A Possible Epic of Care by Andrei Codrescu and Vincent Katz, Black Widow Press, 2023.
Cover photograph by Vivien Bittencourt
An Epic Collaboration
Vincent Katz and Andrei Codrescu
On Care in the Time of Covid
a conversation with Opal Moore
Andrei Codrescu and Vincent Katz at Giorno Poetry Systems, New York City, October, 2023
Now is the moment of care it is Lynnea and all others struggling to care for those suffering those
dying at the hands of this reprehensible disease which is the disease of our civilization
Of all of the compelling language to be found in the collaborative poem A Possible Epic of Care by Vincent Katz and Andrei Codrescu, the first seven syllables of the lines quoted above—those epic dactyls—will always keep with me. Perhaps because now is how we experience time and care. And perhaps because wherever I go, I find that friends and strangers are engaged in conversations about care—anxiety about an observable lack of care in the worlds that they are living in now.
What circumstance occasioned two renowned poets to come together in collaboration on a long-form poem? An epic that not only revises the epic poetry tradition, but also may revise readers’ notions of who may be looked to in the providing of care. Can we teach ourselves to care? What are the questions that surround the work of caring? Paradoxically, the poets insist that the work done here would not have been possible except for the conditions resulting from the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing isolations, the unavailability of routine travel, the inhibition of casual or formal human engagement, and as Codrescu movingly notes, the sudden recognition of the precarity of life in the age and fragility of their mothers and the ways that “some of our vulnerabilities synchronized.”
A Possible Epic of Care begins by noting the January birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart signaling the importance of music, art and struggle in everyday life and memory. Their own two lives are immersed in the arts demonstrating the immediacy of a broad history of creative production as a tangible presence in the way that we live from day to day. Throughout this epic poem, we are reminded that we are living epic lives—that our thoughts, doubts, friendships, love affairs, and taking our mothers to get their hair done and meeting their doctors' appointments are part of the weave of what permits our humanity to express itself. These things, all of them, are how we matter in this tactile world wrapped in intangibles—breath, life, joy, friendship, and caring about what happens next. Caring about ourselves and what may be, could be beyond us.breath, life, joy, friendship, and caring about what happens next. Caring about ourselves and what may be, could be beyond us.
It is challenging to engage in a dialogue with two men of such diverse talents and contributions, and who are already in an ongoing dialogue with a complexity of ideas, histories and performances that span a good bit of the 20th century and all of what we have seen of the 21st. In this dialogue, however, they begin where we all begin, with their mothers. If we live long enough, we become the caretakers of our mothers, our fathers, and the world we inevitably inherit. From this standpoint, from that place of vulnerability, I offered a few questions that I hoped would provide an interesting entrée into an epic collaboration between two friends, artists, scholars, creators on the profound subject of care.
Opal Moore, Atlanta, 2023
From A Possible Epic of Care, read by Vincent Katz:
Ted Berrigan looms over these poems
The Sonnets is a masterpiece of modern conviction
on the 15th day of November in the year of the motorcar
a subway filled with guilt ran off the track into history.
You can collaborate on the epic of life and take possible care of business
speak with affection of your mother
but you cannot exchange mothers no matter time or space
though age ruins them and us with methodical indifference.
In Venice at his grave I quoted Pound to himself:
“What matters in the end is the quality of affection”
a line dear to me but what the cranky old bastard wrote was:
“nothing matters but the quality of affection in the end,”
something quite different that begins with “nothing”
and ends with “the end.”
Did Pound love his mother?
Maybe Olga Rudge, buried next to him, knew,
and answered if someone asked.
“All things are tragic when a mother watches,” per Frank O’Hara.
They did and do, but they are unique and we cannot trade them like cities.
Trading New York for Tokyo, for instance, makes sense.
Everybody above the first floor, because we want our stores.
Mothers, cities, women in Vogue, and poets collaborating in New York.
What more can an epic be about than stories about how we care?
But no stories are suspenseful without war. So with such matters in our care
let us recall the wars that made us poets in the days when our mothers
were young in their respective cities, countries and continents.
