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Maintenant #90 – Andrei Codrescu

An interview with Andrei Codrescu by SJ Fowler.

It is hard to think of fitting superlatives that have not already been bestowed upon Andrei Codrescu over the course of his writing career, which spans five decades and two continents in a manner that almost no one else’s has. Since his emigration from Romania in the late 1960s, his work has lodged itself in the poetic consciousness of both America and Europe for its sheer edges – its energy, its voice, its deft wit, and like all great dadaists, at heart, he is the hardest of realists, a man who cannot lie to himself above all others, in his poetry or in his ebullient criticism, journalism and collected writing. A man whose oeuvre reaches back into the depths of Europe from the core of America, who has been peer to some of greatest writers of our century, where he now, as we roll into the 21st century, must take his own place. For the 90th edition of Maintenant, Andrei Codrescu.

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Photograph by Marion Ettlinger

3:AM: For my own personal ends, the legacy of your work and your thought on Western consumerist culture has been your ability to make clear the axiomatic negative totality at the heart of poetry (perhaps not just poetry – art, commentary, etc…). You’ve made it clear that you believe that a desire for totality – be it in meaning, in happiness, in governance (!) is impossible and so a poet must embrace the poem as always unfinished, and not attempt to use poetry as a medium for for orderliness. Do you think this a fair reading of a notion that has bound your work across your writing career?

Andrei Codrescu: Yes, but the negativity is a plenitude, an excess of sentiment. Dada and her dadaists said a big “no” to Western culture, and made of this paradox a generative art, a fountain of cultural action that calls itself anything but “art.” To put it another way, if you can’t experience the Nothing at the heart of what this Nothing generously spews, you cannot be a conduit for it. (And the Something that came out of it will congeal into a bad sample of statuary violence). The discipline of the overflowing cup is to practice the attention needed to enjoy fully the moment the cup runneth over, and then to dig it. That moment is usually a happy accident, or, as Ted Berrigan put it, “Great art is a great mistake,” So here you have another paradox: you can’t call it “art” because it’s too great for a puny label like that. For better prose on these paradoxes, see “The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess” ({Princeton, 2009), a book I wrote to look closer at the mechanics of the big NO, or YESYES, as Dada (ironically) calls itself in Russian and Romanian. (“Yes, yes,” as in, “sure, OK, yeah”) Poetry, to use another word I’d rather not use, but have used so much I can’t give it up now, is definitely an organ of disruption of all discourses that claim “cogency,” “coherency, “authority,” etc. It has ruined my life. (But I feel pretty great).

3:AM: Perhaps exemplified best in Road Scholar, the power of your critical commentary on the facile nature of much of contemporary Western culture and its place a kissing cousin to the repression of the Soviet style regime, seems to be drawn from a contradictory confluence of assured analysis, commentary and conviction and an equally powerful sense of bewilderment and loss. Do you think this is true?

AC: Yes, but only up to a point. Grownups in the Soviet fiefdoms were poor, afraid, undernourished, and treated like children or serfs who had to say yes, sir, to a bunch of power-drunk morons who watched them as well as they could. Our own (capitalist) indignities are inequality, overeating, financial and social anxiety, and fear of Dada who is watching us every minute. The common horror is Surveillance. The commies did the best they could with social organizations, schools, prisons, and camps, paranoia, censorship, and very bad technology. Compared to that, living in a glass house and running the occasional danger of being busted for drug-use or obscenity is a smaller horror. Now that they’ve added “terrorism,” though, a vaguely scary word like “art,” I fear that we’re in for a long psychological meltdown. Curable only by transfats and drug addiction. The loss is innocence, child wonder, Blake’s garden, nature loved in goofiness, spontaneity and surprise. Assured analysis, certitudes and certainties are obscene grownup protuberances.

3:AM: Your prolificism seems to be a fundamental part of your essence as a writer – the notion of relentless activity, of an endless engagement of writing, commentating, producing. It is exceptionally admirable. How do you conceive of your own energy of output?

