With the publication of Mary Oliver (Lithic Press, 2019), Adam Tedesco gives us a cycle of poems that places topics like addiction and recovery outside the expected psychological frame. A video artist as well as a poet, Tedesco brings a fluid sense of medium as well as outlook. The result is not Robert Lowell-style confessionalism with updated references, but a true 21st-century confessionalism informed by a consciousness that is both self and object. Imagine Life Studies by way of quantum mechanics, Buddhism, and the Anthropocene, and you are just about touching what this one-time student of Bernadette Mayer achieves in his bracing debut collection.
The following interview was conducted as a collaborative virtual discussion over the past several months. As someone who has known the author for a while, I hoped to allow him to speak not as my friend, but as the artist and writer whose work has been showcased at MoMA PS1 and &NOW, and appeared in FENCE, jubilat, Conduit, and the Laurel Review.
William Lessard: I recently asked your &NOW 2018 co-presenter Julia Madsen about the process that informs her work with cine-poems. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t put the same question to you, especially as your work has a different tone and tension. Whereas Madsen, as a Midwestern artist, is concerned with the possibility of a contemporary rural poetics, your focus is on the dynamic ontology of self. In one piece in particular, handheld footage shot from a moving car suggests an unstable dynamism—as if you are recreating identity as the world spawns around you. I realize you don’t make direct reference to video games and virtual spaces, but the problematic fluidity synonymous with these environments nonetheless seems present.
Adam Tedesco: I think Julia and I both share an interest in the handmade quality of film. Here I’m using “handmade” to connote something evidentiary of the process of its own construction, construction as a process of the constructor, as both a deliberate creative act and artifact of existing throughout a human lifespan, both as a repository and repositor of that experience.
Philip K. Dick had this concept of VALIS, or Vast Acting Living Intelligence System. It’s a very Gnostic way of thinking about the world—that a higher intelligence is constantly communicating to us through information we experience from the surrounding world, and that we become closer to this intelligence through learning to decipher this information. I consider my creative process in keeping with this approach to Gnosis.
Perhaps I remember the first and last sentences, more than any other, exchanged between a loved one and myself. The weight of this experience acts upon the trigger mechanism of a Rube Goldberg, the end-result of which is another person’s experience of the cultural product contained within. Perhaps the ordering of words in those sentences allows for a perfect distillation and communication of the net experience of me knowing the speaker, the entirety of that experience. In this way I become the repository, as in tool for the displacement of interiority.
Word is language. Sound is language. Image is language. Film is language. Recognition of this experience is important. Novelty is a tip of the hat here. Certain phrases, images, scenes or sounds appear fruit-laden. I’m a notetaker, notebooker, file clerk, and photo lab technician. I am a squirrel constantly being pelted with nuts.
In regards to working with video, my process grew out of necessity, making trailers for chapbooks and journal issues. My background in audio production and experimental music provided me with the toolset to jump right into editing found footage with the perspective of image and sound and word as interchangeable units of additive and subtractive properties.
As to fluidity, I am pretty aware of the transitory quality of the phenomenological. While I feel as though I have been many people, I have an inkling that every experience I have is the same experience, a reality growing in detail as the present unfurls. Sometimes when a person takes speed, the world around them seems slower. Likewise, the experiential unfolding of the moment can oscillate in appearance between rooted within the observed and observer. If there’s any trace of this apparent in my work, I am pleased.
WL: Reading your collection, I experience a similar decentering. The “I” of these poems is not of the “I-to-this, I-do-that” variety. To me, it feels like a Pre-Socratic consciousness seeking the fundamental element that unites the universe. Would you say this is a fair comparison?
AT: Sure, that’s a fair comparison. I’d qualify this statement by adding that the mundane variety of the “I” is simultaneously present there. It would also be fair to read these poems as simply confessional. I am not trying to both have and eat my cake but I am both laughing and crying at my own “I.”
