Andrei Codrescu, photo: Noah Krueger
with Opal Moore
The Art of Forgetting: new poems
Sheep Meadow Press, 2016
The Poetry Lesson
Princeton University Press, 2010
no time like now: Poems
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019
In times like these, what does one ask a poet? Or, of a poet? This is what I asked myself as I prepared to offer questions to poet and intellectual provocateur Andrei Codrescu for TAS’s virtual dialogue.
Codrescu is a poet whose poetry reminds us why poets periodically become targets for vilification, arrest and lockdown. It is not the poet who calls for revolution who is most feared; more often, it is the poet who does not rhyme; who wields the sharp edge of wit and laughter and ridicule against the absurdities of power unchecked and unquestioned. It is the poet who reminds us that the cave of shadows demands volunteers, if we notice that the exit is impeded by no more than the pebbles (boulders?) of cowardice, comfort and convention.
Codrescu is known to listeners of National Public Radio (NPR) for his long-standing presence as commentator, specializing in dilemma. In two minutes he is able to ripple the still pond of consumer complacency with a single pebble, as with his 2013 riff on future, in “The Future is Here: Is It 1950?” To NPR, his gift has been to tap, gently, our sleeping third eye into brief attention.
Born in Transylvania, Romania, Codrescu has said that he was purchased for $10,000 by Israel, but saw no reason to honor such a contract. Instead of going to Israel, he immigrated to Detroit, Michigan, in 1966. He recalls that, in Detroit, “a revolution was in progress. Tanks of the 82nd Airborne and National Guard rolled down Woodward Avenue….” (That revolution was not just in the streets. Dudley Randall, in 1965, had begun, quietly, to build the infrastructure for the emergence of a movement in Black poetry.) Codrescu later moved to New York where he connected with a diverse and dissident community of poets and artists.
Poet Codrescu has published numerous books of poetry and prose, including License To Carry A Gun (1970), The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess (2009), The Art of Forgetting (2016), No Time Like Now (2019), and numerous other works. Journalist Codrescu returned to Romania in 1989 to cover the fall of the Ceausescu regime for NPR and ABC News (see, The Hole in the Flag: An Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution). He is the founding editor of The Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Books and Ideas. He continues to write for various news organs and publish new poetry.
In too many words I have failed to get at the Andrei Codrescu that those who know him would describe: one who defies adjectives unless, perhaps that adjective is “fun”— if fun is the unspecified delight of being in the company of a man who reads and thinks and perhaps even laughs in multiple languages, not just in English. A man very likely smarter than you but charming enough you forget to mind.
Editura Nemira, 2021
A Bar in Brooklyn: Novellas & Stories
Black Sparrow Press 1999
New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing from the City, Algonquin Books, 2006
Opal Moore: You have said that genre borders are “fuzzy” for you. I thought it useful to consider the ways that you perforate the borders of genre. New Orleans, Mon Amour: 20 Years of Writing From the City (2006) is a wonderful portrait of that unique culture. To portray its complexity, you blend essay, poetry and travelogue. It is a paean to the people of the city—its food, its music, its spirit. It is also a post-Katrina elegy for a way of life.
Following an acerbic documentation of the governmental response to Katrina (“11th Day of Hell!”) you conclude quite coolly, “The American Dream came unmoored in New Orleans.” Your poetic look at the history, geography and transformation of a city after neglect and then the storm made me wonder: have you written about another storm—the storming of the U.S. Capitol, a national unmooring?
Andrei Codrescu: Genre borders are fuzzy because words weren't born in predestined forms, like essays, poetry, or prose. Those are optional modes of play, and cultural imperatives. When I started writing in stalinist Romania, poetry was the only form of expression that allowed for free expression because spacing accommodated the unsayable, and devices like metaphor and syntax could claim an enlightening obscurity -- it was the highest form, in my adolescent mind, because it could be understood in opposite ways by censors and by opponents of the regime. Poetry was and is subversive by default. Poetry is my own default mode, but it has unimpeachable enemies, like Milan Kundera in "Life is Elsewhere," for example, and friends that might as well be out to kill it, like creative writing programs. Prose is simply the whole page filled with words, without the breaks and detours that identify poetry. Prose is the default mode of the zeitgeist now: reportage, reports, opinion, fiction. Advertising imitates poetry, but its clear target is the prose reader.
