Lessons from The Poetry Lesson - Mark Spitzer Interview with Andrei Codrescu
The conversation took place in the bat cave deep beneath Andrei’s secret castle in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. As usual, he was kicking back in his vintage velvet Prussian throne and I was sitting on a pile of petrified guano. Around us, our ghost companions were watching the discussion in various states of indifference. On Andrei’s side, Ted Berrigan and Francois Villon were chilling out with Tzara and Pasternak. On my side, Rimbaud was pretending to ignore Edward Abbey and Bukowski, who were becoming increasingly intoxicated. Meanwhile, the walls oozed with the literary perspiration of the Earth.
Spitzer: I’ve read pretty much all your works, but I was stuck by The Poetry Lesson in particular. I think it’s the funniest, most intriguing, organically satisfying Codrescu-concoction out there. In a way it reminds me of Céline’s Conversations with Professor Y in that it’s a novella-sized conversation that plunges in and out of various discussions on literature and aesthetics while incorporating regular tangents in which you contemplate the lives and deaths of poets. These threads then take the reader other places, a lot like the “chautauquas”—or contemplations or meditations—which Robert M. Pirsig used in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as philosophical detours from the main narrative. In a way, the construction is similar to the first half of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, where you’ve got all these sexy stories inside sexy stories, but you always shoot back to the plot—which is basically this: it’s the first day of your last Intro to Poetry class of your teaching career and you are assigning students ghost companions to study and “enter into psychic communication with.” Anyway, what I’m trying to do right now with this run-on question is to set the stage for future readers of The Poetry Lesson as to what the book is about and how it goes about doing a very unusual thing in contemporary lit: you’ve either invented a new form of storytelling or you’ve innovated on an old one—I’m not sure—but at one point you write “This is not a novel, but then neither is it poetry . . . and it’s no essay or memoir either.” So what is it?
Andrei: To start with the last part of your question, yes, undergrads are better than grads, because they don’t know a thing about poetry, so you can make them do anything, even read the Mahabharata in Sanskrit. The grads usually come through some dull meat-grinder writing program that’s turned them into sausage before they get to me. It’s no easy job, as you know, making a Calder mobile out of sausage. You’ve got to at least polyurethane the thing so it won’t stink. I’m more optimistic about poetry because of the new media: it’s easy to tweet your flashes of bright language to people who might appreciate them. In the old days, you had to wait a year before your instant coffee got to be coffee. Now you just pick up your YouTube and shoot yourself down the brain of anybody willing to listen. You can broadcast your poems, thoughts, whatever, and you have to make sure that they are interesting, worthy of a reader/listener/viewer. The problem with the old slow communication is two-fold: 1: it’s slow, it represents an older, no-longer-extant “you;” and 2, it’s boring, because the conventions of print oblige you to join the community of an agreed-upon “reader” (who never existed, of course) and you have to observe the decorum of print and slowness. With the new delivery devices you have to be brilliant because the thing burns as soon as it reaches its destination. “Posterity” was never a real concern to me. I take it like “a pain in the ass,” a “posterior.” The only drawback to my optimism about thinking now, is that the motherfuckers no longer pay you. Everything is for free. Everybody’s willing to cough up their best substance into the reproductive air without asking for cash. This makes it even harder to survive as an artist than before the new media, and it was hell then.
Spitzer: Were there observations that you made in this book that you couldn’t have made in a non-retiring year, and if so, can you provide some examples?
Andrei: School administrations take a dim view of honesty. It’s the one thing, besides integrity, that isn’t allowed by this august institution. Telling children the truth is tantamount to treason: they would send you to Guantanamo if they could. As it is, they just deny you tenure. If you don’t want to fake it, you just keep your mouth shut, you don’t publish it. I’ve had tenure for a long time, but I wasn’t ready to write about my students because I was too busy, and I didn’t really care about having to explain to some square in a golf jersey that his wife was fucking one of my grad students. I once broadcast a mild commentary on NPR about just how ignorant my students were of real-world issues, and you think that I’d blown up the ROTC building. They went ballistic. Two decades ago you could still get away with a radical rant, for instance, but these days they’ll turn you in to Homeland Security. In the 90s I used to give a poetry assignment: “Write a poem you can be arrested for!,” but in 2010, they’d take me out in handcuffs if I did that. There are a jillion other things that could not be said publicly, but I’d have to write another book to list them all.
