by Mark Spitzer.
When I got my job as Assistant Editor of the legendary lit journal Exquisite Corpse in 2000, Ed-in-Chief Andrei Codrescu told me in his gravelly Romanian voice, “Spitzer, we have two rules here. One, we don’t publish anyting about shit. And two, we don’t publish Lyn Lifshin.”
I was a graduate student at the time, and had been involved with the Corpse since 1995. That’s when Andrei published my story “Dinner with Slinger” in historic issue #50. And a few months later, I went to the Boulder Bookstore to buy issue #51, and right there on the cover, in capital letters, it said “SPITSHIT SUCKS!” Anselm Hollo had written a screed about how my story regarding Ed Dorn was a blasphemous lie in poor taste that revealed me to be a sexually confused “failed grad student” who should join “the Church of Rushing Newts.” This review was accompanied by complaints from other writers, but balanced out by a semi-favorable portrait of moi by David Gessner and an Editor’s Note by Andrei in defense of my “generational burst of overdue rancor.” A polemical eruption then ensued reminiscent of the epistolary scandals back in ye olde Surrealist France. Andrei dubbed this brouhaha “the Dornstorm,” and it went on for months with me in the middle and (so it seemed) every avant-garde author on the planet (and my mother) weighing in on whether I should be awarded a medal for honesty or lynched from the highest tree.
So five years later, it was ironic to find myself in a position of authority in which I was now dealing with many of the writers who’d previously been calling for my head. Literary cage matches and character assassinations, however, were only just part of what attracted the Corpse’s audience. Its experimental permutations, dialogue on international politics, cutting-edge indecency, and in-your-face eroto-intellectualism also sirened readers to its jagged voyeuristic shores. Since 1983, the journal had been an eccentric and eclectic forum, showcasing the most obtuse and innovative commentary in the land. Among literary journals, it occupied a sort of irreverent yet respected space somewhere between Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts and… well, Ed Dorn’s Rolling Stock.
But the Corpse was also big on showcasing translations and pomo artwork. Its writers ranged from celebrated icons like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Tom Robbins to unknown poets out of Iceland.
But in 1997, the Corpse started going through a transformation. That’s the year I met Andrei and Laura Codrescu (formerly Executive Editor Laura Rosenthal, a major force behind the Corpse’s momentum during the 1990s). I was in grad school at the Cajun university across the swamp from Baton Rouge, where I found out I could enroll for credit at LSU, so got into Andrei’s poetry workshop——which meant going to the bar.
That’s where Andrei told me he was trying to get the University to fund his journal, but they were giving him guff. Whereas The Exquisite Corpse already had over 10,000 subscribers and a world-class reputation, the Administration was partial to The Southern Review (a pompous regional journal also published out of LSU, with only 2000 subscribers at the time), which published eupeptic works by good ol boy academics, and was presided over by the Confederate Sentimentalist Dave Smith, Andrei’s arch-enemy. In the English Department, it was common knowledge that Andrei was the libertine professor and Dave Smith was the opposite. Hence, they refused to work on committees together and the fatcats refused to support the Corpse. So Andrei said fuck it.
This was at a time when the world was transitioning from DOS to Dot.com, and Andrei saw the opportunity to hop on the cyber thing. So he got himself a webmistress (Andrea Garland) and a couple computer nerds (Mark Yakich and Rex Rose) and got online.
Admittedly, issue #1 wasn’t much: some poems by Bill Berkson and Dave Brinks, some illustrations by Gerald Burns, a Nietzschean thing by Max Cafard, some prose by me, and a few more things——but hey, it was a start. And its form, of course, was larval and emerging.
Meanwhile, I was inducted into the cadaverous clan as a proofreader for the anthologies (Thus Spake the Corpse, vols. 1 & 2) coming out by Black Sparrow. That’s how I went from punk muckraker to editing Hunter S. Thompson, Clayton Eshleman, Michael McClure, Mike Topp (always a Corpse fave), Ronnie Burk (R.I.P. you brilliant bastard), Hayden Carruth, Tom Clark, Alice Notley, Wanda Coleman, Ishmael Reed, Pete Seeger, Jan Kerouac, Barry Gifford, Maxine Chernoff, Willie Smith (whose graphic story “Spider Fuck” triggered a puking spree at Naropa), Anne Waldman, a Barnstone or two, Anselm Hollo, and hundreds of others.
