Clara Burghelea talks with writer, journalist, poet and teacher, Andrei Codrescu
You’re a writer, journalist, and poet. Why do you work in all these forms and how do they inform each other?
The genre borders are fuzzy. For me, they are nonexistent, but there is a specific gravity, or hierarchy, I assign to my work. Poetry: 100%, fiction: 80%, philosophical essay 90-100%, travel writing 40%, audio essays: 15%, political/opinion 30%. I don’t practice journalism, but notes taken on assignment or for no reason, can turn into any of the above. Think of these like alcohol: whiskey 100%, beer 10%. What makes poetry the queen of language-art is its ability to telegraph discovery without finishing a sentence. Also, the ability to transmit paradox, ambiguity, humor and surprise with swift blows. Poetry is the opposite of machine intelligence, even if an AI does eventually outdo humans at all clearly defined activities. Humas are losing the qualities listed above (paradox, ambiguity, humor) because they cannot be currently monetized. Eventually, poetry will be the only container of those things, at which point it will be the only valid currency. The long-view pro-human investor (an oxymoron, I know) will begin buying futures in poetry now. One poem @ 100% language = $1,000. In 2050 that will be $100,000. Buy now.
How does this time of relative isolation work for you?
At first, it was euphoric. After three months I became depressed. I miss people. Writing without people is like masturbation, pleasant in some way, but mostly boring. It’s worse than it was for Robinson Crusoe, who had to reinvent the world, and prepare self-defense. Crusoe also had a grateful mate. On my island I have books and screens, but they are poor imitations of life. Winter is coming, and murder or suicide seem to be the only entertainments, which is dumb and unimaginative. We are inside a rocky poetry canoe, up a raging shit creek without a paddle.
When I first arrived in Boise, in 2014, on a US Department fellowship, upon hearing I was Romanian, my boss went ecstatic: ‘I love Andrei Codrescu, the guy on NPR’. It took me by surprise since I was already used to being asked about Dracula, Transylvania, Nadia Comaneci or Ceausescu. She immediately made me listen to an episode – I still remember it. It was about you cutting the cable and experiencing severe withdrawal. Your voice on NPR simply seduced the listeners. How was that experience for you?
It was a job. I enjoyed writing for NPR every week (1983-2016), like a morning exercise: check into the world, see what’s up or down, amuse yourself in 750 words, read them out loud. In the early years the technology was clunky: I drove to a studio far from where I lived, I stepped into a “sound booth,” I did several takes for a bored engineer with a sound board as big as a house, then FedExed the recording to the NPR studio in DC. Later, I had to steal Wi-Fi from a Holiday Inn parking lot located two hours from my house, to send my pieces through the internet. When Wi Fi became available, I read the stuff in a heavily sound-proofed closet and used an M box and Pro Tools. Now I can just speak into my computer, without even having to write it down, and my voice goes out whenever I feel like it. The thing is, I feel that I exhausted the form (the prose-poem essay), and I decided not to do it anymore. I skipped some painful tech steps, but I’m recapitulating this for you with some amazement about how easy it was to write and how hard it was to get it to people. In 1983, when I started, NPR had six million listeners. When I left in 2016, it has twenty-eight million. Being in the avantgarde is not always profitable.
Your work has been translated in Romanian. How does that feel in terms of process? In your opinion, what should translators do to ensure that the writer they are translating feels seen, heard, and well represented? And what should they avoid?
Ioana Avadani and Ioana Ieronim are my best translators, therefore if your first name is Ioana you should have a go at it. I was hell on my translators because I know Romanian, so I caught all the mistakes. On the other hand, they knew better. If I had written those books in Romanian, I would have written them differently. I didn’t, so these are their books.
Working on many projects, how do you switch modes?
Different files, different moods, different seasons, different (until recently) locations, different company, different scenes, different demands and targets. As much difference as possible. If possible, no indifference.
How do you create a context for yourself and your writing?
I used to get lost on walks in unfamiliar places, find a café. I built a studio in the woods (long gone), but I mostly write now when inspired by reading. Or if I get paid, a tough gig during the age of Pandemic Zoom. Writers and artists, especially performing artists, and dancers worst of all, have a very hard time making a living. All arts that depend on smell, heat, touch, subtle body movement, are in crisis.
Does it help, as a budding writer/poet, to be involved in a variety of projects or is it better to focus on the craft only? Is variety a bonus or a perilous seduction?
That depends on the writer. I am interested in architecture, history, carpentry, music, physics – those interests help. Variety of interests, yes. Curiosity is the driver for everything. You must give the thing on the desk complete attention, for the simple reason that making (writing) something should be for the purpose of discovering something, of surprising yourself with what the thing-in-the- making is revealing to you.
In The Poetry Lesson, your teaching memoir, you introduce each poet with humor and generous detail to your sometimes blasé students. Given your teaching experience, is poetry -whether written or read- an essential skill for the young generation?
Writing poetry is the only skill the young need. Language itself is in the process of becoming poetry because the technology is stubbornly holding the user to old rules of grammar. The culprits are many, but Spell Check and Grammar Check in Word are true satanic beings created by the team of David Weise at Microsoft. David read James Joyce, so he’s not totally square, but his demon-children are sucking the vital juices of freedom from language. You can, of course, turn those things off in your computer. You do notice, on the other hand, the shortcuts in text messages, Instagram, etc. The young are reconfiguring the language to be swifter – mainly by repurposing conjunctions. However, the real reason for the young to write poetry is because it will be the currency (see above), the only commodity capable of holding the human qualities inaccessible to the algorithm.
Do you often visit Romania? If so, what is the current literary life like?
After 1989 when I went to “cover the revolution” for NPR and ABC News, I returned every year until now. I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, and started writing in Romanian again. I published three books written directly in Romanian, with one forthcoming, “Biopoezie” (Nemira, 2020). I wrote a long collaborative poem by email with Ruxandra Cesereanu, called “Submarinul Iertat” translated into into English as “The Forgiven Submarine,” (Black Widow Press) I read books and magazines, but I’m not on the ground, so my opinions are worthless.
In one of your interviews, you mentioned that during communist years, people had the luxury of time and family was at the center of their lives. Do you believe the internet and technology are stealing our time? If so, in what way? And is it our duty, as poets and writers, to document this theft? To use writing as a time capsule?
That’s an essay question, Clara. I wrote “Bibliodeath: my Archives with Life in Footnotes” (Antibookclub) in order to answer it. Yes, the internet is a faux-Akashic record that is emptying us of memory to equip future robots.
I know you have recently published a poetry collection, no time like now, a long poem dedicated to NY. What other projects are you working on?
You can hear my “Diary of the Plague” every week (more or less) on the homepage at codrescu.com, writing poetry. It’s raining. New York may turn into London yet.