Fall 2003 vol 3.1
Geographers at Mardi Gras: An Address to the American Geographer's Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans, March 4, 2003*
Andrei Codrescu
*Winner of the 2004 Pushcart Prize for Best Essay of the Year

I hope that you haven’t lost any geographers to Mardi Gras
It may be years before they are found––
Who can blame them?
Some of them may not want to be found again
As a way to expiate for the sins of geography
—today is Ash Wednesday after all—
so I thought that instead of lecturing to you today
I would go around the room and ask each one of you
To confess a cardinal sin of geography
Or even a mortal one and then I will give you poetic penance
By erasing the cross you all bear
Namely NSEW––
Poetry, my friend Ted Berrigan used to say,
Should endeavor to make at least four directions
In their poems: Up and Down and Sideways
And that’s a cross
The rest of the dimensions will take care of themselves—
When my friend and colleague Kent Matthews approached me
To speak to you people I wasn’t too sure.
I wasn’t too sure what geographers were
I looked it up in the OED and it said something like
Geographers study physical boundaries
But then the secondary definition said that people boundaries and
economic ones were involved too
But obviously not very much because that would be anthropology
And economics
Which kind of reassured me because that’s just like poets
Who get to study everything but not enough to call it anything else
Though––to tell you the truth—many poets today don’t really care what
you call what they do as long as they get to do their best thinking about
whatever it is in the most provocative language available––
Maybe geographers are like that now––
But then to go back to the question of sins and Ash Wednesday
I don’t think poets have as many sins as geographers––
But maybe I’m wrong so maybe I should just point out some differences
that may be only a layman’s prejudices:
   1) Geographers are people who know where everything in the world is
      and cause maps to be made that––if you know how to read them—
      let you also know where you are
   2) Poets are people who have no idea where anything is so they rethink
      wherever they are because they don’t trust maps which they suspect of
      some unspeakable original sin
   3) Geographers know north from south and east from west and teach
      this to generations of children like myself who learn to go against the
      grain of their common sense
   4) Poets have an obscure but stubborn compass that makes them resist
      the classification of direction just as they have resisted the Linnean
      classifications after thousands of years of associating patterns and
      colors; I’m not saying that we are right––I’m just pointing out a
   5) Geographers are people who generation after generation filled in the
      terra incognitas until the only blank spaces left on maps were ones
      that had the misfortune—or good sense—to
change their locations—or at least their names—after natural or man-made
On the other hand, the constant intrusions of nature on the topography of
a changing earth
and the intrusions of history on what’s there one minute and
                  gone the next
                  like let’s say Masuria, a country between Poland and
         Germany that exists now only in a book by a writer named
         Siegfried Lenz––
is what keeps geographers in business—
the boundary lines made by men
over those of nature and the migratory life that follows or goes against
nature’s lines
but also the intrusions as well of our ontological and psychological
Of where we are at any given moment
         With or without maps
   6) and that’s the business of poetry, too
but with the proviso that for us maps go against common sense
and that we suspect that even the most skilled readers of maps know that
they are performing an unnatural act that is in itself an intrusion on the
natural and human world
And that the makers of maps already know this
And the venality that lies at the base of all that codified
Exploration and so-called “discovery”—
And that the ethics of mapping
Unlike those of (some) poetry are highly suspect if one
“Follows the money” as good journalists do, and not the rhetoric which is
What (some) professors used to do and some still do
And that geographers must be like Mormons
Always endeavoring for accuracy and precision
In order to correct some egregious flaw in the founding
And that this is one good on the one hand because it makes you energetic
and restless people buffeted
By the storm of profound dilemmas brought about by shaky
         And not so good if you do not on the other hand question those

My own beginning was shaky
Born in a place drawn and redrawn after every war
A ping-pong region batted about by great powers
Settled at the time of my birth inside the fish of Romania
“Our country looks like a fish,” my geography teacher said
With an indescribable irony that carried in it some unspoken curse
Of something slippery, silent, ready to be hooked by the many
Fishermen hovering above us with various maps spread before