By issue #2 of the Cyber Corpse, the mag was starting to seem less like an online zine and more like its own strange thing. Andrei’s intro column “From the EC Chair” was established and the table of contents now had categories. “Critical Urgencies” was the place for theoretical stuff, “Burning Bush” meant poetry (ie, James Broughton, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Julian Semilian, etc.), “Ficciones” was as self-explanatory as “Stage & Screen,” and “Secret Agents” was where the cultural and travel stuff went from mucho exotic locations. Also, the “Letters” section was beefing up, and a “Portfolio” section was now in place to feature visual works of post-Dada yadda yadda.
Meanwhile, I was getting pretty sick of my program out in the Atchafalaya and they were getting pretty sick of me. I was connecting, however, with my cronies in the MFA at LSU, where I was taking classes with my future wife Robin Becker and running with like-minded humans. Like Andrei and Laura, who were definitely my peeps. That is: fumbling stumbling glugging yucking smoking joking toking poking (fun of) dinner after dinner after drama after drama up past 4 AM with covert marriages and barbecues while always constructing a corpse on the side.
Meaning there was always a typewriter there with a piece of paper in it waiting for us to get buzzed enough to start clacking madly and switching off. Collages happened. Collaboration was.
But Andrei and Laura weren’t just dicking around with the idea of le cadavre exquis. Hell no, they’d been playing versions of this parlor game for years (as had I) and Collaboration was their middle name. It wasn’t just something to do between getting drunk and fucky fuck, though; it was a lifestyle that thrived on spontaneous whimsy, divine inspiration, and the spirit of dead French geniuses. Because, when it came to Andrei and his Corpse, letting the chips fall where they may is how things got done in both work and play.
And Andrei, of course, was wise to exploit me——because I’d proofread hundreds of pages for no credit at all. Yep, I was just glad to be part of the only literary journal I gave a rat’s ass about, so he kept giving me printouts of stuff to go over. Like Gerald Nicosia, Dr. Menlo, Maggie Dubris, Ray DiPalma, Robert Perchan, Kirby Olson, Ian Ayres (see his awesome poem “Allen Ginsberg Gave Great Head”), Sparrow, and sundry other exquisite stiffs in Cyber Issue #3. And oh yeah, that’s the Corpse my serialized novel Chum debuted in.
By issue #4, the new method had found its form and was getting half a million hits per day. The legendary Rex Rose was now Andrei’s Assistant Ed. and the Corpse came out with Youssef Alaoui, Ira Cohen, Marc Ellis, Mike Golden, Curtis White’s controversial dog-fucking prose, Teresa Bergen’s Greyhound escapades, the surrealization of Skeuromorph Detective, Hariette Surovell’s exposé on women in the drug-smug biz, and a Genet translation by yrs truly.
And speaking of translations, by this time I’d already published some Céline in the print version and some Cendrars in the cyber one, and was starting to learn the Corpse approach to acquiring rights——which is basically this: “Fuck those fuckers!” Which kinda shocked me at first, because being a literary translator, I’d been dealing with legally obtaining permissions for years. But the Corpse was unorthodox and didn’t give a Wang Dang Doodle what any estate of any dead writer expected in terms of compensation. Nope, the tude was “If it’s good, let’s publish it”——because let’s face it, paying for rights can be a form of censorship. Especially in the case of major writers like Genet, whose estates are prone to request beaucoup bling bling that good small presses can’t afford. Which results, of course, in illuminations being withheld for reasons of greed. Thus, the Corpse adopted a guerilla approach with foreign authors it admired, because the risk of getting some letter from some lawyer was worth way less than what the Corpse could offer the world of Art & Scholarship. Or hell, just some slob sitting in his underwear, scratching his ass and reading some degenerate author.
By 2000 I’d dropped out of the PhD at ULL (formerly USL) and began the MFA at LSU. I was now the Assistant Ed., which involved laying stuff out and editing stuff and handling correspondences and manning Corpse Headquarters——a subterranean Taliban cavern with dripping pipes, MIA ceiling tiles, crooked shelves piled high with twenty years of long skinny scrambled issues, a third-degree golden sofa, and some fucked up computers. My biggest responsibility, however, was driving Andrei around. Which meant taking him to readings and parties in New Orleans, hobnobbing with famous writers, and shooting to the shooting range to blast off his Ruger.
I’d arrived, however, too late for the mythical orgies. Those days were over now by 3.33 years, but plenty of the stories remained. Like the one about Laura coming home and finding Andrei with a bunch of breasty college gals who’d taken off their shirts and were shaking their boobs at him. Then they all started frenching and rubbing each other until quite a few slickened fingers were sliding in and out of orifii.
