English, please / Literature

“We’ll Be an Egg, with One Eye and One Finger”

By Andra Matzal, Photos by Adi Bulboacă

Published on 27 October 2016

Even though Andrei Codrescu says he hasn’t slept since 1968, the morning we met, he looked as if he had just woken up. You could hear cars honking and sirens outside the Bucharest hotel, where he ordered “A double espresso. No, triple, quadruple!” I took a few more sips of the coffee I had brought along with me, the one I had precariously balanced on the bus, on my way there. It’s such a comforting feeling to meet with a person you don’t know for such a simple and inherently human routine, such as the morning coffee. Or you know them through their books, as they are already present in your mind, in an imaginary library, where they taught you how to do various things, made you laugh or annoyed you, without them even having a clue they were doing it.

That’s how I knew Andrei Codrescu; from Mesi@ (Messiah), where I was amused by the fact that Dante and Tesla were thriller buddies in the Armageddon; from Wakefield, a novel I read in college, in a jolly apartment inside a communist building. I had accompanied him throughout post-communist Romania in Gaura din steag (The Hole in the Flag) and through America’s nooks and crannies in Prof pe drumGhidul dada pentru postumani (The Posthuman Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess) – I read this one twice and I highlighted lots of phrases, such as this one: „Today, almost everything you’re wearing or thinking that gives you the slightest bit of subversive pleasure comes from a dead Dadaist”. For Lecția de poezie (The Poetry Lesson), I mentally checked how many of those 10 tools of poetry I had and what else I needed. Aside from these, and many other written or spoken texts, such as the NPR sound bits -, I knew him thanks to his poetry. Because, first and foremost, Andrei Codrescu is a poet. He says that for every prose he wrote, he kept a minimum 10% of poetry in it: “just like whisky in a coffee, and in this case the whisky is the poetry”.

He left Romania in 1966, when he was just 19 and set up camp in the US, where he lived life at the crossroads of arts, in metropolises, and “in a cave”, where he met people and places that were almost utopic. All this time, he didn’t stop writing and until not long ago, he taught literature and several universities. Actually, he mentions that he taught “sabotage and reading”. Sometimes, during his classes, the words were written directly on the body, other times, on fruit, and in the end, the poetry ended up being eaten whole. He claims that at one point, he paid his students not to write. But some didn’t resist the temptation.

Before he left on a tour through several cities in Romania, I met with Andrei Codrescu in Bucharest, a city he says would take him too many years to understand. When he returned from Craiova, Zalău and Cluj, I saw him again in an amphitheater at the Faculty of Letters, a few days after Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “I am ecstatic”, he said when Dylan came up. He was talking nonchalantly in Romanian, with an American accent, about the autobiography he wrote when he was 23, about poets and a book he thought was lost, but was returned to him, ten years later, under mysterious circumstances.

I’ll turn on my recorder, because unfortunately I don’t have a good memory.

Prevagen is a really good memory supplement. Unfortunately, you remember everything. After three or four days, you start to remember what happened five minutes ago.

That’s not bad, but it could be quite tough, because we’re living in such a continuous present, that it’s hard to segment.

Yes, and it’s your fault, the media’s. You keep distracting us and we don’t have any time to think of anything. The next big news comes and deletes the previous one. You’re demons.

Not really. It takes two, you know, for things to be this way.

You’re right, it does take two. You know, it’s hard being a monk. I tried it for two weeks.

How much of a monk did you try to be?

I didn’t talk, I ate only fruit, and when I saw a woman, I closed my eyes.

And what came out of that?

I went mad. I became a poet (laughs). This was a long time ago. After that, I lived for seven years in the country side, near a national park, between Arkansas and Missouri, close an old mountain full of caves. On my land, I have two caves that communicated with the cave in Missouri where Tom Sawyer kissed Becky Thatcher. But I don’t know how to get there.

Where do you live now?

New York.

And how was the shift from cave to metropolis?

In New York, the subway is always interesting. It’s a play with thousands of characters, albeit a bit too many, but they can teach you what a New York minute is. I like faces, I like people, the way they behave, how they dress, how they dodge the outside dangers and the ones in their heads.

How do people dodge the dangers in their heads?

They project them on others. You do a type of subway hypnosis and you give your problems to someone else and they just move on with them.

This means that you can find yourself in the subway, with another person’s problems.

If you are initiated in the art of magic, you can shake them off.

And what if your problems end up in an inappropriate place?

I just hope they end up in a place where they don’t know how to come back to you. That’s why I write books. To give my problems away to other people.

The Tools of Poetry: 1. A goatskin notebook for writing down dreams. 2. Mont Blanc fountain pen (extra credit if it belonged

to Mme Blavatsky). 3. A Chinese coin or a stone in your pocket for rubbing. 4. Frequenting places where you can overhear things. 5. Tiny recorders, spyglasses, microscopic listening

devices. 6. A little man at the back of your head. 7. The Ghost-Companion. 8. Susceptibility to hypnosis. 9. Large sheets of homemade paper, a stack a foot thick. 10. A subscription to cable TV. (“The Poetry Lesson”, Andrei Codrescu)

You’ve just published the Romanian translation of your poetry book, The Art of Forgetting. How is poetry these days?  

