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The Currency of the Future

On April 5, 2007, students in Mark Spitzer’s poetry workshop at Truman State University met with the celebrated poet Andrei Codrescu in Kirksville Missouri. Toward the end of the interview, chaos erupted, FBI agents burst in, and the media began its mass cover-up of the actual events that did take place.

Gina Cook: I tried to read some of your work…

AC: I’m sorry.

Gina: Have you ever written any love poems? Because I didn’t come across any.

AC: I’ve written lots of love poems. My favorite love poem is by my friend Anselm Hollo. It’s called “Big Dog.” It goes like this:

I lay my head on your lap.
Now I sigh, now you pat me.
Soon I will get up and be a man again.

“Big Dog,” it’s a lovely love poem. But yeah, I have love poems. They’re not in the books? Does anybody have the blue one? I think there’s a work in there. Could somebody hand me that? This is from when I was a vegetarian.

3:AM: Aren’t they all love poems, Andrei?

AC: Yeah, they are. But, you know, I want one that is very direct and addressed to somebody. This is a collection, so maybe it doesn’t have any love poems in it… [looks through book for a bit] I have failed. My life has been for naught. I could paraphrase, but it’s just not as good.

Gina: Do you have a title? I could try to find it.

AC: No, I don’t know. Well, there’s another love poem by Bill Knott who is a friend of mine, a prayer, actually. It says, “People who get down on their knees to me / are the answers to my prayers.” You can’t forget that one. No, I have written very touching love poems. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

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Ashley Richards: When you go to schools and universities and talk about writing and give tips and things like that, do you find that you start following your own tips if they differ from the way you normally write? Or does it change the techniques you use when writing?

AC: You mean, do I make up tips and tell them to people? Yeah, I do that. That’s one very good reason to talk publicly, because you find yourself inventing stuff and you think “Hey, that’s really interesting.” I do learn from my students, but I don’t really give advice. I mean, sometimes I make up some goofy points of things you can do and not do, but I forget about them immediately. I’ll say something like “You can’t use the word ‘reflection’ in your poems,” and all of a sudden half the people nearly die, because if you can’t use the word “reflection,” you can’t be a young poet. I mean they can’t use that, and they say “Why not?” and I say “Because I said so.” But yeah, I think it’s a good idea to make stuff up to try to see if you can do it. We need to give ourselves a lot of assignments. Living in New York and working with all these other poets, we gave ourselves assignments, you know: “Ten people I’d like to go to bed with” — and you have to follow through. They’re always goofy, but they’re fun.

Loren Depenthal: One of the issues that confronts a lot of… I guess not college students, more like those in middle and high school… is the issue of how to teach poetry and how poetry can be understood, because a lot of younger people feel that poetry has no meaning for them or that it’s too archaic. Is there anything that can be done towards that?

AC: One thing you might want to do or teachers might want to do is really change and not use the word “poetry,” or change the word “poetry” to something that takes in more activities of disparity. I mean, to think that people make certain performances that they can be arrested for, you know, think of them as poetry or poetic acts… then you’re in a wider zone. If you think strictly of poems as these skinny things that go up and down the page with room on the sides, then you’re limiting the whole art to some kind of crafty practice. But if you think of poetry as related to a sort of life, a way of acting in society, then you have much more range, and then it becomes interesting. Poets, like the Romantic poets, they enacted the poetry in their lives. There was no separation there, and that makes as much of an impact as the poetry. You think of Coleridge, and you think of his poems, but then you also think of his addictions in his life, the fact that he lived a poetic existence.

Laura Farkas: Okay, these are like preliminary questions. Do you write in English or Romanian? Or did you once write in Romanian and then switch to writing in English?

AC: Well, briefly, I write in English, but recently I started writing in Romanian again because a whole layer of my brain got peeled back by being in Romania, the Black Sea, three months ago.

Laura: Okay. And then, what city in Romania are you from?

AC: Sibiu or Szebenbe or Hermanstadt. My first language was German and then came Hungarian and then Romanian.

Laura: Oh, you speak Hungarian?

AC: Not anymore, but it feels like a warm bath when I hear it. Do you speak it?

Laura: Oh yeah, very little, but my grandfather’s from Transylvania.

AC: Well, that’s where I’m from.

Laura: Yeah, my last name is Farkas and that’s Hungarian.

AC: We know lots of things that most people don’t.

Laura: I agree. Okay, those were just for my own personal curiosity.

AC: Farkas means wolf.

