An Interview with poet/ novelist/ essayist Andrei Codrescu: Commecial culture has stolen our best impulses

"Music, poetry and activism are three of the faces of Eros: synchronicity, derangement of the senses, and random physicality, or, if you prefer, Calliope, Euterpe, and Dionysus"

Andrei Codrescu: Transylvania Blues

Andrei Codrescu is a Romanian-born American poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and commentator for National Public Radio. Born in Transylvania, but he left the country and emigrated to the United States in 1966 at the age of nineteen. Andrei settled in Detroit where he became a regular at John Sinclair’s Artists and Writers’ Workshop.

A year later he moved to New York where he became part of the literary scene on the Lower East Side.  In 1983 he founded Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Books & Ideas. From 1984 until his retirement in 2009 he taught Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University (LSU) where he was MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English. He has been a regular commentator on NPR's All Things Considered since 1983. Codrescu has received a Peabody Award for writing and starring in the film Road Scholar. (1991). In 1989 he returned to his native Romania to cover the fall of the Ceausescu regime for National Public Radio (NPR) and ABC News, and wrote The Hole in the Flag: an Exile's Story of Return and Revolution. He has reported from Cuba and Martinique, and is the winner of several Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism. He is the author of over forty books of poetry, novels, and essays. His most recent books are: whatever gets you through the night: a story of sheherezade and the arabian entertainments (2011), The Poetry Lesson (2010) and The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess, (2009)  all published by Princeton University Press. He lives in New Orleans.


Interview by Michael Limnios

Photo Credits: Brian Baiamonte, David Gallent, Steve Saldivar, Marion Ettlinger, Eduard Koller

 

Andrei, when was your first desire to become involved in John Sinclair’s Artists and Writers’ Workshop?
I was a lonely Romanian immigrant shivering in the sleet and cold in Detroit, March 1966 when my mother and I came to the U.S. We had been in Naples and Rome for six months waiting for our American visas, and I'd left behind warm, flowering Rome and my new bohemian friends from the Piazza di Spagnia. I wandered in Henry Ford's nightmare of concrete looking for signs of life, for a "center" that didn't exist: there was only a "downtown" deserted when office workers went home at 5 pm. I leaned on an iron railing on a bridge over the John Lodge Expressway looking at cars, ready to jump, when I saw a sign on the other side of the bridge, something about writers and musicians. I crossed over to the dilapidated two-story building and went into a dark dungeon where a jazz and blues band played to a few lost souls. This was where all the rebel-artistic life of Detroit had taken refuge: draft dodgers, anarchists, poets, musicians. White and black people mixed here in the evenings, something still rare in most of the US in the mid-Sixties. I met young women my age who had run away from boring fates in the segregated suburbs of the middle-class. The boys had long hair and paint-smudged coats. Above the Workshop were the offices of "The Fifth Estate," an anarchist newspaper that published my first writing, in approximate English, a poetic review of a nonexistent Italian film. And then the beatnik vibe changed suddenly as hordes of youth descended on the place. In a very short time the sign over The Writers and Artists' Workshop changed from beatnik dingy to bright psychedelic colors that proclaimed, "Come on people, love one another right now!" By the Fall of 1966 the Workshop exploded with the energy of young people discovering the living cosmos on LSD. The revelation of inner freedom was accompanied by social awakening about civil rights and revulsion at the war in Vietnam.

I'd arrived in a wintery cemetery that morphed almost overnight into an adventurous, vivid, and sexy world. In another few months, the slight tensions between the hippies and the "politicals" broke out into a fractured America that hovered between communal theatre and violent revolution. In 1967 Detroit burned down in the aftermath of a race riot. The Army and National Guard marched in to brutally repress the nascent movement. John Sinclair, the Workshop's founder,  was arrested on a phony pot charge, the White Panther Party (modeled after the Black Panther Party) was born, art and poetry flourished; there were mass demonstrations and apocalyptic parties driven by protopunk bands like the MC5. Police informers and psychotic visionaries clashed in our restricted city space, but love still trumped violence. By 1968, however, there was a mass exodus from Detroit to New York and San Francisco where repression wasn't quite as brutal. I only met John Sinclair briefly in 1966-67, before he went to jail, but we later reconnected in New Orleans where his love of jazz took him. He now lives in Amsterdam.

