Geography is Destiny
Two notes before reading: This interview was mostly conducted in virtual space. Also, be aware that Andrei Codrescu uses the term „herm“ instead of „his“ or „her“ to evoke an all-encompassing gender intimacy when speaking about unspecified individuals. Herm is not a typo.
Pulse: Your writing, and your public persona as a poet and writer and radio personality, has often been linked to specific places: Romania, Boston, New Orleans, Zurich… How deeply do you think these ties to geography have affected your work?
Andrei Codrescu: Geography is destiny, anatomy, and evolution, to put it mildly. I was born in the medieval Transylvanian-Romanian hilly town of Sibiu, surrounded by Carpathian peaks, so I wrote mysterious craggy poems with snow on the tips of end-lines. The geography dictated poetry to the skinny (sort of craggy) adolescent who renamed himself „Steiu,“ meaning „crag“ in Romanian, in order to melt into the landscape. The communist era was threaded through by certain mountainous clichés, one of which was the requirement to be a „pine.“ The national poet of communism was one Ion Brad (John Pine) whom we hated but understood, geographically and politically. I never became a „pine,“ but „crag“ was close enough, suggesting (to my mind at least) a certain dangerous ambiguity: yes, we rise high to the „yawning heights“ of communism (as Alexander Zinoviev called them), but we also impale you, reader, like Dracula and fascism (which was well represented in Sibiu by the nationalist poet Octavian Goga, who as a minister of state in the 1930s passed a slew of antisemitic laws intended to eliminate Jews, i.e, me, from the landscape.) My hometown Sibiu was a multilingual, multireligious town of dour people who rang their church bells at different hours in order to cause insomnia in their hated neighbors: the protestant Germans rang in the vespers maddeningly slow, the Catholic Hungarians boomed martially thirty minutes later, and the Orthodox Romanians rang them all the time to sound like bleating copper sheep. My mother, who was agnostic, stuffed our ears with wadded cotton. At school we sang the „Internationale“ every morning. For all that, it was a quiet crumbling city filled with mute ghosts who specialized in twilight and autumn. I had an intimate idyll with the city, and a distant but sentimental relation to the mountains. Mostly, I cried and felt proud, which is what my birth town did since its inception in 1100 or so CE. Living there for eighteen years made me morose, craggy, cruel, filled with demonic joy, and very good at listening to tiny gasps. The rest of my geographies did their job too: San Francisco made me watery and brisk, Sonoma County made me cry wine, Baltimore made me proud to be an American because of the mighty erect phallus of George Washington on horseback in Peabody Square, and New Orleans made me first fat, then decadent, then skinny again. Should I go on?
Maybe on another matter. Ok? You often praise the writers Twain, Cervantes, Gombrowicz, Marquez. Regardless of what country they lived in or wrote about, all these writers speak sensually of their geographies, both literally and fictionally. Do you think a place and a writer create each other as imaginative presences? Does that have anything to do with why you like these writers?
I like Twain because he‘s deep and funny, Cervantes because he‘s free and funny, and Gombrowicz because he upholds the sanctity of childishness (and he‘s funny). There are others, but they are too numerous, so let me just point to this crowd of scriveners having an orgy in this swimming pool in Hell, and say: „I like‘em all! They are funny!“ Like I said, the place makes the writer, but the writer, of course, makes the place feel more „at home“ by expressing things the place tells herm. The most interesting places, with the most varied history, are composed of layers of feedback between what they fed the animals (er, writers) and the stuff the beasts spewed back. A really great place, like Venice, Italy, is a palimpsest of spews of the greatest specificity. In a literal sense, flesh is shaped by place, place puts culture into the flesh, and the flesh gives place sensual, fleshy features. A new place is a new lover: the first sensation is immersion, then not knowing where one starts and the other begins. Most post-adolescent writers bring with them the places they lived in and add them to their new places, exactly like lovers bringing their amorous experiences to a new person. Mark Twain, for instance, was preoccupied in his childhood by Time, a notion he found in Missouri caves, which are perfect representations of Slow-Time and Fast-Time, and he dragged it to the West and the East: to each new place he brought his Time jokes, and like a good 19th century thinker, he made the places he lived in more modern, more intellectual, more… timely. He had a stopwatch and was fascinated by speed. Cervantes ended the chivalric novel‘s dominion in Spain and closed the door to Moorish baroque: he invented Europe because that‘s where he found himself in the 16th century. Europe back then was a place that needed to end one history and start another (expansion, the New World) and Cervantes took dictation. Gombrowicz was a Pole-Argentine or Argentine- Pole and he took some mighty strange instructions from the surroundings, the main one being that Exile is itself a place, a 20th century place that „real“ geographies must make room for.
