I am an actual person in a concrete historical situation. So are you, and that guy? Over there? Yep. Same. Look at us. Just some actual people in a concrete historical situation. Seems obvious, but, really, I mean, is it? When’s the last time you thought about being an actual person in a concrete historical situation? Actual stuff – life stuff – situated in some broader context. Your birth and death and the stuff in between. That’s all it is, and you’re doing it. Thanks for spending some of it reading this introduction with me. Let me tell you something.
Blake Middleton wrote a book called An Actual Person in a Concrete Historical Situation. It’s a poem, and a book – a book-length poem. It’s about Blake Middleton, who is – like me and like you – an actual person in a concrete historical situation. This is a book-length poem about a woman staring at bagels and mumbling “my life is over.” It’s about a guy chugging ranch dressing next to a dumpster. It’s about abandoning the stairmaster in favor of a rowing machine. It’s about reading poetry, traveling the world, working a shitty job, and thinking big thoughts that are also normal thoughts. It’s a book-length poem that could only have been written by an actual person in a concrete historical situation. A time capsule, a survey, a glimpse into the reality of an actual person in a concrete historical situation.
I keep saying “an actual person in a concrete historical situation” because it’s important. It’s just what any of this is. It’s just shit that happens. An Actual Person in a Concrete Historical Situation is just some of the stuff in between Blake’s birth and death. And, like with anyone else, it involves other actual people in concrete historical situations. It’s about all of us, too, because historical situations are made of people. We’re all part of the stuff. We’re all up in each other’s stuff.
Ok, ok, concretely (heh), An Actual Person in a Concrete Historical Situation is a slow narrative riddled with a carefully curated list of facts and lies about the world. It’s full of extreme close-ups and extreme, uh, the opposite of that (film dudes, help me). It’s a running list of observations both banal and profound, or profound because of their banality, or, maybe, more terrifyingly, banal because of their profundity. People move around, do stuff, think stuff, see stuff. The stuff is presented in a bewildering jumble – information overload – and the reader is tasked with making sense of anything (spoiler – nothing makes sense). And, in this sense (heh), it’s relatably unrelatable – there’s no meaning in the obvious way that is familiar to us, in the way that, somehow, makes sense. We’re asked to care about strangers on the street, about trips to Mexico, about funny anecdotes, about existential dread. It reminds us that we really shouldn’t give a shit, but still, here we are, giving a shit. We can’t help it. And this is what Blake’s book-lengthed poem excels at. It economically dismantles what normal means by presenting us with the inexplicable evidence that everything is fucked, fundamentally, in the logic we operate under itself. It breaks down cause and effect, it breaks down authority, it breaks down morality – Kim Kardashian gets robbed so Kanye West cuts his hair short. An ad for condoms tells us we live on a big, sexy world. A man runs a marathon and drinks a shot of vodka. The world is ugly and sad and yet we still lounge in the sun and smile. Why? Why not? Do you trust a condom ad? Should you? How can you be happy? How can you not? Why haven’t you thought of all this before? Why should you? Are you ok? Hey, ok, thought I lost you there for a second.
Some books, when you read them, you’re like, “I can tell the loser writing this meant it to be timeless, or grandiose, or something big and cool and self-important. Ugh. No thank you.” But other books, like An Actual Person in a Concrete Historical Situation, when you read them, you’re like, “I can tell the loser writing this meant it to be about an actual person in a concrete historical situation. Yes. Thank you.”
Thank you, Blake.
Ok. You can order his book here.
Oh shit, everyone, shut up. Shut up – Blake’s here. Hold on. Hold on, shut up:
This is a book-length poem and you reference some other, relatively-underground works of poetry, such as $50,000 by Andrew Weatherhead. What I personally found exciting about these references is that you seem sincere about your love for poetry. Tell me about this – what really got you into the headspace for this book?