 

Andrei Codrescu with Baltimore poets photographed at Poe’s grave for Baltimore Sun magazine, November 1981

What does “the literary scene on the Lower East Side” mean to you & what does offer you?
I went from Detroit to New York's Lower East Side, where "all the poets were," to meet them. I met Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Lewish Warsh, and many others. The corner of St. Marks' Place and Second Avenue was my informal school: Ted Berrigan hung out there with a Chesterfield cigarette perpetually between his lips, ashes threatening to fall into his beard, talking poetry for hours. At night, even as late as 3 am, the poetry talk went on at his apartment at 101 St. Marks' Place. The Wednesday night poetry readings at St. Marks' were amazing performances by new and more "famous" poets, it was a great place to feel that you were on the cutting-edge of the avantgarde. The mimeograph publications multiplied -- you could see your work in print one day after you wrote it. Street literature was produced even faster and handed out free to passersby on street corners with ink still wet. Mid-Sixties Lower East Side was the Detroit Workshop magnified a thousand times. I got a part-time job at the Eighth Street Bookstore, a writers' haven frequented by every hipster downtown. My girlfriend Alice modeled to pay for her classes at the New York Studio School on 8th Street vizavis the bookstore. I went to every poetry reading at St. Marks', which was still at the beginning of its decades' long poetry scene. Our apartment on Avenue C between 6th and7th streets cost $60 a month, you could buy a week's worth of groceries for $5, a nickel-bag of pot did really cost just $5, and LSD was only two or three dollars a tab, good for hundreds of hours of cosmic travel.

The diggers had opened a Free Store where you could get clothes when you needed them, and a bowl of rice and vegetables cost only fifty cents at The Paradox. There were cheap Jewish delis, Greek corner diners, and street cafes where you could read and stay all day for the price of a cup of coffee. Street life was hugely interesting: the hippies loved to dress up in shocking rags and perform tribal rites on the streets. By mid-1968, Vogue photographers started coming from Uptown to photograph Village life. I hung out some at Andy Warhol's Factory near Union Square, but my world was mostly between Avenue C and Second Avenue between 10th Street and Bowery. I had to work between Fifth and Sixth avenues on 8th Street, but I felt alien and lost as soon as I crossed over Cooper Square from the Lower East Side to the West side of Greenwich Village. My small world was a universe, and I was sorry to leave it in 1970, but street crime, robberies, murders, and a generally hostile atmosphere changed this paradise into hell, too. I followed my generational cohorts to California where sweetness was still said to exist.

 

Are there any memories from Allen Ginsberg, Nanos Valaoritis, Ted Berrigan, and Anne Waldman, which you’d like to share with us?
Sure, but I would like a book contract, a $250,000 advance on royalties, and a year to write it. 

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the poetry…and life?
Are you kidding? I unlearned as much as I could, and I still am. My teachers were Tristan Tzara, the daddy of Dada, who said, "all thinking is made in the mouth," Ted Berrigan, who said "I can't wait to hear what I'm going to say next," and Andre Breton who wrote "Poetry Demands Unemployment!" I'm still unlearning, a much tougher job than learning. Picking up languages is easier than forgetting them. Reading and writing books is easier than cutting them up to see how the words play.

 

Is the HOPE – for a miracle-…or is it achieved only through activity? In which things can hope be based on?
I'm not sure what that is. I know Daydreaming -- I did a lot of that when I was a child, before going to school. In school, "hope" became a rhetorical trope, part of the mindless vocabulary of ideology and politics. As for miracles, they are everywhere every second. Living is miraculous. I don't know about being born, I had no choice about that -- maybe I was something that "hoped" to be born before I actually was, but I doubt it. It's more like I was shoved into being born by a force that certainly didn't use words like "hope." I do hope to be able to "author" my own death, but that's less of a hope than a matter of timing. To be fair, I did have certain utopian expectations: I thought that "the West," as opposed to Romania's miserable "socialist camp," was a panacea of abundance and happiness, streets paved with gold, and all that; in my youth I believed that California was "the garden of Eden," as Woody Guthrie ironically satirized it, but all that utopic ignorance was properly corrected by the actual world, a place where "Hope" is a fine name for a woman, but not a desideratum (unless Hope, the woman, is so desirable one hopes to sleep with her.)

 

How important is a political opinion to artists: poet, writer, musician…?
Opinion is worthless, but art is intrinsically political, an activity performed in the polis, for the entertainment or agitation of it.

 

Andrei in Rome 1965 with group of Romanian emigrants

Since 60s – what has changed towards the best – for our civilization and culture…and what has gone wrong?
Everything has changed for the worse and everything has gone wrong because: 1. I am no longer young, 2. the spirit of rebellion is dead, 3. commecial culture has stolen our best impulses, 4. capitalism has perfected its gilded cage of duty and surveillance from which there is no escape, 5. the aliens haven't come, 5. the aliens are firmly in charge, 6. language is a toxic dump of words damaged by advertising, hype, hubris, and lies, 7. the monoculture of the US and Europe has eliminated most bio-poetic diversity, and 8. freedom is theoretically teachable but practically unavailable.

 

What would be your first decisions as minister of education …and culture?
Abolish the ministry and the job, of course.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
They were all interesting to me when I was living them, now they have only literary interest. I like my life now: I live in the woods: I have a wordshop, a woodshop, an artshop, and a wifeshop. 

How do you describe Andrei Codrescu’s philosophy of life, what characterize the way of thinking and feeling?
I wrote books like "The Disappearance of the Outside," "The Poetry Lesson," "Sheherezade's Bodies," and many others where I buried my philosophy in order to get rid of it. Writing is a cleansing operation: I put in everything I think about so I don't have to think about it anymore. Let others deal with it. I feel newborn and empty after every book, like a self-cleaning insect that gave itself a thorough go-through. Then, inevitably, life and ideas start piling up, and there it is again: dirt to be disposed of in verse and story.

