Art Middleton on a Slowing Down Despite a Quickening in the Guts
Art Middleton lives in Oakland. He has played in bands, served coffee, curated small press book arts shows, worked in residential care for adults with developmental disabilities, sold flowers, and currently works as a personal attendant and an adjunct professor.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
A dear friend recently summarized “what I do” in this way: I walk around with a tote bag, drinking coffee, reading books, and taking notes. All true! But this week may be a good example of some other things: grading student essays, working as a personal attendant, playing on a soccer team, practicing “Wargasm” for an L7 cover band, clearing the desk top to get back to writing.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
In the day-to-day, balancing affinities and enthusiasms with base needs that stretch and empty the wallet. In work, getting past doubt and remembering possibility, but holding room for the productive side of doubt, how there is instruction in its obstinance.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I consider myself thankful and this feels like what I assume others might mean when they say successful. Right here: I get to answer a question about the biggest struggle in my life in one sentence. Or the fact that I get to answer questions publicly at all; success!
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Lately, I’ve taken a lot of comfort in this video:
I can’t get enough of the way Eddie purses his lips and closes his eyes so sweetly and somehow keeps his hands in his pockets while the beach grass tickles him on all sides. Do I even “like” this song? That’s beside the point when you’re time traveling.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
At ten, I remember a boy in my class who had an air force bomber jacket and this upturned nose, all nostrils, and he had a perfect flat top. I was already hirsute and gangly with a mouth full of metal and elastic and felt awkward in everything and there was something about the Top Gun leaning confidence of this boy that had me admiring but also wanting to be him. Did he also juggle or do card tricks? If he did, as I’m now imagining, then this is exactly what I hoped to be.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
There’s quiet and space and often, as if on cue, here comes an animal, or a bird, and the light is slanted and electric at times but also just laying on everything, like a palm, and at night the moon traces the jagged notches of the mountains, and the coffee warms the tin cup and my hand at the same time, and there’s someone to share it with, whose voice comes on through the quiet with a new richness to it, and at night they return from the lakeside where they’ve cleaned the dishes and the beam of their headlamp grows with their pace, steady, revealing the rock I’m sitting on, the scale of the mountains, the lean of trees, pockets of snow—all the tender wild distance gathered in that bright tether.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Plenty. Maybe enough to know the difference between a fresh moment with a stranger and a deeper sinking in with the loved ones in my life. I ride BART and MUNI a lot for work and spend the majority of my time admiring people and falling for their singularities, the pinch of an expression, the curve of an earlobe, the way they style their hair. Gait and posture. Hands. I think of a Stephen Steinbrink song, “met on the train, we’re barely touching and I can’t hold back, no time to blush, I’m putting all my trust in you”.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Sure, yes, art is necessary, but I would be hard pressed to point to something and say “that’s not art but this is”. Art shows up in writing as much as it shows up in cooking or running, and in that I mean there’s a doing in art, and this is what I respond to when making or admiring it. It feels necessary for reminding me to play with things and forget, or play with things and remember. A space opens up for inquiry and feeling, a slowing down despite a quickening in the guts.
Art often provides me with new ways to pay attention, make connections and associations, revealing and concealing things in turn, and in this way has a mutability and wild independence that instigates and agitates, but that’s not to say its useful. It can feel full of air, and I want to hold onto the ways this makes me feel buoyant rather than empty about my efforts in it.
Speaking on citizenship and optimism and developing theory around these themes, Lauren Berlant says in an interview that for her, “it’s always about creating better and better objects. It’s always about creating better worlds, making it possible for us to think in more and different kinds of ways about how we relationally can move through this life.” While our subjects of discourse in this answer may be different, there’s something there I’m excited to draw a string between.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a novella called Little Machine that follows a character named Jean through buses and sidewalks and publics in a desperate effort to get to work. It has felt either too big or too limited depending on the day that I look at it, and I think this means I need to stay in it and prod at those places that expose my ignorance or the ones that get overwhelmed by ideas and lose the thread of story that keep a character moving. I live in Oakland but work here and in S.F. and travel by bike and bus and BART and have a lot of suspended time between stations where writing happens in jots and jolts, and this book feels part of that commute, paying attention to sounds and smells and voices and motion. I wonder if getting to work or back home is enough to write an entire book about. And then I see the generosity of an escalator going your way after an exhausted ride beneath the Bay with a bag slung heavy on a shoulder and it seems like yes, maybe.
What kind of writing do you most admire?
I most admire writing that puts pressure on the mundane and slowly distills the magic strangeness hiding in the frump of it all. I like language that is thick and sinewy and worlds that feel full and peopled and considered. I like being hungry when I read something, for more, or for the feeling it gave me, the way it framed a set of questions and made room for me to feel my way around them. Lately: Joanna Ruocco, Stacey Levine, Italo Calvino, Renee Gladman, Henry Green, Tove Jansson, Julie Hayden. A wide net with explicit treasures.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Coffee in the morning, lavender, sage, garlic and olive oil, baked apples, sweat after a hike or a bike ride, oranges, dogs, certain necks and feet, cats… I was babysitting a six month old for a few weeks in August and we would take long sleepy walks around Lake Merritt and there are a few places where the trees smelled like warm maple syrup and maybe there were candy cap mushrooms there (I never found them), but the smell!