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LIDIA VIANU -- ANDREI CODRESCU
The poetic activity consists in overthrowing poetry for its own sake
Interview with ANDREI CODRESCU (born 20 December 1946), American poet, novelist, editor
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
and at http://codrescu.com/reference/index.html
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Your poetry shows a long travel from innovation to innovation. You try new things (no capitals, lyrical prose, narrative in verse, masks, direct aggressive love poems, images, conversational verse). Yet you do not rebel against someone in particular, against a poet or a tradition. You somehow rebel against your own preconceived idea of poetry. You are an individualist through and through, to the extent of being free from your own self. What do you value most in a poem? Its genuine emotion, striking poetic language, defiance of the deja vu?
ANDREI CODRESCU: That’s a stellar cloud of questions. I like to stay amused. It has the word ‘muse’ in it. You are absolutely right that my own received and preconceived notions of poetry bore me. The poetic activity consists in overthrowing poetry for its own sake. The ‘poetic,’ I tell my students, ‘is the enemy of poetry.’ What I really mean to tell them is ‘Poetry is the enemy of poetry.’ I don’t tell them because they already know that superficially, and I don’t want to encourage superficiality in my field. They can stay superficial on their own turf. The way I see it, every poem is a complete critique of all poetry before it, whether the poet knows it or not. The fun begins when the poet knows it. The conversation that takes place is between the emerging poem and something outside language. Taking a position on behalf of the outside, any outside (of language, of culture, of various establishments and mainstreams) is vital. Vitality calls to eros, so at least one reason for the practice is the eroticisation of the universe. Gherasim Luca put it well, ‘Eroticize the proletariat!’ The materials of the work itself are available everywhere: street talk, popular culture, obtuse treatises, scientific discourses, public transportation, and art. There is a great cry for ‘content’ today from the ever-hungry media, but ‘content’ is a meaningless word. Everything is ‘content.’ But only poets are in full possession of it, because they are the only ones who move within the imaginary as easily as Hispanic maids move within the houses of the rich on Long Island.
LV. Your early poetry is faintly narrative, but very strongly populated with characters. Your later poetry builds your own mask, a tough mood which is unafraid of taboos. What is your opinion about the attempt at mixing literary genres, at hybridization? Could it be a common feature to very different poets, writing all over the world today?
AC. My religion is Creolisation, Hybridization, Miscegenation, Immigration, Genre-Busting, Trespassing, Border-Crossing, Identity-Shifting, Mask-Making, and Syncretism. I like the conventions of genre (gender) so that I may play with them. American poetry is in full retrenchment right now from prankster saboteurs such as myself. There is even a ‘new’ movement, called ‘New Formalism’ that makes its practitioners rhyme in traditional forms. This school is the literary equivalent of right-wing ideology. In such times, the pursuit and release of liberty into the public air is fabulously tonic: it keeps young malcontents interested in poetry and defends eros against the conserving instincts of the terrified socius. My generation has been accused, among other things, of using more than our share of the libidinal reservoir of the race. Our conspicuous consumption has made the preceding generations timid, conservative with language and pleasure, afraid to travel too far. This is happily changing, as young people realize that the libidinal stores are infinite, and that the libidinal economy depends on the ability of the imagination to trespass, even to the point where it refuses to make images. My journal, Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Life and Letters, on-line at: www.corpse.org , is a forum for the genre-gender busting. There are some images in it, though.
LV. You hate literary theory in the margin of real literature, and I do not blame the feeling. Yet, I would like to suggest a label for poets since the 1950s: I would like to group them under the name Desperadoes, meaning they are desperate to be their own poets, authors on their own, similar in dissimilarity. You fit the description. You reinvent poetry. How do you feel about being included in a group, even though on the basis of your not belonging to any classification?
