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It is copyright © Maxine Chernoff, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa and Jacket magazine 2009. See our [»»] Copyright notice.
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in conversation with
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, 2009
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 ten books of poetry. Her collection of stories, Signs of Devotion, was a New York Times Notable Book of 1993. Her latest book of poems is The Turning (Apogee Press, 2008). Paul Hoover, she translated The Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, published by Omnidawn in 2009.
Originally from the U.S., Jane Joritz-Nakagawa lives in central Japan, where she works as an associate professor at a national university of education. Her fourth poetry book, The Meditations, is due out in September 2009 from Otoliths. Her poems and essays have appeared widely in journals and anthologies in the U.S., U.K., Japan and Australia. She is currently working on her fifth poetry book. She recently guest-edited Ekleksographia and will be guest-editing Pinstripe Fedora in 2010. Email is welcome at janenakagawa at yahoo dot com.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: Your reputation is obviously associated not only but especially perhaps with the prose poetry genre. Is your process for writing prose poems very different from the process you follow when writing other poems? Could you comment on both? And as someone who also has published fiction, about the differences between writing poetry and fiction you would like to say…
Maxine Chernoff: When I began as a writer in 1972 (age 20), it was a rich time of prose poetry in other countries, and I was strongly drawn to the Latin-American fabulists and postmoderns such as Marquez, Cortazar and Lispector, as well as the earlier French practitioners including Cendrars, Jacob, and Ponge. The only American prose poems that existed (or that I knew of) were those by Robert Bly, which felt mawkish to me, and those by Russell Edson, which I enjoyed very much. Of course there was Gertrude Stein, but I hadn’t discovered her yet. I began writing prose poems based on this reading, and my method, as far as I can remember, was to have a concept (a head in a garden, naked Benjamin Franklin, a fan made of moustaches) and then write the poem in a rush. One might say that the “topic,” as arbitrary as it was, made me inspired to produce it. This was my early practice.
When I more or less left poetry for fiction about ten years later, I continued a similar practice of finding a line of conversation or a concept that would launch me into a story that would come out quickly and then get revised in close proximity to being written. It took me awhile to leave the prose poem, though. I was full of dread about assigning characters actual names and giving them a more concrete and “human” existence than my “shadow-puppets” had in my prose poems. In some way it felt audacious to me to make people up to the degree that fiction required.
When I came back to poetry after about a decade writing only fiction, stories and novels, I was no longer interested in the prose poem. I wanted to explore sound and line and a lot of the aspects of poetry that I had left unexamined earlier. So my method right after writing fiction became one of using sonic connections as can be seen in my book Japan, which was a radical departure from my earlier work. In the book preceding that, New Faces of 1952, I had collected prose poems that had been unpublished when I had started to write fiction as well as poems in lines that were far less interested in narration and much more attentive to wordplay and sound than my previous poems.
I also began to write whole series or books in the case of Among the Names of related poems.
In everything I’ve written, compression is a method. I’m not a big or messy writer. Nor am I a minimalist because my eagerness won’t let me hold back as much as I might.
JN: Then how might you describe the overall path your work has taken over your career? And how would you situate what you are working on now stylistically within contemporary poetry? And I’d like to hear, if I may, about how do literary, personal and sociopolitical concerns overlap in your work in your opinion? And if your work correlated to one part of the body it would be… because…
MC: My work has been the work of my lifetime, almost 38 years of writing so far. Similar concerns are present from the beginning. There’s always been a strong interest in image and sound, in fiction as well as poetry. I used to say my characters’ dialogue out loud and revise for how they sounded. There’s often dark humor and social concerns, of course, since I’m human and concerned about the world. I’d have to say, though, that my generalized angst crystallized under Bush. His presidency and the second Iraq war, the callous treatment of our own citizens (read Katrina) and the huge, impertinent shadow we’ve spread over the globe with our intrusive policies have made me become more and more obsessed with thinking and speaking about the situation. Many poems in my most recent book, The Turning, examine our way of life now with poems about the war, the loss of a commonly perceived sense of community and community welfare, and the depraved and commercial nature of our national discourse. All of these problems feel personal to me. The people I teach and my own children could have been called on to die so that Pres. Bush could be a “war president,” a good market position. As it was, the government didn’t go so far as to threaten the middle and upper middle class with the war. They decided on a “back door draft” instead. So, poor enlistees and reservists having to fight make it allegedly more palatable for the rest of us. How can one not write about such things and have a conscience? At any rate, times seem urgent now, our planet is in peril, and one’s writing needs to address cultural issues.
