Local poet Marlena Chertock, the 2021 co-chair of OutWrite, D.C.’s annual LGBTQ literary festival, is excited for this year’s event, taking place Aug. 6 through 8. “We can’t be in person, but last year we had it virtually and we still managed to have some form of community—I’m hoping that continues for this year,” she says. Chertock and her co-chair, Malik Thompson, embraced a second virtual festival to best ensure everyone’s safety as the world continues to grapple with COVID-19. But with Zoom fatigue in mind, the chairs and volunteer coordinators brainstormed ways to ensure that engagement and connection override virtual exhaustion. Alongside panels and readings, the weekend will also include a workshop and cookie-making demonstration, as well as the release of two journals, one celebrating last year’s 10th anniversary as well as We Got This: Black Writers on Imagination, Joy and Liberation.
Chertock, the author of Crumb-sized: Poems and On that one-way trip to Mars, had sat on the festival’s planning committee for several years. After the 2020 festival, former chair Dave Ring stepped down, and she and Thompson, a local poet, took on co-chair roles. Since December 2020, they have been organizing the city’s only queer writers’ fest by calling for pitches, working on partnerships, and curating a full but not overwhelming schedule. OutWrite aims to be the festival attendees want it to be, so the chairs take community feedback and input very seriously.
City Paper spoke with Chertock about this year’s OutWrite, accessibility, and what it means to celebrate 11 years of the festival.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Washington City Paper: What sets OutWrite apart?
Marlena Chertock: It’s for the nerds, it’s for the people that are very strict with their craft, it’s for people who are new to writing, people who are already published. We really try to lower the gatekeeping and invite everybody who’s queer and a writer—or reader. … I go to other writing festivals and [at] some of them, people will look at your nametag and, if they don’t know you, they kind of walk away. OutWrite is not like that.
WCP: You have a pretty packed schedule.
MC: There’s a lot going on, maybe too much, but we didn’t want to cut too much. Later in coming up with panels, we were approached by an Arlington Youth Poet Laureate [who] suggested a youth poetry reading. We couldn’t say no to that! We found a way to include them with “Our Voices in Verse: Queer youth building future through poetry.” I’m really excited about that one.
Also, Malik and I are younger queers—we know our history, but we didn’t live through it. So somebody who lived through the AIDS crisis said, “This summer is a big anniversary [the 40th anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS] and your lineup doesn’t have anything on that. Can I create a reading about AIDS and people who write about it?” We said absolutely. And what an oversight. … That’s what we want: people to bring ideas our way.
WCP: That hits differently after the last year. Speaking of, 2020 was OutWrite’s 10th anniversary, but everything felt heavy—was it hard to celebrate and will this year’s festival continue the celebration, since the kickoff event is the 10th anniversary’s journal release?
MC: Last year, we were much more in a fear mindset and we didn’t know—can we have a festival? Dave was still chairing and he pulled off a fantastic virtual affair … All the events were live streamed and it was very heartening to see people during a really dark, scary time.
Now, while we’re still definitely in the pandemic, there is the vaccine, people are getting it, more people need to, but things are looking a little different. Malik and I, we could have tried to have a hybrid or in-person event this year, but we were both concerned about ensuring people’s safety and ensuring our safety. A literary event is not something to potentially die over. As much as we love OutWrite, that’s where we drew the line.
It’s hard to balance: I know we could have such great, in-person community again, even if we were masked. But then again, there are a lot of people participating in OutWrite this year who never have and who maybe wouldn’t have been able to if it was in person because they’re in Paris and Canada. That’s been pretty magical.
WCP: What does accessibility look like this year?
MC: Accessibility is something that’s really important to us. Right now, we’re, unfortunately, not able to make everything ASL interpreted, but we’re working to have a few of the events interpreted.
One will have simultaneous Spanish translation—“Better She Be Dead Than a Tortillera: Confronting Homophobia in the Cuban-American Diaspora” (Saturday, 4 p.m.). I’m glad we can at least offer that and it’s something we’re working on for the future.
WCP: What do you think OutWrite has done for D.C.’s queer community and for queer writers?
MC: For me, OutWrite is a place I started to feel much more comfortable calling myself a queer writer, and writing and sharing writing about queerness. Especially because it’s a festival that doesn’t have as much of that gatekeeping between “are you published? Or are you even a ‘real’ writer?” It’s very much for any level; I think that alone helps people start to see themselves as writers and find their kin and community.
Something else that has been important is the intersectionality and how we rely on each other for liberation and justice. I’m also disabled, so being able to meet other queer disabled writers has been so inspiring and really powerful for me. It shows we’re not a monolith, this community is so varied and looks so different. And also queerness, too, is not a monolith. Just that validation is really powerful.
WCP: Sometimes I think about the queer festivals I’ve known and loved over the years and how they’re precious bubbles for the community. Do you ever hope that it spreads beyond the community? Or do you think it’s important that it stays within the bubble?
MC: That’s a great question. I’m not really sure because I think there are pros and cons for both. It being a much more intimate space does allow for more of those connections, and for new, young, not yet published writers to feel like they belong and to see a place for themselves.
But then if you get bigger and have bigger writers featured then you might draw more of an audience and potentially more funding. So I don’t know. It’s hard to say what would be better. I know right now, this is where we’re at, but maybe in the next 10 years, it’ll look different and I think it should evolve and change. I don’t think it should stay stagnant.
WCP: Eleven years in, what do you hope is the legacy of OutWrite?
MC: Being the only queer literary festival in D.C. is the legacy that I hope it has. Even if other ones get started, we could call ourselves the first. I’m not trying to hold on to that market, but for now we are the only.
It’s been such a labor of love with volunteers and it’s grown into something that I think people get really excited for. … I don’t know if it’s only because it’s virtual, but we do have a lot of people participating from all over the world this year. That’s also really special [because it’s] bringing other people in, [which] spreads the word even more.
Selfishly, I want to show that D.C. can really stand up to New York and L.A.—places people tend to think are where you go to become a “real writer.” … I’m just so grateful there’s a festival like this here, and a really great writing community in general, in D.C. I want people to start to see that D.C. can give New York a run for its money.
… I think the focus we’ve had on uplifting local queer writers has been something that’s not only important to me, but important to everybody who participates. It shows our local talent, what they’re doing, and that they can also be on best-selling lists. One author I’m excited to have joining us is Eric Nguyen—author of Things We Lost to the Water, and it’s just getting so much attention, as it should!—and he’s local. To have people like Eric in our backyard is just incredible.
WCP: Are there any other events you’re most looking forward to this year?
MC: I’m a nerd, so I’m really interested in this one on tabletop role-playing games and the queer narratives—that sounds so fun to me.
Queer Cookies [Cookbook], a little selfishly—they published one of my poems [“Flirting is a Black Hole”]—is an anthology of cookie recipes inspired by poems [from] all queer, DMV area poets. That’s going to be great.
Then there’s another called “Poets, Queerness, and What America Looks Like,”—a reading from This Is What America Looks Like. It’s a reflection on queerness in the U.S. and the evolution of LGBTQ movement that we’ve been experiencing. I think it’s going to be a really good reading.
OutWrite runs virtually from Aug. 6 through 8. See the full schedule at thedccenter.org/outwrite. Individual events can be watched via Facebook livestream. RSVP to the events via OutWrite’s Facebook event’s page. Free.