Won’t somebody take me out tonight?
The rest is dross. The email address of someone you care about.
Somebody will, but it will work like early Philip Glass
“To leave your house in New York now costs $30”– John Godfrey, 2019.
I first wrote 1919. We thank you Great Spirit that the Great War is over.
We love Wilfred Owen but hate the hangover!
We were seen right away by Céline
And now we have to wait and wait
Where is the doctor? Out on a limb no doubt
Jim Carroll Organic Trains more fruitful and more forthcoming
insofar as Jim was shy in Bolinas when Joanne Kyger was prying
that monkey off his back, and now that I think of it, all of us
walked around with monkeys’ claws dug deep into our backs,
hoping Joanne would pry them off, and one time she saved my life
directly, even the monkey was grateful:
a guy in a two-seater sports convertible picked me up hitchhiking
on Hway 1 from Monte Rio to Bolinas in 1975 or thereabouts
beautiful California day the Pacific 1,000 feet sparkling below the curves
of the road the driver took insanely not saying a word.
I was sure the impending plunge was a few seconds away,
which I noted, and said What’s the rush?
I was going to kill myself driving into the ocean, he said,
but felt I should take someone with me.
And that someone, I said, is me? I’m a poet I have a few more poems
to write, including one with Vincent Katz in the second decade of the next
millennium, so if you let me off right here that would be great!
Right Here was about a foot on the crest of hill off the asphalt
below which the Pacific was licking its lips of gentle waves preparing for
but hell, I’d rather have an ocean over me than eternity in a sports car with
Poet, he said. Bullshit! I’m a poet!
Well, yeah, you see, poets shouldn’t kill themselves in company, I said,
they might have to read each other’s poems forever on the other side.
What’s your name? I said Andrei Codrescu.
Bullshit! he cried. Andrei Codrescu is this old beatnik who died a long
I had no ID or book on me I believed in having nothing in those days
— except the monkey on my back — so I said I’m him I can prove it I’m
to a party in Bolinas at Joanne Kyger’s all kind of poets will be there:
Robert Creeley Jim Carroll
Lewis MacAdams Tom Clark Jim Gustafson Diane di Prima...
Bullshit, bullshit! Those are all old beatniks all dead I saw that book!
No, it’s true!
And it was! When we got to Joanne’s her yard was full of poets smoking,
drinking beer, talking all at once. Joanne, elegant and breezy in a billowing
white dress or scarf, stood regally on her second story porch looking with
psilocybin eyes on the mass of swirling poets and at the Bay beyond, and
when the guy who had decided to kill himself only if the poets he said
were dead were indeed dead braked the roadster on the dirt road of her
gate, Joanne took him in at once and saw him through his troubles. She
drew him straight to her to work magic, and last I saw he was heading
up the stairs. I fell ravenously on one of the Jims, who handed me a beer
because I looked like I really needed one. That’s the last I saw of the guy
who didn’t believe that I was alive, and who Joanne saved me from, and
possibly him, though, in my opinion, there is no saving a poet who thinks
all poets are dead. It is true that everyone in Joanne’s yard that beautiful
sparkly day in Bolinas is now dead, but I’m still alive and writing this story
in our Epic of Care for Vincent who wrote “Jim Carroll…” and it all came
back to me.
From A Possible Epic of Care, read by Andrei Codrescu:
The days of my quarantine begin to order themselves:
I recall last night’s dream: a car full of my dead relatives
arrives to make room for me to go to a great family picnic.
My young cousin still living in Alba Iulia,
an ancient town in Transylvania,
informs me that the bandit Matta has been captured.
He had killed my grandfather in 1938 but now in 2020
my grandfather is alive and tells jokes. I am it seems my father.
I must attend the picnic in Bucharest 300 km away
without delay, so I ask if she’s a robot and she laughs.
The recording of this scene is on my iPhone for a half hour.
I call it “The iPad cemetery” and I must urgently tell Tim Cook
or Bill Gates how it works before someone who reads this poem
steals it. I decide not to go the family picnic but to California,
where my friend Lewis MacAdams lives and knows everybody.
