Wednesday, January 9, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Maxine Chernoff

Maxine Chernoff is a professor and Chair of the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University. With Paul Hoover, she edits the long-running literary journal New American Writing. She is the author of six books of fiction and eight books of poetry, most recently The Turning (to appear in May of 2008) and Among the Names (2005), both from Apogee Press. Of the latter, Cole Swenson [see her 12 or 20 questions here] said, “Among the Names [creates] a vast and layered network, in short, an economy. Exploring complexities of “the gift,” Chernoff’s is an economy of the uncanny—each exchange is strikingly new.”Her collection of stories, Signs of Devotion, was a NYT Notable Book of 1993. Both her novel American Heaven and her book of short stories, Some of Her Friends That Year, were finalists for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. Her novel A Boy in Winter is currently in production in Canada by an independent film company. With Paul Hoover, she has translated The Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, which will be published by Omnidawn Press fall of 2008. She has read her poetry in Liege, Belgium; Cambridge, England; Sydney, Australia; Berlin, Germany; Sao Paolo, Brazil; Glasgow, Scotland; Yunnan Province, China; and St. Petersburg, Russia.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I was very young when a friend, John Mort, a fiction writer at the U of Iowa, did a fine print run of 75 of my first collection of prose poems, The Last Aurochs, for a graduate project in library science. Although it was a tiny number of copies, I sent them to people whom I admired as writers (I remember that this included at the time Robert Coover and Andrei Codrescu, among others), and they wrote back kind and encouraging notes. So I was astounded and moved and felt like the world, quite possibly, had a place for me in it.

2 - How long have you lived in California, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I’ve lived in CA since 1994 and before that in Chicago. Leaving Chicago has had a more profound and emotional effect on me than living in CA though I certainly appreciate the climate here, the natural beauty, and the relative ease compared. I still miss the vitality I felt as a Chicago resident, a place that I naturally cared about in terms of the polis. I have written a little about living in Northern California, but I still feel as much a visitor here as a resident.

Race and gender:

I’ve always resisted feeling narrowly categorized, but I have written a lot about being a woman primarily in relation to being a mother. Several of my novels are about mothers and issues involving motherhood as are some early prose poems, and I’ve created many female characters, of course. I have also at times, in my prose rather than poetry, discussed issues of race and religion in the Chicago setting, where they are such prominent features. In Chicago I taught English and ESL in the City Colleges, where I saw the struggles of many immigrants and minority residents. My second novel, American Heaven, is about a Polish immigrant living in Chicago, where instead of being a mathematician, she now cares for an elderly black man.

My own childhood was spent in a bilingual household since my grandmother, who had gone deaf from meningitis in Russia, lived with us and only spoke Yiddish. I could understand Yiddish perfectly though I only spoke it reluctantly. I wanted to be as “American” as the next kid though I now realize the uniqueness of my experience.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Since 1988, I’ve been composing “books” or longer series of poems. I began as a poet who quickly turned to the prose poem and then moved toward fiction. When I came back to poetry from fiction, it was with a book length project, an abcedarium called Japan (Avenue B Press) of sound poems, all 27 lines long with five letter titles. Since then I’ve written several longer poems including a series involving the relationship of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz, a series of poems based on Emerson’s essays, and a series of prose poems written as dialogues (all included in my book World: Poems 1991-2001 (Salt Publishing 2001). Then I wrote a series of poems on gift theory (gathered from anthropology, economics, philosophy, linguistics, primarily) called Among the Names (Apogee Press, 2005). When I wrote my three novels, I always knew that I was engaged in long work. One uses a different part of the mind for long projects, an architectural sense one needn’t consider for a single poem or short story. I’ve come to prefer longer projects though my next book, The Turning, is composed of shorter works, some of which were longer works that didn’t grow to be quite as long as I’d expected.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I do give readings and attend them—-one can’t help doing so in San Francisco. I sometimes feel the urge to write if I’m hearing work that particularly interests me. Readings were more important for me when I was a younger writer wanting to see as many poets as I could. In my twenties there was a very good Monday night series at the Body Politic in Chicago where Ted Berrigan was then living. People would visit Ted and read there or come through town to read at a university and also read at the Body Politic. I attended religiously and even met my husband, Paul Hoover, there.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