I’ll talk about what excites me about $50,000. I was struggling to write after College Novel. I read $50,000 and was totally floored. It was the first time in a while that I had read something that felt so completely new to me. It’s urgent but also pleasantly meandering and spacious. Plotless, fragmented, nonlinear, but not unnecessarily difficult or cryptic. The lines are quadruple spaced and I liked that, all the jumps and juxtapositions, the way the reader has to kind of fill in the gaps. I don’t remember how I came across it, but a few days after reading $50,000 I read Lyn Hejinian’s essay The Rejection of Closure, which excited me in the same sort of way that $50,000 did. She writes about the difference between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts. She says that open texts give the impression that the work begins and ends arbitrarily, with the implication being that the words and ideas continue beyond the work, that one stops writing because they have run out of units or minutes, and not because a conclusion has been reached or because everything has been said. Some other main points: Open texts operate under the premise that the world is vast and overwhelming and that our understanding of the world is necessarily incomplete; that language is inadequate in recreating the world; that the failure of words to mirror the world means that writing a truly open text is impossible, but that impossibility allows us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world (i.e. you can’t perfectly replicate the world or your experience within the world with the tool of language, all attempts are doomed to fail, but it’s fun to try, and everyone articulating their unique impressions adds to the complexity of the world and makes it more interesting to live in). I’ve felt more excited recently by writing that doesn’t want to flatten or simplify the world or lead the reader to one meaning or interpretation of the work. I think this type of writing comes closer to capturing what it actually feels like to be a person in the world. I’m bringing up this essay because $50,000 is a great example of an open text, and after reading The Rejection of Closure I was able to appreciate what it’s doing even more. I think the combination of these two bits of writing kind of jolted me away from linear narratives, and opened up all these possibilities for what could be done. It always feels good to get rid of restraints, and I think we’re going to see a lot more writing like this, because the internet is rewiring our brains and changing the way we read and think (fucking with our attention spans and constantly distracting us) and independent publishing seems to be thriving and you can write however you want now. I’ve read $50,000 probably 4 or 5 times. Because it’s so open, it gives you something new each time. It’s also just really funny and full of illuminations. I really can’t over exaggerate the impact these texts have had on my writing. I’m rambling a little, but I just feel really grateful, and want to express that. I was in a massive rut and completely bored by my own writing, and now my interest has been renewed. It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I started questioning why this new way of writing was so appealing to me. So I’ve been getting into other fragmented, nonlinear books like David Markson’s Tetralogy, which consist of the last four books he wrote before his death; Eduardo Leve’s Autoportrait, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, and E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born.
I used to have this fairly paranoid style of reading where I felt like I was always a handful of illuminations short, so I was always searching for pieces of missing knowledge that, if found, would suddenly resolve my feelings of confusion. And I did come across one thing, but it ended up being the opposite of what I thought I was looking for. From EM Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born: “We cannot elude existence by explanations, we can only endure it, love or hate it, adore or dread it, in that alteration of happiness and horror which expresses the very rhythm of being, its oscillations, its dissonances, its bright or bitter vehemences.” The main thing being the first part of the first sentence: “We cannot elude existence by explanations…” There isn’t anything to get at, there is nothing that will resolve the trouble of being born, you either endure it or you don’t. I think this has led to more playfulness in my writing. I’m not trying to get at anything, and I’m more open to including more of life, and not ignoring certain parts of it. I think this little excerpt also helped me understand my fascination with what Hejinian describes as open texts.
I totally feel you on finding something that just clicks with something in your brain and makes you excited to create. I think it’s exciting how your book is not just the result of that, but is also partially about that process. It feels common for autofictional writing to focus on negativity but less common for it to express enthusiasm or inspiration – like inspiration is there, otherwise the work wouldn’t exist, but it is intentionally obscured from the text itself. Do you feel similarly? Was this something you intentionally wanted to subvert?
So the book is a small portrait of my experience in the world for a one year period of time. A part of my life was this renewal of enthusiasm I felt toward literature that was a result of discovering certain books, and I didn’t want to ignore that, because I don’t want to intentionally neglect any parts of life in my writing. But I didn’t think “I have to include this” about that enthusiasm or about anything else. I just want to allow myself to write about anything and I naturally want to write about things that are exciting to me. But it also works the other way, too. I also include a lot of impressions, thoughts, actions that are negative and that I’m not enthusiastic about, and even embarrassed by. We ignore so much of life and I want to encourage people not to overlook things, especially if you’re interested in autofiction like I am, it’s helpful to be open to including anything you think, see, do. There are so many times when something happens or I think about something and I don’t even consider writing about it. It’s like this automatic impulse that I want to rid myself of.