When I started out, poetry was much more beloved. Back then, people were very confused about public discourses. They didn’t believe what anyone was saying: the politicians, their teachers, the people put in positions that required lying. They only believed in good literature, in poetry. Poets don’t lie, because nobody pays them to do it. When I started out, in the 60s, the entire society was restless and unhappy, they were uniting against their government, so the artists were an escape. But now, with the recent distractions, such as the internet and the TV, the artists are brought back in the realm of formal speech. Still, right now, we’re back to not trusting the public rhetoric, and people are coming back to poetry, the same way someone would go back into the woods, after spending some time in jail.

Isn’t this poetry about poetry?

(He laughs.) Well, I think that’s true. I am at least an observer of the zeitgeist, I get my ideas from there. I am open and if you are open, the world and the language go through you.

If you say that the people don’t trust the ones that are responsible for taking the world’s biggest decisions, why are we following them so closely? Why do we do it?

Because they’re hypnotizing us through the internet and the television.

And are these the only means that determine the relationship between us and them?

The means feed us the information, but in a way, they’re deleting each other. They disappear, just like a sculpture that destroys itself. In our country, and it’s probably the same with yours, the war in Iraq is just as sensational as the divorce between Brat Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Is this whole mass-media thing a type of Scheherazade, that always keeps us on our toes about what is to follow?

I wrote a book about this exact thing; it’s called Whatever Gets You through the Night. A Story of Scheherazade and the Arabian Entertainments. It’s not just one Scheherazade and there is no 1001 nights. There is the Scheherazade medium, there is the continuous story that the medium makes so interesting, that you want to see how it unfolds. But you always end up at the edge of a satisfaction that will never be fulfilled. At the same time, the continuous voice of the story steals something from you, your attention. When your attention is focused on the issues of society, on other people’s problems, you lose your sense of self. In my book, there are two brothers, one is the sultan who is Scheherazade and her sister, Dunyazade’s prisoner and they’re keeping him is a state of constant arousal. The second brother became an ascetic, went to the wilderness and broke off from the world. He has a different fate that seems to melt in a type of meditative Buddhism-Christianity. These days, being Zen and using all these therapies to calm ourselves down, they’re a means to get out of this continuous and suspense-filled story that has no finality as Scheherazade and Dunyazade promised.

I have the feeling that it is exactly this social and political reality that is becoming a new literature. Every day, we go online and there is a long papyrus where we see war news and then next to it, cute cat pictures.

Exactly. But there is something there we simply cannot resist. I tried living without the internet for a couple of months, while I was in the woods. When I lived in Europe, I lived without a TV, but when I came back, they were right there where I had left them.

you must always keep a line open

despite your job in the glass prison

your full-time job in the glass prison

building layers in the glass prison

using your imagination of freedom

to perfect the transparency of glass

the end of your polishing job

is the end of your imagination

(fragment from „the internet”, from the volume „the art of forgetting”, Sheep Meadow, 2016)

How are you navigating the US presidential campaign?

Well, there is a fascist virus that’s been traveling the electromagnetic waves of the universe and from time to time, it finds an empty head to occupy and multiply in. That’s how it entered Trump, who was like an empty pumpkin. It started to grow there with the help of some aggressive and stupid factions. He is, probably, the stupidest and the most dangerous presidential candidate in the history of America. This country is living well, they have a surplus of things, which made people lazy. So, they don’t vote, there’s no civic engagement, because they are OK. Now, for the first time, people have realized that there is a danger and that if they don’t vote, they could end up with an entity like Trump, who actually believes in atomic weapons. And this is just unbelievable. He’s a bankrupt man, who poses as a rich man, and believes in debts. If you owe money, then the people you owe money to must take care of you, so you can pay them back. And then you negotiate. That’s his business idea. But countries aren’t run like businesses. I hope we’re not lazy enough to elect this idiot.

Would you come back today to write a book in Romania, like you did in 1990, when you wrote The Hole in the Flag, right after the revolution?

I would write, if someone paid me. I’ve always written prose to earn a living. I am a poet, and if I need to finish my sentences, then I need to get paid.

Speaking of making a living out of art, what is your opinion of today’s artists, who are increasingly becoming a category in the workforce?

They’re a work category and a voting category. But art isn’t taken seriously enough in our society. Artists are still subversive, they’re dangerous because you never know what they’re doing. Though, I think artists are in a very good position right now, in this society where they need to have a place of their own.

