Andrei Codrescu, an award-winning poet, writer and National Public Radio commentator, is coming to Gloucester to celebrate the first year of the city's fledgling Gloucester Writers Center.
Codrescu has been called one of the most "magical" writers by critics, and although the two never met, Codrescu was deeply influenced by one of Gloucester's own writers, Charles Olson (1910-1970), often called the first American modernist poet.
"Olson was Gloucester's Sheherezade," Codrescu said of the poet who forever challenged those around him, whether it was his students at the experimental Black Mountain College in the 1950s, or aspiring poets or writers, or those Gloucester residents who knew him.
Codrescu's talk on Thursday is titled "Teaching Olson in Baton Rouge." The event will be held at the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church on Thursday, Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Codrescu, who serves on the Gloucester Writers Center advisory board, will be a writer-in-residence at the center, founded last year and based in the former East Gloucester home of the late poet Vincent Ferrini (1913-2007), who also was a friend of Olson.
Peter Anastas, a Gloucester-born writer and member of the center's board of directors, said the talk is sure to be engaging and move just beyond its title.
"If you know and love Andrei Codrescu as an NPR commentator, you will love getting your mind stretched and your funny bone tickled by his talk," said Anastas.
"You can be sure it will be about more than teaching Charles Olson in Baton Rouge," Anastas added. "As an aside, it is a pretty big occasion when a writer of international stature like Codrescu comes to Gloucester — not to mention a big coup for the Writers Center."
During his talk, Codrescu will recount a semester of teaching poetry at Louisiana State University, which will be delivered in his Transylvanian accent.
When asked how he came to learn about Olson — a name not always known even to some Gloucester residents — Codrescu said he learned about the poet almost instantly after arriving from Romania and moving to the Lower East Side in New York City. There he met several poets who had participated in a conference led by Olson, who stood 6-foot-8 and had a commanding presence even beyond his literary work.
"Olson's brilliant mind held them in thrall for days, and changed forever the landscape of American poetry," said Codrescu. Later Codrescu would meet Felding Dawson, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Diane diPrima, and other Black Mountaineers.
"(They) had the good fortune of being present at Olson's genius oral performances. I never met him, always wanted to, but I had enough secondhand hero worship in me to delve into the Maximus, read his essay on Melville, and study the George Butterick companion to Maximus," he said.
Olson's last work was an epic titled "The Maximus Poems," which was about the city of Gloucester.
When Codrescu started teaching at Louisiana State University, he realized instantly that "Maximus" would make an ideal object of study for his students.
"The side benefit of studying a mad Yankee's attempt to tell lyrically the epic story of a town (Gloucester) beginning in prehistory, and following every line of geographical, economical, and political thought his mind could conceive of, was that the method was good for any place, depending, of course, on the quality of mind working it," said Codrescu.
"My students started thinking in Olsonian terms about Baton Rouge and the lower Mississippi, an exercise that proved most useful when the catastrophe of Katrina found us," he related. "When Katrina turned everybody's life inside out, it became necessary to think like Olson, because the disaster had historical and social precedents, as well as environmental ones."
Codrescu noted that Olson's words were prophetic.
"He was sometimes overblown in his lyrical outbursts, occasionally megalomaniacal or mean, or felt too big for his britches, but these flaws are part of the process," he said.
"Olson was an interesting and complicated man, judging by the biographies, and it's amazing that he had time and nerve to run a college that gave birth to an artistic movement (or several), write a huge poem about his birthplace, and influence the future from the grave," he said. "So you can see why I'm excited to come to Gloucester, a town I know exclusively from a poem, and, visually, from Henry Ferrini's documentary film."
Henry Ferrini, a nephew of Gloucester's late poet laureate Vincent Ferrini, directed and produced the film "Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place," a piece about Olson, his impact on those around him and his impact on the literary world.
Codrescu's birthplace is Sibiu, an ancient town in Transylvania, in central Romania. He came to the United States in the mid-1960s, a time when the Soviet-led communist bloc held control in many eastern European countries. One of his first stops was in Detroit, just one of many places he would live.
According to his bio, his first poetry book, "License to Carry a Gun," won the 1970 Big Table Poetry award. He founded "Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Books & Ideas." He has taught literature and poetry at Johns Hopkins University, University of Baltimore, and Louisiana State University where he was a MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English. He has been a regular commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered" since 1983.
His recent works include: "Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments" (2011), The Poetry Lesson (2010) and "The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess" (2009), all published by Princeton University Press.
Annie Thomas, a member of the Gloucester Writers Center board, said the board is thrilled to be celebrating the center's first year anniversary by bringing Codrescu to Gloucester.
"Our theme of the importance of place is so evocative in Codrescu's work," she said.
Tickets will be sold at the door and at The Bookstore on Main Street in Gloucester. Tickets are $20, and $10 for students with ID. For information, or to reserve a ticket, visit www.gloucesterwriters.org or call Annie Thomas at 978 828-7738.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at email@example.com.