I write the above in my iPhone Notes.
During the transatlantic flight on Virgin Air
I read Waves Passing in the Night by Ren Weschler,
a book about the great music of the spheres
as discovered by the great sound designer Walter Murch.
Walter lives in Bolinas where Lewis MacAdams
and his wife Phoebe also live long before this dream.
In my dream Lewis is still the Water Commissioner
of Bolinas, the only elected job in the small town,
and also, the editor of Wet: a Magazine of Gourmet Bathing,
where I call him often just to hear the receptionist say dreamily,” Weeeat.”
Lewis conceived the 100-year-plan to resurface the Los Angeles River,
a plan that bore fruit in his lifetime.
Lewis was a poet, a gentleman, a Texan,
father of children, serious about serious things, and merry
about funny things.
He wasn’t home when my plane landed.
Lewis died last night, the night of Earth Day, April 21, 2020, in Los Angeles.
May those angels carry you to the Big Sky River, friend, Water God.
Andrei Codrescu's mother c.1940s
Andrei Codrescu and Mother c.1946
The experience of the divine encounters a force, not an individuality. –– Paul Veyne [A Possible Epic of Care, Canto Diez]
Opal Moore: My first question, Andrei and Vincent, is somewhat technical. It’s a question about your method––a reader's question, perhaps. Your two voices seem to blend together in much of this epic poem (somewhat like your mother, Vincent, mistaking you for "Andrei," or pretending to mistake you!). I often could not separate you as speakers. Does this approach hint at a philosophy of collaboration, of feeling/ friendship/art? Is there intention here?
Vincent Katz: It was actually Andrei’s mother who told him Andrei had been there! My mother had other inflections to reality. Inflections are important, as much as the point of view of the other. I feel that is definitely embedded in the poem. Our poem does not come out and state its goals, rather it finds them along the way––“taking the result as the path” or, put another way, “the path is the goal.” What was clear was the joy of collaboration, lockdown or not. We weren’t intentionally trying to blend our voices, but that’s something that happens in any friendship, relationship, where people are listening to each other.
Andrei Codrescu: Not sure when or where in our correspondence we started to see this poem emerge. I sometimes answer a friend with something of a poetic twist, and sometimes my friend picks it up and returns more poetry. I turn up the gas then, and if we enjoy the game, we really start cooking.
Collaboration is something of a religion for me. I was converted on the Lower East Side in the late Sixties by Ted Berrigan and some other poets mentioned in our ... Epic of Care. I can't remember a time when I wasn't writing poetry with friends, in San Francisco, in Sonoma County, in Baltimore, in Baton Rouge, in New Orleans ... on napkins in restaurants, on walls ... and with my students. Most of these were celebratory, but for a decade or so beginning in the mid-70s, some were elegies, as people we loved couldn't stop dying. When I returned to New York after half a century, some of my friends were still there and we started right where we left off. Vincent and I met in person on some of my brief forays to New York, but mostly in the mail when I published his work in Exquisite Corpse, a literary journal I edited from 1983-2016. I published many collaborations in Exquisite Corpse, and planned to issue an anthology of these, but never did, because there were always more poems, a river that only moved forward. The magazine itself was named after a game of collaboration practiced by the Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. "Cadavre exquis" was the first of those by Andre Breton who wrote "cadavre" and Philippe Soupault who wrote "exquis."
Very few of these back-and-forths become epic, but some do. "The Forgiven Submarine," a book-length poem in Romanian, started as an email interview, a flirtation, an essay, a polemic, and then a surreal rush of images that took over and pulled us under, a sea-monster that Ruxandra Cesereanu, my collaborator, baptized "The Forgiven Submarine," a title I'll never figure out.
In retrospect, that time of collaboration was a happy time, an era of exuberance and provocation. In the second decade of the 21st century, the world became meaner and more perilous. When Vincent and I found ourselves in quarantine, alongside billions of other humans on earth, we were both older, and in that already weird place where your children are grown but your parents need care. We are, of course, different people: Vincent is younger and his father is still active, while his mother is cared for at home. My children are adults living their own lives thousands of miles away. I never had a father and my mother was in a nursing home in Florida. I did my best to see and talk to her. I handled all her affairs since she was a powerful trouble-maker and a dedicated enemy of legal and medical authorities.