Where am I among other poets? I am among them certainly, but I don’t think a lot about them as I write, unless, of course my project requires such location. My book Among the Names has me in relationship with many writers about gift theory, some poems in World are in relation to the work of Emerson, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Steiglitz, and in The Turning I make poems in relation to a lot of sources including two centos where I quote 200 lines of poetry and prose, a poem based on Pearl in The Scarlet Letter and a poem about Ophelia. These are working, compositional relationships. Occasionally someone else labels me. And my own tendencies, I think, get pushed toward the experimental camp because of the staggering dullness of many poets thought to be in the “center” or right thereof. Finally, though, I write the way I do out of necessity. Even form changes from poetry to fiction and back to poetry felt necessary at the time.
As for your body question, is the conscience a part of the body?
JN: I certainly hope so! The number of American poets writing against war and capitalism in poems and essays post 9-11 in less than subtle ways is huge. The post 9-11 Bush administration got me, also, much more (almost obsessively) interested in reading what poets have had to say about war both now and in relation to earlier wars whether in poems or prose. I started buying a lot of anthologies of both relatively more conventional poetry as well as more avant-garde anti-war and anti-capitalism works (such as the War and Peace anthologies O Books has put out). I was for a while feeling too many of my own poems in recent years made reference to war and capitalism (not to mention other themes related to environmental issues and even animal rights; like John Kinsella, I’m now a vegan) -– it won’t stop creeping in there, not in every work but in so many.
Obviously, there are a lot of poets in the U.S. and outside doing very interesting work that is overtly socially responsible, such as Mark Nowak, yet still beautiful as art, like The Turning poems you refer to. I’ve additionally been reading a lot of Japanese world war 2 era poetry, a book of poems related to the Holocaust, and so on. And interested in what is called “eco-poetics” and poets associated with that, including people like British poet Harriet Tarlo. And seeking out translations from various parts of the world.
Work from Japan is being increasingly translated; I take note of the recent Sentence (I believe you are on the board of that journal) that featured translations of Japanese and other Asian poetry, Sawako Nakayasu’s work, translations published recently by Green Integer, Hiroaki Sato’s recent big volume of Japanese women’s poetry in English, among others.
I always thought it was cool (and relevant to my wish for an outward looking versus insular U.S.) that a journal called New American Writing would early on and frequently include so many translations by poets who can’t be called American. You recently collaborated on a translation of Hölderlin poetry. Could you comment on the processes of collaboration and translation?
MC: Our magazine always sought interesting writing wherever it may be, and sometimes our travels also pushed us in new directions. The Australian issue, the British issue, the Brazilian issue, and the interest in Russian, Vietnamese, and Chinese poetry all arose from the situation of traveling.
It was wonderful to collaborate on Hölderlin with Paul Hoover. Here was a poet we both loved who seemed important to many — Benjamin, Adorno, Godard, Heidegger, and so many poets who refer to him as a protomodernist. With ability in reading German, we found ourselves not pleased with the Hamburger translation, which goes for the metrics at the expense of the “poetic sense,” so we set out trying our hand at a few preliminary poems. And after a full summer of sitting in our dining room with Hölderlin and two dictionaries and a notepad, we had versions of many of the poems that we constantly reworked and revised. The most interesting part of the translation was the many “aha!” moments when the poem would become clear to us. I think working with a partner led to much more ease. Neither of us could or would have done it alone. And it was such a pleasure to come home after being out in the world and get back to our Hölderlin. It was a blessed time, it seemed, to work with such joy. After several summers we had a book, which Omnidawn took, and then there were 47 more revisions before the final version. One poet and translator, Michael Hulse, a British poet who translates Sebald among others, was very helpful to us. And we were so pleased when John Ashbery, Rosmarie Waldrop, Robert Alter, and Pierre Joris gave us strong endorsements. It’s a poets’ translation of Hölderlin and makes a strong claim for the poetic logic of his very wonderful work.
JN: That’s a lot of revisions! If it’s not too intrusive a question, would you like to comment on being married to another poet? In an article posted to the Poets.org site, Rosmarie Waldrop is quoted as saying “All my poems are really love poems to Keith (Waldrop)". Having read most of her published work, I can say that was not immediately apparent to me (though I’m all for it!) but . . . .
MC: That seems like a lot of love poems, but who’s to question. Paul and I have been poetic allies and first readers to each other forever. When I wrote fiction, I’d read it to him with some defensiveness — that is, he couldn’t touch it himself. I had to hold it in my hands and read it to him when we drove somewhere, often to the many movies we were always running out to see. And I admire Paul so much as a poet. So it’s wonderful having someone close whom you both trust and admire.
JN: My own husband has no interest in poetry, yet apparently brags to his associates that his wife is a poet (at least he is not ashamed!), though secretly he hopes I’ll turn to writing that is financially profitable, I think;-). We both love going to art galleries and museums however and tend to like exactly the same things in that regard. I could even ask him: Which is my favorite painting in this exhibition? and he could almost certainly pick it out rapidly without hesitation. If a muse doesn’t have to actually read your work, I would say he is mine;-).
What is your take on the “business” of poetry — publishing, giving readings, getting one’ s work noticed, etc.? And any comments on editing NAW that might be relevant?
MC: Being part of a community is part of being a poet. I remember when my first little book came out, and I sent it to writers I liked and some wrote back. I remember very nice notes from Robert Coover, Andrei Codrescu, and Charles Simic. I was so thrilled to feel “welcomed” to poetry, and I think that it’s the job of writers to welcome others, which is what a magazine does. Of course, I also teach in a writing program, but I’m not really strong on the day-to-day business of being a writer if that means constantly seeking opportunities for oneself or “networking,” as it’s come to be called. I have my place, the magazine lets others in, occasionally I give readings or lectures or residencies, but it’s finally the writing that matters and being part of a larger group of writers, some of whom Paul and I have introduced through our magazine and editing and many whom we’ve come to know as friends.
JN: I find it embarrassing sometimes to let people know of any of my work’s appearances anywhere, but as I am my own agent and publicist so to speak and people may not find it otherwise — I’d like to have at least a few readers of something I’ve worked long and hard on I suppose! Yet I don’t find it irritating in the least when poets send me emails announcing their newest projects — I’m grateful for those, as I may not find out about their work otherwise, and I want to read it. Comments from poets abroad absolutely help me keep going.
Who are some of the younger female poets you are currently reading? What advice might you have for them? And if you could bring one poet back from the dead it would be…
MC: Bringing back just one dead poet doesn’t seem fair since so many wonderful poets died such untimely deaths. Think of poor Keats. Or Emily Dickinson. Or Frank O’Hara. I admire many younger poets and we publish many, many of them in our magazine. I can’t really single just a few out since there is such a distinguished list, but I can say that poetry feels very alive and energetic at the moment. There are many young writers who are truly fine.
JN: That’s for certain! The internet has made it possible to share work so easily, so that even someone like myself living in a community where few people want to read poetry / anything in English let alone poetry let alone least of all difficult innovative poetry! feel part of a community, in my case mostly through contact via email – the internet era seems to have led to this energy and activity that you describe. You believe (?) that poets can help promote poetry (not just their own work) in general by… and they should do this because. . . .
MC: Should they? I think that poetry will always be a quiet art compared to the others that are larger, more expensive, more easily digested by a mass audience, etc., but I’m not sure it matters. The best way to promote poetry is to be the best writer you can be and not worry a lot beyond that. You can’t even know what’ll happen to you as a poet. Far be it for anyone to feel responsible for all of poetry.
But I agree with you that the internet has changed things. First of all, think of the difference in speed that it has caused. Before the internet communications that took days would take weeks or even years. I remember the days of mailing things back and forth and waiting and waiting. The other side, however, is maybe too much communication and too many intrusions.
JN: That’s true. I took myself off of Facebook after only a few days on, as it seemed to increase my email load to frightening proportions. I don’t think I have learned to use it well yet.
Needless to say I would prefer more face-to-face encounters with other poets. I’m not even near Japan’s poetry capital of Tokyo; that’s 300 km from where I live. In an attempt to create more of these face-to-face opportunities, in Japan I have found myself organizing poetry events, and also inserting poetry where it doesn’t normally belong (for example, giving a workshop on poetry by women for women’s groups, or on teaching poetry for teacher groups, or on the political aspect of poetry for activist groups, etc. as well as creating poetry courses at my university that did not previously exist (introductions to American and American and British poetry, courses in Japanese post war poetry, courses that include works in translation from various countries, courses that utilize poetry in the service of other subject areas such as gender studies or multiculturalism etc.) –- I even read a poem by Tamura Ryuchi at last year’s graduation party, which to my boundless joy set off a round of colleagues speaking after me reciting poems impromptu from memory in French English and Japanese (I think maybe German too) at the event! Though I acknowledge my own selfishness in these efforts, part of me thinks I am also taking a stance in a way on poetry’s importance (from my own point of view) by doing such things.
Fortunately, this forcing of my interests on others has been mostly very well-received. My students frequently claim to enjoy reading and writing poems in class and sharing them with each other in the communal fashion that we do. Many have said that writing poems in class is a “useful” activity. Although I find poetry personally useful, useful is not the word I would have expected to pop up so often! –- these are students who are usually not even literature majors per se; some are “Western studies” majors which includes courses in literature in the curriculum but . . . While the Japanese public is not clamoring for poetry en masse, I wouldn’t say that poetry is not respected, which is good for someone like me. In any event, teaching writing is of great interest to me, and I’d like to hear what you might have to say as a teacher of writing in the U.S., if you don’t mind . . .
MC: When Paul and I lived in Chicago until 1994, it felt in a way like your experience has felt in Japan. Either we brought people to town or no one else did. Either we did a magazine, or we weren’t on the map. In California, where the weather is more temperate and poets are many and the tradition is deep, there is less for us to have to do, and I think it’s a good thing. When one is younger, one has boundless energy to make a world and keep it functioning as one needs. When one is older, it’s good to let others exert their force to shape the environment.
I’ve been a teacher since I was 21 and was in graduate school. Teaching creative writing has been a rich experience for me, but I still think so much is up to the individual. I tell students to read and read and work hard on their own. I also inject a good deal of history into the discussion because even with fine and talented graduate students I often find a lack of cultural awareness. You say Barthelme or Bruno Schulz or Cesar Vallejo or Lorine Niedecker, and they stare. So I try to fill students in on significant movements and people. One of my favorite classes to teach has been one I invented in my department called the Poetics of Narrative, where we look into narrative theory and then read “strange” novels. Once the students see what exists beyond Oprah’s book club, they’re generally enthusiastic and become more daring in their own writing. Likewise in poetry. Finally, teachers can only offer guidance and point out good examples and often make a group of younger writers work smoothly together and cohere. Still, so much is within oneself. A professor is only a guide.
JN: I agree. The model I’ve mostly followed for my own teaching (of whatever subject) has been the model of the creative writing teachers during my undergraduate years, where students often led the courses to a large degree and enjoy a great deal of personal freedom, where there is a kind of egalitarian community created, and where my own participation is not the focus of the course. In course evaluations for one of my courses, some students said they wanted to hear more about which poems I liked and why I liked them (because my tendency has been to be somewhat quiet in class — if anything but outside of class;-). So I started talking in class a little bit more, but having to find a way to do it where students wouldn’t merely agree with what I said or feel afraid to offer their own impressions and so on, although mostly amounting to an observation of strategies used by poets.
Of course when teaching a course like American poetry in Japan, it has to be done with some amount of concurrent learning of American history and culture. Can you imagine a poem written today like “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman? Unless written as a speech for a Republican party meeting?;-) He’s the poet I often kick off with in one of my courses, where we end up talking about my students’ images of the U.S. as well as Japan (needless to say, thanks to the Bush administration the overall image of the U.S. has gravitated more to the hate end of the long-standing love-hate relationship – I’m hoping that Obama can help turn things around).
Related to this teaching of poetry thread: when searching for textbooks to use with my students published here in Japan (these include notes in Japanese to help the student with linguistic, literary and cultural aspects of poems, and having students read that stuff at home means that I don’t have to use up so much of our brief weekly 90 minutes together “lecturing,” thus allowing more discussion time) an obstacle I face is that most of these books are pretty much the usual dead white guys’ work. Relatively or even painfully few women, few or no persons of color included in the majority of these books, etc. I’m wondering if you feel the issue of representation (in terms of gender, minority status etc.) is much of an issue for you personally at the present time as both a teacher of literature/writing and a writer.
My perception (from afar, in Japan) is that a lot of progress on these fronts has been made in recent decades in the U.S., but are there still problems that you feel you have to work to overcome in this area? I noticed just last year (in the fall of 2008) a major American poetry conference soliciting calls for proposals specifically suggesting the “anthology” issue (e.g., anthologies of exclusively women’s poetry – is this kind of anthology a good thing or not) could be an appropriate proposal theme. . .
MC: There is indeed a lot of attention here regarding inclusion, and recent anthologies are often generous is representing writers of color and women. Whether those they include are also interesting or not has been as issue for me, so I end up doing a lot of cutting and pasting to make the “anthology” I want. This summer for a course I taught at The Naropa Institute — poetry, fiction, and non-fiction together — I did just that. We were looking at things lost and found — lost landscape, memories, history, language, and ways to recover them through writing. We read all kinds of people in a week — snippets from Sappho, Maria Sabina, Lorine Niedecker, Denise Levertov, Michael Ondaatje, Jamaica Kincaid, Eudora Welty, W.G. Sebald, Ryszard Kapuściński, Rebecca Solnit, and Gretchen Henderson, who writes about genocide.
For poetry, I still like Paul’s Postmodern American Poetry, especially for undergrads who have often read so little.
JN: A book I much admire for its selections and notes -- I’ve used the book with graduate students majoring in American literature in Tokyo or in the rare cases where I work with native speakers here. I even bought the teaching guidebook that accompanies it.
Earlier in this interview you touched on poetry being a small quiet activity compared to others. Does it bother you at all that the audience for poetry is small? Who do you view as your audience and what audience if any do you have in mind while you are writing poems? And do you object to poetry being called a “hobby”? Do you object to the word “experimental”? Do many of your students reject “experimental” works?
MC: Whenever Paul and I go to our local theater, which, thank God, is an art house, the movie we choose is always in the smallest room. I’ve seen so many wonderful films over the years in these tiny auditoriums, but I know they’re still wonderful. It’s rare when a film we like gains a bigger audience, but it happens now and then. You have to remember that when the masterpiece “Night of the Hunter” first showed, nobody saw it. It ruined Charles Laughton’s career as a director. Williams and Stevens were once obscure — Niedecker, Rakosi--who heard of them? Who knows what will finally be deemed valuable and by whom? When I used to teach ESL, the Russian students would tell me about the great American writers such as Jack London and several others I’d never even heard of. When you visit Berlin, the American bookshelves are crammed with Richard Brautigan translations. Who’s to judge what will speak to whom and where? And of course the more interesting, complex, or challenging poems get the smaller audience share. This is fine with me.
As for the word “experimental” suggesting provisional, an attempt to find out something, isn’t all poetry and all art for that matter really an experiment? Of course it’s objectionable to have someone think of one’s writing as a hobby. A hobby is something you do Sunday afternoons if the nap fails. That’s not what a life in writing is.
JN: I mentioned that textbooks (of English language literature) here tend to under-represent work by women and minorities; avant-garde works are also conspicuously absent. But when I bring in work in handout form to make up for these gaps, many students are, thankfully, very receptive to these. Sometimes a short introduction before the actual reading of the work helps ease them into it (I find the same to be true when I read my own work in Japan; although I’d rather not “explain” my work, sometimes a few words before launching into a poem makes it more easily accepted).
Maybe this would be a good time to ask what your current or next poetry project is?
MC: It’s true that framing a work can make an audience more receptive. That’s what a good professor does. That’s also what I try to do if I give a reading to a group of people who haven’t been raised on the same poetry as I have. I try to provide the “setting” that will accommodate what’s to follow.
My new work is a series of small poems that work on the idea of “without. . . ” and then name some abstraction. So the poem is a meditation on “without innocence” or “without love,” etc. I don’t fully understand it yet. Part of the pleasure of writing is figuring it out.
JN: Earlier you said: “it was such a pleasure to come home after being out in the world and get back to our Hölderlin.” I have a similar feeling about doing this interview with you.
Thank you Maxine for generously sharing your insights and observations with me.