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LIDIA VIANU -- RUTH FAINLIGHT, LEAH FRITZ, EVA SALZMAN, ANDREI CODRESCU

 

POETS’ NEW YORK

Interviews with Ruth Fainlight, Leah Fritz, Eva Salzman and Andrei Codrescu

Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

 

 

RUTH FAINLIGHT

© Lidia Vianu

 

LIDIA VIANU: Were you born in New York? When? What was it like when you were a child?

 

RUTH FAINLIGHT: I was born in New York – more precisely, in a nursing home on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, in May 1931. At that time, so I have been told, it was a pleasant neighborhood of wide streets and newly built apartment buildings for aspiring young lower-middle class families, many of whom were Jewish. But my family moved to England when I was five years old, so my memories are few. I clearly remember being taken to see my mother in the same nursing home, when my brother was born more than three and a half years later, and vivid images like snapshots of playing in the park, boating on the lake with my father, watching the sun come through the window blind in my bedroom while I had my afternoon nap, and sitting on the floor of my aunt’s porch (my mother’s only sister, Ann, who lived nearby, and with whom I spent much time, especially after my brother’s birth), drawing or playing with small sample books of cloth, choosing which colours and textures I liked best to dress my dolls.

 

LV. Is childhood in New York any different from childhood in a smaller town or in the country?

 

RF. In England, we lived in London, in a middle-class suburb in the northern part of the city, a few streets away from my father’s sister and her family. I imagine my childhood was much the same there as it would have been in New York City.

 

LV. Could you feel as a child that New York was a multicultural city? Did you fit in easily or did you feel an outsider?

 

RF. I was very aware as a child in America that I lived in a multi-cultural city.

My mother had arrived in the city with her family when she was about six years old, among the tens of thousands of immigrants who went to the USA in the first years of the 20th century. The town where she was born was then in the Austro-Hungarian empire, then became Romanian, Polish, and is now in the Ukraine. Sometimes the people who visited my family then, in the 1930s, were refugees from Germany or Austria. My aunt’s neighbor and best friend was an Italian woman, and I was often in her kitchen while they talked and laughed together. So I was used to being with people from many different backgrounds. New York has always been a city of immigrants.

 

LV. As a teenager in New York, what was your cultural life? TV? Theatres? Movies?

As a student and later, what magazines did you like to read? When did you become interested in New York’s literary life and what places did you go to, what New York reviews did you read?

 

RF. My mother, brother and myself returned to New York in June 1941 as ‘British refugees’, while our father remained in England. At first we lived in a small apartment in Manhattan. My brother and I attended summer classes at the local school, and she worked as a secretary. But it was too difficult for her to work and look after us, and we were sent to a boarding school on Long Island. While we were there, she was injured in a road accident. Our aunt Ann, who was now living outside Washington DC where her husband worked, came to collect my mother from the convalescent home, and the two of us from the school, to live with her in Arlington, Virginia. My cultural life then consisted of attending art classes for schoolchildren every Saturday morning at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, after which I would go home and listen to the opera matinee broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with my aunt, who was a great lover of opera. She was a cultivated woman, and had many books on her shelves which I am sure had a strong influence on me. But I had always read a lot, and can still remember writing poems when I was ten and eleven years old – in fact, while we were still in New York, I read some of them on a children’s radio program, and had a few published in some sort of magazine (but their titles, and what the magazine was called, etc, is all lost in the mists of time). By the age of twelve I was already quite sure that I was an ‘artist’ – but whether that would manifest in painting or in writing was still uncertain!

 

LV. Why did you leave New York? Was it an easy decision? If you were to decide to come and live in London again, would you still do it?

 

RF. I left America because my parents decided it. My father had been in the war and after he was demobilised in England, he decided to stay there. (He was English; but had gone to America as a young man, met my mother, married, etc etc.) 

 

LV. What was the impact of London on you? How old were you when you came to London?

 

RF. Coming to England at the age of 15 was an enormous shock – I was a real American teenager, used to an entirely different style of life: accommodation, school, food, etc. etc. It was not long after the end of the war, and a much poorer and harder life than I had come from.

 

LV. Who were your literary friends in New York and who are now your literary friends in London?

 

RF. Although I have not lived in America since then – apart from two semesters as poet-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, in 1985 & 1990 – I continue to think of myself as more American than English, and have kept my American passport. Many of my literary friends are Americans who either live in England or often visit the country. And in fact most of my friends, literary or otherwise, are not English, but ‘foreigners’ living in London – with whom I seem to feel more at ease than with ‘real’ English people.