I think an actual person is a really good example of an open work, based on what I just learned about the term from you writing about it. I enjoyed that about $50,000 too, in this sense of, like, the book has a general arc and structure, but when I read it, I didn’t use a bookmark or anything, and would just try to open it up to around where I was last; the process of rereading parts or skipping parts during the read through felt like a part of the book itself, in a way, and I feel that with you book as well. But it has to start and end somewhere – how did you settle on the specific endpoints, the scope, etc. in the context of an open writing approach?
The question I always ask myself when writing is: “What do you want to reveal about the world?” Or: “What can I reveal about the world that other people can’t?” Writing is an act of revelation. It’s our presence in the world that multiplies relationships. We write so that we can feel that we are essential in relation to the world. I’m interested in autofiction because the writers doing that are revealing things about the world and themselves that no one else can. No one else can write about seeing the world from your fixed point of view, from your fixed point in time. No one else can capture what it feels like to be you. It’s an incredibly intimate genre, and the intimacy of literature is what I crave. And I think writing about yourself in whatever time period you exist in ultimately ends up capturing the feelings of other people occupying the same time period as you so it’s a lot less narcissistic and a lot more universal than most people would initially think. I’m especially interested in books like Taipei by Tao Lin and 10:04 by Ben Lerner that are more concerned with examining an individual consciousness and seem less interested in plot.
The beginning of the book was easy. I just wrote down some things I had done that day and followed it with “the scenes of our lives resemble pictures in rough mosaic,” which is a Schopenhauer quote. It felt spacious and nice so I kept adding to the opening. So in the context of open writing, the beginning is really arbitrary. I just picked a day to start writing a book and wrote about parts of that day. And the ending doesn’t really offer any sense of closure, doesn’t lead to one takeaway. It ends because all books have to end somewhere, and life continues off the page.
I think this is what draws me to personal and intimate writing that you see in autofiction. I think a lot of books that are best sellers are these products of committees, where the story gets so artificial and warped in order to vaguely appeal to a lot of people. But with this kind of writing, it’s a bigger gamble, but the pay-off is bigger if it connects with a reader. Not everyone will feel connected to it, but those who do really get more out of it than they would something more generic or unfocused. Seeing what feels like a unique experience described by someone else very clearly is comforting, something like that – like yes, I’m normal, kind of, maybe!
So much of the urge to write this book or to write in general comes from not feeling normal in the world a lot of the time. The way people just seem to accept this totally insane, brief, bizarre situation we’re all in as normal is a huge driving factor for why I write. (Or, I know other people also think it’s insane, but we go through life acting like it’s normal, for the most part.) And I know other people feel this way. So in writing about myself, I’m writing about others. Like, I don’t understand how you could go through life without feeling the urge to create something. I would go insane. All the bullshit we deal with in life that we just quietly take and keep taking, and all the beautiful, unexpected, life-affirming moments that happen, when you write you can finally say, “this is bullshit, this is good, this is beautiful, I’m confused by this, do you also feel this way, think these things?” Just trying to bridge the distance between people feels so good to do. And hopefully I am doing it in a way that feels new. And obviously there is a lot that gets left out when you’re turning a one year period of life into a poem. But I think there’s a wide range of emotions and I think the balance between enthusiasm/elation and banality and humor and sadness makes it feel like life. Or at least I hope it does. I want it to feel like you’re living inside another person’s life. The intimacy of books I think is unparalleled compared to other mediums. Which is also something that gets said a lot but is always worth repeating. I don’t want the world to lose literature. And I want to convince people that dedicating your life to literature is a worthwhile thing to do. Most people would disagree. But they’re fucked in the head. Or maybe I’m fucked in the head. I’m rambling again I think. Currently I am drinking beer at a weird British bar in a mall by the Tampa airport because I don’t remember the room number at the hotel I’m staying at. Honestly, I’m bad at talking about my own writing. The whole process is so mysterious to me. I always come out of writing a book feeling totally confused about how or why I just did that. I know that interviews are necessary and I really enjoy them, but I’ve always found it difficult to describe an arrangement of words with another arrangement of words. Like it feels impossible to give an accurate impression of the book. I really liked this part of Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson: “Once, somebody asked Robert Schumann to explain the meaning of a certain piece of music he had just played on the piano. What Robert Schumann did was sit back down at the piano and play the piece of music again.”