AC. I dislike the term. I don’t feel despair. In my work, I try to cultivate joy. Despair is a given, it seems to me, and its effects can be tonic (as in Cioran) if they are taken to the very bitter end of their logic. I find it necessary to reinvent myself, to be born again every morning (not always possible, alas!) – I’ve taken the American ideal literally. The New World has served this rebirthing function without surcease and it has given it boundless energy and huge creative resources. I like breaking things up because they release energy. My work is about play: take apart things to see what’s in them, then use the parts to make something else, invite people over to play with you, stay up all night. If there is any ‘despair,’ it’s the despair of limitations, the tragedy of physical limits, the fact that things end. I do like the Mexican sound of ‘Desperado,’ with its hint of bandido on horseback, Pancho Villa mustaches, and all. Maybe it would work, after all, if you used the metaphor to describe an undisciplined band of rowdy, drunken bandidos taking over a quaint midwestern campus. There are poets like that, but I’m not one of them.
LV. In Testing. Testing, you talk about ‘the candles of my ideas.’ Your poems rely on ideas far more than on imagery or musicality. You seem to despise the lullaby of rhyme, but you do have a devilish inner rhythm of thoughts. You are highly verbal in your intellectual and sensual lines. You play tricks and thrive on puns. Irony is your prize possession. All Desperadoes are first and foremost ironical. Logical conclusion: would you be a Desperado in that respect?
AC. You say such sexy things. You are right about every one of them. There is iron in ‘irony’ as everyone knows, but there are different ironies. Have you ever seen ‘baby irony’? A baby smiles ironically and you realize that one of the terms of the comparison on which the ironic smile is built must be in another world. The lacking reference is not of this world. We can call this transcendental irony. One is being ironic on the basis of a pre-conscious or pre-human understanding. Then there is geriatric irony, the irony of the end, when one is, finally, ironic about everything because the truth of the matter lies beyond life. All the other ironies, the in-between ironies of the sexual ages, are at the service of seduction. Wit, charm, and wisdom at the service of Eros. These ironies are human, they belong to everyone, not just to poets; their practice is the practice of consciousness. Everyone’s. I am very much at home in the human business. Maybe what looks like work is what I do without effort, without even noticing.
LV. One more Desperado feature is the use of four-letter words at ease. You do that, too. You are bold yet shy at the same time. Your language is bold, your sensibility shy. Your lines are warm, in spite of their biting irony, sarcastic at times. Your mind sparkles in the text. What meaning do you attribute to words such as decent and indecent? Do you mean to shock or are you just being yourself, an uninhibited, daring self?
AC. You make me blush. You are right, I am shy in person and bold in writing. The four-letter words are not used for shock-effect though. I use them for weight, for gravity, for emphasis or, on the contrary, because they are part of common speech and are used only as a kind of punctuation. Anyway, I don’t use that many. My contemporaries are much more foul-mouthed. I prefer indecency to decency just as I prefer candor to disingenuity.
LV. One poem is entitled Attempt to Spell, Incantate and Annoy. You talk about the poem as a ‘heresy.’ So you do want to annoy and break faith. What is your poetic stand? Like all Desperadoes, you deny what is known. You also put something instead. What is your personal seal, the description you would like when it comes to your own poetry?
AC. I’ll grant you, there is a good deal of respect for religious mystery in my work. It is not faith-specific or particularly taken with the dogmas of any particular belief. I like ritual without solemnity, mystery without pomp and trappings, yearning without reverence. This penchant is doubtlessly the result of having been born and raised in Sibiu, in earshot of bells, in sight of Gothic towers, and under the crepuscular influence of Lucian Blaga. On the other hand, there was also Baroque art in Sibiu, which balanced the extremism of Gothic with its pleasurable insistence on form, decoration, gaiety. My poetic stand, if you must have it, is Gothic Sibian Mozartian Dada.
LV. You are a fanatic fan of freedom. In Junk Dawn, NYC, you write: ‘there is nowhere to go/ save inside yourself: there everything/ is slightly demented and free.’ Does this have anything to do with your being born and spending your teenage years in a communist country? Linguistically you have grown into your language of adoption. Is there still anything left of your Romanian soul? Did communism exacerbate this wish to be and stay ‘demented and free’?
