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My
Lunch

With

Andrei

by David Holzel

Soup, cabbage and surrealism with poet Andrei Codrescu.


A Joke:

The people are waiting in a long line to enter the food store. A commissar arrives. "The Jews must leave the line," he orders.

After an hour, the wait is still interminable, so the commissar announces: "Non-party members must leave the line."

An hour later the commissar returns. "There's nothing in the store. Everybody go home!"

The people leave, grumbling, "The Jews always have it good."

You can't take Eastern Europe out of Andrei Codrescu. Even after three decades in America, the Romanian-born poet, novelist and guardian of the jokes that made life bearable in the communist world still sees through the eyes of a Jew raised in that fallen utopia.

"Stories are what define us, what keeps us knowing who we are," says Codrescu, 51, known for his sardonic commentaries on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." "Being human is something that contradicts itself an awful lot. And I think stories put that in perspective for us."

It's approaching noon on an autumn Sunday in Atlanta, and we are heading to a Chinese restaurant in search of the thing Codrescu's soul is crying out for: a bowl of soup and a plate of cabbage.

With his Tatar eyes and walrus mustache, Codrescu seems an exotic species of Jew -- intellectual, ironic, a man who believes a Jew, first and foremost, is a state of being. In person, he's a cheerfully unreconstructed bohemian. Once in the restaurant, he heads straight to the smoking section.

He's happy that his celebrity has led to extra income on the speaker circuit. But he believes the fame of a surrealist Romanian radio commentary may be fleeting. For now he'll stick with teaching English at Louisiana State University. Just don't call him "doctor."

"I have no formal college education whatsoever," he says. "I finished high school in Romania, though barely. I have the graduation picture in which I'm the only one without a tie. That's one of the funny things about the entire communist system, is that while they were revolutionary in their rhetoric, they're exceedingly formal in their dress."

He commands the English language better than most native speakers. At first his accent seems to be an impediment, slowing him down like thick syrup. But he speaks with ease. He seems to taste his words as he speaks them. Perhaps the soup and cabbage are artifice, and the words and ideas are Andre Codrescu's primary nourishment.

His recent compilation of commentaries, "The Dog With The Chip In His Neck" (St. Martin's Press), covers Codrescu's favorite territory: language, art, identity, East and West, the omnipresence of technology. In one piece, the writer wryly contends that "every time someone adds memory to their computer, thousands of people forget everything they know." The book's title piece refers to a Bouvier named Zena, who was injected with computer information that can be scanned to "retrieve all his vital data, like, 'This is Zena, Sherri's dog...' "

A few years back, Codrescu toured the country in the documentary "Road Scholar." For his next film, Codrescu is exploring cyberspace.

"It's a reality that most Americans are trying very hard to keep up with. And it seems at times to be a separate reality," he says. "Because in cyberspace, identity is under question. You don't know who's out there talking to you -- a man, a woman. Gender is questionable. Age is questionable. Most of the things we take for granted are relative in cyberspace.

"And so the purpose of this movie is to try to get a sense of what this new utopia is. For instance, you can go to mass in cyberspace now. You can go to a funeral in cyberspace -- you can join a funeral, an actual, live funeral in progress. So there is quite a new notion of what community means. And what people are is under question in cyberspace. That's right up my alley, because questions of identity, metaphor and reality fit right into what I think about."

The price of a Jew in Romania

"The first poem that I wrote was with the help of my mother. I was sitting at the kitchen table and I had a school assignment to write an ode to the Socialist Republic of Romania. I remember getting all the ideas for the lines and my mother finding the rhymes."

Andrei Codrescu was born in Sibiu, a small town with a medieval old quarter, in Romania's Transylvania region. Growing up in post-Holocaust Eastern Europe meant being only dimly aware of one's Jewish identity. Andrei was more conscious of his country's dictatorship and his own love of words.

"I came from a world where you could go to prison for writing a poem," he told an Atlanta audience. "Censors were some of our best readers."

At 19, he emigrated with his mother. The State of Israel paid $2,000 a head to the Romanian dictator for them. The immigration agency HIAS -- "which I think is the best Jewish organization of them all" -- settled them in Detroit.

That was 1966, and American youth was about to take to the streets. They found Andrei Codrescu ready to join the protests and the party.

"When I came to this country, the Vietnam war was in full bloom and I could have been drafted into the army," he says as his egg-drop soup is placed before him. "Citizenship takes a long time, but they can draft you when you get here."

So he enrolled in college to get a deferral from the army. "I didn't really let school get in the way of my education after that," he says, lowering his spoon to the bowl, "because it was a tremendously exciting time and my generation was on the move. There was a great deal of serious discontent in this country and the streets were a university every time you got out on them -- Oh this is great!"

The next 30 years was a journey, with stops in New York, San Francisco, Paris, Baltimore, Baton Rouge and, finally, New Orleans.

"I said somewhere that poetry is the art of being kidnapped by circumstances. I never had any plan," he says. "And I certainly liked it that way, because being a poet means discovering as you go along."

The watershed was 1983. That year, living in Baltimore, he founded a literary journal called Exquisite Corpse. And an NPR producer asked Codrescu to read for radio some commentaries he had written for the Baltimore Sun.

And so he entered the cadre of public radio superstars, the unlikely pantheon that includes Hudson Valley dog lover and children's book writer Daniel Pinkwater, Georgia primary school teacher and screened-porch philosopher Bailey White, and former cowboy and large animal veterinarian Baxter Black.

 

"Poetry is the art of being kidnapped by circumstances. I never had any plan."

 


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