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Adam Donaldson Powell interviewed by T. Wignesan

by T Wignesan

T. Wignesan (Parisian author) has interviewed me on behalf of my publisher



ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: In all honesty, I did not choose to write; the writing chose me. It is both a passion and a necessity for my survival and expression; in addition to my personal contribution to the development and advancement of art, society and humanity. I do not worry about becoming famous. Being famous with the goal of ego gratification is a “useless occupation”.

I am but one small cog in a very big wheel — the Wheel of Existence; on the same level of significance as any other entity in our Universes … forever expanding and contracting in consciousness, expressing a myriad of ideas, emotions and behaviour patterns, and forever breathing the Eternal (the Breath and Essence of God). Surely, I have my own take on Existentialist and Nihilistic philosophies but my only “Truths” are my thoughts, words and actions — in each moment. And for me, each moment is the sum of the Whole of Existence, in any one instance in space and time, and from my individual perspective — which is co-created (together) with my environment. Thus to me, writing is breathing Creation. And the Spirit and act of creation are the seeds of renewal/renaissance, and the dissolution of concepts of past, present and future as well as the idea that anything is separate from anything/anyone else. By being creative I assert my role in the ever self-defining Divine project called Existence.

As regards celebrity, I actually know a bit about that having had many years where I was recognised from TV, newspapers etc. as an activist and artist/author. Sometimes it was pleasant, and there have also been incidents where I felt threatened when recognised as “that person”. Public personalities are clothing/roles that are taken on, but they are not the individual’s personality. Therefore, for me, fame is not a goal — but it can be a condition and lifestyle to which one must adjust and which bears great responsibility.

T. WIGNESAN: II – “Why write” does touch on both the personal motivations for indulging in words and having them bound in book form metaphorically by one’s own hand, just as much as they apply to the broader objective perspective in the light of the great masters and teachers (who never wrote – some likely were analphabète like Akbar – down their most influential teachings) who have for – better or worse – given us our ever evolving world: Zarathustra, the Hindu Rishis, Moses, Buddha, Mahavira, Christ, Lao Tse, Confucious, Bodhidharma, Mahomet (I’m not sure about the Hebrew prophets). The Tao Te Ching and the Confucian Analects cannot be legitimately attributed to the authors’ own hands.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: My writing is “published” in many formats: in books, in my paintings, on the internet, performed onstage etc. Books once represented a form of “permanence” for authors but now many libraries are digitalising their collections, bookstores have limited space and are selective with regards to which authors, titles and subject matters they give space to as well as impose limitations on how long a book can take up shelf space. In the fast-paced technological life of today authors must also adapt to both changing markets and publication arenas, as well as how to meet a public that is “on the run” and multi-tasking. I do not personally own many books anymore, as I have given away hundreds to libraries, organisations and private persons. Knowledge and joy should be spread around — not hoarded, and left to gather dust.

Does one need to have something to say in order to want to write?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: No, not all writing is meant to be read by others, and by the same token not all writing has to have a serious message. I have written poems and made paintings that are essentially about nothing important, and also minimalistic works about “Nothingness”. However, longer works such as short stories, essays, novellas and novels would generally require a purpose that is larger than that of eg. a “haiku moment” — in order to hold the attention of a reading public.

That being said, I love to test out variations on minimalism in my novels; deciding myself how much descriptive verbiage I offer the reader, when and where. This in order to seduce the reader into an active role as co-creator of “the story”; and, yes, on “my terms”. In that way I can interact with the Reader who accepts what is written and how it is presented, and then suddenly meets upon a provocation that was embedded within the presentation all the while. That is Art imitating Life, n’est-ce pas?

This minimalistic style is closely related to my own philosophy of extreme art and literature. “Extreme literature” can be philosophical, political, religious, sexually-oriented, profane, or just downright “dangerous” because it rocks others’ boat(s) personally. Not all literature is “pretty”, and even humour can be considered provocative. Many authors have works they (and others) consider to be “extreme”. All throughout the history of art and literature, artists and writers have pressed against and played with society’s tolerances – in both “liberal” epochs, “conservative” epochs and (as now) in states of “moral confusion”, where Western concepts of freedom of speech sometimes butt against national and local cultural mores and social politics; and where danger lurks and thrives on non-specific and situational social codes and fears.

