Andrei Codrescu is best known for his weekly commentaries on the popular National Public Radio program, “All Things Considered.” These five-minute evaluations of American culture are often cynical and convoluted, sometimes dark in tone, but always witty and entertaining.
A man of letters in the traditional sense of the term, Codrescu is first and foremost a poet. He has published twenty-two books of poetry, fiction, autobiography, essays, and translations over the years, and has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships.
His various forms of writing are very much of a piece. He comments that he collects ideas and allows them, in his writing, to take the form that seems most appropriate to them. His work deals with the differences between appearances and realities, with the juxtaposition of the culture and the individual, and with the absurd but brutal superficiality of politics, both here and in the Soviet bloc where he grew up. Though his writing is permeated with his cynical wit, it is also fueled by an underlying compassion. He has no tolerance for the public pronouncements of “history,” or for the various layers of insincerity with which we cover our lives.
Ronald Sukenick of the Village Voice suggested that “Codrescu is really beginning to write in a new language, as though someone in the middle of a conversation suddenly started speaking in multi-colored bubbles instead of words.”
In person, Codrescu is genteel and self-effacing. His skill at conversation seems itself another literary act, another venue in the panoply of words of which he is master. He is a relatively small man, just beginning at age forty to show signs of middle age, with dark, curly hair, a round face, and quick, piercing eyes behind heavy glasses.
He was born in Romania but left in 1966 at the age of nineteen for the greater political and artistic freedom of the United States. Now an American citizen, he lives in New Orleans, teaches at Louisiana State University in nearby Baton Rouge, and edits Exquisite Corpse, a quarterly journal of the avant-garde.
Codrescu recently read his poetry to an overflow crowd of more than 150 people at the Hardback Cafe in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. On the day of the reading, he spent his morning talking to The Sun.
SUN: In your recent book, Comrade Past and Mister Present, you say, “I only took this job because no one is doing it.” How do you conceive of your job?
CODRESCU: What preceded that was a statement about why people write poetry in the first place, why they are involved in one of the world’s most useless things. There has to be a better reason than money because, if that’s what they wanted, they would find jobs that paid more. There must be a deeper reason we seem to forget in an age when people think of art as a legitimate lower middle-class, white-collar job.
SUN: How do you remind people that it’s more than that?
CODRESCU: The way I do it is by not shying away from other areas that are not, properly speaking, the domain of poetry. It doesn’t bother me at all to talk about anything. In this country, we’re overspecialized. You like to think that if questions of plumbing arise, then the man to talk to is the plumber. Poetry, I think, is probably the last art in which you can generalize and stick your nose into whatever you want. So that’s a prerogative, a kind of liberty, that we need to take.
Where I come from, the poets have an exaggerated place in society, possibly because they also have to take on the job of political opposition, because there is no such thing per se in Romania. We find ourselves carrying a bigger load than poets have traditionally been asked to, but it’s also very satisfying because it makes people listen to what we have to say. I grew up in a place where speaking poetry is a public act that carries some responsibility with it.
SUN: James Dickey was here recently, and he said that poetry is a higher calling. Is that true for you? If so, what does it mean?
CODRESCU: I would agree with that phrase, although I’m not sure what Dickey means by it. It is a higher calling in the sense that anything that doesn’t pay as well as things that are done with equal effort and intelligence has to be a higher calling, because there seems to be little call to do it otherwise. I think Dickey may have meant that it’s something like a priest’s calling, which is not a very good analogy, because I personally hate clerics and anybody who deals in unproven mysteries.
SUN: Many people probably know you as an “All Things Considered” commentator on National Public Radio. How does the medium of radio differ from poetry?
CODRESCU: It differs from poetry in that, since I am speaking to a larger audience, I have to finish my sentences. Also, I can’t range over a wide field of subjects in the same piece, so the focus is narrow. I must stick to one thing. A radio piece has about half a poetic idea in it, whereas a poem may have twenty-five.
SUN: Do you see a difference in purpose between radio and poetry?
CODRESCU: Only in the sense that poetry speaks to a more trained ear, whereas radio allows for a broader communication, which is pleasant. Essentially, the few ideas I have are the same.
SUN: So you’re still basically a poet speaking over the radio?
CODRESCU: Oh yes, no question about it, in that poets don’t make sense. I don’t particularly like the label “poet” either, because that name has a marginal connotation in this society. I would gladly abandon it if there were a chance that I would be taken more seriously by not saying that I’m a poet.
SUN: Do you feel there is a vital young poetry scene anywhere in the United States?
CODRESCU: I don’t. I think poetry now seems middle-aged; poets are tired. My poetry students, for instance, are in many ways older than I, and I can’t make them any younger. It’s the world they live in, that’s all; and the time is conservative. It’s geared to the production of complete sentences, and it carries with it the idea that poetry is some kind of profession. I try to tell them it’s not a profession, it’s something else, but that’s not an easy thing to persuade anybody of, when they know what they know, which is that if you publish enough poems and get yourself a degree, you can get a job to teach somebody else how to write poems.