I have had a number of mystical experiences, some of which included ego death. To risk absurdity, I am very aware of a unitive element underlying everything and that normative consciousness is a form of blindering. This is not to say I understand this element. But I have and experience its presence to the extent that it can take me a bit of effort for to remain psychologically tethered to a cultural and personal identity. I think this is an important bit of context here, as I’m dealing with a kind of self-doubt that functions on a number of levels.
As I tell you this, I’m struck by the fear, probably a common one, that too much context will degrade the experience of my poems for some readers. Perhaps this is more a fear of vulnerability than anything else. And so I need to be clear that I’m trying to communicate something in my work that I have absolutely no other way to. Often this involves the two “I”s coming to terms with one another.
There’s an artist whose work I am in awe of, David Chaim Smith. His trajectory into art bears some likeness to my own; a mental breakdown from drugs, a mystical experience, Buddhism.
He once messaged me to ask why I, as someone able to perceive the illusory nature of this existence, seemed to be interested in politics and social justice. Attempting to cogently address this is my primary preoccupation, only I’m asking how, not why.
WL: I’m glad to hear this response. A fellow writer around our age messaged me this evening to ask why we do what we do. I told this writer that, for me, it isn’t about “why,” it’s about how. “How” is the question I’ve been searching for all my life. What about you? Do you think it frees us from the self that “why” implies, or do you have a different reason?
AT: I think that writing is one of the most natural human acts. People have always been trying to communicate experience. There’s a lot of reasons why that’s true. When we take the question of why and apply it to almost any other (pre) occupation the answers you’ll get will invariably concern money. Capital’s always the sticking point for those on the outside looking into the creative process. No one’s asking Franzen “why.” There’s a whole mess of things here that no one likes to talk about, and I think what your friend pointed to, to make a big assumption for the sake of conversation, is not just “why do we write,” but “why do we write when there’s a pretty good chance that we’re not going to achieve what we want to with it, when we’re not going to be appreciated or remembered for it.” It’s a logical and wholly human question to ask, especially within a capitalist superstructure, but also entirely useless to the creative process. It’s less than useless, really.
I can be a grumpy old man about art. Sometimes I catch myself thinking about a piece of art or writing and I picture myself as Frederick, Max Von Sydow’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters, a brooding snob. It’s a good reminder to lighten up. I do believe in art as a spiritual practice, though. And I believe it’s evident when something was created in the service of the emerging form, rather than in service of the capital, which can be money, status, spectacle, likes. I’m wearing my prejudices on my sleeve here, but I think the middle is what rises to the top, in terms of culture under capitalism. I’m not saying the most revered works of contemporaneity are wholly without merit, they’re obviously doing something right. What I’m saying is they’re doing capitalism right, and that seldom produces work of interest to me. There’s my Frederick. There’s the rub.
So yes. In order to eliminate the why I must focus on the how. I spent most of my life in the void that “why” leads to. Through “how” I obey a master separate from capital. “How”, to me, holds not only the path to art, but to personal, social and political change. “Why” most often produces soulless art and a reason to drink, which I’ve quit doing. Apologies if this a ridiculously emo response. You’ve obviously touched on something important to me here. I think this divergence we’re discussing makes up a large chunk of what I’m dealing in my work.
WL: Confession: I have been holding back how much I want to talk about the book. Knowing you for several years, and watching you develop, I felt no small measure of joy encountering the level of work that is clear on every page. I was most taken by the dynamic the book establishes between two different types of poems. First there are the dense pieces, with long lines and overstuffed stanzas. Then there are the slim poems, with short, sharp lines that remind me of W.S. Merwin’s The Lice. The style seems to reflect the content: confrontation, for the first type; revelation, for the second. I realize these are reductive categories, but there is more than the gestural at work, particularly in the slim poems where punctuation is minimal and their verticality is apparent to anyone even thumbing through the collection.
AT: That’s very kind, Bill. Sometimes I sit and watch clouds and they burst themselves, other times I have to concentrate really hard to get them to burst. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that part of what you’re observing is the magic of sequencing. There are two main forms in this collection, though. These grew out of a couple of factors.
