In her poem "The Color Red," Maxine Chernoff mentions a family legend: that her great-grandmother "was the first Jewish woman in Bialystok, Russia, to wear lipstick. A shame on her family, she also smoked cigarettes." But that's not why she left Russia. She left because her son with yam-colored hair was caught stealing apples. So off he sailed to become a "real estate baron in Los Angeles."
This same wild mixture of courage and absurdity permeates Chernoff's work: six books of poetry and a book of short stories so far. And now Chernoff's first novel, Plain Grief, has come out. The mood of her fiction, says one critic, is "exuberant and comic."
Chernoff grew up in "Eddie Vrdolyak country," she says, "on the southeast side, in a neighborhood I never knew the name of. It was a strange mix of people--partly Jewish, some Slavic-Croatian, and Mexican steel-mill workers. There was a huge tribe of Yugoslavian Catholics who lived in four houses next to each other." This tribe provided playmates for Chernoff, whose only sibling was a sister eight years older. Chernoff's grandmother, who came from Russia and spoke only Yiddish because she was deaf, lived with the family. "She taught me to crochet and play checkers," says Chernoff. "And she let me bite her. If I lost at checkers, she'd let me bite her. So she was nice."
Writing didn't come right away to Chernoff. "First I wanted to be a rabbi, then I wanted to be a senator. I abandoned the rabbi idea early because I noticed no women were rabbis. So I stopped being interested in religion altogether when I was about 12." But the interest in politics lasted into her college years. She began as a political-science major at the University of Illinois, Chicago--then a literature class jolted her. She started writing seriously after a contemporary American poetry class, where at last she read "poets who weren't dead poets."
Early on Chernoff wrote prose poems, some of which were published in the Paris Review when she was only 23. This was an electrifying time for poetry in Chicago, Chernoff recalls, especially the weekly Monday-night reading series at the Body Politic. "Ted Berrigan was in Chicago then, and he was the reigning king of the readings. He'd comment out loud on people's writing as they read. It was a funny and lively atmosphere." The series also featured poets like Robert Creeley who were passing through town. "It made you think that being a poet was going to be exciting, meaningful, and also socially good--fun."
It was at the Body Politic that Chernoff met her husband, writer Paul Hoover. "It was a poetry reading on Halloween and you had to dress up to read," Chernoff grins. "So I was dressed as a football player, and he was dressed as a little boy. He had a beanie on, with a spinner." The two moved in together in 1972, and "spent a lot of time watching Watergate, writing poetry, and being young," she says. "Riding our bikes around Lincoln Park." After graduation Chernoff was a copywriter for six weeks at Montgomery Ward: "It was the worst job a human could have. For some reason, I was in mattresses. And every day I was supposed to bring pickles for a party for someone who was retiring."
Not long after that she got her first teaching job, at a high school for emotionally disturbed teenagers. There, she says, "I was a guinea pig for an experiment." Instead of teaching a single subject to different groups of kids, "I had the same six insane kids all day. It was the worst thing for them, because the masochists and the sadists paired off. And the sociopath was charming but set fires in the bathroom. Things like that." The second year she taught there Chernoff was pregnant with her daughter, which she says "made it easier because the kids had a great reverence."
After her daughter was born Chernoff taught at Northern Illinois University, in a position dubbed "emergency instructor." About this time The Last Auroch was published, "a real tiny, pretty little book" of her poetry done by a friend studying bookmaking. In 1977 came "a really ugly book called The Vegetable Emergency," Chernoff says. "The publisher in LA decided to do books on newsprint in huge editions, like 10,000 copies, and distribute them free all over the world. One of those."
While Chernoff was teaching at her alma mater, a third book of poems was published: Utopia TV Store. At this time, she says, "I was having trouble deciding how I wanted to write. Seemed like the prose poems I was writing were kind of a parody of the prose poems I had been writing. And it wasn't very interesting." So she began writing stories. "They were about two pages long and seemed finished to me," she laughs. She kept at it.
Chernoff began teaching at Truman College ten years ago. She is now assistant chair of its Communications Department, which she enjoys because "it's like pretending you're a grown-up." She still teaches there and at the Art Institute. With her husband she edits the award-winning literary magazine New American Writing.
In 1985 Chernoff's New Faces of 1952 won the Carl Sandburg Award for poetry. The following year she published her first collection of fiction, Bop, which also won awards. About this time, Chernoff says, "We thought we'd have one more easy child. Our daughter was nine. And then we had boy twins who started walking when they were nine months old. So God punished us."
Now, two more volumes of poetry later, Chernoff has published a novel. Plain Grief, she says, "Most personally has to do with me in terms of thinking about what children mean in your life. It's a generational novel." She was thinking about what it means "to be a woman and a mother, versus what it meant to my mother's generation."
Chernoff will read from Plain Grief at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, at 5:30 on September 19 (call 346-3278); at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, at 7:15 on September 24 (769-9299); at Kroch's & Brentano's, 2070 N. Clybourn, at 7:30 on October 3 (525-2800); and at Barbara's Bookstore, 1800 N. Clybourn, at 7:30 on October 9 (664-1113).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Kawano.