Everything is becoming interiorized and institutionalized, and it is very hard to live outside of an institution. All the free-floating energy we once had is now being sucked back into the system, into the interior; there is nothing outside except psychos and people released from mental hospitals, people who sleep on the freeway. The world of the Eighties is one of being inside the machine. Even outer space is being militarized. We have this lead shield of trillion-dollar armaments over our heads. You just can’t see the outside anymore. You can’t see it literally: ecologically, the outside is being destroyed. You can’t see it internally as a sense of freedom. This is the age in which the bad guys won, so you do what you can on the inside of the machine.
SUN: Do you feel you’re a person with a cynical world view?
CODRESCU: I wouldn’t call it cynical, I would go beyond that. I would call it a total distrust of all the cherished notions we have of progress and history — and that’s a Balkan characteristic. We can’t believe that things are going to get better, because we know from our history that they never do. We’re Buddhists in the sense that Buddhists start with the flat, “Buddha says that life is sorrow,” and just go from there.
Balkan countries have had a very bad history. Americans have had a fairly fortunate history — at least white Americans — and so they believe that things are constantly going to get better; you can always start again and it’s never too late. That just doesn’t wash with me. I know you get older, you can’t get it up anymore, your hair falls out, and then you die. We all know that, but we don’t accept it.
SUN: Do you ever try to work away from cynicism? To become an optimist working out of a pessimistic framework?
CODRESCU: Well, I think cynicism — not cynicism, again, but this kind of distrust — is very tonic. What makes you healthy, finally, is not buying it. It is healthier not to buy, not to swallow the line that’s given to you no matter by whom, whether it’s Robert Bly or General Electric. It’s tonic to say, “No.” I live in New Orleans. Its initials are “NO,” and I really like to live there. “NO.” I live there.
SUN: You’re dedicated to the life of the mind. Do you ever feel that you’re too much in the mind and need to be more in the body?
CODRESCU: I don’t see any distinction between the two. I don’t have conversations between mind and body, all that psychic tennis. I think it’s pernicious. The body is where all the activity of the mind is. The best activity of the mind and body probably is concentrated at the moment of orgasm, and that’s your best thought.
SUN: Could you talk about the poem, “Volcanic Dirge & Co.,” from your most recent book? I really enjoyed that. One thing that it involves is the relationship between poetry, the world, and the individual, a three-sided relationship that I’ve noticed in several of your poems.
CODRESCU: Well, that’s a love poem, dedicated to a woman I knew. Essentially it says that I met her at a point when my life had become literature, because I had been in this category for about a quarter of a century. She came and, completely disregarding all the literary tags, cornered the market and took over. It was her unselfconscious act of taking over and sweeping it all away that charmed me, and made me see the possibility of renewal, really being born again without literature, without that accretion of literary crust.
SUN: Do you see literature as a sort of superficial crust on top of the act of living?
CODRESCU: I see literature as something that should be disposed of as quickly as possible, taken to the edge of the city and shot.
SUN: How do you define literature, then? Is it Literature with a capital “L” that needs to be shot, or all of literature?
CODRESCU: Well, all of it, because I think all of it is essentially a gloss on experience, even when it is experience. The act of creating it is experience. At the moment it starts to live as a published work or a finished product, it becomes a burden, partly because it holds you responsible for its existence. And it inhibits you from contradicting yourself. So the only way to keep it fresh is to deny your products, to rise away or above or under them, or to crawl away from what you just made.
You create monsters when you enter the process and make a product out of it. It’s like a new house: you move in and the room is bare. It looks wonderfully possible to do anything in it. Then you start filling it up, and you have all these objects, and all of a sudden it looks like something else. The only way to keep going is to burn all the furniture and start over.
You just can’t see the outside anymore. You can’t see it literally: ecologically, the outside is being destroyed. You can’t see it internally as a sense of freedom. This is the age in which the bad guys won, so you do what you can on the inside of the machine.
SUN: I notice a certain kind of divinity in your poems, almost like a pantheon. The one that seems to come across the most clearly is Josef Stalin, a bureaucratic demi-god who walks across a lot of your pages.
CODRESCU: I call this age the tail-end of the age of monsters. I don’t think there are monsters of that quality in the world anymore. There might be — I mean, Khomeini is still around — but it’s hard now to imagine a world that was so totally dominated by one personality, where every aspect of your official life was somehow permeated by the subtext of this person. He was a model in some sense, a monster personality that I always enjoyed. I have a real attraction and revulsion for it at the same time. When I came to New York, I met Ted Berrigan, for instance, who was a poet-monster filling the world with talk. He had a tremendous personality; I had an attraction to that. Figures like that function as motifs, actually, as filigree; points of reference, of sorts.
SUN: Was Stalin a feature of your childhood?