AC. I started writing poetry in Sibiu at the age of 16 in the early Sixties, and I knew from the very beginning that I was part of a revolutionary generation. The Romanian poets of my generation were overthrowing socialist-realism and reaching to the mystical and avantgarde pre-war poets. At the same time, our contemporaries in the Western world were beginning a social, political, philosophical, and literary revolt. On both sides of the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ (by 1969 it became the ‘Ironic Curtain’) there was an energy of rebellion and desire for freedom. I was imbued with the esprit-du-temps, but I never understood freedom to mean the renunciation of anything I was or knew. On the contrary, this esprit demanded the fresh use of everything I knew and was, including Romanian, Jewish, Sibian, Pioneer (never made it to the U.T.C.), lover of mountains, sheep, and country girls. All of this was to be used, but not solemnly, piously, reverently or chauvinistically, but daringly, innovatively, freshly, generously. I perceive of differences as gifts, not barriers. I am a hunter of distinctions: the more the merrier. The more differences you can bring to the table, the more interesting the world becomes. In 1966 I assumed the identity of a woman poet named Maria Parfenie, whose poems were published and warmly introduced by M.R. Paraschivescu in ‘Contemporanul.’ I felt very much that I was this slightly naive, religious, sexy young woman. I knew that Gender-Genre in a more than perfunctory way. I later became other women and wrote their poetry. I was also a Puerto Rican terrorist, a lesbian, a fascist, and a monk.
LV. In Opium for Britt Wilkie, you reject the ‘melodramatic hearts’, which is again a Desperado reaction. Desperadoes smash love-interest in novels and in poetry. The feeling wears a scary mask, rejects soap-opera reactions from readers. Your love poems are not endearing, they are firm and create a certainty of the feeling, which you do not choose to utter, though. Are you a sentimental poet or do you see yourself as the cold juggler of words?
AC. I am neither sentimental nor cold. I prefer my love sexual, earthy, human. Sex is warm, funny, profound. Sentimentality is a form of fraud; in literature it extorts the reader’s emotional energy; in life it perpetuates lies. I am against platonism in any shape or form, beginning with Plato himself (who justly threw the poets out of the Republic) to all the later meanings of the adjective. There was no ideal (‘platonic’) world before this one. Paradise is a pretty invention and utopia is an ugly lie. I believe neither in original sin nor in utopia. We make the world by being in it, playing in it, loving in it, having sex in it. One of my recordings is called ‘Plato Sucks.’ He does.
LV. In Sadness Unhinged you state ‘I am not satisfied with ambiguity.’ Desperadoes usually are not. They need to be clear. Clear, yet complicated. So are you. The image is like a bushy moustache, which you trim with the scissors of intelligence. Do you ever bet on the load of ambiguity of a line, or is it always directness of statement (supported by ironical understatement, of course)?
AC. The actual line is ‘I am not satisfied with ambiguity/ it takes two of them to get me off.’ That’s a funny allusion to my favorite sexual pastime: threesomes. Of course, being ambiguous, they each divide in two or more, so we may be talking about a real fellinesque orgy. I love your mustache image, but I have shaved off my mustache in Venice in July 2000. My girlfriend was scared when she saw me. ‘Why did you do it?’ she asked, shading her eyes. ‘Stalin is dead,’ I said. ‘Enough is enough.’ All mustaches are stalinist. I had been carrying the shadow of my childhood around long enough. She’s used to it now. I have a small goatee, like a goat, and a pristine upper lip. If the surface of the poem is like a roulette table, I like to put money on black or red (directness) and scatter some at random in the ambiguous universe of numbers. Luck is very important.
LV. In Sunday Sermon, you write: ‘People who half-listen are half-inspiring’. How do you expect your reader to approach your text? With the same irony as yours, with sympathy, unconditional surrender, active denial? Are you a tyrannical author, unlike most Desperadoes, or do you welcome an ambiguous reading, ending, just like your poems, in a question mark? How do you feel about inconclusive texts (which poems should be, by definition) and inconclusive readings (half-readings, in a sense)?