And how does all this physical movement affect one’s sensual world, do you think? Is there something about movement that opens up a new inner space?
Think of lovemaking: movement is all. Or dance. Or speech. Or eating. Humans move in physical space and make objects through movement. If I wink at you I make an elliptical rocking shape. If I come up from behind and bite your ear I can make a propeller spin or an apple fall (or I might make you reach for your gun). Since movement is such an effective creator of material objects I try not to move much: I type with one finger and I stare straight ahead. Try to budge me. Space is a web: anything moves, everything changes. And everything moves, like Heraklitus said, so make as many funny faces as you like, or none at all.
In your work about New Orleans, you discuss the German immigrant writer Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein. His writing is built out of the sooty, sultry contradictions of New Orleans. I wonder if he needed the city to make him a writer. Could he have written such affecting pieces had he not changed countries? Could you?
No, me and the Baron could not have written what we did if we‘d stayed nailed to our birth space. We would have been still great, but unknown. And we‘d still have been „outsiders,“ because you have to be an outsider to write. Only outsiders are foolish enough to take dictation from the environment; they believe that observation and literacy improves the wobbly thing inside them. The wobbly thing is the feeling that one doesn‘t belong. The real secret, though, is that nobody belongs, whether they are natives or not. After expulsion from paradise all humans are in exile. You can be a Colonel Sanders chicken, born, raised and fried in one quarter of a square foot and you‘ll still be an outsider. The thing we call reality is a holding tank for people who must worry about belonging — it‘s a worrier prison. Don‘t worry people! You‘ll soon be fried and eaten. A few of us are writers, hence double-alienated, but happier (because we are busy).
If it‘s true that many of us go through life feeling like we don’t belong, how might digression (geographical and otherwise) be our way of trying to forget, or to escape, that feeling?
Bad news: there are no digressions. Everything is connected in the whole darn ball of yarn: start pulling at any end and you‘ll get to the same place. On the other hand, most normal people dislike digression because they have to lose themselves to follow you. The surest way to drive your dear ones crazy is to digress. In private, it‘s an offense. In public it‘s „art“, „performance“.
The internet feels as though it was built for digression. But it also proves your point: everything is connected; we move from link to link. Has the internet changed the writer’s relationship to geography? Has this “new place” changed the role of the storyteller?
Six books it took me to answer these questions!
I know. But…in short? Are there regional writers and regional poets when it comes to the virtual world?
In short, the internet liquefied physical borders faster than they were already doing on their own. For all that, there are only regional writers. There are no „internet writers“, like there used to be „paperback writers“. Every tweet comes from somewhere, and that „somewhere“ goes into the „somewhere“ where you‘re reading it in. You read Nietzsche in the Ozarks for a while, let‘s say, then you get up and sweep the leaves from your porch for a longer while. Place wins on time spent every time, unless you‘re demented enough to put out your eyes on screens longer than you sweep. We are in a state of „transitional regionalism“, a place where regions are instantly transmitted to other regions, but they don‘t universalize them, they only make them more provincial, by framing them with the local. Like I said, six books! Amazon.com. Now that‘s a Weird place! To wit, „virtual space“ is just another place, like a house on a street in Columbus, Ohio. If you get up from your computer you can go out and forget all about the virtual place. If you tell stories about the internet from Columbus, Ohio, you‘re an Ohio internetist (tho it might pay better to be an internist); if you tell stories about a fried-chicken incident that could‘ve been in a Sherwood Anderson novel, you‘re a double-regionalist: an internetist in a place. Like the founder of VR said to me in Seattle in 1997: „At least reality has a competitor now!“ He was being hopeful. VR won‘t keep you out of the VA (hospital), to coin a saw.