I agree – I also feel like, for me, personally, knowing the author’s intention or explanation can detract from the work, and I don’t really mean to put you in that position. So let’s make things concrete: How did you write this? Like, where? When? What was your editing process like? Etc.
I like being put in that position, but I always feel like I’m talking about it in a way that feels embarrassing or I just feel like I sound stupid and am ruining whatever I’m talking about.
For this book I did most of the writing while walking or riding my bike or staring at the river. I like to disconnect from everything and just wait and see what I start to think about. If I’m doing that by the river or something I can get in a headspace where I’m not thinking about anything, I’m just staring at the river, and some words will pop into my head, and I’ll just follow that. Also, there’s this thing I do sometimes. I don’t know if anyone else does this: I close my eyes for a period of time, usually a minute or so, and think some iteration of ‘when I open my eyes I am going to look at the world like I am seeing it for the first time, like a baby, or an alien,’ and then I open my eyes, and mostly it doesn’t work, but sometimes it does and it’s inexplicable. That probably sounds insane, but is one way I can get into a space where maybe I think something that feels worth writing down. Anyway you can get away from what everyone else is thinking about and give yourself time to have your own thoughts, to work things out for yourself, is always conducive to writing. The best lines come from nowhere, they just appear without effort. If I stare at the river long enough while trying not to think about anything, it will just start to give me words. Lol.
But for the ending I did something totally different than that. Some people are going to think this is stupid or gimmicky probably but, I couldn’t think of anything and I was just playing with autopredict on my phone while on a walk. And it just kept feeding me these generalizations about life and I was amused by how stilted the phrasing was, and how actually each line, even though they all juxtaposed, were true. I like sweeping generalizations because with most of them, the opposite generalization can also be true. It felt good and I liked it, thought it was funny and sad. I really like the ending.
In this context, I’m curious about going back to the style and approach here – it feels like you embraced this big playfulness, sort of unseriousness in writing it, but the end product feels very earnest, full of love. You also reference Milk and Henny by Peter BD, which feels like a pretty deep cut and is part of, or comes from, maybe, a scene more entrenched in irony or being self-guarded about what you love. What goes into embracing or rejecting cool detachment and irony, for you?
Milk & Henny gets mentioned because it was something I came across by happenstance. Austin Islam introduced me to Peter BD at KGB when I went up to New York to do some readings after College Novel was released. He was a really kind and cool dude and gave me a copy. Jenna and I were both very drunk and read it together on the subway back to the AirBnB after the reading. It was just such a nice memory that I cherish and wanted to include. I was a little apprehensive about setting up those readings because I didn’t know anyone in NYC. But it sounded like something that might be fun, and thinking of something that might be fun and then just doing it for that reason is something that makes life worth living. Milk & Henny is one of the funniest and most endearing books of poetry I’ve ever read.
As far as irony goes, I don’t think it’s necessarily the irony that I love. I think it’s the balance between irony and sincerity, or… I just generally like to see a wide range of disparate emotions existing together in the same work, like how they exist together in our actual lives. I like a good balance. But I think most writing that I like stems from the author having and nurturing a profound love of life. A great example would be Returning the Sword to the Stone by Mark Leidner. Hilarious and heartfelt. I love it.
I feel like a common discourse at the moment is what adulthood, maturity, and purpose means for younger generations. And I feel like your book is a really insightful look at this, too, and is reflected in the title – this is our concrete historical situation. Do you have anything to add to this discourse, here, in the interview?