I made my own maps
Pirate maps leading to treasures
Secret maps for our gang’s secret places
Maps for getting to my house
And escape maps in case of a bad oedipal storm
I realized then that the treasure map and the escape map
          Were ur-maps
The first drawn to point the location of loot
The second intended to escape the armed looters
And that the fine humanist sentiment of discovery
Was mostly an ode-for-hire to legitimize
The taking of treasure and the necessity of escape
I knew this even at ten because I wanted to go to new places
And discover worlds unknown to me
Just like all the poetry said
But I was principally motivated by the desire to escape
The tight borders of my walled-in childhood in a walled-in country
In a walled-in continent and a walled-in prison planet
And there is surely a book to be written and many have
On the imaginary geography of childhood
And imaginary geography before the age of physical discovery
And the rise of instrumentation
I still have notebooks full of detailed description
Of places on my imaginary maps

Which brings me to one of the points of this talk
Which is that imaginary geography is still the prime mover
Of human beings now when all that can be seen and measured
Has been seemingly mapped seen and measured
And that far from being exhausted or literary
This particular imagination is reshaping our world
Making it necessary to re-envision its mapping according to desire

And there is no better time for discussing this mapping of desire
Than the day after Mardi Gras in New Orleans
         Where I’ll just say with Homer that the “wine-dark sea” has
more wine in
         it than elsewhere
Which is the defacto reality of our American Venice
A city that refuses to conform to anything that is known about it
And has had its geography redrawn and reimagined
First as a creature of the lower Mississippi
A river that has no intention of conforming and never has
To the designs of those that’d fix its course and propensities
A city founded against common sense in a hostile swamp
Then fought over by the great powers of Europe
The subject of countless imprecise descriptions and claims
A city where geographical directions such as NWSE are not part of
         the natives’ map
Who give directions as either “away” or “toward” the river
And whose boundaries and life have been re-imagined many times
By the life-forms that stubbornly thrive here
Waging a guerrilla-war against definition and conclusive mapping
And will continue to do so until the city is either taken back or
                  By the river
A knowledge of finitude that is intimately woven into our psyches
And that urges us to live intensely before the assured cataclysm
A tenuous and time-bound existence that gives an infinite license
         to the imagination
The infinite available by the way only to the tragic sense of
         We are all wine-dark kierkegardians here—
My own sense of where we are is helped by four investigative methods,
The proprioception or Charles Olson’s Poetics

That is:

Proprioception or Olson’s poetics, as developed by Olson in his long
poem, “Maximus,” and his essays on Melville, The Human Universe, and
Projectivist Verse, at the end of the 1950s.

Mysteries as revealed in The Mysteries of New Orleans by Baron von
Reizenstein, completed in 1853, translated and edited by Steven Rowan,
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002

Surregionalism, as coined by the philosopher Max Cafard in an essay first
published in Exquisite Corpse, a Journal of Life & Letters in 1997.

& TAZ, Temporary Autonomous Zones, coined by the Sufi scholar and
poet Hakim Bey who discussed TAZ in a number of essays, including a
slim volume published and reprinted several times by Autonomedia in the

         Charles Olson’s vision of American space was embodied by his
hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and was a simultaneous cosmic,
geological, human, economical, political, psychological, and literary
exploration of Gloucester by means of a poetic method he called
“projectivist verse,” driven by proprioception, which is a synesthesic drive
to compress and push forward all that one knows and intuits in that
knowledge as well as in imagination. Olson envisioned Gloucester as a
becoming out of known facts, a journey that the poet undertakes as a 20th
century Odysseus who has been schooled in everything since Homer.
      Of course, that’s an epic undertaking that can be overwhelming, as
Olson himself acknowledged:
      “What did happen to measure when the rigidities dissolved?… What
is measure when the universe flips and no part is discrete from another
part except by the flow of creation, in and out, intensive where it seemed
before qualitative, and the extensive exactly the widest, which we have also
the powers to include?”
         This post-modern vision looks to me exactly like the Mississippi
River seen both before and after “discovery,” a great natural force that is
best intuited – using both the sensual fact of the river itself and the
immense history and literature that sprung from it, beginning with
geology, Native American ritual and commercial interaction, on to La Salle
and the whole modern age, Mark Twain included.
         The intuitive project (and the ongoing necessity for it) comes out
of a profound mistrust toward the official readings of one’s habitation. As a
poet, Olson was not satisfied by any reading of Gloucester proceeding
from either Marx or Freud because, while these gave a certain coherence to
its economic and psychological existence, they produced equally dogmatic
and official readings of their own that did not open the space of Gloucester
(or of thought, or of the Mississippi) to the unknown, but enclosed it
instead within their own logics.
         Olson may have even coined the term “post-modern”—and
pointed out the way to a revisioning of place through a high-temperature
poetic rethinking of contradictory readings. Olson was difficult to read
until recently, because a reader schooled in text might have felt
claustrophobic inside “Maximus”—Olson knew too much and he laid it all
out in a cinematic sort of way that only the hippest movie buffs can truly
enjoy–used as they are now to film-editing, quick cuts and montage. Now
he’s easier to read – provided you’re a movie buff.

