Nationality: American. Born: Maxine Hahn, Chicago, Illinois, 24 February 1952. Education: University of Illinois, Chicago, 1968–74, B.A. 1972; M.A. 1974. Family: Married 1) Arnold Chernoff in 1971 (divorced 1972); 2) Paul Hoover in 1974; one daughter and two sons. Career: Lecturer, University of Illinois, Chicago, 1977–80; instructor, Columbia College, Chicago, 1977–85; assistant professor, 1980–87, and associate professor, 1987–94, Chicago City Colleges; adjunct associate professor, Art Institute of Chicago, 1990–94; associate professor of creative writing, 1994–97, and since 1997 professor and chair of creative writing, San Francisco State University. Awards: Carl Sandburg award, 1985, for New Faces of 1952; Friends of American Writers award, 1987; PEN Syndicated Fiction award, 1988; Southern Review/ Louisiana State University Short Story award, 1988; Sun-Times Friends of Literature award, 1993; faculty affirmative action grant, San Francisco State University, 1995; and five Illinois Arts Council fellowships. Since 1989 honorary fellow, Simon's Rock of Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Address: 369 Molino Avenue, Mill Valley, California 94941, U.S.A.
A Vegetable Emergency. Venice, California, Beyond Baroque Foundation, 1976.
Utopia TV Store. Chicago, Yellow Press, 1979.
New Faces of 1952. Ithaca, New York, Ithaca House, 1985.
Japan. Bolinas, California, Avenue B Press, 1988.
Leap Year Day: New and Selected Poems. Chicago, ACM, 1990.
Next Song: A Chapbook. Saratoga, California, Instress, 1998.
Plain Grief. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1991.
American Heaven. Minneapolis, Minnesota, Coffee House Press, 1996.
A Boy in Winter. New York, Crown, 1999.
Bop. Minneapolis, Minnesota, Coffee House Press, 1986.
Signs of Devotion. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1993.
In the News, with Ethel Tiersky. Chicago, National Textbook Company, 1991.
Attractions, with Ethel Tiersky. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1993.*
Critical Studies: "Fiction As Language Game: The Hermeneutic Fables of Lydia Davis and Maxine Chernoff" by Marjorie Perloff, in Breaking the Sequence: Experimental Women Fiction Writers. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1989; Writing Illinois by James Hurt, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1992; Interviewswith American Women Writers by Aruna Sitesh, New Delhi, East-West Press, 1994.
Maxine Chernoff comments:
I began as a writer with the prose poem, a form that spans two genres. I was drawn to the prose poem as a means to explore the metaphysical in the manner of the great French and Latin American practitioners of the form. I spent ten years exploring its strengths and limitations. It was an excellent mode to express my then attitudes about human experience and societal chaos: the Vietnam War and the Watergate era exerted huge pressures on me to account for "truth." The turns of mind of the short, terse, self-limiting form were appropriate to my probing social consciousness, as were its natural ironies, evasions, and allusions.
As I matured as a writer, I sought to inform my writing with a means to examine human behavior, particularly on the miniature level of communication, how language bends and sometimes breaks as it is called upon to articulate and analyze relationships. My movement from the prose poem to the short story attempted to account for this realm of social interaction, the adequacy and the inadequacy of language spoken to create a moment and internalized to reflect upon that moment. It signaled a turning inward for me, away from public ceremonies toward private rituals. It represented more careful listening on my part to the way people "whisper" about their lives.
After nearly a decade of story writing, I decided that I needed the space a novel would provide to let experience through language take the twists and turns that might honor its fullness. All three of my novels are about stalemate—the difficulties of communicating and the loss we experience if we stop trying.
The more I write prose, the more poetry's "proper" aims separate for me. My poems now, taut and tense with the difficult of choosing the words we need and the stumbling that results, feel like songs that come to me in a language I don't fully understand. I let my instincts here serve the mystery of their articulation.
The older and more practiced I become, the more awe I feel for the act of creation, its perils, its incompleteness, its contingency, its defeatedness, its attempt to light up a small corner through empathy.* * *
Maxine Chernoff's poems skate and glide from aperçu to insight to witticism and on to surreal conclusion. They are usually leavened by ingratiating perkiness. She starts spinning words that, in her best poems, turn into stories and finally myths. But her work is uneven and has evolved choppily. She has been influenced by the New York school of O'Hara via Berrigan, as well as by the Coolidge-like language school, but she seems truly inspired only by the prose of Russell Edson.
It is useful to begin with Chernoff's weakest work, Japan, published in 1988. Its final poem is "Zones":
Within the book are twenty-six aleatory language-oriented poems arranged alphabetically by title, one per letter. They run a weary gamut, utterly unlike. Consider, for example, her witty "Abridged Bestiary":
The aardvark and the zebra were the only animals that the concise Noah allowed to join him. "Bears to yaks be damned," he shouted &
The work recalls David Rosenberg's much earlier 39 Excellent Articles of Japan, which simply consists of found poems from a Japanese catalog written in pidgin English. While his work is wacky and camp, Chernoff's Japan seems to be an aesthete's abecedarium. If the poems of Japan have themes, they are generated, as Chomsky would say, by the tendency language has to mean. Abandon all hope ye who interpret here.
In contrast, Chernoff's poem "For My Father" is forceful and strong, beginning, "He was my face on a necessary white." Chernoff's local allusions to Chicago, her home for many years, also glow, as in "April Fool," for a certain dean at the University of Chicago:
The Early Warning System buzzed
the TV screen while I made
coffee: Oh good, the end of
the world. Then I told my mother
we'd have lunch at two.
Happy April Fools',
Professor Wayne C. Booth
who claims our use of irony
shows our fear of God
the Father not liking
his smirking children.
Chernoff can also write excellent prose. Her shortest prose she calls prose poetry, the kind of work of which Edson is the preeminent contemporary master. Her best pieces, such as "The Last Auroch," twist a tall tale into a myth. In "The Apology Store," for example, she tries to buy an all-purpose apology, but the store will not accept her currency and then claims to be sold out until spring or until a strike is over or until whenever. She finally asks the store to phone when they can help. "I'm sorry," the clerk says, "we don't have a phone."
Chernoff's first book of short stories, Bop, was published in 1986. Although she has since been making a mark with her fiction, there is always something buoyant and exceptional in her best poetry, such as "Leap Year Day," the title poem from her 1991 book of new and selected poems:
The paleolithic heart might burst
with news of slowness, news of feathers.
All the softness listed in the register
you keep: day of finite crashing.
Who's to say the deafness that you wore
was needed by the Greeks? Depression
sounded like a whole note sewn with
lilac thread. I wanted to assure you
that the small biology of kissing
would not last until the pebble dried
and a flag wobbled and a list faded and a map
was drawn and a green planet drifted
under your lens. The elbowed dawn lifted,
and you said nothing of the storm that flashed
off-shore, as if to mean, forgotten winter
without signs. You will not fade.
I believe your wholeness as it rests its future
on our lengthening half-lit letters.