I don’t have much to add to that discourse other than I think we are living through a confusing and anxiety-inducing time period, and there is a lot of pressure on young people to act like they are doing okay in life. Other time periods have also been confusing and anxiety inducing obviously, but this is the time period I have been alive for and it is also confusing and anxiety inducing, in a way that is maybe different than others, but probably the same, too. I like to explore and spend time in that confusion and anxiety and be honest about those feelings in my writing—in a way that is hopefully new and enjoyable to read—instead of ignoring them. I feel like there is this pressure on people to always try to convince yourself you are doing okay in life because the future seems maybe more uncertain or something, like you have to work harder earlier, you have to stay on track, and think and worry about the future constantly, because you don’t want to be totally fucked when you’re old. I think that in this particular historical moment it is okay and probably normal to feel totally fucked sometimes, to admit that everything is probably totally fucked, not in a defeated or I give up forever sort of way, but because when you admit that, recognize the reality of the moment you are a part of, the moment you are living in opens up, and you can actually enjoy it, and maybe figure out what you want to do. I don’t know if that makes sense. I don’t think anyone has any idea what the world is going to look like, even short-term, in the future. I feel probably too world-weary for my age. I just like to eat good food and drink wine and shoot the shit with my friends and not concern myself so much with other things. Focusing on the immediate things, like whatever is directly in front of me that I am seeing with my own eyes and engaging with, and trying to be kind to people, as opposed to thinking about whatever zeitgeisty thing everyone else is getting upset about that day has helped me enjoy life to a greater extent. I’m so thankful for my wonderful girlfriend and the wonderful friends I have and I feel good about my ability to endure whatever bullshit is going on in the world or my life thanks to them. So my advice would be, uh, most jobs are bullshit, you can work a bullshit job and deal with bullshit, and when you get off work you can have your small joys, and that can be enough, I think. Small moments and friendship, that is the key. I like to remind myself that even the fucked times are part of the ride, and that it’s important to enjoy the ride. Not, like, the totally fucked times that are completely unenjoyable, but the kind of fucked times (like being 27 and working in a restaurant and having very little money). I actually don’t recommend taking life advice from me.
That feels relatable. And I’m particularly taken by this line that I think captures this sentiment:
i am useless and immature, but i like my small joys
It’s not so much an admonishment of the self, but an acceptance. What are some of your small joys? Were you, or are you, ambitious for something greater (aside from publishing an exceptional book-length poetic treatise on the topic)? Where do you hope your writing fits into the larger world?
My small joys include drinking wine with Jenna, riding my bike, taking my chihuahuas to the park, walking around this bookstore near my apartment, staring at the river, laying by the pool. Larger and more expensive small joys include visiting other countries, other states. I also really enjoy doing nothing. Reading and writing are great because you are doing something while doing nothing. You are sitting still and concentrating on a little task and time kind of dissolves and it’s really nice. Anything that makes me lose track of or forget about time passing is good. If it was up to me, I would never do anything, other than what I just listed above. I think the government should pay everyone to exist. But unfortunately you have to make money to live in an apartment and eat food and pay bills and to do fun things sometimes.
In terms of ambition, I feel quietly ambitious. I keep it to myself usually. I’m talking about writing right now, but this isn’t something I do around most people. I never talk about whatever I’m working on until it’s finished and has found a publisher, even with Jenna, because if I did I would never finish it. Padgett Powell said in an interview: “I do not declare to anyone that I want to write any more than one would declare he wants to be President.” I work in a restaurant, and if I talked like this at the restaurant my coworkers would think I was an insane person. I prefer to just focus on the work, to write about what interests me/feels good, and to do it as well as I can. I don’t expect anyone to care about what I’m doing. So it’s pleasantly surprising when people do. The ambition I feel is totally personal and relates to becoming a better writer, and not to the external, uncontrollable, unpredictable things that sometimes accompany you when you become a good or possibly great writer and share that writing with others through books.
I don’t know what space my writing occupies. I’m doing my own thing right now. I publish through smaller presses. I don’t have an MFA. I don’t live in NYC. I don’t really feel like I’m a part of any group of writers, although I am really happy to know you, Cavin, T.J. Larkey, Graham Irvin, a handful of other writers I’ve met through Twitter. Writing has improved my life and made it more interesting in ways I could not have even imagined when I was starting out. I think there are a lot of people like me that are doing their own thing totally independent of establishment support or whatever, and having a good time doing it. It’s exciting.
Blake Middleton is the author of College Novel (Apocalypse Party) and An Actual Person In A Concrete Historical Situation (Clash Books). He lives in Florida. He tweets @dough_mahoney.
Zac Smith is the author of Everything is Totally Fine (Muumuu House) and 50 Barn Poems (Clash Books), and the co-author of Two Million Shirts (with Giacomo Pope). He lives in Massachusetts. He tweets @zacsmithtweeto. He copied Blake’s bio format because it seemed easier.