The Mysteries of New Orleans
Baron von Reizenstein, a young German aristocrat, was sent to New
Orleans by his parents in the mid-19th century in the hope that he
wouldn’t get mixed up in Germany’s revolutionary ferment. So, instead of
becoming a European radical, he came to pre-Civil War New Orleans and
found a place that was in a state of ferment way beyond the anti-oedipal
socialism of Germany – it was putrefact, in fact, fermenting both literally
and metaphorically. It was a multicultural, decadent mix of the new and
old world, a psychological laboratory, a wide-open port. A thriving
German community supported two German-language newspapers, a
Bohemian one and a proper one. The young Baron wrote The Mysteries of
New Orleans in German as a serial in the Bohemian paper. By 1850 the
genre of “The Mysteries Of…” was well-established in the New World by
German writers; there were already The Mysteries of Cleveland, and The
Mysteries of Pittsburgh… The genre itself was born of Eugene Sue’s The
Mysteries of Paris, a brilliant re-envisioning of one’s own city as an exotic
locale. Sue, who was too poor to travel, turned an awed gaze to the familiar
and gave his readers a city they would recognize but which hid a poetry far
from the familiar. Von Reizenstein saw New Orleans as a great unwritten
and continually unfolding experiment. He described, daringly and possibly
for the first time, lesbian and homosexual love, and gave every street in the
city an essential character and a stage for activities that were only partly
imagined and that are true to this day. His contemporary readers
doubtlessly recognized their city and, because of it, they stayed when
Reizenstein took them abruptly into a world of magic and horror that had
its source in the yellow fever epidemic and introduced characters with
superhuman powers. The Yellow Fever itself was spread through the seeds
of a psychedelic plant found at the source of the Red River. A magical
weave of African ritual and Christian superstition superimposes its
geography on that of the “real” New Orleans. Reading von Reizenstein
now one is seized suddenly by the certainty of the existence of this magical
geography in our time. I certainly was, because, long before reading The
Mysteries of New Orleans, I wrote a book called Messiah, which takes place
in this city and introduces a magical cast and a mystical geography that
coincides more than eerily with Reizenstein’s one hundred years earlier.
Many writers, in fact, have stumbled in the same way on the mysteries of
New Orleans—a vibrational reality that lies like gossamer over the city’s
physical features and permeates even the most casual visitor with a strange
sense of something invisible.

         Right after I had typed, “The Yellow Fever itself was spread…,”
there was a knock at the door and UPS delivered a box. I opened it and
found A River and its City: the Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, by Ari
Kelman, California University Press, a new book, and I opened it at
random and read this: “Yellow fever emptied some spaces and filled others,
redefining the way New Orleanians used and viewed their public
landscapes.” The author goes on to write: “…cities and surroundings
should not be seen in opposition to each other. Instead we find the built
and the natural mingling as part of the complex narrative of New Orleans’
urban-environmental history.” (P. 117)

And, I might add, its super-natural history.

Reizenstein co-authored the mysteries of New Orleans with the Yellow
Fever, the city itself, myself, Ari Kelman, the UPS man, and hundreds of
other writers of “the complex narrative.”

