Poet Andrei Codrescu wields one of the most beautifully sardonic pens since Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited—but he also has a deep love of humanity. Some combination.
It comes together with transfixing grace and power in his newest collection Jealous Witness (Coffee House Press), most of which is an homage to his adopted home city, New Orleans, and a reflection on the immeasurable toll taken by Hurricane Katrina. It’s all done with warmhearted wit, even when he’s skewering politicians, lawyers, and other scalawags who should be shot with shit and put in jail for stinking. He’ll be in the Twin Cities on October 30, reading at the Minneapolis Central Library (7 p.m., free). When you buy the book afterward and get it home, there’ll be a humdinger of a plus waiting for you. Tucked inside the book’s back cover is the CD Maelstrom: Songs of the Storm & Exile by ace jazz ensemble the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. They put Codrescu’s words to incredible music, with guests including Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, Spinal Tap) and the wondrously off-center John Boutte delivering the lyrics. So you can delight to Andrei Codrescu reading his marvelous poetry, and then kick back in your living room to extend the experience at your leisure. You just can’t lose.
Why the title Jealous Witness?
It’s a line in a poem dedicated to my mate, Laura, where a picture over our bed is being a “jealous witness” to our lovemaking. Later, I understood the phrase to mean that all passionate acts, including nature’s horrific ones, like Katrina, involve a kind of fury, a sort of jealousy provoked by being left out of a powerful event. Catastrophic grandeur is particularly egregious, because it is perfectly indifferent to us.
You’re a firm believer in sticking it to the status quo, especially politicians. Where’s that come from?
Early hatred of authority figures—my stepfather, the state, bureaucracy, institutions, nationalism, martial music, mind-numbing habits, routine, and boredom. I especially loathe those last two authorities: routine and boredom. Baudelaire was the first poet to go after boredom with all the anger that used to be reserved for the devil. The devil, on the other hand, is never status quo, so you’ll always find poets giving the devil herm due. That is “herm,” shorthand for “he/she.” So, for me it comes both from life and from professional probity.
How did you come by your love of language?
I’m Jewish. We have a gene called “the language crystal” that uses letters and syllables as an oracular tool. If we don’t love language, God quits loving us, and then we are fucked. As Jews our only job is to make up pleasing music for God—or to make up God through language. Either one.
Your love of humanity is powerful as well. Why aren’t you some soulless, ivory-tower elitist?
Thank you. I’m fond of some humans, but I’m not so sure about humanity. Some humans are very amusing. Humanity can be pretty creepy, just like some humanities departments. I would like to be a soulful ivory-towerist, but I’m not sure I’d last. A soulless resident of a chilly old ivory tower sounds pretty terrific—if I had no desires, no curiosity, no vices, no spontaneous erections, or sudden fits of giggles. Alas, I actually don’t know any people like that. Even some German professors have souls, you know.
What’s next for you?
I wrote a book called The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess. It will be published in April 2009 by Princeton University Press. It’s a self-help guide for people distressed by everything; they will become unaccountably giddy when they read this. Actually, it’s about the battle between art and ideology, between Tristan Tzara, the daddy of Dada, and Lenin, the daddy of communism. They were both exiled in Zurich in 1915 and played chess at Cafe de la Terrasse. As long as the USSR lasted, it looked like Lenin might have won, but after 1991, Dada rides triumphant. Ideology is dead, and art’s never been more alive.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.
|Also in the Daily Planet, read Dwight Hobbes on Jealous Witness.|