Spitzer: At one point you write about your attitude toward your profession, which has embraced you, even though you sometimes reject its pretensions. Meaning that, in a way, you became a professor by reacting against the status quo, because that’s what revolutionaries and visionary poets do. On page 21 you write, “They paid me to teach and I assuaged my guilty conscience by publishing literary assaults on institutions. I was the typical fin-de-siècle salaried beatnik.” So it’s ironic—and not just for you, but for other idealists of your generation, and a few from mine—that such anti-establishment stances have found a place within the establishment. This is especially apparent when you write, “I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions.” Can you call upon a ghost companion to comment on this dynamic a bit more?
Andrei: Yes: Baudelaire. Translation, Robert Lowell.
Mais parmi les chacals, les panthères, les lices,
Les singes, les scorpions, les vautours, les serpents,
Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants,
Dans la ménagerie infâme de nos vices,
II en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde!
Quoiqu’il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde;
C’est l’Ennui! L’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
II rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!
Plus the fact that I had to make a living to support my family.
Spitzer: I like what you said on page 61, that “It’s not easy living in the future.” So was it easier living in the past, which you noted “smelled like cigarettes, urine, and sperm”? And what makes it so difficult living in the future? What’s a gal to do?
Andrei: It was easier living in the past because I was young. When the youth of now will be old, they’ll think it was easier living in the past, too. Everything is easier when you have lots of energy. But . . . there is less funk, less vividness, and less surprises now; we’ve gotten better, as a society, at hiding poverty, unhappiness, sickness and death. I’d say that we were less hypocritical in the past because the hard facts stared us in the face. Now everything smells like eau-de-cologne, like they sprayed the world with deodorant. The smoke from the death-plants in the Louisiana chemical corridor used to be black and sooty, just the way it came out, then one day they put something in it to make it white, to look like steam, to make you think that you’re in heaven instead of hell, where you really are. Like what’s Dow Chemical doing? Electing the Pope? No, it’s poisoning us, but in a much nicer way.
Spitzer: One thing this book does really well is make fun of you. In my head I see you rubbing your palms with a devious smirk and laughing at yourself while creating yourself into a semi-cartoon character. At these times, I feel you almost jumping up and down and I see you typing one-fingeredly, guffawing at your own genius—which is one of the best things a writer can experience. You’ve always talked about the idea of “generative writing,” which is the type of writing that makes a writer want to write, because, in a sense, it’s ecstasy—to be so engrossed in your work, to see it magically coming together, to glance over and see your ghost companions rolling hysterically on the floor. So are there any certain passages in the book that you remember having one hell of a time fleshing out? Also, were you reading any writers while you were writing this book that inspired your inner-generative-writer to hoot and holler and/or write like a man possessed?
Andrei: Well, you’ve said it: the loose flight is the writer’s joy. I wasn’t reading anything except the assignments I gave my students, and their own tries at rising to the occasion, but that was plenty.
Spitzer: I’m sure that The Poetry Lesson can be a valuable tool for those who teach poetry, in that some of the approaches you take could snap some teachers out of stagnant comfort zones and encourage creative ways to communicate and handle assignments, but do you see this book as having a practical application as a text in the poetry classroom?
Andrei: Totally. The teachers who’ll assign it will be the real educator-spirit-creative types. The students who’ll put up with it will learn ineffable skills applicable everywhere. The whole thing is about life, finally, not writing. It’s about a way to live free or die, and not just in New Hampshire.
Spitzer: What the cryptic moral of the story?
Andrei: Dig it.
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File created: 9/23/2010