In recovery I’ve had to relearn how to think. For a very long time I was able to avoid thinking about a lot of things through using substances. In the longer, overstuffed pieces, I’m trying to do that learning on the page. I heard David Lehman read this poem made of four sonnets, each of them approaching the same subject from a different perspective, and decided to try my hand at the form. Though mine look and feel much different than Lehman’s, this turned out to be the perfect form for doing some of this relearning. I spent a good eight months writing almost exclusively in this form.
There’s a handful of prose poems I wrote in response to prompts I received from Bernadette Mayer, from when I was a member of her “front porch school,” that were included here. There’s some continuity between these and the sonnets, not only in the way they fill the page, but also in how they wrap around ideas. One of these poems, the one case where I won’t skirt talk of aboutness, is built around memories of, and notes I wrote to myself while high on mushrooms at Bernadette’s and her partner Phil’s 4th of July party/reading. The long line is definitely a green light for me.
The thinner, more vertical, poems were what I’d call my normal poems at the time. By “normal,” I mean what was happening when I sat down to write with no preformed thoughts to form. There’s definitely a feeling in having written both, that these are less grappling or learning processes than they are exercises in watching my schemas (and their connective tissue) become visible, emerging through language.
WL: The collection builds toward a resolution it both accepts and rejects. In “Cache,” the penultimate piece, there is a sense of gathering and a personal tone enfolding across stanzas which seem to continue beyond the words themselves.
“A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge,” the following piece and the closer, exhales the accumulated emotions but not without acknowledging the blade alongside us all in the grass. What you seem to be suggesting is that the poetic object benefits us only for the moment that it passes the tongue.
AT: For a long time, I would have agreed with this suggestion. I would have told you that poetry is merely the byproduct of a practice and that practice is a sacrament unto itself. While I still treat poetry as a meditative practice, I’m much more concerned with recreating the transmission that occurs within that practice for the reader, whereas I previously treated anything but the initial transmission with an attitude close to outright agnosticism.
I’m not saying you’re wrong, though. Those poems are sequenced the way they are for a reason. They’re two of the more direct pieces in the book. To write “Cache” I had to use other people’s words. I copied the end-lines out of about two hundred books in order to find that poem. That was the only way I was able to get to something that direct, emotionally speaking, at the time. I was still pretty poisoned at that point in my recovery, and everything I said or wrote for a few months leading up to that poem were pretty full of that poison. I knew if I could get at some of the desire and pain at the heart of my anger in an honest way I could start letting go. That’s how “Cache” happened.
“A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge” speaks both to nihilism and to the jaded knee-jerk reaction of the cool when faced with nihilism. I think meaninglessness is generally regarded as somewhat passé right now. One could argue there’s good reason for that, as far as the current political landscape is concerned. But I’m thinking here of the difference between transcendence and control as they pertain to meaning. Control is a form of nihilism, in that it presupposes the possibility of meaninglessness and seeks to work against it by building meaning. Transcendence seems to occur when meaninglessness is both accepted and coupled with compassion. This realization was the key door out of hell for me. I suppose what you’re picking up on here is two kinds of acceptance: accepting what it means to be human and accepting the illusory nature of that meaning. We are the blade and the grass.
Read an exclusive poem by Adam Tedesco scheduled for publication in Heavy Feather Review Vol. 9, below:
I was a hard dancer before I broke my skin
only night and day beneath movement
a consolation delivered as schooners cut through river wind
What about sweetness before and after
the train of rising thought
Explaining my nose to your crown
I am what happens in forgetting common language
My name grows eyes and starch at the corners of a mouth
At sea the moon is an engine of transference
each of you a wave
How many oranges will I burn
making an itch feel like an itch
pricking the pin of false flags:
& Glenn Gould’s gloves
I am Brunswick Road
shoulders strewn with rabid raccoons
I know my body as the name of some small silence
a year within your charity
graving the night’s talk and come
my own weight
surface tension of a fresh line
Watch a cine-poem by Adam Tedesco:
William Lessard is HFR’s Poetry & Hybrids Editor. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming at McSweeney’s, American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, Prelude, and Hyperallergic. His visual work has been showcased at MoMA PS1 and is part of the special collection at Poets House.