 

LV. Where do you feel more at home, London or New York?

 

RF. Because my circle is made up of others like myself – English people who grew up in other countries, people who came to England as refugees or for personal reasons such as marriage, and of course, those Americans who adore England! – I feel very much at home in London. But in New York I feel entirely at home, like a fish in water. It is my place, finally. (Although I doubt if I shall live there again.)

 

LV. Does your poetry have traces of New York imagery? What is the emblematic feature of New York in your soul?

 

RF. I believe there are many traces of New York, or American, imagery in my poetry. When I first met Adrienne Rich in the early 1970s, I was intrigued, and gratified (because it seemed to confirm such an important aspect of my identity), when she told me how surprised she had been to see me referred to as an English poet, because to her ear, my poems sounded so American.

 

June 2005

 

 

 

LEAH FRITZ

© Lidia Vianu

 

 

LIDIA VIANU: Were you born in New York? When? What was it like when you were a child?

 

LEAH FRITZ: Yes, I was born in New York. We moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan when I was small, and lived there until I was about five years old. I went to kindergarten there, and have many memories of it. One is that we lived near a synagogue, and since I was small and cute, my friends used to send me down into it when there was a wedding, because they would always give me cake to take to my friends. My sister was five years older, and I think I hung around with her and her friends a lot, although there was a little boy I played with across the street. Where we lived then was really quite suburban, but soon we moved back to Manhattan, which was ‘the city.’

 

LV. Is childhood in New York any different from childhood in a smaller town or in the country?

 

LF. Yes, I think it is somewhat different. In Manhattan, we were exposed to art at an early age. By 11, one of my ‘hang-outs’ was the Museum of Modern Art, and I also went to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History – all not far away. My own children were brought up in these places, too. I think New York is a brilliant place to bring up kids. It’s only when you get older, that you may want to leave.

 

LV. What did your house look like?

 

LF. I lived in several houses.The first I remember was the top floor apartment in a three-story red brick house in Brooklyn that my father built. He was an architect, and during the depression we were pretty broke, so he built a house for a cousin who was less broke, and we got the top floor apartment. That was very nice. My uncle George lived with us, and we had a young woman who lived there, too, and did the cleaning and took care of me. She was a Polish American from a mining town in Pennsylvania. I loved her a lot. She left when I was four years old to ‘better’ herself: she became a waitress. My mother kept up with her, and later Anna married and did very well. We had a large terrace at the back of our apartment there, which made it very pleasant. Eventually, my parents bought a house on the West Side of Manhattan. My father had an office there, and we used the ground floor and the first floor for our home. We had a back garden, so we lived differently from most people in Manhattan who usually live in apartments. We rented out the rest (it was five stories altogether) as small apartments, at low rentals – but they paid our mortgage.

 

LV. Was it typical of New York architecture? What is, in your opinion, typical of New York architecture? Do New Yorkers love their housing comfort?

 

LF. The house we lived in on the West Side of Manhattan was limestone and Victorian. My father altered it to suit us. It was typical of that kind of architecture. Manhattan is, as everyone knows, basically a bunch of canyons between skyscrapers, but there are many limestone and brownstone houses five stories high that still exist in between. Yes, of course, New Yorkers like comfort! Who doesn’t?

 

LV. Could you feel as a child that New York was a multicultural city? Did you fit in easily or did you feel an outsider?

 

LF. I didn’t think about multiculturalism as a child. White and black people lived in different parts of the city then, and in my neighbourhood – both in Brooklyn and later in Manhattan – most people were Jewish, although there were many who were not. There were many refugees from the holocaust in Manhattan when I was growing up. Although in general I ‘fit in’ with the other children, I felt in some ways an outsider because of personality differences. For one thing, I was considered something of an ‘intellectual,’ which was frowned on by some children. I was sociable, on the one hand, but did have my head in the clouds often. To a great extent I lived in my own world. I must say, though, that I was never a true introvert, nor was I, generally speaking, an unhappy child. Every summer I went to camp in the countryside, and there I did often feel unhappy because I was poor at sports.

 

LV. As a teenager in New York, what was your cultural life? TV? Theatres? Movies?

 

LF. Not TV. That came later. I did go to the theatre, but more often to the movies, which were much less expensive. I would say the museums and libraries were very important. At the Museum of Modern Art I saw foreign movies and old silent films which made a great impression.