          What this means to me is that: 1) New Orleans has specific
Geniuses of the Locus, local deities present in the geography before its
founding, who grew and grow increasingly more specific in place and time,
neither one of which stands still,
          and 2) New Orleans is imaginable, hospitable to the geography of
desire that anyone can project imaginatively on it, finding the appropriate
receptors without much difficulty.

What does this mean to Frommer’s or the Planet Guides?

That it’s a party town.

I once had a tour of Chicago from the historian Tom Frank who took me
to all kinds of vacant lots where significant moments in Chicago’s labor
history had occurred, such as the massacre by the Pinkertons of 100
striking workers at Republic Steel, the REAL site of the Haymarket riots,
etc, none of these places commemorated by markers and, indeed, not on
any map. In fact, the South Side of Chicago where some of these sites
were, was not even shown on the tourist maps of Chicago!

My number three text for geo-imaginative practice is:

Max Cafard’s Surregionalism. Max Cafard, by the way, is the pseudonym
of a philosophy professor here in New Orleans, who wrote me a note in
connection with this talk, and reminded me that today is the 40th
anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin, one of the founders of modern
geo-politics. So we have another reason for celebrating. Anyway, I quote,
from the “Surregionalist Manifesto”:

“Where is the Region anyway? For every Logic there is a Region. To
mention those of particular interest to us, the Surregionalists: Ecoregions,
Georegions, Psychoregions, Mythoregions, Ethnoregions, Socioregions, and

Regions are inclusive. They have no borders, no boundaries, no frontiers,
no State Lines. Though Regionalists are marginal, Regions have no
margins. Regions are traversed by a multitude of lines, folds, ridges, seams,
pleats. But all lines are included, none exclude. Regions are bodies.
Interpenetrating bodies. Interpenetrating bodies in semi-simultaneous
spaces. (like “Strangers in the Night.”)

          In Surregionalism we have a vision of New Orleans as a place both
emptied by its geography and history to accommodate new bodies and
reimaginings, and a creative matrix that is a near-perfect rhizome, an uber-
         Mardi Gras, carnival itself––carne vale—farewell to the flesh—is
one of those paradoxes, a street festival that goes against the grain of the
general paranoia promoted by Homeland Security – and always has, by
allowing the mob to rule the streets in a (still) unmediated explosion.

Which is not to say that we are not threatened here like everyone else in
the world. But before there was this generalized threat that is now
attempting to turn the whole American continent into a suburban police
station, artists were already feeling threatened by boundaries imposed by
“economic development,” overpriced real estate, and strict “community
standards.” Because of this threat, we have resorted to fast-moving,
nomadic vehicles called TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zones. TAZ are
communities of imaginative souls that don’t care much for appearing on
official maps, especially tourist ones.

New Orleans is now, at its margins, the most TAZ-hospitable city in
America, but TAZ are only successful as long as they are nomadic. They
take root in poor areas of cities or the unincorporated countryside where
space is plentiful and there are mixed cultures. Tazzerites thrive in racially
and culturally diverse environments from which they draw the strength to
grow, but then they are noticed, and this eventually draws scouts,
geographers, and zoning, followed by land-development, rising real-estate
prices, city planning, preservation societies, law enforcement, and art
simulacra. The lifespan of TAZ used to be decades-long until the last
quarter of the 20th century when TAZ destruction accelerated, making
TAZ short-lived and prone to extinction, but also smaller, faster, and
harder to spot.
      Tazzerites draw their territorial lines through song and dance like the
native Australians; they use local concepts of time and space that they
activate with found materials, speak a variety of hipster lingoes, and use
advanced technology to communicate. The “objects” they make are
temporal and ephemeral but they transcend time and space to link both
vertically through history and horizontally through geography with all
TAZ past and present. They are connected to each other across the globe
and often merge when one of them is destroyed.
      I call the TAZ of New Orleans Narcississipi, because it is in Louisiana
cradled by the Mississippi. For the time being, and especially in the
Carnival season. Narcissipians man the night-shift in this surregion.

         I hope that I have succeeded in getting you at least a little lost.
         Thank you kindly.