Laura: Yeah! It’s pretty cool. So, you have quite a few poems to your name by now, and I was just wondering, out of all of those, if you had maybe a favorite collection, or a favorite period of time where you feel like you’re really fond of the work you were doing then, and if you do, why, and if you don’t, why not?

AC: That’s an essay question. Well, there was a period when I was living in California and I didn’t have anything to do but write poems. I had a year of this complete goofy freedom and I was writing some very long and experimental works. They’re some of the longer poems, and I would like to do that again, i.e. all of it. Be young, live in California, have a year with nothing to do, and let it be all about 1978, all of that would work. There’s a poem called… “Dear Masoch” which was actually written in New Orleans, and it was a love poem. That was a love poem! A very long love poem about completely failed and unreciprocated love. I fell in love with Heather who was the girlfriend of a friend of mine. Who was just actually going through town and I knew her for all of six hours, and I just fell really hard, and I didn’t really have anything. We just sort of exchanged about five words and I wrote a fifteen-page poem. It’s called “Dear Masoch” because it was masochism on my part.

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(Pic: Andrei Codrescu with 3:AM’s Flash Fiction Editor, Utahna Faith.)

Nick Freed: Okay, I have a long quasi-loaded question.

AC: I can give you a short answer.

Nick: I’ve been noticing a sort of pull-away from literature now that movies and television are a big deal, and I was wondering if you were afraid that the literary world is losing footing with movies and TV and that really the only books that can be popular are those that are cinematic or that are dumbed down. Because I have this fear that the major books of our generation are gonna be The Da Vinci Code and books by Dr. Phil and things like that. I was wondering if you think we’d have another Ulysses or On the Road or something like that.

AC: Well, I don’t think you need to worry. I mean, poetry is like money, you know. Poetry is going to be the currency of the future. Because so many mass-manufactured kind of ideas are going to be coming down the pike in various ways that original expression of any kind or seemingly original will be currency. You look at works of art now and you have a Jasper Johns painting that just recently sold for like $20 million, which I think is the most money ever paid for a contemporary work of art, and… well, you know, there is no more concentrated way to carry $20 million. If you actually want to carry that in cash in suitcases you couldn’t do it, but you have one painting by Jasper Johns that you can roll up in your cane and smuggle it across the border and suddenly it has new value. It’s a value that you’ve sort of agreed on. Especially because there are all these technologies of reproduction, so you can broadcast widely and reproduce things. You’re going to have an incredible market in things that are live and unique in some fashion. And poetry might have to change its definition and not come necessarily as a little pamphlet, but it’s going to be extremely valuable to create or secrete something original like a work of art or a poem. So I wouldn’t worry about that. I think it’s great that all the technologies are allowing absolutely everybody to broadcast. I think the book may be finished, you know, as a form. It had 500 years of life. Gutenberg made the movable print in the 15th — in the 16th century — and this is now the 21st and it’s had a career for 500 years. And it may be a curiosity, a curio object. That’s okay. Even writing may not mean anything. Somebody wrote recently about something called the new illiteracy. And he didn’t mean it in a bad sense, not pejoratively, but simply, the implication is that you’re not going to use reading and writing the way we did in this symbolic fashion since writing has been around. Which, clearly, again, has not been very long. You start with Sumerian tablets and cuneiform and that’s what — maybe 6 or 5000 years max? And now you have whole other forms of expression, a whole different communicative nervous system that’s developing in tandem with the technology, and so you just go somewhere else. So actually, I find everything that’s happened just incredibly hopeful. And there are people like Robert Bly who say “Well, we gotta hide in caves, man, so we can save the books.” That’s bullshit. I got a lotta books, and the flood in New Orleans ate half of them. I’m sorry, but what am I gonna do? I deal with the idea of re-reading. There are all these books I haven’t read and then there are books that I’ve read and that I like and I keep thinking “One day I’m going to re-read this. This is why I’m keeping them.” But it’s never going to happen. It’s absolutely never going to happen. Unless they put me in jail and pay me.

Mike Devine: As far as revisions go, how do you feel about the technique of “whatever way it comes out is the way it is”?

AC: I’m not a fan of that, although some of my teachers like Allen Ginsberg say “first thought best thought.” But I revise, because I like to play with my own work. I want to make it sound better. I want to own it longer. And one way to do that is to play with it and work with it. So yeah, revision is important.

Amy Schweizer: What is the fondest memory you have from being a young poet in New York?

AC: The fondest memory is hanging in a park and not exactly knowing what to say to these two girls who were sitting very demurely on a bench — these two Puerto Rican sisters, whom I had seen before actually. So I went up to them and said “I’m a poet.” And they thought that was just great. I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story, except that it worked.