AC. I am a tyrannical author of the most exacting sort. I expect my readers to understand my intentions, even when they are radically different from what they say, but mainly I expect them to surrender to the poem. I feel triumph when I am able to bypass quickly all their livresque critical objections and render them defenseless for the next line. I want to take them out of their minds so that they can understand (and approve) with their bodies. For this purpose, I have become quite a good reader. I can’t leave the whole job to my written brilliance alone. All texts are inconclusive. On the other hand, texts that are purposefully inconclusive smack of unbearable self-importance. My least favorite orthographic symbol is the ellipsis. My skin crawls when I see ... at the end of a line. The assumption that the reader should be told that there is more to the universe than the pathetic piece of paper she has just honored with her attention, is an offense to all intelligent life. Of course the universe goes on when the text is finished. What moron thinks otherwise? I try to get as much as I can and end a text as well as I know how, but I won’t commit hubris by withholding information, god forbid.
LV. In Against Meaning, you write ‘Everything I do is against meaning./ This is partly deliberate, mostly spontaneous.’ Your poetry is indeed a crusade against meanings, a search for the Grail of the absolute fresh meaning. You fight language to the least automatism and mock at comfortable statements. You are a highly uncomfortable poet, from the point of view of inert readers, who expect to be pleased, not challenged. This fight against the peace of reading is Desperado, again. Would you say you are at war just with language, or is it a vaster battle, against mentality, human nature, that you initiate?
AC. The only solution for ‘inert readers’ is to be dipped in saline solution and connected to electrical wires. If that doesn’t work, they should lose their ‘reader’ status and be made to work the copy machine. ‘Meaning’ is an arrogant claim of power. Authoritarian structures cannot function without fixed ‘meanings’; they draw occult power from them. Unsettling ‘meaning,’ knocking it off its ritual perches is the highest calling of a creative language user. Language is a battlefield: it is littered with the corpses of words killed by ideologies, strangled to death by advertising, assassinated by political opportunists, drowned in the urine of bureaucratic sadists. On this field, poets have the very big job of rendering the killers of words inefficient through paradox, irony, erudition, and sound. At the same time, they must save the still-living words from the intensifying hunt for them by the purveyors of ‘content.’ (Who are, sometimes, the same as the assassins above). The battlefield of language is also the battlefield of mentalities or ‘human nature,’ as you call it. ‘Human nature’ is generally used as a synonym for ‘stupidity.’ In that sense, yes, human nature is definitely to be overthrown.
LV. Intention ends with ‘Forgive us our intentions, dear reader.’ What are your intentions as a poet?
AC. I sort of listed them above, but in that particular poem I was referring to the unsavory intention of the poet to monopolize the attention of his readers/listeners and to relieve them of their minds, cash, and time.
LV. Your poems (Franchising the Fight) mention the ‘Exquisite Corpse’. It also is the title of your poetry review. What are your goals as an editor? What are you trying to achieve with your review? What kind of poetry do you promote?
AC. I started Exquisite Corpse in Baltimore in 1983 because I was bored with the low level of the intellectual conversation in the literary press of the time. Eventually, the journal evolved to find a tone and writers hip to the tone. Today it is still an organ of discovery (more than half our writers are unknowns who find us), an international anthology (we have published many Romanian poets, for instance), and a soapbox for the editor. (www.corpse.org)
LV. The Juniata Diary ends with: ‘I only take up the critic’s job to be an ontological reminder, to keep us (me) from forgetting the reason why we took up the art in the first place.’ I do not think you have a great liking for criticism, so I shall ask bluntly: What do you expect of your critics? Like a true Desperado, being an editor, you are a critic yourself. Being an ironical spirit, you are even twice a critic. What do you expect of yourself?
AC. I expect to stay awake; I expect to meet you some day.
January 31, 2001
POET'S NEW YORK
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: When did you first see New York?
ANDREI CODRESCU: From the chartered airplane taking fresh immigrants to America in 1966; the plane was full of Yugoslavs who started singing ‘America the beautiful!’ when they saw the Statue of Liberty.
