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Codrescu warns against 'the inner terrorist'

Andrei Codrescu came to America from Romania nearly penniless, a callow yet cerebral youth, not speaking the language. Four years later, in 1970, he was handed the Big Table Younger Poets Award for his first book of poems, in English. Oddly enough, considering the seriousness of purpose that accomplishment displayed, one thing he doesnít take so seriously is himself. As Codrescu remarked off-script the other night: "I had to learn English. I was 19 and I had things to tell girls."

He was speaking at Brown on April 28, delivering an address titled, "The Terrorist Within: Are All Borders Imaginary?," that exemplified his simultaneously trenchant and flippant style. The talk was part of this yearís four-day Providence Journal/Brown University Public Affairs Conference, "Homeland Insecurity," which examined immigration.

As a commentator for NPRís All Things Considered since 1983, Codrescuís keen, insightful, sardonic, and often surreal two-and-a-half-minute riffs on American culture have made him the darling of thinking listeners. A poetical rather than political Henry Kissinger for lefties. If the Dadaist Tristan Tzara and anarchist Emma Goldman had had a love child, he might have said something like: "Be ever-vigilant in the matter of the inner terrorist. We all have a bit of one in us . . . The inner terrorist is a borderless, shiftless creature born out of ideological contradictions like a jellyfish from the surf. Itís hard to see, itís harmful, and itís almost everywhere."

That was among the advice Codrescu gave at Brown to Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge, to whom he referred when he spoke of how fear has expanded our nationís borders: "The border is just outside our bedroom. Soon it will be inside, if he has his way."

The afternoon before the talk, in a wide-ranging conversation over Starbucksí coffee, an amiable Codrescu demonstrated that he is every bit as wry and illuminating impromptu as he is in the concentrated prose of his radio essays. He described himself as "sort of a professional immigrant, like Henry Kissinger." As he pointed out, "Iíve been married twice to American women. My children are American. Itís really hard to keep this accent going."

His grandmother said that in America dogs walk around with pretzels on their tails, but when Codrescu and his mother settled in Detroit, they caught a different absurd sight: the 1967 riots. "The Second Airborne was going up Woodward Avenue with their guns pointed up at the buildings. There was a 6 oíclock curfew, and they fired if they saw anybodyís heads. I thought: ĎWhere am I here, exactly? This is the land of milk and honey ó but they shoot at you here!í But it still was great. It still was totally terrific, because I could say all kinds of insane things and people thought that was OK. They werenít shooting at me in particular for talking, you know, they were just shooting at everybody for stealing TVs."

In more than 20 books of poetry, essays, and novels, the professor of English literature at Louisiana State University has made a habit of pissing off people. Heís defended gay marriage, bashed Bushies, made light of the Rapture, the Christian movement convinced "that youíre going to leave the earth in your body, out of your car or office, when you are suddenly called." (Ralph Reed mobilized the delivery of 30,000 letters to NPR stations after that.)

So he gets a lot of go-back-to-Romania letters, hmm?

"Oh, yeah, yeah ó I have a large constituency of people who want to kill me," Codrescu says. "On the other hand, there are people who really love [the NPR commentary]. So you donít get the middle ground, you get passions ó which is great."

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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