Mothers, cities, women in Vogue, and poets collaborating in New York.
What more can an epic be about than stories about how we care?
But no stories are suspenseful without war. [Canto Uno]
Alex Katz, Ada and Vincent, 1967, Oil on canvas, 96 x 72 inches
OM: I like the way these lines hint at a grand cataloging in Epic of Care, challenging the way that tradition defines the epic form as a monumental linear recounting of an heroic story. I remember an art teacher from long ago telling me that a great deal of art is accidental. The artist's gift is in knowing which "accidents" make art! Perhaps the word here is not "accident," but timing—that two friend-poets, Andrei Codrescu and Vincent Katz, each caring for his mother, come to consider life, death, time, place, art and philosophies of care. I noted that the Epic of Care is not about your mothers as much as initiated by the intimacies of sons and their mothers in the labors of care. This question is for each of you: Talking about our mothers is very difficult. So, how do your mothers' lives frame or inspire this poetry project?
VK: You are right – we were intentionally challenging traditional ideas of epic. This grew out of a workshop I taught at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, in 2015. I posited that, in our age, the idea of writing an epic of martial valor would no longer resonate. Likewise, the 20th-century forms of epic as crafted by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson, no longer worked. The last two poets, very close to our hearts, wrote epics on their towns – Paterson, New Jersey, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, respectively. In this digital age, the picture of small-town life they evoke feels ancient in itself, though no less interesting for that. We thought an epic based on care could be timely; it feels like everything, the planet itself included, is in need of the kind of focus required if we are to leave anything to future generations. Within this thinking, we started riffing, and the world revealed itself to us. Paying attention, waking up to the world, feels more urgent than ever, enabling something that spills out from the usual personal boundaries into something more collective.
In terms of our mothers, perhaps they were more tutelary spirits than frames. As you note, we do not narrate their lives or the lives of other significant elders. It is more the feeling of being nurtured that we wanted to give back, in the form of this poem. I should add that there are various formal aspects to this poem, which we were very sensitive to as we went along.
AC: Vincent is right on here: we are not narrating our mothers' lives and wouldn't if we could. "All things are tragic when a mother watches." Imagine how complex this line of Frank O'Hara's might become if in addition to being our mothers' charges we were their chroniclers! It is only at this point in their lives, when they became our charges, that we could even attempt a display of articulate affection. What is more we couldn't have done even this if the times hadn't come to our aid. Imprisoned with them or, like them, some of our vulnerabilities synchronized. The slow roll-out of the end of the world outside was also synchronized with the end of our mothers' world, a world we did not know and could not know. My own mother survived the Holocaust in Romania, the communist regime of Ceausescu, emigration to the U.S. in her middle age, her husband's death, the loss of her car keys, moving into a nursing home, evacuations before two hurricanes, two bouts of Covid, and quarantine. She lived through nearly a whole century of personal and collective disasters. I lived through some of those momentous changes with her, but I perceived them differently. Being a refugee, for instance, was a torment to my mother who never fully lived in this country in her heart or language. I, on the other hand, took to it with the hunger of a youth craving adventure, and I experienced my status ecstatically.
My mother met Vincent's mother in our poem. If the phrase sounds familiar, it is because people who intend to marry introduce their mothers to their intendeds. A collaboration at the scale of our epic is a marriage of sorts. I met Vincent's mother in person, a beautiful and welcoming presence. Vincent didn't meet mine in person but I am sure that the poem did that for him.
OM: Epic of Care is a journey, like walking across a hyperlinked geography of music, art and cities, especially New York in all of its vibrancy. The quote at the beginning of this article appears beneath images of the Unisphere, a monumental remnant of the New York World's Fair 1964 that Robert Moses called "a symbol of man's achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe." Covid is one of man's achievements, one might say. And we could name other viruses that plague us. Why is the Unisphere included here? How does Epic move through and around the question of “man’s achievements?”