Such narratives were legend and abundant at LSU, where Andrei Codrescu was sometimes referred to as “Andrei Undressyou,” and not without reason. The Surrealists, I’m sure, had their own share of jumping into naked piles, then whooping up absurdities while they smoked their opium.
Anyhow, the next issue had Bernadette Mayer, Eliot Weinberger, William Levy & bestiality, Calin Mihailescu, Art Hilgart, James Nolan, Lee Papa, and a big-ass feature on some monumental works by Céline that I’d collected in Paris and had doled out to various translators for an anthology that never metamorphosed (thanks to his estate, which demanded $10,000 up front for “such incendiary works”)(see what I mean about censorship?).
The biggest thing, however, was the size of this issue. It was so damn mongo (probably 700 pages at least) that we decided to call it issue #5/6, thus beginning the Cyber Corpse tradition of emphasizing Jumboness——along with being totally free, totally accessible, and a totally entertaining forum for gitting a whole lotta work out there——For The People!
I should also mention the Cyber Café, which was a chatroom full of writers and contributors and wannabe contributors reacting to various works in the current issue——mostly via pseudonyms. Even Andrei and the editors (the Webmistress, Emeritus Ed. Rex Rose, and meself) were in on it, inflaming, provoking, and goading people on. The problem, however, was a certain manicschizophrenic with too much leisure time on her hands, who virtually took the café over and wouldn’t shut her cybermouth, thereby dominating every string of every conversation with the pedestrian high-maintenance chatter of her split personalities (she must’ve had about seventeen), till we had to shut that sucker down.
And speaking of aliases, this is about the time Andrei added another rule to the two already in existence: “We don’t publish ourselves.” But this rule, so I found, was meant for me more than anyone else and was only applied the first Thursday of each month. In the meantime, Andrei still published his own reviews, my novel was still in serialization, and a translation of mine was never refused. Andrei, however, did refuse a bunch of original stuff I kept bombarding him with——which meant it was time to get me some pseudonyms. Some of which he was aware of, some of which he wasn’t. For example, I once suggested a screenplay from the slush pile by Baron Von Bratwurst, and he published it, but not without giving me a mighty queer look. I’m still not sure if he figured me out on that one, but I know he was on to Christian Prozak, whose reviews he still publishes. And then there’s Yoder Horthite, a music reviewer he may or may not have gotten wise to. It was all part of the tradition, though, of publishing fake names, which Andrei was über-familiar with due to his history of pseudonyms.
By the time issue #7 came out (the one with the dancing skeletons in the background) some tension had entered the relationship between Andrei and me. Basically, like some sort of lax parent who lets his kid run amok, he’d let the badboy of The Exquisite Corpse have the keys to the family car. Yep, since Andrei was gone a lot (always off promoting his newest book), he let me run the office however I wanted and handle submissions however I pleased.
Thus, my taste began to dictate what was getting into the piles he looked at. This got a lot of sexy tough stuff (ie, Dan Fante, Dennis Brock, Jill Soloway et Sabina Becker) onto the docket, but I was a little less appreciative of the more experimental stuff——which, of course, is the idea behind the exquisite corpse. So Andrei directed me to look for certain names and to always pick a mix of incomprehensible stuff. “Because it doesn’t matter if we understand it,” he wiggled his moustache sternly at me, “just as long as it looks abstract.”
In most cases, this strategy worked, and in other cases it didn’t. But so what? Nobody really rags on writing that doesn’t trigger something. Unless, that is, someone’s got something to prove and can’t do it with his own work. Or hers.
Anyway, I was also copping an attitude that Andrei didn’t cotton to. For instance, a very famous poet-lady once sent in some high-falutin’ mumbo-jumbo with a cover letter that said she’d been published in all these fancy-dancy places. I wrote her back, quipping that we didn’t care where she was published and we didn’t care for her shwagg (or something like that). So she wrote directly to Andrei and I got a chewing-out similar to the one I’d get a couple years later when reviewing Mary Ann Caws’ anthology of manifestoes. Basically, my review was a rant against the pieces she picked and in favor of the ones she neglected. Andrei sent me back to the drawing board on that one by ordering me to read the entire book, interview her, then write the whole dang thing again. So I did, and it came out a lot more polite.
(If anything, what I learned most from Andrei was how to handle diplomacy. I guess I initially figured that since I was working on a journal famous for causing controversy, it’d be okay to attack any motherfucker who pissed me off. That job, however, was reserved for Andrei, and always works better with some calculated subtlety).