The concept of “EXTREME ART AND LITERATURE” changes all the time. What is actually “extreme” today – in a mixture of globalised, regionalised, nationalised and localised perspectives? My own opinion is that “extreme art and literature” today takes its starting point in the accepted banalities of everyday life, experiences and consciousness on the respective and combined levels (social, philosophical, political, economical, sexual and spiritual). Contemporary “extreme art / literature” no longer attempts to shock in an obvious way, but rather entices the public to feel that he / she is a “member” of the experiential understanding and consciousness, only to interject a “triggering” aspect that creates a sense of uncomfortableness caused by the realisation that one has been busted by a banality. These “trigger mechanisms” are (in fact) integral parts of the art itself – often passing by in fleeting moments, sometimes blended in with an obsessive and “flat” (journalistic or photojournalistic) expression or a long tirade of banalities that do not even pretend to be surrealistic. These small “electrical shock” triggers will hopefully ignite an inner experience within the public so that the viewer / reader begins to investigate his / her own personal reality, his / her actual contributions to a collective reality and hopefully to re-evaluate his / her own concept of what one prefers to create as an individual and collective reality. The illusion of spiritual and emotional separation (the illusion that we are all separate, individual and self-sustaining entities that can determine our roles on Terra or in the Interlife totally without contact or influence with / from others) is a vital element here, and that common illusion is therefore “fertile ground” for artists. Here we artists and authors can play, provoke, prevaricate, entice, seduce and fool the audience to believe in us as a part of “themselves”, and then trigger the reader / viewer to consider the possibility that there might be (in fact) a miscommunication or misconception running loose … a sense of everyday reality that is inconsistent or which has consequences that one was never aware of.

Perhaps the most meaningful and interactive way to help another person to “wake up” from their perceptual drowsiness is to enter into their everyday dreams and illusions (their banalities) and suddenly say “BOO!!!” Artists and authors who attempt to shock through their art with the blatantly obvious, often thus fail to explore and exploit the deeper, symbolic depths of the subconscious and the more mystical elements that make up our everyday and banal thoughts, activities, attitudes etc., and therefore are denied “personal access” by some viewers / readers who may consider the art to be too intellectual, too elitist, too directly confrontational, or too foreign.

Sex and religion are often used today in art and literature as “shock elements”. It is not necessarily sex or religion which are provocative or interesting in themselves, but rather the unspoken and quietly accepted perceptions that we chain ourselves to unquestionably, and which can totally be set in chaos just by the artist and author changing or adding one simple element or context that we do not feel belongs in our reality-defining “picture”.

“Extreme art and literature” is thus not blatantly provocative in itself; it rather shows the audience the possible ramifications of acceptance, non-involvement, personal meanings and behaviour by confronting us with triggered or mixed in “extreme” moments, and then lets the audience choose to begin its own personal creative life process of evaluation and re-creation (if desired) … without commentary or guidance.

When I presented myself to Marina Abramovic as a “retired activist” she responded by asking me if an activist can ever be finished with activism. Of course, she is right. The process of rebellion is nothing more than one intermittent set of activities and actions in a constant redefining and assertion of the Self, both individually and collectively. Art is the ultimate expression of the process of rebellion. If an artist loses that quality, he/she “dies” in a certain way. My art and literature are not just extensions of me … they are my created persona: a sweet mixture of heaven and hell, with a pinch of banalities for flavouring.

T. WIGNESAN: (b) Does the old dictum: “Poetry is made with words, not ideas” still apply?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: What is a poem? It is definitely not a daydream. A poem is a carefully constructed literary bonsai, cultivated with loving discipline and good planning. The air of spontaneity and dreaminess is only an illusion, and it is the result of great craftsmanship. Yes, poetry is comprised of several tools; and words are perhaps the most important device. But words, silences, punctuation, structure, rhythm, colour, sounds, visual associations etc. all play together in order to make a successful piece of writing. Poems are essentially just one facet of the diamond; of a story; of a possible reality. Do poems represent ideas, and are they made with words? Yes, of course. But a successful poem is an instance of Déjà vu— often recognisable beyond the words alone.