 

LV. As a student and later, what magazines did you like to read?

 

LF. The New Yorker was my favourite. 

 

LV. When did you become interested in New York’s literary life and what places did you go to, what New York reviews did you read?

 

LF. In my late teens I became involved with artists and writers socially. I worked at the Museum of Modern Art for a while. I spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village, had artist boyfriends... I wrote poetry from the time I was eight and always thought I’d be a writer. I read the reviews in The New Yorker, the New York Times, The Village Voice (which I later wrote for, along with other publications, but I rarely did reviews).

 

LV. Was it uncomfortable at all to live in a place which was a melting pot of all nationalities? Did you ever feel uncomfortably different from anyone?

 

LF. No, except in ways described above.

 

LV. Could you describe the social classes in New York? Have they changed since your were a child? Which do you belong to?

 

LF. I find it difficult to answer this question. I guess I was ‘middle class.’ But I was never conscious of class then. Not even when I was grown up and worked in Harlem, where class differences should have been obvious. I was aware of poor and not poor and rich – but never in an ideological sense. The racial and sexual differentials seemed more urgent. In New York, poverty was more evident among African Americans and Hispanic Americans than among ‘whites,’ and seemed more a consequence of race/ethnicity than of class, so I was working to help correct that imbalance, and also the aggression against and misunderstanding of women.

 

LV. Why did you leave New York?

 

LF. For many complex reasons.

 

LV. Was it an easy decision?

 

LF. Surprisingly, yes.

 

LV. If you were to decide to come and live in London again, would you still do it?

 

LF. You bet I would!

 

LV. What was the impact of London on you? How old were you when you came to London?

 

LF. I was 54.  It made me happy. I’ve made a whole life here. It’s probably the best place in the world to live. I’m very lucky.

 

LV. Who were your literary friends in New York and who are now your literary friends in London?

 

LF. My friends in New York were the important feminist writers. We’ve just lost one of them, Andrea Dworkin. There is Susan Brownmiller, Grace Paley, Robin Morgan, Shere Hite – many others. Sometimes I see them when I go there or they come here. My literary friends in London are a legion! A hundred poets, perhaps. The ones I am closest to are not at all well-known – neither am I! – but they do very fine work.

 

LV. Where do you feel more at home, London or New York?

 

LF. In London.

 

LV. Does your poetry have traces of New York imagery? What is the emblematic feature of New York in your soul?

 

LF. Of course, my New York background is evident in my work.  I am a quintessential New Yorker – and proud of it. My accent is undeniable. The ‘emblematic feature’ is my sense that I can do or be anything I want to; in a word, freedom. And, I suppose, optimism. And, I suppose, street-smarts. That’s a certain caution in the streets, knowing how to relate to really bizarre situations and surviving them. But I say this with my fingers crossed and knocking on wood.

 

June 12, 2005

 

 

 

EVA SALZMAN

© Lidia Vianu

 

 

LIDIA VIANU: Were you born in New York? When? What was it like when you were a child?

 

EVA SALZMAN: I was born in an uptown Manhattan hospital on the East River, but grew up in Brooklyn Heights. My composer father, then writing for the Times, devised a birth announcement styled as a mock-up news feature reviewing our twin musical debuts (I’m the elder by eight minutes). We were ‘sopranos of considerable proportions…(who) presented mainly atonal music with little subtlety but plenty of vigour.’ So, no change there.

            To survive each day in this exhausting, competitive city felt like a major achievement. Out-of-towners, immediately recognizable to seasoned New Yorkers, are advised to avoid muggings by trying to look like they belong, like they own the place. NYC often strikes me as oddly Third-World. You fly into the shoddy JFK, our international airport, and get sucked into a disorganized, pell-mell city, which is also a place of immense wealth and power. My childhood memories include driving over pot-holed highways, forever being repaired. Finally, the penny dropped; the repairs were never meant to be completed. This way the jobs kept going. Maybe it’s to do with the mob. I don’t know. New Yorkers are arrogant, but also brimming with life, energy… and opinions.  We award ourselves top marks in the Street-Cred department. People describe Americans as lacking the Irony gene, but New Yorkers are famed for their sarcastic, sharp wit. One visit home, I was struck by the sight of a pot-bellied guy swaggering, Adonis-like, along Brighton Beach. This guy was going to inhabit his space, no matter what. I miss that un-English unashamed physicality, the Mediterranean gesticulating. I walk faster than anyone I know, even if I’m going nowhere.