Wei Xie (Vivian): I think poetry is a very difficult art form and it is very hard to satisfy every reader. Therefore, a piece of successful art needs to find the balance between what the author thinks is art and what the audience accepts. Do you also look for this balance in your literary processing?

AC: I really don’t care about the reader at all. I care about doing something right and satisfying, the input of the perverse. I want the reader to be highly unsettled and weakened to the point that they hand me all their cash.

Mark Wilde: My favorite poets are the French Symbolists and probably my favorite novelist is Hesse. And here’s the question I’m going to ask you: what novelists and poets have influenced you or which ones do you consider to have been a big part of your life?

AC: There are a few…I mean, I started writing a long time ago. But when I first started, the French Symbolists had a great deal of influence on me too. I read Baudelaire both in Romanian and in French, because we learned French early on and… I read Rimbaud, of course, who Mark translated… but Baudelaire probably influenced me the most because there’s something in my adolescent soul that resonated incredibly with both the deep exaltation and depression of Symbolist poetry. Later on, I discovered people like Lautréamont, also the French Surrealist poets, not so much André Breton, but René Char… my interest in poetry went along with an interest in art and I became interested in the Dada poets and the French Dada and the German Dadaists and then in parallel with the art movements that connected to those poems and… it’s a funny thing because very few people know the poetry, but I think everybody’s familiar with the art. Surrealism is sort of the de facto language of advertising and it’s all over the place now, but what the impulses are and how that comes out of poetry and is connected to it is not very well known, so it’s very valuable…

3:AM: Would you say that you have a favorite poet or novelist?

AC: No, because there were different periods of influence by different writers. There was a Romanian writer, a poet named Lucian Blaga… actually I named one of my kids after him, because he just sort of… I was living in a very old, Medieval town and he wrote this mystical poetry that was based on the town… and he just completely took over my — my psyche. Then there were others… just different tastes from different times. Rilke helped at a certain point. Then my contemporaries… when I got to New York I was twenty years old and I met all these great people who were just a little older than me, like Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Louis Warsh, and Clark Coolidge and all these others who were making a new kind of poetry. They said “Okay, now we’re going to make poems only we can make.” And so one of the things that Berrigan and these poets — who came to be known as the second generation New York School, for some reason — these poets were very attentive to the world around us, like the material objects of the world. Andy Warhol was painting soup cans and we were paying attention to real things all of a sudden, to the kind of beautiful, anonymous design of every object around us, like toasters. In writing his poems, Ted always said “Well, I’m really proud ’cause I’m the first American poet to ever put Pepsi-Cola in my poem.” And it’s true, he did. So, this idea that you’re making something totally new is very exciting and so is putting each others’ names in each others’ poems. Ted said you should always write the poem to your friend… and I’d write poems and say “This poem is for Anne.” And at the time nobody knew who these people were. We were all young and just starting out. Now everybody does the detective work with trying to find out who these poets were, but we knew. We were terribly famous in our own minds, but we also knew that we were making something new. We read all the poetry and we knew that nobody before us ever put toasters and Pepsi in poems.

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(pic: Andrei Codrescu with 3:AM’s flash fiction editor, Utahna Faith.)

Colin Ellis: I’d just like to know how you go about titling your poems, and what you think about a title, because some poets think that the title is not really important, it’s in the poem, and other poets take the stance that the title is part of the poem, or even more important than the poem because it will change your entire reading of the poem — so do you title your poems before or after?

AC: You know, that’s a very good question. I believe in what Ted Berrigan used to call the “The Lost Golf Ball School of Titles.” He took issue with his friends, the painters, who called some work “Marine Landscape Number 24,” and he said, “What’s wrong with you? This would be a much more interesting painting if you called it ‘The Lost Golf Ball.’” Which wouldn’t exactly have anything to do with the picture, but your mind would try to make a connection. So I think that the further away your title is from the poem, the bigger the leap your mind has to make to create its own connection, you know? So yeah, I mean, I definitely advise naming your poems either something that has nothing to do with the poem or naming them after your friends just to piss them off.

Jerry Jones: I have two different questions. First, do you have any questions that you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview but you have never been asked before?

AC: Yeah, but I ain’t gonna start now.

Jerry: Fair enough. And do you feel like your poems are ever complete?

AC: Totally, man. If I don’t finish them, somebody else will. It’s like memory. It’s like everything you don’t remember, somebody else will. So if they’re there, it’s ok if you forget. Of course they’re unfinished. Umm, I’m trying to remember, because I’m sure I wrote something to that effect somewhere… but I don’t remember — which is okay. This is why you write books, so that things you don’t remember… you put in books. Then you don’t have to remember them. A writer is kind of like a self-cleaning insect. You just throw all this stuff in books and then other people have to deal with it. Then you’re totally fresh, you start over again, you don’t remember anything.

