inaction is a crime; in 2085, a woman battles multiple natural disasters in one day; and in 4056, a team of women astronauts are sent to Kepler-186F to clean up alien trash. The stories are set in various times in the future, in countries around the world, and center on diverse main characters (characters of color, disabled characters, LGBTQ characters, elderly and young characters, characters from different classes and backgrounds). This collection is a translation of my nightmares, of the current and future world that climate change is bringing. A world that humans are creating for ourselves.
Writing into our weird obsessions isn’t a choice. I’m both obsessed and terrified by climate change. So I delve into the stories of how it’s affecting people all over the world and the ingenious ways people are adapting and fighting back—for example, Cape Town avoided Day Zero, the day its taps would run dry, by releasing an album of 2-minute water-saving shower songs and working hard to limit water use in the city; in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, solar-operated community space Casa Pueblo had been pushing for renewable energy long before Hurricane Maria; indigenous people are often best-suited to protect their land and to keep more greenhouse gases from seeping into the atmosphere.
While these stories may be covered in the news, I’m working hard to translate them into poetry and short stories to forge deeper human connections and inspire action. Fiction and poetry have the power to change minds and make people care. I hope this inspires other writers to share their cli-fi too.