Before elementary school in my hometown I spoke three languages without knowing that they were different languages. With my mother and my nanny, Fraulein Ilse, I spoke German. With my friend Peter I spoke Hungarian. With my friend Ion I spoke Romanian. When I got to school, taught in Romanian only, borders were inserted. In school, we were taught Latin, French, and Russian with an Austro-Hungarian wooden ruler across the knuckles. We were also made to kneel on rice for misconjugating. My brain froze for ten years. Took a while to dissolve those borders, but I knew and never could not know, that each language had a certain weight set by the zeitgeist like denomination on currency. Speaking German was OK in Hermanstadt but it was no good in Bucharest. French could buy you a loaf of bread in Bucharest (if you could find bread), but Romanian might even get you a ham. Hungarian was OK with my grandmother but could get you beat up on the street in Ploiesti. French could get you laid in Bucharest, but Russian earned you a black eye. Latin didn't do anything. Well, it did make it easy to mooch a free sandwich from the nuns later in Rome, in 1965, when I left Romania.
After emigrating to America, writing essays for newspapers was a way to make a precarious living. These were mostly observations about things I noticed around me, subjective impressions that contained at least 10% poetry. I thought of poetry as whiskey at 90%. I liked telling stories, so I wrote fiction, a capacious medium where poetry ranged quite freely, mixed with the mundane, the sensational, and every other pop culture or philosophical speculation that I forced my characters to indulge in. I also started "teaching writing," another means to get paid for my respect for genre. In the end, all those straight-faced games with forms resolved themselves quite harmoniously, just like the different languages I spoke as a child were not different languages, but simply means of communicating with certain people who made different sounds.
In New Orleans, play is the religion and opium of the natives, so the carnival suited me perfectly. I was twice King of Mardi Gras parades: the electors liked my newspaper columns and my radio reports on their complex and incomprehensible city. I later titled a book in Romanian, "Miracle and Catastrophy," two well blended situations for this multilingual new orleanian. The U.S. has generally followed those two historically grounded paths to January 6 2021, a horrendous political carnival that had many clear precedents in New Orleans. I haven't written about the politics of the present because I have an overwhelming sense of déja-vu. I think I've been there, seen that since I was Stalin's child. I am bored to death by the apocalypse, I'm just waiting for a miracle.
To answer your question after the detour above, New Orleans is where poets and conspirators must go to exercise ambiguity, crime, and climate extinction, that is, poetry with missing boundaries. The curse of the prophetic avant-garde in a city like New Orleans, is that by the time the rest of the country gets there, it's just annoying old news.
OM: Andrei, you immigrated to the U.S. in 1966. You have been a citizen of the U.S. nearly as long as I have (if real citizenship begins at voting age). One admirer of your film, Road Scholar, referred to you in the blurb as a “jaded outsider.” Are you an outsider (though you’ve been here more than 50 years)? If so, what does an outsider poet see that perhaps a “jaded” insider might not?
AC: "Outsider" is a profession as well as a condition. I still have a Romanian accent in English. I am told that if you emigrate after the age of fourteen, you will always speak with an accent, but I met enough exceptions to know that this might not be the case. An accent has to be cultivated, along with other differences. Coming to the U.S. for me meant and means the cultivation of differences. It is what makes this country interesting, and shopping malls and "English only" politics boring. The possibility of freely and openly using your differences for instruction and amusement is the essential fact of this country. If politicians and bad poets with a restricted vocabulary and a tight ass have their way, we will become a province of the province, more provincial and tasteless than... I can't even think of an idiot village more unbearable than what America might become. I am thinking of opening "Accent Schools," to teach citizens to talk funny and flaunt difference. It's my retirement plan. I'm not "jaded"; au contraire, I dread that attitude more than spleen.
In 1988 I wrote a book, an essay, called "The Disappearance of the Outside: a Manifesto for Escape." This was written a year before the suicide of communism in Europe. Since then, I am amazed how fast and how often "the inside" and "the outside" exchange places. I try to stay outside, but it's the toughest job there is in Zuckerberg's virtual universe.
