A Life in Footnotes: Interview with Andrei Codrescu

A Life in Footnotes: Interview with Andrei Codrescu
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<p>Andrei Codrescu, poet</p>

Andrei Codrescu, poet

Did you know that September is National Translation Month, a month long celebration of translation? To celebrate I’ll be hosting a series of interviews with translators, poets and writers. On the blog first is Andrei Codrescu. Codrescu was born in Sibiu, Transylvania, Romania, emigrated to the U.S in 1966. His first poetry book, License to Carry a Gun, won the 1970 Big Table Poetry award. He founded Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Books & Ideas (corpse.org) in 1983, taught literature and poetry at Johns Hopkins University, University of Baltimore, and Louisiana State University where he was MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English. He's been a regular commentator on NPR's All Things Considered since 1983, and received a Peabody Award for writing and starring in the film Road Scholar. In 1989 he returned to his native Romania to cover the fall of the Ceausescu regime for NPR and ABC News, and wrote The Hole in the Flag: An Exile's Story of Return and Revolution. He is the author of books of poetry, novels, essays; the most recent are So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House, 2012), Bibliodeath: my Archives (with Life in Footnotes) (Antibookclub, 2012), whatever gets you through the night: a story of sheherezade and the arabian entertainments (Princeton University Press, 2011), The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess, (Princeton University Press, 2009), and The Poetry Lesson (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Loren Kleinman (LK): In Bibliodeath: My Archives (With Life in Footnotes) you review the evolutionary relationship between language and technology. How does this review relate to your work as a writer in America? What about a life in Romania?

Andrei Codrescu (AC): BIBLIODEATH: MY ARCHIVES (WITH LIFE IN FOOTNOTES) is two books in one, a matrioshka book. The large-type text is a techno-memoir: a writer’s life seen from calligraphy to the latest Mac. It is also an essay on archives and their disposition in the future, it reflects both the angst of archivists and the baroque hazards of memory and her records. The second book, in footnotes, is a straight-on amusing memoir of my scribbler life from the communist workshop of my adolescence in a rainy provincial Transylvanian town, to a chaired professorship-in-fancy at LSU where I spent 25 years trying to make readers out of sensitive bumpkins with muscle cars. This Russian-egg (matrioska) style is a form I invented for “Bibliodeath,” and for my three other last books: “Whatever Gets You through the Night” a Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments” (Princeton University Press, 2011), “The Poetry Lesson,” (Princeton 2010) and “The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess” (Princeton, 2009).

LK: Talk about the founding of Exquisite Corpse. How did you come up with the idea? How has it evolved from its start in 1983?

AC: EXQUISITE CORPSE: A JOURNAL OF BOOKS & IDEAS was a printed monthly, then quarterly from January 1, 1983 until January 1, 1996 when it became an early internet zine from 1996-ongoing. I founded it in Baltimore, published it mostly in Baton Rouge, and gave approx. 600 writers their start. We published poetry, critical essays, art, prose, polemics, translations, the slaughter of sacred cows, and idiosyncratic travel reports from poets suffering all over the world. We almost invented Facebook when we opened a Corpse Cafe meant to contain real-time reactions to material published in the magazine, but opened instead the door to thousands of graphomaniacs who couldn’t wait to spill torrents of nonsense into the public maw. Our mistake was to try to contain the avalanche around our publication’s content, something Zuckerberg didnt care about, which is why he made billions and we begged for quarters.

LK: Do you still write in Romanian? Or do you prefer English?

AC: Since 1989 when I covered “the revolution” in Romania for NPR and ABC News I reacquired my native tongue and published books there, but my work was mostly translated from the English into Romanian, a nightmare for the poor translators working under my enlarged pupils. I write in English, I dream in English, German, Romanian and French, and I once had a rich conversation in Japanese with a young woman on LSD.

LK: How has Romania influenced your writing? Have there been specific books that have followed this influence?

AC: I was born in Sibiu, Romania, a baroque city full of ghosts, famous for burning witches in the 16th century. It was a fortified city with a castle ruled by Baron von Bruckenthal who invented torture instruments, notably the Rack-Wheel, and was a lover of Flemish painting that is displayed today alongside Rack-Wheels and Iron Maidens in the Bruckenthal Museum. I was somewhat influenced by that and by the Bach organ in the Evangelical Cathedral played by a madman, but also by the preternatural silence that reigned in town fifteen years after I was born, because most people had been killed in WW2 and nobody told children the truth. I was also influenced by two of my Hi School girlfriends, one who did and one who didn’t.

LK: Talk about discovering translators, specifically discovering Michael Henry Heim. How can translation transform how we read/what we read?

AC: Michael Henry Heim was a genius. He could have been a great writer if he hadn’t dedicatd himself entirely to translation. There are only a few like him, including Susanne Jill Levine and Gregory Rabassa. Translators can only translate as well as they can write, which is why there are a lot of lousy translations by mediocre writers. I would call most translations “Works by so-and-so under a foreign pseudonym.” I rarely translate, and then only as penance for some unspeakable sin.

Check out more translation during September on NationalTranslationMonth.org. Read more about Andrei Codrescu.

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