Fall 2009, #16
       "Woodchuck vs. the Hank Williams Zombie"

The Genetics of Poetry: An Interview with Andrei Codrescu

In February 2009, an interview may have taken place at the University of Central Arkansas between the acclaimed poet Andrei Codrescu and students in Professor Mark Spitzer's poetry workshop. This interview could have occurred in the imagination of the witty Romanian-American writer, or any of the students listed below, or it could have happened in what humans term "reality." In any case, here it is.

Alan Strain: What do you think is the least important thing we could talk about?

Andrei: Writing. It's everywhere, our world is very text based. It is used to describe every aspect of our lives, even our DNA is text-based. We live in a sea of text. So it's both too complicated and too plain to discuss.

Ben Davis: I'm interested to know what poets you read as a student. Who did you read regularly?

Andrei: I think the reason I edit a literary magazine and the reason we read literary magazines is to find new people to read. I could list authors to you right now, but most of the people I read were not in English so they have been translated, and some have been translated two and three and four times. I'd say that by the age of nineteen a poet should have about twenty-five writers they read regularly, and be able to recite them forwards and backwards. In their sleep.

Melissa Conley: What is the strangest thing you've ever gotten inspiration from in your poetry?

Andrei: Mmm, boy. I'm not sure what you mean by strange. I mean, this is strange, what we're doing now. Bizarre, in fact. Having lived a number of years on the planet, I've experienced an awful lot of strange things, some of which inspired me directly and some which I've forgotten and inspired me indirectly. I don't worry about forgetting things, because if somebody is also there they will remember. So you can trust your existence to the memory of others if they happen to be around. I think I've inspired a number of works because we were in a strange situation. I will have to think about the word "strange."

Spitzer: Hermaphrodites?

Andrei: I've never known any genuine hermaphrodites. I saw a gravestone in Italy... and the gravestone said in the Etruscan language—which actually is unknown but they were able to read this patch—it said... "Father, priest, and hermaphrodite." One of the more mysterious inscriptions of all time. I want to know how you do all those things. But anyways, yeah.

Katie Matthew: I was reading an interview you did with 3am. I think it was pretty old, but I was reading it last night when I was trying to come up with questions for today, and there was a little bit of vulgarity and a lot of sexual references, and I've found that a lot in poetry more recently, and I'm finding it in my poetry. I wonder why we're doing that now.

Andrei: You think that my vulgarity is migrating into yours? That interview was done at 3:00 am in a bar in New Orleans with the very beautiful Utahna Faith, who is a poet herself, and I'm sure there's plenty in there that I don't remember having said at the time and then it showed up on the Internet and so now I'm haunted forever. But, to answer your question, I think that people often write the language that they speak. They speak a language that is made more vivid by the occasional so-called vulgarity. The health of a written language is usually in those things that are not written for a long time. When you write down things you say but haven't written they suddenly acquire a kind of power.

Tara Walls: Do you feel like you write poems for yourself or do you feel like you write poems to appease other people?

Andrei: I write poems to appease the gods because they are angry about what we are doing to nature and the planet, so I am trying to make them happier so that we can get things right.

Emily Hansen: I've read quite a few of your Internet interviews.

Andrei: I'm sorry.

Emily: No, they're interesting, but in one you talk about how many more submissions you get for the Exquisite Corpse since it's gone online. What do you think the ease of online publication is doing to poetry? Is it good for American poetry or is it hurting it?

Andrei: Well, I think it's done a lot of good for those new poets, but when you sit down and write it out and send it away, you don't have as much time to read it. There could be three or four meanings you didn't see when you wrote it, so in that way, it may be bad. But like any new medium, we have to wait and see what the Internet will do for poetry.

Stephanie Darnell: How do you develop place for your poetry and how do you make it vivid for your readers?

Andrei: I think place develops your poem rather than the other way around. I don't think you necessarily need to put in the most vivid aspects of the place you live in. New Orleans is a very vivid city. As my friend Tom Robins says, "too damn vivid." It's very easy to put in all the things that people know about New Orleans like Mardi Gras and music and all this stuff—all the imagery that is associated with the city—so you don't want to do that. You want to cut that out. Let the place speak to you in other ways, that are not touristic, or too well known.

New Orleans is a very hard city to write in for that reason and it's difficult to make a film there. And all the movies you see that have New Orleans in them… they either go overboard and use too much of the character of the city because it's so photogenic, it's so interesting. Or they try to stay away from it and be more severe and not use it at all. So in a way, the place will speak through you and you don’t have to worry about describing the climate and the hills and all that.

Timothy Snediker: I wonder how much living in a place of culture informs and affects your poetry. Because culture is everywhere, but here in Conway, it's not as culturally rich a place as New Orleans. So I didn't know how that would affect the way you write.

Andrei: I like old cities because they're comforting. Because everywhere you sit, someone else sat before, and then died. Like in a restaurant. So the air is thick with ghosts, with presence. And so that is culture. You get this transmission that happens in mysterious ways.

Madeline Philips: How did you end up in New Orleans?

Andrei: I went there on Mardi Gras to visit a friend in 1983. He said "Come on over. There will be about 100 people staying here. This is the floor, and the whole city is friends of mine. And I have to go now." And I didn't see him for the next three days. I thought "This is a terrific city, where people let you stay at their place and not worry about you. You can be gone for three days." That was the beginning.