OM: You have selected a group of quite intriguing poems to share with TAS. A common thread seems to be the effects, or side effects, of our technologies on our bodies, and the flattening of words. “Dear Meat” takes the form of a letter to the human body—“a planned obsolescence.” In “How Chaos Works,” stories no longer have the power to inhabit us. We have outsourced meaning-making to the accountants!
You have joked that you miss the communist censors. “They were the best readers.” After reading The Posthuman Dada Guide, I wondered if these poems bear the mark of DADA? Do we need Dada?
AC: We definitely need Dada! We need Dada if we want to experience the millions of senses of our flesh bodies. Years ago, in 1996, one of the founders of VR (virtual reality) in Seattle, told me that, at long last, "reality has a competitor." Since then, virtuality has won: we live in the glass house of tech under supervision, and feed AI (artificial intelligence) our historical and personal memory. Dada provides the tools for sabotage, the boomerang techniques that can, maybe, break through to the devastated flesh. I say "maybe" because in addition to the simulacra of AI, we now have post-plague Stockholm Syndrome. In "Dear Meat," it is AI addressing the human body, faking even compassion and nostalgia, two sentiments considered cyber-proof until yesterday. The only thing that, so far, AI can't imitate is Black Dada Humor, which is a form of paradox that, like some Yves Tanguy's sculptures, self-destructs. This is the job of poetry: to erase itself as it unfolds. A pro-body, anti-tech defensive suit is made of a self-erasing material that satisfies without leaving any trace of memory behind. It is good to feel but you cannot, under any circumstances, remember what it was that made you feel that way. You should not even remember how you felt, but this may not be so urgent (I think). As for "the mark of Dada," the great thing about Dada is that [Dada] has no style. All poems bear the mark of Dada, aka the Mark of the Beast, thank you.
OM: In your podcast episode “Google & Fish” you visit the “genius” builders of Cyberspace and Virtual Reality. You offer listeners a tour of the inevitable arrivals of these virtual spaces. And then, you sign off with a warning: We are trading barely known worlds for comfort zones. We are trading trees for lumber. My last question is about imagination. What will we get in trade for our capacity to imagine a real world instead of a far away galaxy on Star Wars?
AC: Good question. We will be rewarded for our technical progress with extinction.
What's your point?
Yes, you were ahead of your time when you presented your
dystopia to the class, but nobody applauded. That was one
hundred + years ago. It was hubris. It was the same hubris that
propels you now, but it is no longer prescience or vision, it is
Your body got there along every other body, though yours is
experiencing extreme ennui. Been there -- in my mind. There is
a bitter-sweet quality to retrovisionary ennui. If anything, one-
way meat was always planned obsolescence.
Look at me now: I move, I sing, I fuck, and I feel no pain. And
I don't have just one body, I have many, of every sex, color and
dimension. What do you mean it doesn't smell? See that little
icon of a huffing nose with expanded nostrils on the right side
of your screen? Push it and the effluvia menu pops up. Smell to
die for wafts out. You're in the bubble bath of infinity smelling
like a rare orchid or a vile cabbage turd. When you had your
meat-body you never had such olfactory possibilities. Here are
one million orgasms impossible in meat-space. Death has been
When you move into the virtual world, you don't need much.
No clothes, no furniture, no shoes, no school. You simply walk
into the blindingly white screen holding your tablet. When meat
dies the memory of you stays behind within the meat-memory
of those who knew you. They will soon follow, tablets clutched
like genitals at an army physical.
When your meat body dies, you won't: there will be enough
copies to eliminate the embarrassment of regret -- as a copy
reaches another copy there is no need for tears. I am you.
Our lives, as narrated by engineers, are a still unsophisticated
now. The will get better when they bots will understand
neurally how we think. My first reality-replacement was the
light-switch in our apartment: I turned it on and it wasn’t night
anymore. I lived with that all my meat-life, keeping two
realities in mind simultaneously: it was night and it was day,
too, it was dark and it was light at the same time. The reality-
replacing machine made things interesting. For animals it is
always dark at night -- unless they live with us.
