Occasion: Letters

This space will host occasional letters from friends, readers, and some responses, interviews and misc.


April 2012

Dear Andrei,

We are well past St. David’s Day and the Ides of March, and even April Fool’s Day has come and gone, so we are left to our own devices – that is, whatever devices or vices we can devise (is English a great language, or wot?). March was more cultural than scholarly chez nous, but that was OK by us. We also had a tropical heat-wave that set everything a-greening like crazy – most strange and unnatural, and of course our Scottish heritage immediately told us “Well pay for it!” No tornadoes, however.

The too-familiar theme of Old Age continues to raise its hoary head. E.g., my youngest son, out in Vancouver, BC, is working on a drama called, tentatively, “Out On a Limb,” and the theme is intergenerational relations. He tells me that he can quiz me on the vast subject of growing old, and record the interview (edited, one presumes, for profanity and indecency), and that my voice (the Voice of Wisdom, if you can believe that crap) will then be electronically projected toward the audience, out of a grove of big Douglas firs on an island near Vancouver. Well, every university teacher is a ham, an actor manqué, or ought to be, so I should be a natural. I think that this is an honor. What is your considered opinion?

As for that Culture: we have taken in several plays, and of these only one was a dog, so we are ahead of the game. The dog was lavishly staged at the Goodman, and was a bad version of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real. In fact we didn’t realize how bad it was until I read John Lahr’s review of the play in The New Yorker (Lahr came to town for this production) and learned that Williams had written a quite different play, which the new director, a Catalan with a reputation as an Innovator, had proceeded to butcher, in the sacred name of Outrage and Innovation For Its Own Sake. This is Bullshit (for its own sake, I suppose). A local theater critic swooned over the production. This man, a Brit, is a moron about half the time (when I disagree with him, that is). But then, anger is the best medicine, short of an apoplectic fit.

Most recently we saw (eight hours of theater on two separate nights) Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America, which was fascinating, though in describing it to you, for example, I might take a slightly different tack than in describing it to another correspondent, an old friend and coeval who is a retired Episcopalian priest. Court Theater did good work on this one; an actor named Larry Yando was especially pungent playing the role of Roy Cohn, pursued by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg – who ends the liturgical words of the Kaddish (addressed to Cohn’s corpse) with “You son-of-a-bitch”). Effective, that was, especially as witnessed by a Hyde Park and heavily university audience with, one supposes, echt liberal leanings – and probably a knowledge of just what the Kaddish might be.

The local P. G. Wodehouse fan club is moving on with the organization of next year’s Wodehouse Society convention here, and I have learned that a fellow conspirator has taken a copy of my satire “The Curse of the Woosters: A Blasphemy” and is converting it into booklet form, which we will sell under the table to the more depraved members of the Society, and this will earn me either deathless fame or eternal infamy, and frankly I don’t care a flying fuck which it is. That is the very latest from here. All the best, and of course yours aye,

Dean M.

This above is letter 57 from my long-time correspondent and, certainly, friend, Dean Miller, Emeritus Professor of Comparative Religions at the University of Chicago, once a colleague of our common departed friend Ioan P. Coulianou. Dean's letters will one day make a witty and erudite collection, messages from a true scholar and thinker. My own responses have been, I'm afraid, perfunctory and superficial for the most part, but I did held my end of the correspondence now and then.


March 15, 2012

Dear Mr. Codrescu

I commend to your attention the 2011 Annual Report of the Globalization and Monetary Policy Institute, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. I know. The name glazes your eyes. But inside, I think you'll find something interesting: The people (or the government) of Zimbabwe have been reading you or listening to your broadcasts on NPR.

A long time ago, I heard your story about the emotional distance between you and your father.

In passing you made a reference to the regimentation of life in Romania of the Warsaw Pact years and the general worthlessness of paper money. Once, as I remember it, you found yourself in a summer youth camp designed ostensibly to develop political and class solidarity for young communists. Your father visited, and having nothing better to do with you, ended the visit prematurely, leaving you with a large wad of cash.

As your story goes, as near as I can remember it, you found yourself in one of the camp outhouses, which had no toilet paper, even of the rudimentary type common to Romania at the time. So with nothing else to use, you took out your father's cash and made it serve a useful purpose.

Well, the lead article in this FRB of Dallas annual report is about hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and the devastation it has wrought on that country. Evidently, the $100 trillion Zimbabwean currency note -- the highest denomination ever issued for any paper currency -- is a hot item on eBay, selling for $5 U.S.
One of the photographs accompanying the articles showed a sign that appeared in a public bathroom. It said, "TOILET PAPER ONLY to be used in this toilet.


As I said, somebody in Africa must be listening to you. Either that, or your problem in that camp crapper way back when was not unique.