            The subway system is hot as Hades, the trains at that time not air-conditioned and deafeningly loud. Standing on a platform as a train rumbled in, you could yell at the top of your lungs into your companion’s ear and s/he wouldn’t hear you. Giuliani, our first Republican mayor in ages, cleaned everything up. Don’t know what he did with the homeless, maybe dumped them in New Jersey. Now I’m nostalgic about a dirty, dangerous NYC, although I never actually thought of it as dangerous really. When Giuliani tried to clean up our artwork too, objecting to an exhibition featuring the artist Chris Offili, who uses elephant dung in his paintings, New Yorkers put their collective foot down. NYC dropped right down on the Murder Capital chart. Apparently, most murders happen between about 2 and 5 AM, when good citizens are in their beds (though not this good citizen teenager, it has to be said!) and are either drug-related, or Domestics gone wrong. Why throw a frying-pan when you can shoot a gun?

            During the 2004 Republican Convention, we were overrun by stars-and-stripes, ten-gallon hat Texans and polyester-suited mid-westerners, taking buses to go just a few blocks. Why don’t they take the subway like us, I asked a cop. He said the Delegates’ folks were calling the police from all over the country, nervous about their relatives’ safety in our liberal hands. We were affronted to be hosting this convention at all. 

 

LV. Is childhood in New York any different from childhood in a smaller town or in the country?

 

ES. I had an unusual degree of freedom, thanks to hippie-ish parents but NYC kids are mostly precocious as hell.  My country yokel friends were barred from visiting us city slickers in Sodom, as their parents thought of the place I lived. Nowadays, the Sodom idea doesn’t seem far-fetched, though NYC is nothing like Bush’s America. People forget: it’s a big country! Nationalism is abhorrent to me, but I do feel ‘patriotic’ about NYC, identifying with the place profoundly. In my heart of hearts, it feels like the centre of the world.

 

LV. What did your house look like?

 

ES. 29 Middagh Street, still my parents’ house, is a four-story clapboard house, with marble fireplaces and wide floorboards. Although my parents are naturalists – my father is an expert on Long Island birds – we’re no good with gardens. Ours, called the ‘yard’, is overrun with weeds. One summer, I made the effort with my first husband; a photo commemorates another summer when we sublet to talented gardeners. Old homes need constant repairs; we’ve always rented out the upstairs duplex, needing the cash. My grandparents’ house, now sold, was also an early Federal building just around the corner on Cranberry Street, where, Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Leaves of Grass’ was first published.

            7 Middagh Street’s various tenants included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Brittain, Salvatore Dali and the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. In my as-yet unwritten screenplay, she rehearses her new striptease acts for a slightly bored, though perceptive and analytical Auden. (Actually, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon sort of got there first, with his poem ‘7 Middagh Street’.) The neighbourhood has many literary associations; Norman Mailer’s house overlooks the Promenade, from where the Manhattan skyline’s more famous views are taken, including the one of burning Twin Towers. That was like seeing my past crumbling before my eyes. We didn’t know anyone, but everyone knew someone who knew someone. My husband’s artwork was in one tower, a smaller loss than the collection of Rodin, this loss itself dwarfed by the enormous loss of life.

 

LV. Was it typical of New York architecture? What is, in your opinion, typical of New York architecture? Do New Yorkers love their housing comfort?

 

ES. The Promenade was our consolation prize for the building of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, an example of the famous Robert Moses’s zeal for civic development as exemplified by road building, which in this case cut through the Heights ruthlessly, knocking down the historic 7 Middagh Street, among other things. An  underground slave ‘railway’ is meant to run under the Heights, with hiding places and escape routes. Or maybe I’ve made that up, or someone else made it up. It happens to places already packed with history. After years of local petitioning, something with which my parents were involved, the Heights was designated an historic neighbourhood, to protect what was left, including the area’s later turn-of-the-century brownstones, for which NYC is famous and which are more typical of the kinds of homes all over the city. Originally built as a suburb for wealthy shipping magnates, wishing to overlook their docks, the Brooklyn Heights fell on hard times after World War II. People couldn’t afford the heat or servants needed for large houses, many of which were divided into apartments, or boarding houses, like Number 7. This is why my grandparents, lucky to be working throughout the Depression, could afford to buy in a neighbourhood, now expensive and desirable again. Even here, few buildings date back to 1829, the year our house was built. Many New Yorkers live in co-ops, with more affordable housing found mainly outside of  Manhattan, in the further reaches of the boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, or over the Hudson river in New Jersey.

