'Camera': Professor Maxine Chernoff Writes Poetry through her Unique Lens

Wednesday, November 08, 2017
Photo of Maxine Chernoff seated in front of bookshelves

Maxine Chernoff has just published her 22nd book, during her 24th year as a professor of Creative Writing at SF State.

Camera (Subito Press) is Chernoff’s 16th book of poetry in a prolific body of work composed of poetry and fiction.

The book contains poems that act as “snapshots of the places where we momentarily fix our attention,” Chernoff says. Themes include homelessness, the Syrian refugee crisis, modern politics and differences in witnessing the world through cinema and poetry.

Chernoff is co-founding editor of the award-winning annual journal New American Writing, with Interim Creative Writing Chair Paul Hoover. She has been a fiction reviewer for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and her own books have garnered positive reviews.

“Chernoff’s language is supple and rhythmic, her images are precise and vivid and her sympathies run deep,” the Chicago Sun-Times writes. “Her stories do not rant fashionable, or show off, or whine: they sing, they celebrate life and death and they enlarge their readers.”

Beginning writing ‘as a protest’

Chernoff’s fascination with experiencing the world with words began during childhood, when she started writing as reaction to her surroundings.

“I was growing up during the Vietnam War era. My cousin’s husband was killed in Vietnam and I first began to write as a protest during that time,” she recalls.

Chernoff recognized the desire to become an English teacher early on in her academic career, but a professor during her junior year of college pushed her to pursue her personal work further. She attended University of Illinois, Chicago, where she earned her master’s in creative writing and minored in German — resulting in a skill which earned her a PEN Translation Award in 2009 for her work interpreting select poems by Friedrich Hӧlderlin, also with Paul Hoover.

After teaching in Chicago, she accepted a job at SF State in 1994, began a 20-year stint as department chair in 1996 and became a graduate adviser last year. She has taught in places all over the world including Belgium, the U.K., Australia, Germany, Brazil, Prague, Russia and China.

Challenges of a seasoned writer

As a seasoned writer, Chernoff has a secure sense of self earned only through years of evolving work. She no longer worries about writer’s block.

“My earlier books were kind of, ‘Here are the poems I’ve written within the last two years,’” she states, but being in the industry for so long has taught her what the true duties of a working writer entail.

“It’s often just giving yourself a challenge. … That’s what being a writer is: you’re giving yourself tasks and then you’re fulfilling them. So every book of mine, at least since I’ve been a little older, has had a project for myself involved.”

Chernoff tackles each new book with a different stylistic or thematic approach, but her only writing challenge nowadays is focusing her attention on the task at hand and shaping the observations with language.

“The challenge is attunement,” she adds. “It’s attunement to what you’ve taken upon yourself to observe and being smart enough with language to inhabit what it is you’re trying to witness.”

Others may have seen juggling motherhood, a writing career and a teaching career as another challenge, but Chernoff’s proudest achievement is her capability of balancing all three for more than 40 years and never sacrificing one ambition for another.

A ‘fertile time for younger writers’

Chernoff wrote Camera before President Trump was elected, but she has never let go of some political themes that were the catalyst for her earliest work. She believes that experiencing politics is part and parcel of living in the world today, but says an upside of this turmoil is the global cultivation of a prime environment for new voices: “People who are coming into their own as writers right now are coming in at a very different moment than we’ve ever had before.”

A relevant quote from another writer, artist or scholar precedes each poem in Camera to introduce the piece. Camera’s main themes include observing one’s surroundings through a personal lens but also actively engaging with them, which she sees her students and the upcoming generation partaking in on a collective scale.

“It’s a really fertile time for younger writers of color particularly, to feel very engaged with struggle. It’s created a renaissance for new voices who are writing in the context of [issues like] Black Lives Matter and DACA,” Chernoff says. “We’re hearing a lot of new voices of wonderful poets who are expressing their protests.”

A book-release event for Camera happens at 7pm November 8 at Moe’s Books in Berkeley (with Gillian Conoley).

— Gospel Cruz


Photo and video by Gospel Cruz

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