T. WIGNESAN: III – You have now given us your “cosmovision”, as Carlos Bousoño would describe it, a philosophical standpoint that is rich with implications for art and literature – “extreme art and literature” as you put it – which impinges on the average individual’s (average reader or viewer’s) reality with its consequential attributes of jolting consciousness through the shock of subversive “trigger mechanisms” (to be read also as “rebellion” against the norm or status quo?) — all of which makes of you a veritable activist. Now, how do you transcribe this engagé attitude to the specifics of writing, on the one hand, your own considerable output and, on the other, appreciating the works of others?
In my view, judging by your critique of my books, you have willy-nilly chosen the psychological approach to aesthetics and hence the overwhelming impressionistic taint in your pronouncements. Not that they are not valid – far from it – but it would serve to clarify your ultimate critical stance(s) if you could elaborate on your acceptance or rejection of the critical concepts of “affective fallacy” as opposed to “intentional fallacy”.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: Hmm … Wimsatt and Beardsley on intentional and affective fallacy. First let me respond to your premise that I have “willy-nilly” chosen a psychological approach to aesthetics in my criticism of your novels. Since you have taken my criticism of your novels as an example, I will answer you in the same fashion.

In my opinion many of your novels (that I have read) have an exciting underpinning of the existential and psychological, if you will — a degree of playing with the minds of the reader(s) … perhaps sometimes seeking to test or out-smart him/her. There is nothing wrong with that; it is fairly common in literature. I would classify that as an “intention”, supported by various situations, emotions and feelings illustrated in certain ways and with certain styles of writing. Obviously, when I become aware that the twists and turns that you often create in your stories are finely tailored then I instinctively begin to evaluate both the literary mechanisms that you are using and their degree of success for me as Reader. To me, art is not entirely (or even primarily) accidental — but rather is based upon ideas, intentions and plans for execution. In addition, I personally believe that all art created is in part biographical — i.e. possess some thoughts, experiences, personality traits, memories etc. known, imagined or dreamed about by the artist/author. Art is by nature both subjective and objective. That means that art is not just public, but also personal — to the author, and to his/her audience who must process the effects of the information, visuals etc. in relation to one’s own personal framework of ideas, attitudes and experiences. For me, assessing the success of a work of art is by nature based upon whether or not the perceived intention of the representation “works for me”. Why? Because I am both subjective and objective in my attempts to find meaning and personal relevance in a work of art that I am inviting into my consciousness. But it is not enough to merely say that “I do not like it because it does not work for me.” I should hopefully be able to relate what does not appeal to me/function for me — and why. I do not particularly like much modern rhyming poetry, and I can explain why in both subjective and objective (technical) terms. So yes, I do offer authors and publishers bits of objective and textual criticism … i.e. criticism based upon the relative success of technical aspects of the writing, style, form, etc. However, my job as a literary critic is not to serve as a professor of creative writing and to go into great detail about what exactly does not work (for me) technically. That is not popular with the writers, nor with the publishers — who want a positive review that will help to sell books, rather than a critical one (which potential book buyers may want). Often I write those comments in a separate note to the publisher and author. Usually authors are thankful — both for my insights, and that it is done in that way.

I list quite specifically what I look for objectively in my answer to the final question.