All the best, Charles Saydah

March 16, 2012

Mr. Saydah,

Thank you. I am fond of a trillion dollar note issud during the war in Yugoslavia, featuring an image of Nikola Tesla. I'm not unaware of just how much misery this esthetically pleasing and worthless currencies inflict, but something there is, perversely and retroactively, funny and weird about these notes. Andrei


March 18, 2012

Hola, Andrei,
Remember when I asked you for a couple of signed copies of your books for a fund-raiser for a poet here in St. Louis who had just suffered a heart attack and had no health insurance?
At that fund raiser, I met the man whom I'm marrying this summer. Never thought I'd re-marry.
Anyway, that man, Ross, won your book Casanova in Bohemia and I just read it. Loved it! So, reading the

book brought back fond memories of Baton Rouge and hanging out with you and all the other poets and writers there.

One passage from the book I most adored: "When he finished, Mozart exclaimed: 'That's is how all stories should work! They should all accompany lovemaking! What good are stories if they do not increase love?'"

Thanks for writing, Andrei, and for being just the right mentor for a lost soul like me.

I hope all is well.

Yours in words,

Elva Maxine Beach, one my stellar former students, wrote Neurotica (2008), published by New Belleville Press.


March 19, 2012

Andrei, dear--With many miles now between us, and many moons since we last sat at a conference room table together, let me assure you: you were right. You were right about the importance of being amusing. You were right about jumping head first into another book project without worrying about where the dust will settle on the previous one. You were right about never taking one's self too seriously. You were right about steering clear of AWP and MLA. You were right about not planning to make any money. You were right about the virtues of reading broadly but speaking specifically. You were right about the capacity of one good anecdote to obliterate everything else. You were right about licking the streets of New Orleans. You were right about the sky being interesting with or without stars. You were right about whiskey. You were right about black t-shirts. You were right about me. Andrei, what a bastard you are! I love you very much, old man. And I miss you. Please be right about immortality. Hugs and kisses, Megan

Megan Volpert, a stellar poet, has done much since the days of my mentoring, most notably her latest book, Sonics in Warholia, 2011, Sibling Rivalry Press. She's being way too nice in the above mush-note, I wonder what's up:)


March 21, 2012

the following is from a typewritten letter from Sandy Berrigan, a confirmed luddite, who read The Poetry Lesson, and typed: "What a cool surprise. I love getting books in the mail. Your writing is as perky as a young girl's tits if I may so." Yes, of course, Sandy may: she was married to the great poet Ted Berrigan, who taught me much about poetry and the English language in the Sixties and Seventies. Ted died young on July4th, 1983. Sandy goes on to say, apropos of my book, "There is Ted again. What an influence on some of you and those he didn't influence he still is taught by them." True enough: at least three generations of poets who didn't know Ted Berrigan were magnetized and propelled forth by his work. Sandy is a poet as well, she lives in the country in Northern California, and is a great traveler and corespondent.


March 21, 2012

Your book The Dog with the Chip in His Neck

I have just started reading your book and for the most part it is very insightful. There is something that keeps coming up (I rented a movie the other day and they said the same thing). The idea that American Cooking was bland in the 50's or 60's. In this case of the movie it stated that Julia Childs was the one who taught America how to cook. Maybe I am missing something. All of my life I have been surrounded by garlic, spices, incredible foods...I come from Detroit. Grew up with an Italian mother, Italian Grandmother, Scottish Grandmother in a Polish Neighborhood. (Michigan and Central Area). spent a lot of time in East Dearborn, Ann Arbor and many other areas of Metro Detroit. I was entrenched in Middle Eastern Culture, Italian Culture, Catholic Church. And now I live in Jackson, Michigan. Any weekend any of the churches put on dinners that would have you telling everyone about the cooks out here. There is an African American Church out here that cooks on Thanksgiving that people actually give up there family obligations to attend that day.

I flat out think many people must have been deprived of good food. It is here in Michigan and especially the Detroit area.That is pretty much all I wanted to say. My mother is a cook, my grandmother was a cook who ran restaurants. And I just noticed the idea of Detroit being a bland area just is not true. It is like anywhere else you have got to go where it is. It does not come to you. Good book so far.

Andrea Wills
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I'm sure you're right, Andrea. Home cooking was always diverse and interesting in a country made up of so many people from all over. I was refering to restaurant food: in the 50s diner-food was pretty noncommital. Upscale eating out was mostly steak and fried fish with a side of mashed potatoes and an iceberg letucce salad with "daring" blue-cheese dressing. You had to have a pretty savvy local guide to take you to some homey little eatery in an ethnic neighborhood. Not the case these days, for sure. All best, Andrei


Advance copies of Bibliodeath: my Archives (with Life in Footnotes), greeted by friends as follows:

Dear Andrei,

Bibliodeath is a renaissance. It is the exemplary text of our time, one which will be endlessly imitated and wrestled with like the biblical Jacob wrestling with the demon angel at the Jabbok River to gain a name. Bibliodeath has simply reinvented autobiography and historiography. In and of itself, this reinvention would be enough to expand the canon, except for the aesthetic splendor of the writing which elevates it to a category the canon has yet to invent. It is rare to be a witness to genius, and rarer still to encounter a prose more innovatively poetic than the very best of our postmodern and post-digital poetry. Where Derrida and Celan end, you begin and with you, we the enraptured reader are given the opportunity to experience you as “the pollinator.” May we learn to cultivate the literary endorphins you bestow upon us so that we may more effectively expand the narrow field of our insights. Now, with Bibliodeath, we will never again limit the canonic universe of the self you have invented for us. Nothing has died. Nothing is extinct. No entropy poisons the soul. We are not vapid barbarians of self-interest. When a writer like you creates Bibliodeath, we are all one step closer to defeating Thanatos. Thank you!