 

LV. Could you feel as a child that New York was a multicultural city? Did you fit in easily or did you feel an outsider?

 

ES. Having attended multicultural public (free) schools for many years, I had friends from many backgrounds, classes and ethnic groups: black (African origin, as opposed to the Caribbean slant in the UK), Chinese, Egyptian, Puerto Rican and American Indian. What is a New Yorker but someone from somewhere else? Still, feeling the ‘outsider’ is the writer’s habitual condition! I hung out with neighbourhood kids on the stoop, which is  the Dutch word for the steps out front. (Middagh, also a Dutch word, means ‘midday’.)

 

LV. As a teenager in New York, what was your cultural life? TV? Theatres? Movies?

 

ES. Unlike the clichéd American family, we had no dishwasher, no TV, but this movie fanatic got her paws on the latter, when I was old enough to get away with it. I’d stay up watching the Late Show, Late, Late Show and, finally, the Late Late Late Show, which educated me in (mainly Hollywood) cinema history. Well, that’s my excuse.

            Because I trained in dance and choreography for many years, my fairy grandmother – the one with the talent for buying houses – bought me tickets to see the great ballet companies. There I was, this lone teenager, sitting right up front, practically getting sprayed by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s sweat. (Once, during his big entrance in ‘Giselle’, he tripped on this sword!) I saw them all: the New York City and Joffrey Ballet companies, American Ballet Theatre and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which was ground-breaking in its training and presenting of black dancers in historically white ballet classics. Alvin Ailey Company, a favourite, was known for its multicultural make-up: mainly black, but also Puerto Rican, Oriental and the odd white. I cherish the memory of Natalaya Makorova’s perfect 32 fouettes in ‘Swan Lake’, and Rudolf Nureyev partnering Margo Fonteyn, to name a few Greats I was privileged to see in their prime.

            Contemporary dance was really more my thing: the Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham troupes. Because my father wrote music-theatre, I was exposed to work on the cutting edge: the avant-garde, the experimental. My father’s multi-media piece, ‘The Nude Paper Sermon’, featured a text by the poet John Ashbery and the actor Stacy Keach, who later went to Hollywood (and to jail, but that’s another story…). This piece’s finale afforded me my first if fleeting glimpse, of the naked male form. Like I said, we’re precocious. My father knew and worked with well-known composers, musicians and conductors including Pierre Boulez, William Bolcolm, Joshua Rifkin and Charles Rosen. His mother (same grandmother!) also wrote music-theatre, and was a child vaudeville actress, touring with her parents, who earned their living in this business.

 

LV. As a student and later, what magazines did you like to read?

 

ES. We had various political, current affairs and environmental journals around the house. My mother, an environmentalist, was  a campaigner against the dangers of nuclear power before this became a fashionable cause. We also subscribed to satirical publications such as Mad Magazine and National Lampoon, and got the New York Times daily, this being the only broadsheet paper widely available, aside from the Washington Post, which you’d have to go a little further to find. (Most US media is narrow,  superficial, biased, utter garbage.) I’d steal my grandparents’ New Yorker magazine, which I loved, at first mainly for its famous cartoons and covers. Alongside the English and American 19th century novels I devoured, I read Cosmopolitan, movie magazines, comic books and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, being indiscriminate and haphazard in my reading. Still am.

 

LV. When did you become interested in New York’s literary life and what places did you go to, what New York reviews did you read?

 

ES. I never got especially ‘interested’ in literary life, just as I never thought to ‘become’ a writer; I just wrote and loved books. I had the immense good fortune to have access to my grandmother’s astounding library of 20,000-ish books, crammed on shelves or piled up in towering, toppling piles, on the third floor of before-mentioned Cranberry Street house. It was like having a private library at one’s disposal, except she’d give me the books. What treasures! Literature was my escape, my passion. The Irish writer Frank McCourt was my teacher at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. His idea of teaching English was to tell us stories about the Irish, so I thought English was nothing but stories. And so it is. As it turned out, he was rehearsing on us his bestseller Angela’s Ashes. Every Friday the class was asked to present their teenage angst-ridden literary scribblings, and I always strained at the leash to bore everybody with mine. Most of the other students, brilliant in the math and science – the school’s specialty – took McCourt’s class because it was an easy ride. He gave everyone 96%, and there were no tests.