But back to issue #7, which included Ed Sanders, Tom Robbins, Barry Gifford, Pablo Neruda, Edmond Jabés, Boris Vian, Eric Bosse, Skip Fox, Raymond Federman, Georges Bataille, etcetera. We were getting a million hits per day by now and the Pushcart Prize was taking the new media seriously. We were being asked to nominate our best, and there weren’t too many online mags that had achieved the type of recognition the Corpse was receiving world-wide. Plus, we were publishing more and more visual works, like the Burnell Yow! “Digital Exquisite Corpse Project,” which featured a whole buncha artists collaborating in the original manner intended by the founders of the Surreal game in Paris à la 1928——but with the tools of a new millennium. Good Shit!
By issue #8 I had proofreaders all over town and scattered throughout the country, whom I’d give stuff to and they’d kick it out and shoot it back. The “Gallery” section (previously called “Portfolio”) was now getting a lot more attention, and we had just introduced a new section called “Blowjobs.” As Andrei wrote on the contents page “It is our very great pleasure here at the Corpse to open a new line of critical inquiry by the above title. In this section, aspiring as well as established critics ingratiate themselves to the Corpse by praising beloved and frequent contributors.” Hence, Kirby Olson pole-smoked Willie Smith and Julian Semilian went down on Leigh Somerville. This was also the issue in which Andrei granted me the supreme privilege of writing the “Cyber Bag” column, based on Laura Rosenthal’s infamous “Body Bag,” wherein submitters were publicly listed in categories based on how much we wanted to see their work again. Choice chunks of intriguing pieces were also published in this column, and I got to spout off a bit——like Laura did when she dissed William Burroughs for being a shoe salesman and told him that the Corpse wasn’t interested in his little ditties——which led directly to his death.
Issue #8 included work by Marjorie Perloff, Eddie Woods, Barry Hannah, Tim Dardis, Luis Alberto Urrea, Ronnie Burk’s off-the-wall court transcript (complete with outrageous porny illustrations), Joe Maynard, Robin Becker, Nat Hardy, Bill Lavender, Ralph Haselmann (safe in Heaven dead, the Meatwheel turning in the sky), Larry Sawyer, Dale Smith, William Slaughter, Kevin P.Q. Phelan, Olympia Vernon, more Genet, and photographs by Rob Butler. We also added another new section, this one called “Transducements of Rare Beings,” which included translations of Gellu Naum, some Eritrean poet, a Turk, a Slav, and even Old Norse. That’s when Gregory Corso bit the dust.
The great hairy computer wizard Plamen Arnaudov was then brought in from the jungles of Bulgaria to be the Asst. Asst. Ed., and suddenly I had someone to hand jobs off to. But Plamen was also très innovative; he introduced a macro program that made laying out the templates a whole lot easier and saved us a buttload of time——while maintaining a database of cadaveral emails, which were used for announcing upcoming issues and begging for money to keep us going strong. And people actually sent $$$ in! We made thousands of bucks just asking for it, which went straight to the Webmistress, who Andrei had previously paid out of his own pocket (unlike Plamen and myself, she was notta graduate student, so wasn’t paid through an assistantship). Plamen was also instrumental in getting sound onto the Corpse, which we used in spotlighting CD reviews in the brand new section entitled “Zounds!”
Issue #9 included work by Jack Hirschman, Hammond Guthrie, Roberts Creeley and Bly, a bunch of well-hung Hungarians, Richard Collins, Andrei (hey, what about that third rule?), Jack Collom, Neeli Cherkovski, Mark Jackson, Joel Lipman, Pete Sniegowski, Utahna Faith, Andi Young, Ella Verres (a former ed. who had to be run out of town for her thieving Gypsy ways), and Gom Jabbar (aka Plamen).
Then BLAAMMMOO! New York exploded. And out came the “War Issue,” #10. The section “Broken News” was introduced, and the feel of the Corpse became a lot more lethal. We were affected, the world was affected, but we still kept our sense of humor. Ie, Robert Archambeau, Gordon Massman, the flirtatious Xaviera Hollander, Tom Bradley, Tom Peters, and Rebecca Lu Kiernan. But the best part of this issue was the “Gallery” section, which was totally hot. It featured never-before-seen photos of Storyville prostitutes by the celebrated New Orleans photographer Ernest J. Bellocq, erotic jpgs by Philip Krejkarec (a naked lady getting down with religious icons), the spazzed-out imagination of Claudio Parentella, “satirized metaphors” by Shalom Neuman, and a lotta curvy T&A by a certain purple nudie gal.
