Poet, novelist, essayist and contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered, Andrei Codrescu is both prolific and celebrated. A professor of English at Louisiana State University, he is also the editor of the literary journal Exquisite Corpse. Romanian by birth, Codrescu has lived in and around New Orleans for more than 20 years, and his latest book, New Orleans, Mon Amour, is a collection of essays detailing his decades-long love affair with the city. The volume is particularly meaningful in light of the city’s devastation, and a percentage of the book’s proceeds will be donated to hurricane relief. Codrescu recently answered questions from BookPage about his adopted hometown and its uneasy future.
BookPage: Did this book grow out of the recent events in New Orleans or was it one you had in the back of your mind? Did you feel compelled to write it? Andrei Codrescu: I’ve been writing about New Orleans for 20 years, but it never occurred to me that the city I knew, loved and criticized, would one day cease to exist. I had no idea that I might one day not take it for granted that the character, poignancy and peculiarities of New Orleans would be unavailable to my blithe pen. After Katrina, my writings suddenly had a shape, sadly, the shape of history.
BP: In the book, you describe just how many writers live and work in New Orleans. What has been happening in that community since the hurricane? AC: Well, some of them took refuge in my Baton Rouge house. James Nolan, Jose Torres-Tama, Claudia Copeland, Jed Horne escaped from New Orleans in various dramatic ways and came to Baton Rouge. There was camaraderie, and Jimmy Nolan, a true New Orleanian, cooked five-star meals. That’s a constant of the New Orleans character: protect civilization and keep your exquisite manners even as the ship goes down. Catastrophes happen suddenly, but manners and cuisine are acquired over time, they are about permanence. Many other New Orleans writers were scattered all over the U.S., to places where they imported our story-telling, joie-de-vivre, and, possibly, drove their hosts insane with some of the local bad habits (like the occasional cigarette and the story-lubricating rum). Right now, the hardiest souls are returning: there are regular poetry readings at the Gold Mine Saloon in the French Quarter, bookstores are re-opening, books about New Orleans are feverishly written and re-issued. Every writer I know is possessed by fury and inspiration. Sadly, this time is going to be known as a golden age for New Orleans letters. I want to collect every book and scrap of paper being published now; it will all be extremely valuable to our successors. Catastrophes are always great sources of inspiration for artists because they provide seriousness, gravitas, plus endless stories.
BP: You say charm can never be used exactly the way it’s found. With that in mind, do you worry about the future of New Orleans, especially its rebuilding? AC: I worry about corporate entities like casinos and entertainment conglomerates bottling fake charm and faux-history to create a bigger tourist trap than we can imagine now. A guy in California actually wants to recreate Storyville, an ancient prostitution district without prostitutes. Now, how exactly do you do that? The charm of New Orleans was that it was never virtual, it was always a hands-on experience.
BP: You were born about as far away from the American South as one can get, and yet you have articulated exactly the feel, nature and attitude of the region and of course, of New Orleans specifically. Do you have any thoughts on how this is? AC: When I first moved to Louisiana, people asked me where I was from. When I said, Transylvania, there was a sigh of relief. At least you’re not a Yankee. I was born in Sibiu, a small town in Transylvania, Romania, that was remote and provincial, but full of magic. I knew liars, storytellers and vagabonds where I grew up. I found them again in New Orleans. The politics of Louisiana was corrupt, just like home. Everyone knew what a cop or a judge cost. When the casinos came, the scale changed. The city started on the path that I fear Katrina hastened greatly. About a decade ago, all of Transylvania moved to New Orleans thanks to Anne Rice’s vampires and the city’s Goths, which proves that you don’t need to go home again; if you’re patient, your home will come to you, fangs and all.