Sunday, January 24, 2010

From Dada to Elvis, Andrei Codrescu has plenty to say

January 24, 2010

By Mark Hinson

In August 1997, the Romanian poet, essayist and National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu delivered the closing address at a three-day conference about Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tenn., on the 20th anniversary of the famed singer's death.

The summit was an odd combo platter of academics, Elvis fans, Elvis friends, conspiracy theorists and assorted celebrities such as El Vez (the Mexican Elvis) and the Rev. Howard Finster (the Southern folk artist and fundamentalist preacher). Codrescu decided to discuss the way the media tried to de-sexualize, tame and neuter the hip-popping Presley when he exploded into the American mainstream in the mid-'50s. Codrescu called his talk "The King's ...." Well, let's just say privates.

The Rev. Finster was blushing and fidgeting by the time Codrescu wrapped things up.

"I had to sit through all these maniacs giving talks for three days, so I figured I owed them," Codrescu, 64, said last week in a phone interview from his apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter. "I remember the one guy there who was convinced that the FBI or the CIA had murdered Elvis. He had all these papers and 'proof' stuffed in a black briefcase — which is the typical, standard-issue briefcase preferred by maniacs everywhere."

Squirming and nervous laughter aside, the Elvis lecture was quintessential Codrescu — funny, playfully lewd, informed, slyly subversive, erudite and keenly insightful. Expect more of the same when Codrescu pays a visit to Florida State University to deliver a reading Tuesday night at The Warehouse.

"Codrescu is one of the best essayists working today," said writer, FSU professor and fellow NPR commentator Diane "D.K." Roberts. "His pieces for NPR twist and turn, spiral almost out of control and zing back on point again. It's like finding yourself in the middle of a cocktail party conversation between James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker. You can't believe the way the guy can bend language into such intricate, beautiful and funny shapes."

Roaming Romanians

The prolific Codrescu, who has published more than 40 books, said he plans to read selections from his latest collection of poetry ("Jealous Witness: New Poems") and excerpts from his new, critically acclaimed, unorthodox riff on art history called "The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess."

The Village Voice summed up the "Dada Guide" with a glowing review by stating: "(It's) a hard-edged, rapier-like volume, perfect for sliding into a back pocket of skinny hipster pants or stabbing into the complacent underbelly of bourgeois (or bourgeois-bohemian) society."

"It was a scholarly essay at first but I ended up leaving the scholarship behind," Codrescu said. "I was looking at a lot of stuff that other historians passed over. … I wanted to find out why young people are still inspired by Dada — whether it's punk, post-punk or what have you. There is something young and alive in Dada."

No doubt Codrescu also felt a direct connection with Dada because of Tristan Tzara, a fellow Romanian poet who also left his homeland to pursue the life of an artist in a foreign land. Codrescu moved to the United States in 1966. Tzara relocated to Switzerland while the rest of Europe was eating its own tail during World War I. The dictatorial Communist regime that ruled Romania after World War II tried its best to erase Tzara from the history books and public memory.

"Tristan Tzara was never mentioned when I was growing up in Romania," Codrescu said. "He was on the list of people whose names you couldn't put in crossword puzzles. I just knew his name, knew he was from Romania, knew he was famous in other countries. It set me dreaming. But I never read him (until coming to America)."

Forbidden books,'Exquisite Corpse'

In a piece titled "The Shameful Silence on Cuba by America's Librarians," Codrescu described his early days in Transylvania thus: "I was born in a place where people were forbidden to read most of what we consider the fundamental books of Western civilization. Being found in possession of a book such as George Orwell's '1984' could land one in prison for years. My good luck was to meet Dr. Martin in my adolescence. Dr. Martin was a retired professor who had collected and kept in his modest three-room apartment the best of interwar Romanian literature. In the Stalinist period any of the books in Dr. Martin's library could have earned him years of hard labor. In addition to owning them, he lent them to us, young high-school writers, who absorbed them thirstily and read them deeply because we knew what risks our older friend — and ourselves — were taking. I became a writer because I read forbidden books."

After escaping from Romania in 1965, Codrescu arrived in the United States in 1966 just as the hippie era was flourishing. He quickly made contact with proto-hippie Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti before publishing his first book of English language poems, "License to Carry A Gun," in 1970. Codrescu even spent time living in the country near a commune on the Russian River north of San Francisco.

"I was too young for the country back then, too restless," Codrescu said. "Now I'm trying to get back to the country (at a cabin he owns in the Ozarks of Arkansas)."

After leaving the West Coast for the East Coast, Codrescu became a citizen of the U.S. in 1981 — around the same time he landed a job teaching writing and poetry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In 1983, Codrescu started the poetry journal Exquisite Corpse. The same year, he made his debut as a commentator on NPR reading a fairy tale about bears in his trademark Transylvanian accent. Listeners liked what they heard and suddenly Codrescu had a national audience. A stream of books quickly followed.

Honey and vinegar hybrid

After the Soviet Union crumbled and set off a domino effect across Eastern Europe, Codrescu returned to his homeland in 1989 to cover the Romanian Revolution for NPR and ABC News' "Nightline." He still keeps in close touch with Romanian writers and artists — particularly the new wave of neo-realist Romanian filmmakers who have found international audiences with movies such as "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."

"I think they are terrific (films)," Codrescu said. "These are hard, realistic pictures. They're telling tough stories in minimal and up-close ways. These are young people telling the stories of their parents. Their parents weren't able to tell these stories but they're looking right at it."

Codrescu had his own brush with the film world in 1993 when he made the humorous, feature-length documentary "Road Scholar" for MGM. The wry travelogue featured the bemused Codrescu learning to drive a big American automobile and, after getting a blessing from Ginsberg, taking off on a cross-country tour of America's backroads and heartland. It was more than a dozen years before Sacha Baron Cohen made a mint doing a similar thing in the fictionalized "Borat" (2006).

" 'Borat' was 'Road Scholar' without a heart," Codrescu said. "He had no compassion for the people. I laughed at 'Borat' but it was just a crude satire."

In 2009, Codrescu retired from his teaching post at Louisiana State University to write and spend more time at his Arkansas retreat. He's currently putting the finishing touches on another hybrid book called "The Poetry Lesson" that's part memoir, part essay and part fiction.

"It's funny. My colleagues might not like it, but I think it's funny," Codrescu said and chuckled. "It's honey and vinegar — a portrait of a hopeless profession that's done with a lot of affection for the poems and for the students."

Contact senior writer Mark Hinson at 599-2164 or

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