AC: Not as an “ism.” In Romanian, my third native language, “ism” is in the middle of the word “cisma,” which means “boot,” or more exactly “army boot.” I associate boots and “isms” with the stink of my mother’s short-lived bofriend, an army captain whose stinking boots I could smell when I came home from school in 3d grade. And so with communism, capitalism, existentialism, prolificism… As for the production, I just make it like bees make honey: I think I’m fairly lazy, actually. If you spend a half-century writing and reading, it piles up. I just wrote a long essay, called “My Archives (with life in footnotes),” which is a sigh of gratitude and relief in praise of the internet for saving my weary back from dragging the hump of my heavy paper bullshit through the world.

3:AM: And having written nigh on forty books in forty years, what is your relationship to the finished book? Is it dead upon delivery, as they say, or do you have a sense of its continued life in that it may never be completely finished in your eyes?

AC: When I finish it I feel like I’ve emptied myself of all kinds of tics and horrors & amused myself in the process. A book’s like a one-year stand, it feels good in the morning, especially when the standee’s gone home. It’s finished and done for for me, but, unfortunately (happily) there come the readers, the glowing reviews, the fat money prizes, the naked fashion models, and the bed-chamber orchestras. Unless it’s the outraged ex-girlfriends, guys with guns, scribblers with overpicked bones, academics grinding axes, and crackheads with crabs.

3:AM: Do you think poetry has developed a notion that an excess of writing is somehow a lack? That there is a traditional, formal and constricting suspicion of writers who are effusive, as opposed to writers who are delicately withdrawn and lonesome in tone and manner? (It certainly seems that way in Britain)

AC: Yes, there is, but it’s easy to refute this notion with a look at our kin the musicians. Nobody blames them for jamming, putting out singles, lots of records, being on TV and radio, playing at birthday parties, etc. Being prolific and having a good time is how real artists do. The curmudgeons reflect their own insuficiencies: you produce too much for them, there is only so much they can absorb. The suspicious are stingy and small, they would like us to believe that their defects are virtues, and that their narrowed eyes make them aristocrats. There is also a suspicion by some so-called critics (who are only reviewers or tormented assistent professors) that if a writer is not voluptously suffering, the writing is not for them. The dying book-reviewer class of the fin-de-20th century, does not approve of writing that does not commit prolonged bouts of self-flagellation. To paraphrase Henry Miller, you can always find someone to share your misery, but it’s nearly impossible to communicate joy. You certainly touched a nerve here, because in the U.S., no less than Britain, the tiny pie of fine lit is sliced extremely thin by a few remaining influential critics and academics. We are waving goodbye to them as they shrink and melt under the waves of the energetic new century . Bye, bye, T.S. Eliot-skin-flakes, happy trails in hell Helen Vendler! You were heavy, we won’t miss you.

3:AM: You have advocated a collaborative energy throughout your writing career too, which is a greatly underappreciated notion in poetry, in my opinion. Did you always actively collaborate with peers or did it begin when you relocated to America in New York and San Francisco?

AC: Yes — the late 1960s were marvelous collaborative years! Ah, to be 21 in love with love, collaborating with lovely young geniuses like yourself, was a great big welcome to America for me. I kept at it, it’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s how you know that someone else knows (and tells you), and then you know what they know and make up new things so they can tell you that they know that but they know something else, too… There is a collaborative universe — unarchived and mostly unknown– of work from the Sixties of the late 20th well into ours. Collaborating is theatre, an activity as social and promiscuous as it gets. In New Orleans at the Gold Mine Saloon at Dauphine and Toulouse streets in the French Quarter we even wrote up our bodies and read each other into the morning. Bodies are fundamentally collaborative. Those stingy critics you mentioned would rather your body suffered confinement and painfully drained itself in slow drops on the page. Who are they kidding? This is a live world, it’s live because it collaborates. Ok, I’m getting worked up, but is there any wonderful thing on earth that isn’t made by fertilisation and embrace?

3:AM: And what affect did those years have upon the rest of your life? Your friendships with Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan – you have gone on to define your generation and those subsequent. Was it a period that left its mark on your writing specifically?

