Blake Middleton is an actual person. A Floridian. An American. The co-worker of your bartender friend who you immediately like better than your bartender friend after just a few conversations. And a poet. The kind of poet who just wants everybody to feel less fucked. Writing concise, concrete lines that once piled together form a sort-of meditation, a smirking mantra of “Fuck You” in the face of an absurd world.
What follows is a conversation/battle of wits between he and I, revolving around his new book “An Actual Person in a Concrete Historical Situation”—out now from CLASH Books.
Part 1: The Weigh-In
Hey dude. Have you done any
interviews for your book?
Just did one w Zac but tryna do more
Nice. Well, I’m now “The Executioner” at X-Ray
(self-appointed title) and was thinking about interviewing you
Oh yeah damn I saw that earlier, congrats man
I’m down for whatever, would love to do one w you
I’ll send u pdf
It’s a small boy
Nice, I like the small boys.
Just sent a message to Jenn
Jenn rocks thank u man
Yeah she does
You rock too.
But also fuck you I was playing you this entire time
Fuck u idiot
This was a test. Interview is back on
Good, looking forward to our interview
Me too buddy.
Fuck you and your extended family
Gonna respond to all your interview questions
with ‘fuck you’
I’ve already planned ahead for this.
May the best man win
Damn it appears I have poked the bear
Interview devolves into goal-less competition, morphing finally
into a ten-part doc investigating the death of one or both of us
One of us.
You, to be specific
I started this, and I’ll be finishing it as well
(Thumbs down emoji)
Part Two: The Interview
Alright, first question. When I read that excerpt of your book on Neutral Spaces, I told you it felt meditative. Not just the space between lines but the space between images/ideas. A lot of writing feels immediately congested to me, or like a scam, something “not real” hiding in those paragraphs. But your book moved quick. Each sentence had its own purpose. And that created a soothing effect on my brain. What’s up with that bruh?
BM: I’m glad it created a soothing effect. Everything feels kind of overwhelming right now, our attention spans are getting worse, and we’re constantly distracted. So the problem is, I want normal people to read my book, but normal people don’t really read books. They purchase books sometimes, but I don’t think they finish them that often. I wanted to write a book people would read. So I wanted to make something spacious and minimal. A book where each line can breathe and stand on its own. A little book that is sparse, direct, no bullshit.
I think the white space does a lot of work in helping the poem feel meditative. It kind of reflects real life, in that there are a lot of gaps and juxtapositions between thoughts and experiences. But ultimately it’s all tied together because the lines are coming from one person, experiencing the world from a singular point of view/moment in time. So the lines aren’t as disparate as they might seem. And hopefully they’re also tied together by tone.
I’ve read the book a few times now. And the first go around, I felt like I was reading the thoughts and observations and memories of a person living in the middle of the pandemic. Then for the second read through, it felt more ubiquitous, just a person coping with and thinking about being a person, and bouncing between many time periods. Was the “life during covid” vibe something you set out to do, at least at first anyway?
BM: Went through a rough draft and i lie in the sun and laugh at my bank account was the only line written during the pandemic that I used in the final version, which seems fitting. I think I felt like the disconnect between lines written before and during the pandemic would have been too jarring; I didn’t want to write about two totally different worlds from two totally different headspaces in a poem that was already so far outside of how I was used to writing. Also I didn’t feel equipped to write about that time period while it was happening—I had no idea what the fuck was going on. Was also probably just more focused on securing groceries and booze and trying not to die. So it felt like a good endpoint. Before the pandemic I viewed ‘an actual person…’ as a poem that could essentially go on forever, but when the pandemic started that didn’t feel like the case. The poem is radically nonlinear but that’s mostly because the days felt interchangeable to me back then, and the pandemic definitely changed that. Jenna and I were drinking margaritas/wine nightly at the very start of Covid and I wasn’t writing at all. Pretty quickly I realized that I couldn’t be drunk for the entire pandemic and shifted what little focus I had toward editing the book. So I edited the book right when Covid hit through around July. It’s weird to think back to early 2020. Seems almost unreal to me now.
I had something similar where I was writing a longish thing during the pandemic. My girlfriend and I had just moved in to our first apartment together at the end of February. So while I was still asking the leasing office for a working fridge shelf, COVID hit. I thought that was a good/funny start. But I abandoned it once things got worse, seemed impossible to write about it. Anyway your book made me think of this, so I am asking if you think we’ll ever get a good Covid novel?