T. WIGNESAN: IV – Correct me if I’m wrong, I would have thought what gives your critical responses to any creative work depth and infinite modulations is your own trained ear for music. You are an accomplished pianist, and in your own words have avowed having earned – by more than half – your income in New York by playing at restaurants, bars, weddings, etc. Do you agree?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: While I studied piano under some well-known concert pianists for several years in New York City, and before that played the violoncello in a youth orchestra, I would be the first to take issue with being called “an accomplished pianist” or an accomplished anything else. Back then — in New York City — everyone I met was an artist, a writer, an actor, a musician etc., and thus the “litmus test” was earning at least part of one’s income in that profession. Being a musician, artist, actor, writer etc. is a job — in fact a 24-hour job which includes many hours of practicing, rehearsing, thinking, and planning before a final work or performance is executed. It is a work that is never finished, because the possibilities are endless and the Mind of an artist never seems to stop chattering. In my own mind, each poem, story, novel, painting is part of one larger ongoing work of art — that of me reacting to Life and my environment(s).

For me, the transition from classical music to poetry and then to painting was fairly natural and logical. In all of those art forms ideas are converted to pictures and sounds which evoke a myriad of reactions and recognitions in the viewer/audience. Each artistic discipline requires a balanced combination of technical skills, some understanding of the history of artistic traditions throughout modern history, and the ability to translate abstractions into suggestions of something seemingly “tangible” to our senses, recollections and feelings. So, in that sense, yes I can agree that much of my sensibility as regards visual art and literature (especially my poetry) has its nascence in music — sounds, rhythms, colour, speed, action, movement … all interpreted within (and sometimes beyond) an ever-evolving framework of techniques and styles pressing toward new forms of expression. To me, art (performance or visual) is not about being or becoming “accomplished”. One never fully arrives as an artist, as there is always some new peak to climb — stumbling, crawling, and running towards an infinity that can never be reached, by definition.

T. WIGNESAN: V – What may your thoughts be on these heroic couplets? (This is not a required “test”. You are welcome to ignore it.)

One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit:
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those confined to single parts.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: Ahhh — excellent! — an excerpt from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”. Well, T. Wignesan, as you well know these lines must certainly be judged in the larger context of the poetic work — namely the importance of self-knowledge (rather than mere literary theory) to criticism, as well as understanding that individual tastes and preferences of both Critic and Artist have both their limitations and their “genius”. However, in my opinion, because all art forms have history (of style and technical development, culture and politics), being an artist can also be considered to be an expression of a “studied and skilled science” that is heightened by intuitive and philosophical genius.

I personally believe — and have stated many times as a literary critic — that it is important to periodically specify what I personally look for in literary works that I am asked to comment on. I believe that it is important for the Reader both in relation to understanding the nature and framework of my criticism, and also as a possible “guide” for aspiring writers who wish to look beyond so-called “standard rules of writing” in their understanding and assessment of possibilities in their own artistic development.

I have written the following (several times) regarding what I aspire towards in my own writing, and what I also look for in the work of other writers whose work I have been asked to comment on: “I look for many qualities, including evenness in quality, diversity in content and form, artistic intent, planning, execution and polish (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression), and an overall concept of the book as a complete work of art – beyond an arbitrary “stew” of individual poems. In addition, I pay attention to the author’s sense of originality, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author’s experiential personal history. I further look for: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. And finally I am concerned that the author has an understanding of how to arouse within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement – enabling the reader’s ‘inner artist’ to enter into a creative cognitive dialogue with the author, and hopefully even to inspire the reader to embark upon his/her own creative process. I believe that art is both an intentional and an intuitive process, with many pitfalls: eg. overwriting, non-attention to levels of language used ($5 words can sometimes be more appropriate than $5000 words), stylistic and punctuation liberties that sometimes work and sometimes not, mimicking famous (and usually deceased) writers without sufficiently developing one’s own signature style, and getting all too caught up in – or ignoring – traditions of literature without having thought through why one has consciously chosen this or that style, or a divergence … just to name a few. At the same time, I believe that artists must always keep experimenting in order to grow and to develop further. That means taking risks … and sometimes even falling flat on one’s face. That is okay. We eventually learn from both our own … and others’ mistakes.”

As to whether literary criticism is, in fact, a “science” or a literary art form in itself, well, I think it can (and perhaps should) be both.

T. Wignesan (for –
August 31, 2017 – Paris, France


Book: Shattered Sighs