There is no such thing as an avant-garde body, only a mind
located in meat.
Suicide is the only avantgarde. With the flesh gone, we live
dream: may 9, 2020
On july 28, 1938 Walter Benjamin went to see his friend Bertold Brecht
who lived in a room at the top of a labyrinth of staircases.
Some stairs led upward, others downward. Benjamin found himself
standing on a summit looking out across the country. He saw others
standing at other heights looking out at the trees and cathedrals.
One of these people was seized by vertigo and plunged down.
The giddiness spread: other people plunged from various heights.
This feeling seized him too but Benjamin got a grip on himself.
He was visiting Brecht a thinker, a poet who would tell him
how this building came to be. He might have even had it built,
a stage set for an epic play, a Greek-sized tragedy with stairs
for the choir. He arrived in Brecht's room nauseated but hopeful.
They discussed the inevitable: the communist dream was dead.
In the Soviet Union Stalin had erased the last of their beloved arts
constructivism in poetry, painting, architecture and philosophy,
replacing everything with the Hallmark postcard of socialist realism.
Happy pioneers with red cravats led joyful dogs to the ledges
metaphors on fire
There are no passive or reversible metaphors
You turn something into something else
It stays that way
other lives other species other times
they were once metaphors
prototypes transformed by utility
a horse was metaphors an ant
"a cigarette is a glass of milk" (1970 anthem)
There’s a lot of wisdom on television
it was once a newspaper blown by the wind
the play of life and death
the daily search for food
pidgeons on the roof
the fight for survival
is fun violent alcoholic
once it was a love shop
death is a ghost dog
indigenous people kill for food
responsible for our own economy
we are a small group of metaphors
where everyone turns everyone
into whatever feeds the overt mood
my matter will go into the forms
of matter my comrades oddly need
I am lucky to have this matter
and time to have matter
in the Horror Dome we poets soothe
by moving the camera now hyperclose now far
mysteries multiply when we bring over friends
for the plague's inexhaustible menu
our black & white childhoods
blissful under the rain umbrellas
of ancient classrooms
release a wealth of phantoms
"the drone of history bent to ideology"
describes what is malleable
inside the novel of metaphor
a rain of words in the taste buds of any soul
directing its affections and weakness
to our metaphors
palliatives for a world of loss
language poverty madness
ungendered lump of memes
progress man said then he was bird
can you believe it
coincidences are getting more numerous
because we have more time to notice them
when time runs out everything will be random
until then let's play decypher
the party game of which we are as fond now
as we were once of sex
the coincidentiae opositorum
life is a milles feuilles napoleon
in the before
we had defenses against this sort of thing
one of them was work
others were Intercourse & company
our enemy coincidence was almost out of sight
how chaos works: the wearing away of affections
what are stories? they are aliens who unfold
their bodies to gain human attention
but participation is work
we don’t want to work any longer
we live in utopia
we want our stories told by numbers
let the accountants do both the counting and the accounting
the electronic storyteller born of numbers
tells stories so that we humans might dream ourselves
into different creatures superhumans
language and superhumans were born
successively in dream-time rogue pals
in the temples of communication
rebel narratives constantly improving technologies
supernatural bodies are supernatural-looking
they shape-shift to fully manifest their draw
they may or may not have once been human
they are aliens without center searching for something
to take their place their chief desire
is to abandon humans to their stories
Andrei Codrescu is a Romanian-born American poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and commentator for National Public Radio. He is the winner of the Peabody Award for his film Road Scholar and the Ovid Prize for poetry.
Andrei Codrescu in Clug, Romania
photo: Ruxandra Cesereanu
Opal Moore, a native Chicagoan, is a veteran teacher of creative writing and African American women’s literature. She is the author of Lot’s Daughters, a poetry collection that one reviewer described as “passionate slices of African American womanhood.” Her fiction and poetry have appeared in anthologies and journals, including the Boston Review; Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, the Notre Dame Review, Connecticut Review, Honey, Hush! An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor, and Homeplaces: Stories of the South by Women Writers.