VK: This is a good question! Though we moved away from Williams’s and Olson’s conceptions, we maintained an important inheritance from them and others––acknowledging the significance of one’s contemporaries, not just in age, but in shared interests and philosophies. Andrei and I both were affected by the revolutions of the 1960s, and we believe in their essential, ongoing struggles for liberation, equality and respect. During the lockdown period of 2020 and 2021, a number of our friends and mentors in the poetry world passed away. These were events that occurred while we were writing, just like music that was playing on the radio, and we included them, all the time thinking of ways we could be musicians ourselves, blending these external facts into the tapestry of the poem.
AC: Vincent answered this well for both of us. I would only add that for me the Unisphere marked the end of my daily three-mile morning walk to Corona Park at the height of the pandemic. The neighborhood around Corona Park in Queens was one of the most seriously affected places on the planet. The park, site of the World's Fair, was deserted at the time, with the rusted ruins towering over it. I made it a personal ritual to walk around the Unisphere three times to heal the world. The Corona itself was another steel monument that looks just like the image of the virus that we saw at this time, a spiky crown on the sick head of our civilization.
It’s all about the pushing and ultimate balance.
Leon Fleisher playing Piano Concerto 23 of Mozart with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra…
Thank god for the adagio
OM: What might the sound scape for Epic include? I don’t mean a list of works (that’s a long list!) I’m interested in how music/poetry create a landscape for the stories and questions raised within this work: Alice Coltrane, Handel’s opera Agrippina, jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, et. al, including the quirky Daniel Defoe’s A Journal Of the Plague Year—not musical, but for the aural zeitgeist. We are reminded, early on, that Plato exiled the poets from his Republic. Might we characterize this work—so dense in poetry and music— praise song or elegy? And how does it speak to the question of care? (I think of the artists who performed in cities (and in the land of Zoom) attempting to “sooth the savage breast.”)
VK: It would be interesting to annotate the years of composition or release of the music cited in A Possible Epic of Care. A lot of it congregates around the years 1969-1974, important years in our own growth, and in the expansion of consciousness in the country and world at large, something that pops up at various points in the poem. It starts, though, with Mozart, quickly including his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte; words and music have always been linked, since the earliest days of humanity. And since this is an epic poem, albeit a different species, we were always conscious of Homer and Vergil and other predecessors. The DJs get a shout out too – in this case the sequence who take listeners to WQXR’s classical music through every weekday. And the performers and recording information seem appropriate too, a nod of respect to those chroniclers and DJs before Spotify, who provided the useful service of collecting and disseminating that information. It will always be useful. I don’t think our poem is praise or elegy per se, though it contains those things; it seems to be something more distanced, a practice that allows joy to arise in daily occurrences. Care begins in attention, paying attention to what is going on with others and the light one sees every day.
AC: Correcto mundo. And voila Opal, this is where you enter our Epic as a possible collaborator. Can you curate the music to stream along with this interview? And add a QR code for anyone who wants to listen? This is obviously dreaming the impossible dream (expensive rights!) so take it as poet fever...
Under the circumstances writing is heroic. [Canto Siete]
OM: This work launched in the year 2020 with birthdays— Mothers and Mozart! Also the noise of civil and civic fracture marked by the storming of the U.S. Capitol and the spectacle killing of George Floyd. But there is a narration of solitude here, in Epic, sometimes noted with musical compositions, sometimes in the poetry itself. I would like to ask for your thoughts on how solitude informs this unusual voicing of time and place. I did not sense loneliness or the bereft in this Covid-era work (except for Anthony Bourdain?)
VK: I’m glad you mentioned Bourdain. It could seem like one more cultural blip on the screen, but his story, his love of travel, of people, imbued with the sadness of his death, gave every episode of his shows an unexpected impact. We could travel with him while also knowing the trip is finite. It is very important to both of us to recognize the tragedies of the world we live in and also the resistant energy. The whole world was energized by the killing of George Floyd and others. I was with my family in the country for part of 2020, so it was a specific kind of isolation. I missed out on the ritual banging of the pots, though I, like so many others, saw it from afar. It was interesting to learn a little of what it is like to live far from the centers. I was cheering all the Black Lives Matter protests, but I would have been participating in them, had I not chosen to isolate myself. It was a fragmented time in many ways. The poem, again, became a vehicle for experiencing things, whether near at hand or in distant parts of the country or world.