 

Poetry and music…can these two arts confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?
You mean Itunes, Utube, and Poetry.org? Sure, poetry and music still flow (sluggishly) through muddy channels into the world, but the media through which they used to reach the world have been mostly capped and metered. Poetry and music had the potential of their mystery and uselessness until they were incorporated by schools and the (economically insignificant) rackets of art bureaucracies and the professoriate. Maybe if we renamed "poetry" something like "logojihad" and music "ear suicide" some dignity might be restored to them by the Department of Homeland Security.

 

What experiences in life make you a good poet and writer?
I don't know about "good," or "poet," or "writer, but it must be the same thing that makes a complete person: a boring and unhappy childhood in a provincial town where it rains all the time; an adolescence of intense sexual and romantic yearnings; a youth of requited and numerous romantic and sexual activities; a professionally and financially successful middle-age; an old age in nature; a death of your own devising.

 

Why did you think that New Orleans culture continued to generate such a devoted following?
It manages to escape institutionalization: there is always something anarchic, unexplainable, indefinable that rises like an orgiastic air from the swamps, from centuries of slavery, brutality, horrible climate, epidemics, brutality, kinky sexuality, creolisation, port city life, bohemian habits, the African and French love of gaudy decorations and loud spectacles. It's a welcoming place for misfits, America's only "party city," and we almost lost it (several times) through the negligence of bureaucrats and the ill-intentions of urban designers.

 

Do you know why the blues and jazz is connected to the life of New Orleans & what characterize the philosophy of New Orleans?
Blues comes straight out of slavery and its innumerable and vast stories of sorrow. Jazz was party music that reached now and then levels of abstractions that pleased intellectuals. The reason why these forms stay alive and haven't just become dead "covers," is because musicians love to jam in New Orleans -- the air is funky and historical, and the tradition is comforting. Musicians love to get high together and make music. New Orleans is hospitable to that. There is life on the streets.

 

What was the relation between music, poetry and activism?
They are three of the faces of Eros: synchronicity, derangement of the senses, and random physicality, or, if you prefer, Calliope, Euterpe, and Dionysus.

 

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?
Heraclitus, Socrates, Ovid, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pico de la Mirandola, Thomas Paine,  Benjamin Franklin, Tristan Tzara, Jacques Derrida. I already met Jesus and Gherasim Luca.

 

How you would spend a day with Casanova? What would you say to Professor Longhair? What would you like to ask Eminescu? Who wins at chess game when Tzara were playing with Lenin?
I would spend the evening and the night with my good friend Giacomo; we would have a discreet and lavish dinner in Venice in the company of two of that city's courtesans, we would then go to the Opera, and then we'd have a raucous walking adventure through the streets, and end with a night-long orgy with Mozart at the piano. Professor Longhair would play, I'd listen. I'd like to ask Eminescu to stop writing those stupid antisemitic newspaper articles, and to concentrate on his poetry; I'd also recommend a good syphilis doctor. Tristan Tzara won the chess game with Lenin, because art won over ideology; the future belongs to freedom, art, love, and the earth, not to logic, mass murder, and tyranny.

 

When did you last laughing (and cry) and why?
I bought a can of spray paint and a chocolate bar at the store in the small town nearby. The cashier said, "Interesting combination!" A woman behind me in line said, "Let the party start!" I laughed, we all laughed. That was, in a nutshell, the wisdom and tradition of this place: getting high anyway you can and then giving yourself voluptuously to chocolate. Anton Checkov laughed, too.

                                                                                                  Photo by Steve Saldivar

How did the idea of the online journal Exquisite Corpse come about?
Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Books & Ideas was a monthly, then quarterly print magazine from 1983 until 1996. In 1996 we renamed it Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Life and Letters, and were among the first literary internet publications, and are still going (http://www.corpse.org). The print journal was inspired by my boredom with US literary discourse in the early 80s of the last century, and the opportunity came when I met two young designers at the University of Baltimore where I was teaching; the University had a design program for graduate students who produced useless one-issue "magazines" for their theses; the three of us designed a lasting publication. The internet site was designed by the brilliant Andrea Garland, who brought punk, Goth, and radical political ideas to web art. By the way, if you go to the site, I'm giving you an exclusive: click on the big NO and you'll see the magazine. We created a faux-death for the Corpse so we won't be read by the uninitiated and inundated with submissions. We are hiding in plain sight (and performing the only sane function for a human being: clicking on the big NO)

 

How does the blues and jazz music affect your mood on “the trip/ adventure/ experience of life?
I listed to the iPod on my iPhone on the threadmill: after five miles of running and fifteen musical pieces, I feel inspired enough to do things like answer your questions.


Andrei Codrescu's official website

                                                                                                  Photo by Eduard Koller

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