My best, Daniel
(Daniel Y. Harris)



I am almost finished with my first reading of Bibliodeath, which for me at least is just what the doctor ordered. It's spectacular. I will be reading it a few more times and making notes. I pledge on my librarian’s gumshoes to generate a reading the book deserves. I’m already processing a boatload of potentials that you’ve packed into this glorious book. The “really hard problem” that you twist back through Brautigan’s brain is a show-stopper.

More personally, I was deeply touched in my memory chambers to read abt. your early life in Romania. A little context in a round-about–way: I was reading Bibliodeath on the anniversary of Bruce Hutchinson’s death. You published some of his drawings in the Exquisite Corpse. In the 70s he introduced me to your poetry, saying you were the best poet writing in America. His claim was on the basis of License to Carry a Gun. He lent me the book. I read it. A month
later I returned to his apartment in Brooklyn to discuss it. We smoked a few joints and talked abt. your characters – how you brought a deep sense of old world Puppenspiel magic to poetry. Leap to Lakewood: A dear old friend in Lakewood, Eva Weisman, who grew up Jewish in Vienna and had to flee there as a girl to Holland, once told me about the time she and her sister were in the temple and the torah box rolled out. She joyfully exclaimed – “Oh here come the puppets.” Anyway, you had something no other poets had. We really didn’t know what, or anything at that time of reading about your personal history. We were just starting out and scanning the scene. And now I am fathoming your
life and formation through this great book, and things are starting to make deeper and more poignant sense. I am thinking about you in Romania – the social forces, the ideological streams –the anti-Semitism and at the same time the personalism of the Orthodox church, the double-cross of realism and idealism, the authoritarian mystics and the radical materialists - your Old World take-aways and their transpositions into such a great book.

Am I off with morphed “personalism” twisting its way silently around you as a Jew in the Orthodox residue and the Commie collective organicity and then opening a way in the New World past the NY School and Personism and its mutations?

There’s the time motif in the book, too. The trace, the passageways, the play with Derrida. But I am wondering abt. another order of passageways. Did you hang much in the Bucegi Mts? Do you know Radu Cinamar? Read any of his books, say, Transylvanian Sunrise? Kook lit, something Jack Clarke taught me to savor. 

Ken Warren



Thanks so much for the beautiful new book. Love the little cameos of Sontag, handled with such aplomb, and the demure Kathy Acker (hilarious). I'm also in awe of your wide-ranging intellect. And the structure is very intriguing: the footnotes like a shadow that suddenly engulfs the book, then recedes. And a metaphor in its way for this transmigration of the word from the page to the (new) screen.

Big Cheers,

Aram Saroyan



Just got the advance copy of Bibliodeath! Yay! Thank you! Perfect name for the publisher of your book and I hope Antibookclub is the perfect publisher for it. Glad I didn’t toss the box it came in or I’d have missed “Long Live the Death of Print.” Nice touch. As with Whatever Gets You Through the Night, I especially like the placement of the notes, both as to design and for reading (which includes being able to mull them over in direct relation to the text precisely because they’re contiguous to the relevant passages, so they become re/integrated into the text proper), which, for me, is the most important aspect off their placement; but when artful design and readability of content mesh, the rewards to the reader are squared.

JJ Phillips


Mon Cher -- just a word to say that I received Bibliodeath (the homophone 'bibliotheque' sounds in my ear) and having read only the first few pages am already delighted. Since I am back in the reviewing mode I will elucidate its finer points in under 1K wds. Interestingly, I just picked up Gleick's The Information which might serve as the pad from which to launch (no promises -- it might end up being entirely visceral). Alors et a Bientot,

Pat Nolan


Hi, Andrei,

I dig your book very much.The parts among the commies in Romania took me back to my years among the same in China, and prompt me to play the epistolero for the remainder of this paragraph. Watching and listening to the Maoists-cum-Dengists spout their crap, I had always assumed they were like Japanese imitating American pop music: not getting it quite right, exaggerating themselves into a burlesque bordering on cruel racist stereotype. But, no, Bibliodeath has shown me that even Euro-commies came on like caricatures of themselves. 

As for new technologies storing literature only to destroy it--that's no fear for me, nor even a hope, but an assumption. I knew a cop who told me that you can tell if a guy has killed his wife by his reaction to the news of her death. If he looks at you as though you just informed him that the sky is green, the grass blue--if his face is filled not with disbelief, but just the puzzled assumption that you are talking nonsense--then he didn't kill her. That's my reaction when someone suggests that the internet, or, for that matter, the electrical grid, is here to stay. Preposterous, says this epistolero. 

Anyway, I like Bibliodeath, and congratulate you on another excellent book.


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