Ben Garrett: Have you ever experienced a supernatural or paranormal encounter?

AC: That is a difficult question.

Ben: And if not why?

AC: I hope you can come to the talk tonight. Seriously, because that’s what the story I am reading is. An absolutely true story, so I don’t want to redo it now. But then there’s the oracular method. I just open the book and I answer your question in the first line that my eyes fall on. So your question was “Have you ever experienced anything supernatural?” and… [Andrei opens the book and reads a random line] … “Photography and telecommunication slop off the world meatbody while real cannibals like Dahmer make a post-movie appearance in configurations reminiscent of Jeff’s fascination.”

Ahh Jeff, he is an old friend of mine. Jeffery Miller was a poet — was a wonderful poet — who died in 1977 in a car accident. He published two volumes of his poetry posthumously, one called The First One Is Free, and the second volume has just come out, called The Heart Is a Quarter-Pounder. And Jeff was a miraculous person — he really was. He died on his twenty-ninth birthday, and he’s been a presence in my life. I mean, you talk about uncanny… he’s somebody who’s there all the time, so he’s somebody to talk to. So yeah, no question about it.

Chester Nay: How have you noticed your own poetry changing from when you were young to where you are now, and where is it going?

AC: I’ve got to open the book for that one. Well, actually… do you know what a Newton is? A Newton is this business you can write on — handwrite on, a computer. It’s a writing tablet. It turns your handwriting into poetic misunderstandings. For instance, I wrote my name and it translated it as “media cooking.” [He opens the book and applies the oracular method again.]

The women discussed their menstruation glands
This was going on in the room while I was doing this
The finished product on the VCR is taking his last journey to hell
None can accuse this age of lack of either substance or culture
It’s just that there are so many histories to be watched
While the chief activity is cooking — haddock and ginger sauce
There is also a party to go in and out in the house of a novelist
Innumerable cultures will take place there
No one will write them down

So that’s the answer to your question. I mean, it really started out with the hope that you can write a lot of stuff, and it becomes more complex. The complexities get really thick. And you do that… just try to follow as well as you can while the VCR is playing and there’s a party and the women are discussing the menstrual glands and the computer is making your name funny stuff… I guess, it’s just… the more awake you stay, the more complicated things get, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Chester: So do you think you’re striving for a master work?

AC: No, no. I’m perfect to begin with. Look at it this way: everybody is the result of what, 200 billion years of evolution? What’s more perfect than that?

Josh Hanser: Okay, I guess, the first question that comes to mind is “If you could kill three people, right now, who would they be?”

AC: Well, honestly I wouldn’t do that. It’s just not something I —

3:AM: But what if you had to?

AC: If I had to, then it wouldn’t matter who they were.

Josh: Right on. If you could choose any single poem from another poet and claim it as your own, which poem would you choose? And… why that particular poem?

AC: That’s a good question. Now, let’s see… Baudelaire’s “A Voyage to Cythera”… is very well translated into English by Richard Howard, I think. It’s a beautiful poem… I can’t even remember. But there’s another poem by Gérard de Nerval that I think I’d wish I’d written. And I don’t know, I probably did write it. But I wouldn’t pass ‘em around as mine, because they’re even better when you say who they’re by. There are some poems of mine that I wish I hadn’t written.

Josh: Well, you could pass those off as somebody else’s too.

AC: I should pass them off as somebody else’s. I didn’t write that, Ted wrote that. Mark Spitzer wrote those.

Chanee Anderson: Some people — when they choose to write — may choose to be alone, or they may go outside, or somewhere that they feel they can completely get away and into “a zone.” Where would you consider the oddest place that you have ever written a poem?

AC: The oddest place that I’ve ever written a poem… was on the lower back and thigh of a stranger that I met at a party. Actually, that was my best work and I wish she hadn’t rubbed it off — so passionately. I dream about it and I can’t remember what it was. I think of people as something that we can write on when there is nothing else to do. Back in the day, the only other thing we had to write on other than ourselves were old walls with mud. On walls and in blood…. we wrote with blood!

At that point, the whole class gets naked and jumps in a pile. The Dean walks in, stands in the corner pulling on his pecker, and the band starts playing ‘Old Man River.’ A hot air balloon crashes into the classroom, Martians invade, the bomb is dropped, and class is dismissed.

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: Saturday, May 5th, 2007.