CODRESCU: Oh, tremendously so. I went to school and we had the big photographs that showed Stalin smiling on children. I didn’t have a father of my own and so I had this portrait on my nightstand table. To me, he seemed very kind, and I would go to sleep saying to his photograph a prayer that my grandmother had taught me. One day I came home crying because Stalin had died. Everyone was crying, absolutely devastated. I hid under the kitchen table when my stepfather came in with another guy, who said, “I’m glad the sonofabitch is dead.” And so my world stopped, because I suddenly realized that the man I had thought of as a god actually wasn’t.
SUN: That makes me think of the title of your book, Comrade Past and Mister Present. Does this suggest the relationship between your early experiences and your current ones?
CODRESCU: I lived half my life in Romania, a Communist country where everybody was called comrade; and I now live in this country, where men are called mister.
SUN: What made you leave Romania?
CODRESCU: It was possible to leave, so I took the opportunity. There was a crack in the Iron Curtain and I went skidoo through it.
SUN: Were things hot for you there?
CODRESCU: They were beginning to get hot because a lot of people of my generation were feeling the beginnings of a wind, of something exciting blowing around. We had just gone through Stalin, and we were coming to a time when we could talk about things and talk loud. We felt drunk with liberty, with the idea of license, and I was starting to get in trouble. Five years later, everything closed down again and everybody ended up in jail or silent, and I had been headed that way, probably quicker than most. I was very vocal. So it’s a good thing I left.
SUN: Do you have regrets?
CODRESCU: No, I don’t, actually. I think I did the right thing.
SUN: What kind of perspective does your Communist childhood give you on the West?
CODRESCU: Well, childhood is childhood. Childhood is not political. You grow up in an infinitely stretched time. More important than the system under which I grew up was the fact that I grew up in a very old, medieval town. It was a magical place; there were a lot of passages and stairways and little secret plazas and churches, and it was a wonderful place for wandering. Later, I realized there were a lot of things I couldn’t read or do, so I started to imagine books that I should read. I knew they existed by name, but I couldn’t read them, so I made them up. The main thing that made a difference was this constant exercise of imagination, because so much was forbidden that I had to imagine myself out of what was permitted into what was forbidden. In many cases, what I imagined was more interesting than what was actually forbidden.
Americans have had a fairly fortunate history — at least white Americans — and so they believe that things are constantly going to get better; you can always start again and it’s never too late. That just doesn’t wash with me.
SUN: Do you think the main difference between Communism and capitalism lies in what they each do to the individual mind?
CODRESCU: No, I think the difference is that under a system in which the state runs everything, you are in prison. When the state runs everything badly, as it does in Romania, you are often deprived of basic material comforts, and it’s not a good place to live. I think there are pernicious aspects to capitalism, particularly in the ease with which advertising is capable of selling all sorts of things. But I prefer subtle seduction to police coercion. Advertising is simply trying to get your money, perhaps your attention, for something that may or may not be pleasurable, whereas the state is trying to extort your labor.
SUN: There’s a line I really like in the poem, “Comrade Past and Mister Present”: “The full-time simulation of pleasure in which the world is presently engaged. . . .” Is this related to the East-West split, or do you think this is a function of our age?
CODRESCU: It’s clearly more true about the West, because pleasure is what we constantly pursue. We buy simulation of pleasure; at this point, we don’t buy the original thing anymore. The nature of capitalism is to sell passable imitations. It leads to a kind of schizophrenia, because there have to be more and more parts of you that want different things because there are more things. You need to have more desires, and obviously most of these are bound to be simulated desires that are splinters of other, more basic ones. The sex drive, for instance, gets splintered into parts that take on autonomous, complex lives of their own in order to consume what the market has invented for them.
In the East it works a little differently. There, pleasure is to be guarded at all costs because it’s the only way to make an individual statement against the state. People in the East look toward the West for pleasure, because material pleasure is what they want and can’t get. The goal of Communism, in real terms, turns out to be consumerism. And the absolute victory, individually or even collectively, for Eastern Europeans, would be to have cars and refrigerators and other material things that we take for granted here. The simulations of pleasure go on everywhere, but they are not designed to satisfy. They have a kind of built-in obsolescence, because if you are completely satisfied, you will not splinter any further and want other things. So it’s a way to keep people excited rather than pleased.
SUN: We mentioned divinity earlier. Do you feel there’s a sense of divinity that comes into your work?
CODRESCU: Everybody who’s taken LSD knows there is a mystery in the world. I don’t think that, once you’ve seen the interconnectedness of living things, you can ever go back on that vision. There is a kind of exalted feeling of pleasure in the life force that is just something I know, like everything else I know. You don’t go back on things you know.
SUN: Truth comes up a lot in your poems, truth almost as an ideal. What is truth?
CODRESCU: The funny thing is that everybody knows. I don’t think that is a terribly subtle question. I don’t think any guy in a bar somewhere in Montana will have a philosophical problem with it. He will know that truth is not lying. If we made any kind of effort at simply calling the shots as we see them, then we would be in a different ballpark. Unfortunately, everybody lies. Especially when they put pen to paper.