BM: Yeah, probably. I don’t think I would want to read a Covid novel for a long time though. Would read a book that takes place during Covid for sure, but not one that is totally centered around it. Would have to be really good for me to want to think about that time period again. Does that make sense?
Perfect sense. I’m most interested in stories of people being people. And it depresses me when I see movies/books that are just about a marketable thing, and the main character is just a device, like morally superior, something the audience can project themselves onto. Which brings me to the thing you said about writing for normal people, even though normal people don’t really read books. Do you think that’s dying, with most readers (of indie books) also being writers? Or is it the same as it was ten years ago. Just putting something out all for the slim chance a depressed kid somewhere stumbles into it?
BM: I feel you on that one. I think sometimes portrayals of life get so far away from what life is actually like, what it actually feels like to be a person just trying to navigate existence. I like books where I feel like the author just paid attention to their life and then wrote about it, instead of following some narrative template or whatever to try to appeal to some imaginary group of people so that they can make one million dollars. But instead of getting depressed thinking about things I don’t like, I just ignore them, and focus on the stuff I do like instead.
I think, for me, it helps to take more of a long-view, to stay focused and keep writing regardless of what happens with it. Because even if nothing happens immediately, the books will still exist, maybe they will get noticed eventually and I will make a million dollars and quit my job. But I’m also okay with nothing happening (more likely). I write because I enjoy it. Writing enhances my life and my experience in the world. And if other people enjoy what I write, then that’s good. I haven’t had any real success, as far as book sales go. But writing has improved my life/made it more interesting in ways I couldn’t have even imagined when I was just starting out. I think it’s better just to focus on becoming a better writer as opposed to thinking too much about the unpredictable, uncontrollable things that could happen with the writing once it’s out in the world.
Another thing that I love is getting offline and venturing out into the real world to travel and to do readings. I don’t really promote my stuff online much. I don’t think anyone is really paying attention. It feels much more normal, fulfilling, life-affirming to get out there and read in front of and talk with people. It feels more real, and it’s a lot more fun. I would rather some depressed kid come to a reading and get drunk and have fun as opposed to finding one of my books on the internet. Oh and also, fuck you.
Point—Middleton. Alright. What do you think about a lightning round now? Phase three. Higher stakes. Even more intimate.
BM: Hell yeah, let’s do it.
Phase Three: Lightning Round
What book do you pick up most, when you feel anxious or shitty?
BM: The Collected Works of Alberto Caeiro by Fernando Pessoa.
Jackie Chan or Arnie Schwarzenegger? And why?
BM: Jackie Chan. Out of all the movies they’ve been in I think I’ve only seen Rush Hour and Twins. So I don’t have strong feelings about either. Feel like I would rather hang out with Jackie Chan. Seems more chill/isn’t a politician. But I don’t know though. This was a bad question.
From what you’ve said about both your books, I get the impression you write and write and write and write, then cut away at huge chunks afterward. Am I correct in this assumption?
BM: For sure. I ended up cutting about 80% of the words from College Novel, and about the same for this one. I like having a lot to work with.
Do you have a favorite memory from your readings?
BM: The first couple times I did readings I didn’t enjoy them. Was nervous and my voice was shaky. The third time I felt comfortable and was even having fun, felt in the moment and good, was a little drunk and surrounded by friends. Afterwards we had a little dance party at my friend’s neighbor’s house. Or maybe that was after another reading. Either way, I cherish that memory/both of those memories a lot. Was the start of something nice. People always say this, but it’s good to do things that make you nervous.
If it doesn’t put you in any danger, could you talk a little about your alter-ego Dough Mahoney?
BM: Went over to a friend’s apartment and was drinking out of a glass that had ‘Dough Mahoney’ written on it in sharpie. I asked him why his beer mug had ‘Dough Mahoney’ written on it and he said it was his pen name. I thought that was stupid and funny and used that bit in College Novel. One day I wanted to publish something on the internet under a different name and Dough Mahoney was the first one that came to mind. Felt kind of good. A little freeing. I started feeling like a Dough Mahoney. I ate some potato salad after the Dough Mahoney story came out, and eating potato felt like something a Dough Mahoney would do. I thought maybe I really am Dough Mahoney. I changed my twitter handle to Dough Mahoney. It felt right. So I legally changed my name to Dough Mahoney. I bought a little name plate for my desk that said Dough Mahoney because that was my name. I submitted An Actual Person… to Clash and they said they’d publish it. But Leza did not like the name Dough Mahoney. I changed my twitter name and legal name back to Blake Middleton, but kept the desk plate.