That was the issue in which we published some pictures some woman had taken of her daughter frolicking naked on the beach. This got us accused of mongering child porn and brought on a hurricane of rhetoric——so we took the images down.
By now it was 2002 and the Corpse had published thousands of artists during my tenure, which was soon coming to an end because I was graduating and had landed a professor job somewhere in the Midwest. That’s about when I got called in to see the Dean. Apparently, the Scanning Department had lodged a complaint against the Corpse for creating a “hostile working environment.” Nevermind the fact that the secretaries there forced anyone who entered their office to listen to Rush Limbaugh; some young sub-Bible-Belt Baptist felt our images were “inappropriate” and went screaming bloody murder.
So I shuffled my feet and nodded my head and he let me go with a slap on the wrist. Andrei was pissed that the Dean confronted me on this matter rather than him, but after that, we did all our scanning ourselves. I did give the Scanning Dept. a final image to consider, however, by scratching a swastika onto their door——which apparently nobody objected to, because it’s still there to this day.
Then came my last issue, #11, the “Manifesto Issue.” We’re talking Oswaldo de Andreade’s “Cannibal Manifesto,” William Levy’s “Zock, the Outlaw Manifesto of the Century,” Ed Sanders’ “Z-D Generation,” Ian Ayres’ “Cuntlicker/ Cocksucker Manifestoes,” and more. Plus Antler, Joel Brower, Abbas Zaidi, Patrick Pritchett, Ken Wright, Jack Micheline, Michael Standaert, Claudia Grinnell, Paris Tirone, Davis Schneiderman, Al Masarik, and the definitive “Cyber Bag.”
Behind the scenes, though, we were working on another corpse. Andrei had come up with the idea that he and Rex and Robin and I should write a novel in which each of us whooped up chapters that played off each others’. The idea was that we’d base it on characters who already existed in our midst, then find a clever alias, and get it published.
So I started, then handed it over to Rex, and he handed it over to Robin, and Robin handed it over to Andrei. And it went on and on and on like this, until eventually we had a manuscript entitled State, which parodied professors and students and drop-outs around us——complete with street people, rock bands, underground tunnels, monkeymen, fellatio, and All-Out Apocalypse.
But there were problems with the manuscript. The first being inconsistencies in names and places, which I felt should be synthesized. Andrei, however, was more Old School and believed that the magical qualities of the prose would carry the reader. Still, it had to be fixed up——or else it’d look like some half-ass hodgepodge what no publisher in his right mind would wanna take a look at.
So I got to work on the book with everyone’s agreement, ironing out the rough edges and correcting differences in font and margins, and then there were all sorts of missing transitions and chunks left out——so I filled those in as well. It took me a thousand weeks, and then I gave it all to Robin, who went rollicking through it with a fine-tooth comb. And then we shot it back to Rex.
Who totally freaked. Because he felt we overshot some boundaries and had edited his work too much, and he wrote me an email expounding that that our work should never be published in any form——be it electronic or print or Brail or whatever! And then he even got Andrei on his side, who stated his concern about offending people he had to deal with on a daily basis, who hadn’t kicked the bucket yet. He recommended a Viking funeral.
I didn’t respond to any of this, though. I just put the thing away and tried to think of it as a corpse gone awry due to a dearth of sincere Collaboration. Or maybe I’d strayed from the spirit of the project by trying to shine up all those quirky imperfections which lend unique characteristics to enigmatic animals. Or maybe it was just too damn conscious.
Ultimately, though, I think there were just too many editors in the kitchen. Or egos, at least, to make this particular corpse exquisite.
But that’s okay, because that’s the nature of a corpse: a concept with rules but no enforcement, a luminous terrain that’s constantly in flux as rats scratch at poison peanuts hidden in a silly skin.
So Ahoy Rimbaud, giving birth to André Breton (while Freeballin’ Freud and all the bizzaro impressionists applaud from the balcony), yr beautiful bastard still is!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Spitzer (pictured avec poisson), novelist, poet, and literary translator, grew up in Minneapolis where he earned his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota in 1990. He then moved to the Rockies, where he earned his Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado. After living on the road for some time, he found himself in Paris, as Writer in Residence for two years at the bohemian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, where he translated French criminals and perverts. In 1997 he moved to Louisiana, became the Assistant Editor of Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse, and earned an MFA from Louisiana State University. He is now Assistant Professor of English at Truman State University in Missouri, where he teaches Creative Writing and catches muskellunge daily.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 18th, 2008.