What I like and don’t like right now, is that more and more art that’s being created is political and it needs to be this way. But I’m allergic to the political rhetoric and many artists are falling in its trap. Instead of being subversive in their own way, they’re adopting the known forms of resistance. And resistance needs to be reimagined. For many, resistance is to retweet or to send out a message of their protest. This is, as the Americans say, preaching to the choir. You’re talking to the people who are already on your side. A big chunk of art will be about how to reach other people. People are open, they’re not resisting new ideas or art. They’re waiting for it, but the artists aren’t coming.

But can artists still be genuinely dangerous? Can’t their message be removed immediately?

You’re right, they can be easily appropriated for advertising. But then, the duty of the artist is to be swift and sabotage their recovery. And they can do that, when they are against the art that they are doing. Tzara said, in his first Dada manifesto, that Dada is against Dada. That’s why, you can’t see Dada in museums. Surrealism was a movement and you can see that in a museum. But when a movement arrives in a museum, it is dead. When it is alive, it blows itself up and starts something new. You need to get reborn as soon as you feel the cold grip of the collector and the museum on you. It’s hard. You need to not sleep. I haven’t slept since 1968.

And what replaced sleep all these years?

Poetry and love. They belong to an intelligence that transcends the flatness of the screen. Even if you enter a virtual reality, through complex immersion, there still remains something that is being threatened. You can live in the virtual reality, but outside there are the barbarians, and they don’t care if you’re the hero of your adventure. Kavafis used to say in one of his famous poems: every day we hear that the barbarians are coming, but they’re not coming and the world is getting more and more boring. We’re waiting and we miss the barbarians.

What has the Internet become?

The internet is a glass house, where everything is equal. Facebook is a commercial entity that is placing you in this glass house and it’s using your personal data to sell you things in the morning and in the evening. It’s an instrument of dispersion, of divorce and of fragmentation. It creates desires for every moment of the day. If you’re divorced, you need two fridges. If you’re wealthy, then you need five. At 10 o’clock, I like a blue fridge. Then, all of your being becomes a consumer of ideas and specific desires, an entity that the internet sliced into pieces. Now, all the big companies are fighting for you to exist inside them. Facebook wants to become the world, a place where you can waste all of your time. Google is doing the same thing. We’re becoming want machines. Commercial wants. Resistance is futile. (He laughs.)

The Dada job now would consist of the disruption of networks, an incredible effort of the imagination at a time when social networks are proliferating at the speed of light, literally abolishing time. My Face, My Space, My Body, My Soul, My Idea, etc., are really everybody's face, space, body, soul, ideas, and will eventually pixelate and automate its members, unless the virgin microbe confuses them. Why should it? Because an actor in the past could step out of herm costume and get drunk in the demimonde, while the morphing hyperlinked entity can no longer disengage. Networking is like superglue: look at all the flies trying to get their feet out of the screen! („The Posthuman Dada Guide”, Princeton University Press, 2009)

Aside from the fact that the internet is impounding our lives and pumping spam into them, what good does it do?

The best thing about the internet is that you can choose your news and you can have discernment. I don’t have Facebook, but I have Twitter, because 140 characters isn’t that much to read and people are learning to write concisely. The Library of Congress collects all the tweets in the world, for a very costly project, a time chronical that is probably going to be more precise than that of Herodotus. But this means that in the future, we will need archivists to browse through all this. I wrote a book, Bibliodeath: My Archives (With Life in Footnotes), about my archives. I gave away all my books and Romanian manuscripts to a university and the English manuscripts to the Hill Memorial Library from Louisiana State University, where I used to work. I got rid of the books, and I feel lighter, but they still keep coming and their weight is substantial. It’s becoming increasingly hard to read without distractions, especially that time is being stolen from us. In Sibiu, I used to be an only child and I had no one to keep an eye on me. It was idyllic. I spent one of the most beautiful times of my life under the rule of Stalin. I would go on the empty streets, I had no friends, and I had plenty of time to daydream, think up stories for myself and get revenge on my step dad.

Back then you only had time, and you could fill it with whatever it was you wanted.

When you have little, you can do a lot. When you have a lot, when you have everything, you can’t do anything, because the story is already written for you.

This accumulation of a large quantity of information – what do you think its effect will be?

It’s the same as hoarding objects. This surplus that Karl Marx approached so well (he didn’t approach other things all that well) is making us stationary. We can’t leave, because we have too many things. Our freedom is cut in half. It’s the same with information. If you think of what you know, you can’t remember too many things. What people can remember is their wars, where they had little, and needed to make sacrifices. But war is not a solution for anything. A war, an power outage, a natural catastrophe, all these things take you back to our instinctual humanity that we seem to be losing.

What’s going to happen to this animal?

We’ll be an egg, with one eye and one finger that’s touching the screen. Let me tell you a secret: the clitoris has migrated. I don’t know if this news reached you guys. In many animals, the clitoris, whose only function is pleasure, is a trigger. Because the human cycle is different, the clitoris had no other function than pleasure, and it moved up. So in this future finger of ours, you’ll have a clitoris.

Translated from the Romanian by Cristina Costea.

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