AC: I had the good luck to come on the scene in New York in the middle of a youth revolution. I was nineteen, America was nineteen… There was electricity, trains left for heaven every ten minutes. Allen was a big, generous, loving uncle full of wise advice for the foolish young. Others, like my father-brother figure, Ted Berrigan, were teaching the pop delight of the common objects to idiots like myself who carried the virus of metaphysics from Europe or Yale University. My contemporaries had halos of light and were pierced by Cupid every time they turned the corner at 2nd Avenue and St. Marks’ Place. Poetry was worshipped for its close connection to the gods, who were extremely numerous in those days, and also for its fearlessness. Death was a familiar, the generator of fashion. Photographers from Vogue crawled all over the Lower East Side in those days, looking for death’s latest rags. I had a permanent hard-on. I typed because I didn’t know what to do with my fingers when I didn’t have them around somebody’s waist. (In any case, the typing was generally in the cause of persuading somebody to let me put my arms around her with fingers splayed).That was plenty to keep me going in leaner times, like the Eighties. In the Nineties in New Orleans, love came back and ordered us to make poetry again.

3:AM: You have been a greatly energetic force in supporting and engaging with contemporary Romanian poetry. When one really considers it, the ebullience and intensity of the Romanian poets and poetic writers in the 20th century is almost unbelievable – the likes of Tzara, Celan, Blaga, Eminescu, Janco, Cioran, Cassian, Barbu, Pagis… How much do you see the influence of Romanian poetry emerge in your own concerns and work as the years pass?

AC: I left young, but I absorbed an immense amount of Romanian poetry, both approved and unapproved. I even read reviews of poetry books so I could read the quotes from the poets. In a place as boring, repressed, and culturally vacant as the provincial city I grew up in, poetry was like the Big White Way, it blinked like neon on Broadway. The Romanian poets you mention were geniuses because they couldn’t be anything else. There wasn’t enough of anything else to be, if you had thoughts and maybe loved music. Romanians turned a miserable history of national defeat into songs, a brilliant strategy for survival. Romania’s great poets are great only in the midst of catastrophe. The minute things get better, triumphalists, fascists, racketeers and other varieties of scumbags, turn artists into court jesters. Those guys I can’t read. It’s a bit like that now.

3:AM: And how do you see yourself in this tradition? Does it amuse you to think you might be considered a vital contributor to the Romanian canon perhaps precisely because your left the country so young and have shed so much light upon it from afar?

AC: I gave my condition of “exile” a tragic spin, certainly, in order to connect to whatever it was that made Romanians into poets. But I was a lucky exile. I landed in New York in 1966 in the middle of a revolution that made of “exile” and “alienation” the American esprits-du-jour. When I returned to Romania to “cover” the revolt-cum-coup in 1989 for radio and TV, I was welcomed. I was a link to the West, the world everyone dreamt of in Ceausescu’s dingy barbed-wired camp. I was translated instantly and celebrated. I’m not a very good educational tool, though, so when the first crush was over, people noticed my critical take on the West and my general air of insubordination. At present, I am in the canon because there was nowhere else to put me. Everybody is rushing around to catch the tail of the fading comet of Western lit. It’s too late for writers, I think, but Romanians make great computer engineers. They’ll catch up.

3:AM: You are the catalyst for the event taking place in a few weeks time in London, which is really a remarkable conflagration, perhaps happening only once for my generation to witness, with you and Gunnar Harding and Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth. What are your perceptions of the event and its significance?

AC: Anselm Hollo is one of my very best friends. He is also one of the greatest, if not THE great contemporary American poet, and certainly the most underappreciated. In addition to his European sophistication and command of languages he translates from (Finnnish, Swedish, German, Russian) he has introduced American readers to a way of writing poetry in English that contains humor, irony, paradox, and other fine and nuanced ingredients. The reason for the inattention the constricted opinion-makers you mentioned before have lavished on Hollo’s poetry, is that humor is viewed by those people as especially suspect. In any case, Anselm Hollo has a cult, the Hollo Cult, a group of mostly poets who have launched a number of artistic movements, Actualism chief among them. As for the great Tom Raworth what can I say? He turned England on to Charles Olson, the New York Poets, the Language poets, and has delighted and pissed off the natives for decades. Gunnar Harding, who is translated into English by Anselm Hollo, should have gotten the Nobel prize instead of Thomas Transtromer. I don’t want to start a quarrel here where there isn’t any, but if you gonna give that prize to a Swede, would you rather give it to someone who was translated by Robert Bly or by Anselm Hollo? Psshhaw! I haven’t seen Raworth in three decades, I never met Harding, but I feel like they are family. The evening should be a trip.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 8th, 2012.