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A winding path back home: Meet Forbes Library’s new Writer in Residence, Art Middleton

  • Art Middleton and his son Henry Lou Morrison,2, in front of Forbes where Middleton has taken the position of Writer in Residence. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Middleton and his son Henry Lou Morrison, 2. Middleton often escorts him to Forbes Library’s Children’s Room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Art Middleton and his son Henry Lou Morrison, 2, in front of Forbes where Middleton has taken the position of Writer in Residence. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Art Middleton in front of Forbes Library, where he has taken the position of Writer in Residence. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS


For the Bulletin
Friday, June 29, 2018

 By ZOYA AZHAR

Art Middleton is a writer, a zine enthusiast, a film lover and a dad — he often escorts his two-year-old to Forbes Library’s Children’s Room. He’s also the library’s new Writer in Residence (WIR). His first-ever visit to Forbes was to sit in on a reading organized by the library’s last WIR, Naila Moreira. That’s also when the position first got his attention. Not long after that, he applied for the position himself.  

“Art spoke with familiarity and passion about Forbes Library,” said the library’s director, Lisa Downing. The six-person selection committee for the new WIR was taken with Middleton’s friendly demeanor, love for the local literary scene and interest in both new writers and established ones.

The Writer in Residence program at Forbes Library dates back to 2003, when it was established by the library’s then-director Janet Moulding and local poet Diana Martin Gordon. Gordon’s appointment spanned four years, but the position is typically a two-year commitment. It was created for professional writers to bridge the gap between the library and readers and writers in the community. The WIR must be a published writer, living in the Northampton area, and must have some previous experience in teaching and organizing public events. Selected after a competitive application process, WIRs are required to volunteer five hours at the library every week and are charged with developing, facilitating and promoting library programming. 

“For what it’s worth, there is a small stipend.” Middleton said.

The WIR receives an annual stipend of $2,000 in return for holding six to eight events as part of a literary program series that he or she develops, in addition to maintaining regular programming such as writing workshops and discussion groups. 

Middleton is taking the torch from the last WIR, Moreira, who is a lecturer and writing counselor at Smith College, as well as a Gazette columnist.

“It’s bittersweet,” Moreira said on a recent morning in one of Forbes’ reading rooms. “I don’t expect my involvement here to end. Every Writer in Residence has remained a really big part of the library.”  

For instance, Gordon, the first-ever WIR, has been a guest facilitator for the Monday night poetry discussions; novelist Susan Stinson continues to fulfill a weekly commitment on Saturdays with Writing Room, which is a year-round writing session that Forbes offers to anyone who wants to write in the company of others; and Moreira hopes to continue facilitating National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the fall, an event that she introduced to the community during her tenure as WIR. All of them have advised incoming WIRs.  

Moreira’s position ended up lasting three years. The library asked her to stay for an extra year. “Naila was doing a fantastic job and had more ideas for programs, and we wanted to keep her as long as we could,” Downing said. “I was promoted from assistant director last January, leaving that position to be filled, which is the staff person who works most closely with the WIR. Having an established writer in place during this transition meant that our new assistant director, Molly Moss, could learn from her.”

And Moreira made the position her own. “I tried to reach outside the bounds of just written literature,” she said. She mentioned her event “Storytelling Through Photography” as one example of how she blurred boundaries. The event featured the works of three vastly different photographers who used different media to tell stories without words. During her time, she also highlighted diverse voices. For example, “We had a ‘Native Americans and the Land’ event, which featured Native American perspectives on nature and the environment,” she said. “It really spoke to the need for different approaches to dealing with nature.” The landscape theme overlapped with Moreira’s personal interests in nature and science writing, which also imbued some of the programming she offered to the community. 

Each WIR has enough creative license that his or her personal taste as a reader shines through the programming. Stinson brought a historical lens to the role, while Moreira brought a love of nature and an interest in current events. The incoming WIR will look to the future. 

Middleton, who teaches English literature at Western New England University in Springfield, said a class he taught on utopian fiction mixed with futuristic political manifestos is driving the thought process behind the reading series he wants to develop. There is “radical possibility in the way fiction meets the needs of politics and politics can sometimes meet the needs of fiction,” Middleton said. 

He is hoping to bring in more writers who are straddling the intersections of fiction and politics, he added: “Perhaps not overtly sci-fi, but something that says, ‘If not this world, what about another?’ ”

Middleton moved to Northampton last August. Originally from North Andover, he lived in Providence, Rhode Island for a while before moving to Oakland, California for graduate school at the University of California Davis, where he received a master’s degree in creative writing. Along with their son, he and his partner, Leah Morrison, who works as a nurse practitioner in Springfield, moved back to Massachusetts to be closer to family. The WIR position is appealing both for the chance to interact with the community and to provide more of a structure to his own writing process. “This residency will help anchor routine and intention,” he said. 

He hopes to attract a range of people from all different age groups and backgrounds to the library. In Oakland, “all my favorite readings were queer, political and diverse in terms of the voices being represented,” he said. “I’m in my mid-30s, and I’ll be drawing from my community to fill the space. I come from zine and small-press culture, I come from a culture of readings that happened in basements and art spaces, so having the opportunity to bring weird writers into a space with audiences that may not be familiar with them feels exciting to me.” 

As with every WIR, his own history and point of view will shape his programming. “I’ve typically said, ‘I’m a little overworked and a little under-published,’ ” he said with a laugh.

Middleton is a fiction writer and began his writing career penning letters to creators of small zines during his teenage year; eventually he worked on some handmade zines, himself. He is currently working on a novel.

He describes himself as a nurse, a personal assistant and adjunct professor. “Oftentimes with writers’ bios, you see their publications, the awards they’ve won, and maybe where they got their degrees. When I was younger, that was my idea of what a writer does — a writer has these publications, they win these awards, they go to five different schools. And that was not my path,” Middleton said. “Writing is one of many other things I do.” Middleton received a certified nursing assistant license after finishing high school and worked as an aide in group homes for adults with developmental disorders. He also worked in the food-service industry while living in Rhode Island. 

One of Middleton’s goals for the Forbes Library programming he develops is to follow through on the vision he has of who exactly attends library readings. “I think I might bring in a slightly different crowd than is normally drawn, and that is exciting to me,” he said. 

He specifically hopes to attract more college students to the library. “I’m thinking of how to bridge the gap,” Middleton said. “I think it’s going to be a consistent challenge to access the campus community, who I think would get a lot from Forbes and from whom Forbes would get a lot as well.” One idea he has is to connect with the various art departments at surrounding college campuses and gauge students’ interest in making posters for different events at the library. 

He’s got plenty of other ideas for how to create programming that will engage college students as well as Northampton residents, Middleton said: “If I can create a couple of events like that, I’ll feel like a success.”