AC: You are right, Opal. Paradoxically, at times, the pandemic did not isolate. On the contrary, it brought together many people in defiant marches and civil disobedience. I was reminded of the years 1967-1970 when I came to the US, those chaotic and marvelous years of rebellion. The great protests of the 2020 pandemic were better organized and focused. We did learn a few things in the following years, after Watts, Detroit, 1968, and Occupy Wall Street. I walked in one eerie George Floyd protest march with thousands of masked demonstrators.
my mother almost a century old the light flickers
at the end of the tunnel the light is exhausted it flickers….
my mother all skin and bones a little thing
passed from hand to hand a light thing….
Vincent & Ada Katz, 1980, NYC, NY. Photo: Nick Maravell
OM: It seems you had trouble bringing this work to an end. Canto Doce begins and ends with the declaration, “I don’t want anything to end.” I immediately wondered why this collaborative work ends on 12. Did either of you have a mystical or spiritual interpretation in mind? There are various readings on the significance of the number. I like the idea that 12 signifies harmony, new beginnings, positive changes—like the recursive and healing nature of Nature. The ending carries a provocative refrain: If anything ends … Please talk about this engagement with endings.
VK: We chose 12 Cantos because, traditionally, in Ancient Greek and Roman poetry, the epic was divided into either 24 or 12 books. We chose the word Canto as a nod to [modernist poet] Ezra Pound, who in turn was nodding to Dante, and put the Canto numbers in Spanish. Interestingly Canto Doce begins and ends with a sports freeze-frame. This was not intentional; rather it shows the way life creeps into the poem, or what we allow to creep in becomes intentional. The first freeze-frame is of an athlete, while the second, near the end, is of two fans, members of the public. In some way, we are both in this poem––we are the actors as the composers of the poem, and we are the public, as the observers of and listeners to so much daily cultural information. We don’t want anything to end, yet we know everything does. We contemplate ending but don’t, not yet. The difference between art and life is you do have some control in art. There’s an important short stanza that is easy to skip over, about the daily rhythms of birds (“The birds have quieted down/They’ve done their evening song”). Nature marks its own endings, and we include those in everything we are trying to notice. “I don’t want anything to end” seemed like a good ending ultimately.
AC: Vincent is the scholar here. I didn't want it to end because our poem was a way out of quarantine, even as the world was starting to stream out of its nests. I did a great deal of reading, listening, thinking and making notes on my iPhone during this enforced and stressful, but at times oddly comforting rest. In this go-go world, even a few hours seem like a blessing. Two years is obviously too much, but stopping was also a way of recharging and becoming mindful.
OM: Vincent, Andrei, we could have said much more about this work! Especially the formal and experimental pursuits of the epic as collage in the way that the poem “discovers what it is about” through layering of time and feeling, music and color, history and politics, and the presences of the “tutelary spirits” (I really love that) of your/ our mothers in a world greatly in need of care. And I do agree—something happens when people are listening to each other! Thank you for this and more.
Thursday, November 30, 2023 • 6:30 - 8:30pm EST
Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation
87 Eldridge Street
New York, NY 10002
Andrei Codrescu is a poet, novelist, essayist and screenwriter. He was a regular commentator on NPR and editor of Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Books & Ideas (1983-2016). Among his many accolades, he is the winner of the Peabody Award for his film Road Scholar.
Andrei Codrescu, photo: Vincent Katz
Vincent Katz is a poet, translator, scholar and critic. His numerous poetry collections include Broadway for Paul (2020), Southness (2016), and Swimming Home (2015). He was awarded the National Translation Award for The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius (2004).
Vincent Katz, photo: Vivien Bittencourt
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.
Opal Moore, photo: Marie Thomas