It would be hard to state what the current questions are other than for myself. My recent books have been engaged with writing more as investigation or research than as result. Both reading about and reading through texts from Emerson’s essays to gift theory to Hannah Arendt to Mike Davis’s brave and angry environmental sociology has engaged me in poetry in a way that’s given my projects renewed energy. We are living in perilous times, and I hope that my writing is exploring and addressing some of these perils.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Since I am married to Paul Hoover and both of us are poets and editors of a magazine together (New American Writing), I’m quite used to being on both sides of the process. The only book that I ever wrote that suffered some editorial interference was my first novel, which needed some guidance, to be sure. But I can’t say that either my editors or I quite knew how to improve the book we had decided to publish. It was a frustrating process and had unimpressive results--my first novel still reads like a first novel. Paul and I also serve as first readers of each other’s work, but we’ve never been line editors for each other. It’s more a general nod or a discussion when needed.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I think it gets harder as one grows more knowledgeable about the possibilities of what a book can be. At first one is delighted to be published. Then one becomes perhaps more cautious in putting a book together. One’s own expectations grow, not for the reception of the book but for the engagement with it as its writer.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I bought two Comice pears today and hope to eat them by, say, Sunday or Monday at the latest—it’s up to them.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?


10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

It’s always been about necessity for me. When I wrote fiction, that felt “correct” for me at the time. As I said before, the genres and long or short projects engage different parts of one’s brain. Non-fiction has always felt secondary to me. I’ve written literary essays, reviews, and talks if I’ve been asked to--and a few angry political diatribes (my favorite)--, but there’s always a particular occasion for these writings.

The good thing about writing poetry and fiction is how no one expects one to. Marilynne Robinson read from Gilead at my university. Someone asked her what people were saying when she hadn’t produced a novel in so many years (There are twenty-six years between it and her earlier beautiful book Housekeeping.) She said that the nice thing about writing is how little anyone expects from you.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I write in spurts. I can be tremendously taken up with something or relatively idle. When idle as a writer, I’m actively reading, of course. Everything one does finally feeds the writing.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Lots of reading, seeing lots of good mainly foreign films, and doing other things related to writing like editing the magazine or, in one case, translating 220 pages of the German poet Freidrich Hölderlin with Paul Hoover for a book that will be published later this year by Omnidawn Press.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My latest book of poems, The Turning, is an angry book. The war and policies of this government have just about driven me mad, and some of the poems in the book express that frustration. Many books I’m currently reading are about the terrible world that my country has created, particularly in the last eight years of Bush and Cheney. The only fiction I’ve written in seven years is one story about a woman who has decided not to get out of her pajamas until Bush leaves office.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Nature in the form of wanting our planet to outlast my children and their children; music in the form of jazz and some world music that I’ve come to know through Paul and my sons, both of whom are musicians; foreign films that are subtle about human relations. I love so many directors and luckily live near a very good “art house,” a vanishing species, where four good films are usually playing at a time. And always visual art. Growing up in Chicago, there was the wonderful Art Institute. Many visual artists are important to me. Today I’ve been thinking about Joseph Cornell’s boxes.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Again, more writers than I could possibly name, so I’ll only mention a few. Early in my career, Borges, Cortazar, Lispector, Leonora Carrington, Neruda, Vallejo, Michaux, Mandelstam, Cendrars, Ponge, Pessoa, and in fiction Woolf, Paley, Coover, Malamud, Marquez, Sebald, Lydia Davis. Among important poets are Schuyler, Elmslie, Guest, Dickinson, Creeley, Tymoteusz Karpowicz, and of course Friedrich Hölderlin. My husband and poetry friends are important poetic influences on me. And I’m constantly impressed by some of my best students and the young writers we publish in New American Writing.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to travel more. I’ve been to many places to read or teach or give talks including Australia, Brazil, Russia, Germany. and China. I’d like to keep doing that kind of travel where one gets to see a place and spend time or travel with some of its writers.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Well, I’ve been a writer, an editor, a teacher or professor and a mother forever, so I think I’d like to do less, not more. When I was little, I wanted to be a senator.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing was a way of thinking on paper. I liked to think and I liked to write. On the other hand, as much as I liked to think, I didn’t particularly want to do it extemporaneously or publicly. So writing seemed to be a way to quietly audit my own ideas and shape them in a direction.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I just finished Fall of the House of Bush by Craig Unger. Astonishing portrait of the arrogance and malevolence of this administration. The last wonderful movie I saw (for maybe the fourth time) was Lisbon Story by Wim Wenders, where a sound engineer, a comical fellow with a broken foot, goes to Lisbon to work on a movie. But the invitation to Lisbon is old and his director friend is gone, so he spends the days roaming the streets and recording sounds. At night he reads Pessoa. It’s a very beautiful film. Paul has a poem about it in his book, Poems in Spanish. Since answering this question, I’ve seen another wonderful movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, amazing visually, narratively and emotionally.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m in a reading, movie, music phase, having just finished the translating and proofing of all that Hölderlin. I assume I’ll begin a new collection of poems soon.

12 or 20 questions archive

No comments: