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The O:JA&L Masters Series: Prose Poetry
An Essay on Craft

Featured Writer: Maxine Chernoff

Love Affair with Prose Poetry

To explore or download selected offerings from Maxine Chernoff,
click on the title DIARY (Including the essay “Love Affair with Prose Poetry”)
to access the latest chapbook in the O:JA&L Masters Series.

Diana and Her Nymphs by Robert Burns

I’VE HAD A SOMETIMES-ROCKY LOVE AFFAIR with the prose poem since 1974. Forty-five years working in that form is a long relationship marked by many influences, trajectories, and insights.

When I first began, I was a Russell Edson devotee and wrote little fables and story poems about such things as wanting to have a toothache, a broom and a shoe’s love/hate affair, Van Gogh’s ear.

After several books in this vein, I moved into longer prose, eventually stories and novels (once I got over a phobia with naming my characters.)

Ten years passed before the prose poem and I reunited in my book, New Faces of 1952 (Ithaca House). The prose poems in that book are more associational, loose, and expansive. There is less story and more balls in the air.  By then I’d read and loved Cortazar, Calvino, and Lispector. The prose poems in that collection are mixed with verse poems, all characterized by fancy and chance operations.

Then again, for a long period, I abandoned the form until 2012 when I wanted to follow a book of many skinny poems with a book of very long-lined poems with long sentences. That decision brought me back to the prose poem, many of which were dream-like, sonically resonant, and among my best work, I believe. They are collected in Here (Counterpath, 2014).

Just recently, wanting to write often if not daily, I conceived of a project called “Diary,” which thus far is 30 prose poems about current subjects from war in Ukraine to tv show madness (based on my son’s experience writing on a show.)

For me the prose poem, with its highly flexible approaches and sources, has been my home that I have left but always returned to. In the early 70s when I began writing them, prose poems and writers of them were rare: now they are a commonplace in world poetry and have evolved new approaches such as the prose poem/essay used by Claudia Rankine in Citizen.

When I first began the prose poem was an outsider form—I remember applying for a poetry teaching job and being deemed ineligible because I wrote in that form, which the interviewer scorned despite its long history in Europe and some Middle Eastern countries.

Thankfully, it is a well-accepted alternative now for poets seeking fluidity, expansiveness, associational methods or fabulism or for those wanting to work in the Language-influenced New Sentence, I’m so glad that at 22 I found an opening for my notions of how to write a poem. I have followed that thread my entire life.

 

ABOUT THE WRITER:
MAXINE CHERNOFF is the author of nineteen books of poems and six works of fiction. Her most recent book is Light and Clay: New and Selected Poems (2023), and her book of stories, Signs of Devotion, was a 1993 NYT Notable Book of the Year. A special issue of the Denver Quarterly (57:4) was recently devoted to her work, and a book about her work is forthcoming from MadHat Press in 2025. She is the recipient of a 2013 NEA in poetry and the 2009 PEN Translation Award for the work of Hölderlin, co-translated with Paul Hoover. In 2024, she was the keynote poet at the Louisville Conference, and in 2016 she was a visiting Writer at the American Academy in Rome. She also was a lecturer in poetry at Exeter University in England in 2013. She has read from her work in Brazil, Scotland, England, China, The Czech Republic, and Russia. Professor of Creative Writing at SFSU, she edited OINK! and NAW until 2013; the magazine continues under editor Paul Hoover and is published by MadHat Press.

Image: Diana and Her Nymphs by Robert Burns (1869-1941). Oil or tempura on canvas. 1981 x 1981 cm. 1926. Public domain.

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