 

LV. Was it uncomfortable at all to live in a place which was a melting pot of all nationalities? Did you ever feel uncomfortably different from anyone?

 

ES. Back to the writer’s ‘pathology’! Aren’t writers all uncomfortable in some way? NYC had nothing to do with it. I like ‘difference’, in fact am often drawn to black sheep. When I lived in Paris at the age of four, the kids threw rocks at me in the school-yard. The south of England, was homogenous in such an alien way to me. One day, driving into Tunbridge Wells, I nearly crashed the car, after spotting a perfectly ordinary man crossing the road. It took me a moment to understand why I’d done this double-take: I hadn’t seen a black man in three months, and hadn’t even realized it until that moment.

 

LV. Could you describe the social classes in New York? Have they changed since your were a child? Which do you belong to?

 

ES. Class in the US doesn’t exist in the same way as it does in the UK, despite what people say. Money is certainly more connected to notions of class. Although there’s  a certain ‘Brahmin’ caste of old US families, the classes aren’t so rigidly defined.  I guess I’m educated middle-class, privileged in am artsy bohemian way. My grandparents were poor immigrants, the first generation to achieve financial security but only after years of working hard, scrimping and saving. The houses they managed to buy went up in value later. My grandfather had seven brothers and sisters; all of their earnings went into a common pot, to pay for the youngest brother’s education; later, he worked his own way through university. He modernized his house himself, putting in the plumbing, electricity and a kitchen, doing all the repairs at our house too. When he died, everything fell apart.

 

LV. Why did you leave New York?

 

ES. The old story. A man. An Englishman. First, he came to the US, while I finished my BA degree, and then got my MFA at Columbia University, after which we moved to the UK… and got divorced. Since then I’ve tried a Scotsman and an Irishman, but am now married to an American from Long Island, not far from NYC! Life is strange.

 

LV. Was it an easy decision?

 

ES. One of the hardest I’ve ever made. I’d never have left New York City otherwise, not in a million years. I think I left precisely because I knew this, and wanted to experience another place and people. Many things about America disturbed me but I really truly didn’t think I’d stay in the UK so long. Even now, I’m in denial that I live in England.

 

LV. If you were to decide to come and live in London again, would you still do it?

 

ES. Knowing what I now know? No point in going down that road. How do I know if I’d have done the things I’ve done, if things had been different. It’s impossible to undo one thing without undoing the rest. Writing is often about trying out the lives one didn’t lead. 

 

LV. What was the impact of London on you? How old were you when you came to London?

 

ES. I was 18 when I first visited London, but didn’t move to England until I was 24, living first in Kent, then Brighton before moving to London. My intellect is urban, but my spirit floats around in the country somewhere. 

 

LV. Who were your literary friends in New York and who are now your literary friends in London?

 

ES. The poetry world is tiny, everyone knowing everyone. My friends include writers of all kinds, but I’d be bored having only literary friends. There are many false friends in the literary world, despite our supposedly lofty pursuits. I’ve never been clever – or devious – enough to pretend I like people, just because they might help my ‘career’. Despite my inborn cynicism, I’m continually amazed by people’s duplicity and shallowness. 

 

LV. Where do you feel more at home, London or New York?

 

ES. After many years, I’d still say NYC. When I go home, it’s like I’ve been holding my breath all this time. Suddenly I can heave a sigh of relief and be a loud-mouthed extrovert – just like everyone else. 

 

LV. Does your poetry have traces of New York imagery? What is the emblematic feature of New York in your soul?

 

ES. The traffic hum of the Brooklyn Bridge was the background score of my childhood, and a I wrote a sonnet about it, in order to re-possess what I felt to be mine. For a while anyway. Rather than give a nod to Crane’s famous poem on the subject (Walt Whitman too wrote about it) I decided to brazenly rip off his lines, comparing the suspension cables to a harp. The completion of the bridge was overseen by Emily Roebling, from the top floor of her and her invalid husband’s house, in Brooklyn Heights.

 

June 2005

Also posted at Icorn, http://www.icorn.org/articles.php?var=29

 

 

 

 

ANDREI CODRESCU

© Lidia Vianu

 

 

LIDIA VIANU: When did you first see New York?