LV. Was it as a fresh emigrant or later?
AC. We changed planes in New York then and went on to Detroit, my first American home.
LV. What struck you first?
AC. The verticality: it was like Europe with an erection.
LV. Are New Yorkers different from other people? Are they more or less than human? Or brighter?
AC. They are different because they are of so many backgrounds and ethnicities; figuring out how to get along sometimes took generations, but eventually there emerged a quick, witty, generous but not stupid breed of citizen called a New Yorker.
LV. Why must everyone love the Big Apple?
AC. A lot of people hate it because it’s too fast. I used to love it because sorry, destitute humanity rubbed shoulders with billionaires (at least in theory), like in Walt Whitman’s poems, but now it’s clean and safe like Minneapolis. I think they even put mayonnaise on the sidewalk in case you drop your Wonder Bread. Manhattan, at least, is for the rich now. The artists and the poor can still live in Brooklyn and Queens.
LV. Have you ever lived in New York for a longer period of time?
AC. Yes, two years, 1968-1970, and every year for at least a month.
LV. Why are New York houses the envy of the planet when I have seen tiny apartments and cupboard kitchens there with my own eyes? Is New York a myth?
AC. New York has energy and spunk. Your apartment is your refuge: you conduct the rest of your life in the agora, or working, with the people. If you invite someone to your apartment it’s a great sign of friendship; the rest of your meetings are conducted in restaurants, bars, luncheonettes, etc
LV. Does New York have a cultural life for real? There are so many museums and theatres and reviews, but do they actually use all those things? Or is it for the use of foreigners passing by?
AC. Those things are very real and they constitute the social fabric of the city through their wealthy patrons. New Yorkers use their culture, but like all things, it comes and goes in cycles. In the 60s New York was where painting and poetry were, in the 70s the art and music scene, in the 80s institutional revamping and architecture, in the 90s the exodus of the poor from Manhattan, in the beginning of the 21st century, human intimacy and care born of the terror attacks on 9/11.
LV. If you could choose to live in your dream town anywhere on this planet, would it be New York?
AC. Yes, with a summer place in the country.
LV. Is New York a melting pot? Have you ever felt an alien there because you were not born in the States? Once, in 1991, when I was a Fulbright professor in New York State and my ten-year-old daughter went to school for a year there, a boy her age showed her the globe and said: ‘Where is your Romania? Why don’t you just go back there?’ And the next day she asked him: ‘Were you born in the States?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Were your parents born there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘ And your grandparents?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And your great-grandparents?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Everyone in your family ever?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then you are a red Indian’. And he did not like that. Have you ever had to fight for your status like that?
AC. Yes, but, like your kid, I put them quickly in their place. That’s normal in a place of immigrants: the Dutch of 1700 thought all immigrants were trash, the Irish fought the Italians, the Jews fought them all, the Hispanics had to claw their way up after that. ‘The Gangs of New York’ had it operatically right. The town toughens you up, it doesn’t mollycoddle.
LV. What does it feel like to be published and sold in all big bookstores in New York (and not only)?
AC. Great. I used to steal my own books because I couldn’t afford them, but now I buy them to give to people I meet.
LV. Does the radio represent your personality? Americans, lots of them, know you that way. I was told so by a professor of French at NY State University. He listened to your broadcasts with delight and said he had never heard anyone talk so well and wittily and with such a great sense of humour.
AC. My best work is in my books, but most people listen to the radio. I have no idea what ‘representing my personality’ means. I intend no such thing. I just want to amuse, shock, and horrify people and make a living at it.
LV. Was exile a liberation, a trauma, an outlet? Is America your house in your dreams? Do you ever dream of Romania these days?
AC. For me at age 19, fresh from the quiet hells of Ceausescu, it was certainly a liberation. I loved my generation in America, which had the same feeling about whatever hells they’d escaped from. (Even if it was just a nice, clean suburb of Chicago). I had nostalgia for Sibiu, my hometown, but since 1989, when I covered the so-called ‘revolution’, I have returned many times and I feel quite at home in Romania now. It’s a recondite pleasure to feel at home in two worlds.