But what happens to modernism then? Can there be modernism without the big literal city?
There is no more „modernism,“ or its better sibling, „the avantgarde.“ Those revolutions ended in Restoration in 1978: the monarchies (of boredom) came back then, psychology snuck back inside people, institutions reshaped people, money was everything again. (As opposed to other currencies such as youth, poetry, love, feathers, and murder). „Diversity“ is just a word for hiding the crime of increasing monocultures, growing like mold since 1978. Fun ideas are created in free interplay by people with big eyes and insatiable appetites who feel like laughing whenever anybody says something, anything. It‘s true that city neighborhoods full of bohemes and wannabe bohemes are more inspiring when you‘re young and poor. Those places exist mostly in the imagination now: no sooner do artists funkify a hood, the developers move in. Though there is some hope now, thanks to the financial meltdown, that places may rust back for a while and we can breathe freely, ah, ah. Unemployment is good for art too, necessary actually. Give us about 20% unemployment and we will rise again!
Big cities require diverse people to find a way to live in close proximity; opposing ideas often end up walking side by side. In an internet age, what happens to that kind of contradiction and paradox?
It‘s not diversity or cities that create contradictions: everything does. You have to make a bigger effort to accommodate seemingly opposed ideas in New York, for instance, because New York is aggravating every second. Your landlord and your temperament will never see eye to eye. The violent anarchist and the pacifist next door, both of whom you‘re sleeping with, are trying to present their cases as irreconcilable, but the intellectual standoff dissolves because your body bridges them. As long as you have a body, ideas can clash all they want, they won‘t harm you. It helps to have a young healthy body. The body is currency, creativity, and insurance: the better you know that, the better your works. The common usage of the word „creativity“ these days is „marketing.“ How you see the world and what you make is all terrific, but you have to be really creative to make others see you the same way.
Does that mean first being skeptical of both the anarchist and the pacifist, and then finally accepting and loving them both?
The only way to stop doubting is to develop selective forgetting. Alzheimer‘s is a disease, and it‘s sad, but you don‘t need a disease to reap the benefits of forgetting. Listen to me: take a deep breath, close your eyes, and on the count of ten repeat ten times: My brain will automatically erase the bad, the boring, and the ugly. My brain will automatically… Now open your eyes and drunk-text.
Maybe it’s possible to be playful and honest without also being drunk, or maybe being playful and honest is itself a way of being drunk. Is it one way or the other: play Judge, or Just play?
We have to play. So we‘re silly. So what? We are artists. We don‘t have good taste, we‘re too busy for that. If you have to judge make it final. If hypnosis doesn‘t work, moving out might. To paraphrase and quote my master Ted Berrigan, there are only two solutions: „suicide and murder// but that‘s dumb!“ Moving out (and on) is better.
Is moving really always better though? In New Orleans Mon Amour, you write about how old cities soothe and ease the pain of living because they are places with histories; it’s comforting to know others have lived and stayed there before you. And yet, one hardly recognizes the history and depth of one’s place until one has left it. Can travel be less a matter of finding new places and more a matter of really seeing what is right in front of one, of being still?
Both are true: you appreciate a place after you leave it, and you can train yourself to appreciate it while you‘re in it (though it‘s harder). The Mysteries of Paris by Eugene Sue was the first novel to discover the exotic at home; Sue was too poor to travel so he found the magic where he lived.
In that sense, are languages ways of traveling too, of entering a new geography?
Yes, but like I said before, it‘s better done in bed.
Florida and Louisiana, 2010.