 

ANDREI CODRESCU: From the chartered airplane taking fresh immigrants to America in 1966; the plane was full of Yugoslavs who started singing ‘America the beautiful!’ when they saw the Statue of Liberty.

 

LV. Was it as a fresh emigrant or later?

 

AC. We changed planes in New York then and went on to Detroit, my first American home.

 

LV. What struck you first?

 

AC. The verticality: it was like Europe with an erection.

 

LV. Are New Yorkers different from other people? Are they more or less than human? Or brighter?

 

AC. They are different because they are of so many backgrounds and ethnicities; figuring out how to get along sometimes took generations, but eventually there emerged a quick, witty, generous but not stupid breed of citizen called a New Yorker.

 

LV. Why must everyone love the Big Apple?

 

AC. A lot of people hate it because it’s too fast. I used to love it because sorry, destitute humanity rubbed shoulders with billionaires (at least in theory), like in Walt Whitman’s poems, but now it’s clean and safe like Minneapolis. I think they even put mayonnaise on the sidewalk in case you drop your Wonder Bread. Manhattan, at least, is for the rich now. The artists and the poor can still live in Brooklyn and Queens.

 

LV. Have you ever lived in New York for a longer period of time?

 

AC. Yes, two years, 1968-1970, and every year for at least a month.

 

LV. Why are New York houses the envy of the planet when I have seen tiny apartments and cupboard kitchens there with my own eyes? Is New York a myth?

 

AC. New York has energy and spunk. Your apartment is your refuge: you conduct the rest of your life in the agora, or working, with the people. If you invite someone to your apartment it’s a great sign of friendship; the rest of your meetings are conducted in restaurants, bars, luncheonettes, etc

 

LV. Does New York have a cultural life for real? There are so many museums and theatres and reviews, but do they actually use all those things? Or is it for the use of foreigners passing by?

 

AC. Those things are very real and they constitute the social fabric of the city through their wealthy patrons. New Yorkers use their culture, but like all things, it comes and goes in cycles. In the 60s New York was where painting and poetry were, in the 70s the art and music scene, in the 80s institutional revamping and architecture, in the 90s the exodus of the poor from Manhattan, in the beginning of the 21st century, human intimacy and care born of the terror attacks on 9/11.

 

LV. If you could choose to live in your dream town anywhere on this planet, would it be New York?

 

AC. Yes, with a summer place in the country.

 

LV. Is New York a melting pot? Have you ever felt an alien there because you were not born in the States? Once, in 1991, when I was a Fulbright professor in New York State and my ten-year-old daughter went to school for a year there, a boy her age showed her the globe and said: ‘Where is your Romania? Why don’t you just go back there?’ And the next day she asked him: ‘Were you born in the States?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Were your parents born there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘ And your grandparents?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And your great-grandparents?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Everyone in your family ever?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then you are a red Indian’. And he did not like that. Have you ever had to fight for your status like that?

 

AC. Yes, but, like your kid, I put them quickly in their place. That’s normal in a place of immigrants: the Dutch of 1700 thought all immigrants were trash, the Irish fought the Italians, the Jews fought them all, the Hispanics had to claw their way up after that. ‘The Gangs of New York’ had it operatically right. The town toughens you up, it doesn’t mollycoddle.

 

LV. What does it feel like to be published and sold in all big bookstores in New York (and not only)?

 

AC. Great. I used to steal my own books because I couldn’t afford them, but now I buy them to give to people I meet.

 

LV. Does the radio represent your personality? Americans, lots of them, know you that way. I was told so by a professor of French at NY State University. He listened to your broadcasts with delight and said he had never heard anyone talk so well and wittily and with such a great sense of humour.

 

AC. My best work is in my books, but most people listen to the radio. I have no idea what ‘representing my personality’ means. I intend no such thing. I just want to amuse, shock, and horrify people and make a living at it.

 

LV. Was exile a liberation, a trauma, an outlet? Is America your house in your dreams? Do you ever dream of Romania these days?

 

AC. For me at age 19, fresh from the quiet hells of Ceausescu, it was certainly a liberation. I loved my generation in America, which had the same feeling about whatever hells they’d escaped from. (Even if it was just a nice, clean suburb of Chicago). I had nostalgia for Sibiu, my hometown, but since 1989, when I covered the so-called ‘revolution’, I have returned many times and I feel quite at home in Romania now. It’s a recondite pleasure to feel at home in two worlds.

 

June 2005