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ASSOCIATE EDITOR PAMELYN CASTO

INTERVIEW WITH MAXINE CHERNOFF

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.

 

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I’m so pleased to get to interview you. Thank you for giving us your time. I’ve read several interesting interviews with you and most of them focused on your poetry. For good reason, too, since so much of your poetry has received high-honor awards. Of the many collections you’ve written, which ones include the most stories of fewer than 1,000 words? Do you have such a collection now or do you plan put together a collection of stories all flash fiction length?

CHERNOFF: I think the answer would be the book Here, a recent (2014) collection of what I would call prose poems. But my book of stories (1985) called Bop also has some 3-4 page stories

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Many of your pieces have been published in various journals—I keep running into them and always enjoy them. Of your own flash fiction pieces, which are your favorites? Of the flash fiction others have written, what are some of the best pieces? And who are some of your most admired writers of short-short fiction?

CHERNOFF: I think I like my collection Here the best and I definitely have a favorite short short writer, Lydia Davis. In addition older short fiction writers such as Julio Cortazar and Clarice Lispector also are very appealing to me.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Oh, yes, Davis, Cortazar, and Lispector are outstanding. You write in various genres—poetry, prose poetry, short stories, novels, and more. How important is it for an aspiring writer to work in or at least explore different genres? Do you mostly write in a particular genre or form?

CHERNOFF: These days and for the last 20 years I have mainly written poetry. I think a writer might want to stretch her breadth a bit and write in other genres. But it’s not required. I’m sure I acquired my imagistic strength and my concision working in poetry and that translates to writing fiction.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: In your position as creative writing professor, what are some of the biggest mistakes inexperienced writers of short-short fiction make?

CHERNOFF: Too much summary, not enough scene, or not a new approach–a feeling “I’ve heard this story before” or too ungrounded–even fantasy needs to build a world.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I read about your book-length abecedarian project called Japan (Avenue B Press). All the pieces included are sound poems twenty-seven lines long with five-letter titles. That sounds interesting. I’ve recently been exploring the abecedarian world and enjoy the various forms such work can take. Can you tell us a bit more about your book Japan, about sound poems, and abecedarians? What is the significance of each of your sound poems being twenty-seven lines in length? Can you give us a sample of an abecedarian sound poem from that collection?

CHERNOFF: I wrote Japan shortly after I had twins and needed to use my brain in some immediate fashion if I was going to write. So it seemed that non-narratives that featured sonic connections might be an approach. I wrote 46 of them but only used 26 for the project. The book is so old, I don’t have files. But it is still available. Here’s a link: https://ratical.org/AvenueB/Japan.html

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: You and Paul Hoover translated the Selected Poems of Friederich Holderlin, 2008. I read that Holderlin influenced Nietzsche, Rilke, Heidegger, and Celan. I also read that Holderlin admired ancient Greek culture and considered their ancient gods as actual presences—both life-giving and frightening. I understand he was particularly fascinated with the Greek idea of the Tragic Fall.

What was it about Holderlin’s work that made you want to translate it? Are you also fascinated by those ancient Greek gods? Does the idea of the Tragic Fall still have appeal?

CHERNOFF: We were interested in Holderlin because his most famous translator M Hamburger took such liberties trying to keep his rhymes that the poems seemed less wonderful and more conventional than they were. Richard Sieburth is probably the best H translator, but his published H work is limited. We decided to go for the poetic and lyrical over the metric, but we didn’t stray far from line length. His interest from other poets links to how modern his poems and especially his fragments were and the notion that the gods had fled the universe, very interesting: that was how we were drawn to him.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Are you presently translating the work of other writers? Do you have such plans for the future?

CHERNOFF: Paul has translated others from Spanish and from a Vietnamese, but I have no such plans.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I noticed that Paul Hoover also translated the poetry of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. I’ve not yet read much of her poetry but I certainly admire her courageous life. What do you think aspiring writers gain by being involved in translations? What might we lose for not doing translation work? Is it a serious problem for a writer to know and work in just one language? 

CHERNOFF: Again, not a serious problem not to–but when you do you feel so close to another writer the painstaking process is also exhilarating. It also makes you look really closely at sentence structure and word choice, a good way to sharpen poetic skills.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: More and more journals and magazines are saying they won’t publish anything that’s made use of artificial intelligence. Does AI worry you? (I hope grammar or spell check programs don’t count.)

CHERNOFF: Of course, it does. I don’t want to read poems manufactured by computer code and chance. I want the author to exist. Also, AI steals language from many texts so it’s essentially complex plagiarism.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Where do you think poetry and fiction are headed? Due to so many distractions nowadays, particularly the distractions due to relentless information, are we heading further away from lengthy work (such as novels)? Will shorter works like good flash fiction, prose poetry, or poetry itself come to be more appreciated for their strong hit of literary value in a short amount of time?

CHERNOFF: The good novel will always have room in the world. Some stories need a fuller telling. Imagine a world without V Woolf or Melville or Toni Morrison. We can’t just carve out tiny bits because we have work or a commute or no attention span/–but there’s room for both. And all possible genres. There are big and small stories to tell and many poems to be written. As always.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I agree. As long as there are readers we will need works of all lengths. We have to have ways to share human thought and wisdom. It’s been great talking with you and I thank you for your time.

 

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.

About the interviewer:
PAMELYN CASTO, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia Of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly flashfictionflash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in The Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

Image: Portrait of Maxine Chernoff: courtesy of Maxine Chernoff.

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