‘An actual person…’ has a calm rhythm to it even when describing the most absurd images. Is there an album you feel ‘pairs well’ with it—or did you listen to a certain type of music while writing it?
BM: I listen to a lot of Destroyer when trying to write. I don’t sit down at a computer anymore. I ride my bike or sit by the river or go for a walk. I need to be out moving through the world. I need to feel different than I normally do. I don’t know how to describe the state I get in but when you’re there you just know. I think on average I probably wrote one or two lines a day. But Dan Bejar can get me in that state sometimes. I like his song writing because it’s calm, detached, world-weary, deadpan, dream-like, not hysterical or overwrought. Eerily good. Like it shouldn’t exist on this earth. Even when he’s singing about the apocalypse it’s beautiful. You can tell he has so much love for life and that he’s also completely horrified/disgusted by the world. There’s nothing better. “Sing the least poetic thing you can think of, and try to make it sound beautiful.” It feels pointless to write poetry while listening to Destroyer and I like that for some reason.
Love Destroyer. Nice. Very nice. So, what kind of vaping rig you working with?
BM: (demands we strike question from the record, citing: “you’re an idiot”)
Round Four: The Last Question
There are some philosophical lines in your book. life should reveal itself as an increasingly moving series of recognitions. But are followed with one-liners or blunt statements of confusion. i know that i know things, but it feels like i don’t know anything. Which for me, gives it this endless looping feeling of introspection. Were you inspired/influenced by any philosophers/big-brain thinkers? Or was there any specific reading experience that sparked the idea for this book?
BM: Reading $50,000 by Andrew Weatherhead definitely sparked it. I loved the tone of that poem. The space between lines. It’s really funny and direct in a way that most poetry isn’t. Then I read The Rejection of Closure, an essay by Lyn Hejinian, which I won’t go into here because I did that in the interview I did with Zac and ended up rambling way too much. The combination of those two back to back really jolted me away from linear narratives and I felt much more excited by nonlinear, fragmented, aphoristic, non sequitur type stuff. Right after reading those I started writing An Actual Person…without really even thinking about it. It just felt natural and good, which is rare for me, so I kept adding lines.
As far as big-brain stuff goes, when I was like 22-25 I read a lot of Sartre, Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Nietzche. Sartre was the big one for me. I remember coming across his essay Existentialism is a Humanism in college, feeling failed by public education for never having been forced to read it, then getting into all his other books. Lol. I almost don’t even want to think about it because I almost went insane reading all of that shit. I read so much of it that I’m sure there’s some influence there, but I don’t think I can pin-point anything. I don’t know why I stuck with it for so long. I thought I would find something that would make sense of things I guess. But nothing ever really did that for me. Lately I’ve just been really into E.M. Cioran. He’s an extremely emotional and unintentionally funny philosopher. He writes in aphorisms which I always enjoy. Like, I think this kind of shit is hilarious: “In the days when I set off on month-long bicycle trips across France, my greatest pleasure was to stop in country cemeteries, to stretch out between two graves, and to smoke for hours on end. I think of those days as the most active period of my life.” I keep talking about this excerpt from The Trouble With Being Born by Cioran in all the interviews I’ve done for this book so far because I think it kind of changed how I viewed things, almost put me at ease or something: “We cannot elude existence by explanations, we can only endure it, love or hate it, adore or dread it…” It seems so obvious and I’m sure I’ve read similar iterations of that same sentiment, but it really hit me. I think after reading that I felt kind of freed from trying to get at anything, and my writing got more playful. There’s really nothing to say. Or I’m just comfortable not really saying anything. I’m happy to just paint a little picture of the world/reveal things about the world and being a person on it that I think are funny or confusing or exciting. I don’t care to sound smart or like I know what I’m talking about. But I can look at things and describe them, articulate how I’m feeling, write about stuff I think sucks and stuff I think is good and hopefully do it in a way that feels new and hopefully say some things that other people also think but haven’t articulated. I’m still figuring things out. Or maybe I’m realizing that there isn’t all too much to figure out.
And that’s match, Middleton. Well done. Anything else you want to add?
I’ll be reading in NYC at KGB bar with GG Roland, Shy Watson, Graham Irvin, Peter BD, Theo Thimo, and Alex Otte on July 22 if anyone wants to come hang. Also doing a reading with GG and other Clash Books people at the NYC Poetry Fest on Governors Island July 25th if that sounds like fun to anyone. *gif of that Miami beach dude in joker face-paint waving an American flag around while standing on a cop car*