Then I went there for a job at LSU in Baton Rouge, but I couldn't quite live in Baton Rouge because it seemed awfully sterile, and New Orleans was just so much more alive, so I commuted.

Toni Odom: What is your most commonly asked question as a touring poet/writer?

Andrei: Are you single? Can you come to my house for a drink? Can you publish my poetry? Can you give me some money? Do you like me? Am I great?

Landon Glover: Do you like me?

Andrei: Yes, I like you, Landon.

Landon: What do you think about rules when it comes to writing poetry? Are there any rules? Or are there rules but they're made to be broken?

Andrei: There are only rules. The majority you make up yourself as you go along. Others are made up for you. For instance, if you are writing on an 8½ by 11 sheet you can't go over that, because if you do you'd be writing on the desk. The same thing goes about the computer because the word program will limit you to certain things even if you turn off spell check, which I hope you do—for poetry. Actually, it is grammar check which is a true horror. I know the guy who wrote that and I've given him hell on a number of occasions. His name is David Weise and he works for Microsoft. Don't tell anybody.

But there are rules, and it's fun to make up rules yourself. I mean, it's fun to set out to do a work and say: This work will have exactly fourteen lines like a sonnet. But it won't be a sonnet, or it will have twenty-two lines, or it will have a new kind of form. Like ten people I would like to meet. That kind of form, you know? Or the ten best-dressed people in my class, and you write their names. Those are your rules, you can make up forms. It's an ingenious art if you play with the idea of rules as yours to play with.

Meg Houston: I was interested in talking about avant-garde. Do you feel that your avant-garde spirit—which is evident in your poetry—was harbored in your youth as a Romanian revolutionary poet? That is to say, do you feel an impulse to break boundaries?

Andrei: We'll start with the last part. Yes, I do feel an impulse to break boundaries, but I think that goes for every writer. Every time I see the word "avant-garde" I want to write "TM" next to it. It's historical now. It used to be a military term meaning that you were ahead of everybody else. It kept that sense in the twentieth century for a long time because writers and artists had a lot of social constraints and political constraints to work against. That certainly held true for places like Romania, the Soviet Union, and the Communist world where we were censored heavily, so for me to be sixteen years old, I felt like I was going to get into trouble imminently with my poetry. It was a very heavy feeling. It felt terrific. I knew that actually writing something could land me in jail, which was such a marvelous thought! I could actually write something and get arrested for it—it was just tremendous. You can too. What we had to do was write a metaphor which could be interpreted differently—avant-garde.

I discovered poets between the wars: the Romanians, Europeans, Americans who pushed the language much further than it had been, because all through the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries language fell into all sorts of ruts. In the twentieth century writers and artists all of a sudden felt like they had an obligation to renew language and break through. Really, you can trace the term "avant-garde" to 1909 in the Futurist manifesto published by F.T Marinetti in Italy, which was then followed by a whole lot of movements: Dada, Surrealism, Synchronism, Sound poetry, abstract art, etc, etc. So you can't help but be part of the avant-garde tradition.

Meg: Do you think it's in all poets then?

Andrei: Yes, any poet who reads. They better read anyway. But yeah, the work is changing, so what you make of it now is truly interesting. We live in a synergy time of different kinds of ideas and forces, and recently environmental ideas which have always had a place in writing but now suddenly we are meshing our practical concerns with writing in an environmentally conscious way. There is still a lot of work to do. But that's what it means to be avant-garde—to break boundaries.

Meagan Jones: What message do you want readers to get from your works?

Andrei: Oh, that is easy. I want my readers to become happy after reading my poems. I think there is too much unhappiness in this world and we need to be happier. We also need to have courage. I had a teacher who taught me courage when I came here. I want my readers to smile, be happy, and have some courage after they get done reading some of my poems.

Angie Noggle: Do you find that your poetry is different here in America?

Andrei: Oh sure. I was only nineteen when I left Romania and only spoke Romanian. In Romania we speak in very literal terms. When I came to America I went to the New York School of Poetry, where they taught me how to look at things like toasters. Where I was from in Romania we were poor and didn't have the material things we do here in America.

Anthony Natalie: You speak both Romanian and English. Which do you prefer to write in?

Andrei: I actually speak more than that. My first language is German. I lived in a city with a mix of people. I would speak German, Russian, Hungarian, and I wouldn't realize it. I just believed those were the ways you talked to different people. I never knew they were different languages until I started school, which actually made it more difficult to speak, because my brain would tell itself "You don't know this." For instance, once I was talking to this Japanese man and I was speaking Japanese until my brain said "Hey, you can't speak Japanese" and I froze.

I believe language is split into two categories: gibberish, which I speak quite well, and the language of the gods, who make up everything. You, me, everything is language. Language is code and code is text, and we are text-based down to our DNA. With variations of the same four letters. We are puppeteers to language and language is God.

At that point, the sky became kaleidoscopic, the air took on the texture of wool, and even sound began to moo. The imagination/s that may have created the experience above might've gone into overtime, or maybe they just smelled like rain. No one knows. Not the Mayor, not the Priest, not even Hello Kitty, descending in a bathysphere.