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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Splitting The Velvet Dark - WINNER of the 2014 Mary Ballard Poetry Chapbook Prize

The poems in Splitting the Velvet Dark cover the life of a wife and mother struggling with depression and anxiety. They speak of the transcendence felt by planting strawberries to avoid a breakdown, and the peace that comes from driving a green Plymouth through the countryside.

"Elaine Mott is a poet of accuracy and reverence. Her poems, ceremonial and intense, are grounded in city life and garden life, in the cycles of nature and emotion. Her voice is genuine and immediate. We hear it with the sense she is right next to us, singing directly to us."
– Sharon Olds, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

  Interview With Aaron Mott

Debra:  Aaron, it is an honor to have you agree to this interview.  Before we get started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself: where you were born, your education, and a look into your private life?

Aaron:  Thank you, Debra. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss my mother's poetry. To answer your question, I was born in New York City, and grew up in Bayside, Queens. I went to Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, then attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, earning a B.A. in Studio Art.

My wife Christie and I currently live in Williamsburg, VA, and I'm in the process of opening an art gallery/coffee shop in nearby Richmond. I've also done a little acting over the past year, appearing as an extra in seven episodes of AMC's Turn.

Debra: Aaron, we discussed including some very personal information about your mother and father, but before we do, could you tell us what your childhood was like, and your memories of your mother and father?

Aaron: Looking back, I had a very interesting childhood. As a poet, my mother encouraged my attempts at creative writing, and both parents helped me develop a love and appreciation for art and beauty.

My father taught English, but was also a metal sculptor, and we all took day trips to museums in New York City several times a month. While I was growing up, I only had a vague idea what being a poet meant in terms of my mother's work. I didn't see many of her poems, and had no idea she was as prolific as I later discovered.

She dealt with anxiety and depression, which I was aware of, as well as insomnia. My father was very protective and supportive of her. They had an extremely close, loving bond, and a similar love of nature. My mother took my father to see where she used to spend summers in upstate NY, and he immediately took to "the country."

The year I was born, they purchased a small bungalow on a few acres of land, and worked on it every summer and weekends throughout the year. For a long time, they didn't even have a phone line in the house, so my father was able to spend his time working on the vegetable garden, which grew to more than an acre, and my mother could work on the flower garden and do her writing.

Debra:  Why did you decide to publish this selection of your mother’s poems?

Aaron: Her dream was to have a book of her poetry published. Although she was published in numerous journals and anthologies over the years, this was one goal she hadn't yet achieved when she passed away.

The rejection associated with being a writer was very tough on her. I felt like the baton had been passed to me to finish the race. I had an advantage, I think, because it wasn't specifically my work, so the rejections didn't sting as much. It was a privilege to be able to bring her life's work to a larger audience through this book.

Debra:  It is hard to believe that this poetry was not accepted immediately. Your mother’s poems are filled with such imagery, as in the following;

I’ve come back to find the space
 between one mulberry leaf and another,
between the fingers when the hands
make a church and a steeple,
to find the passage between the boxwood
and forsythia in the backyard,
the crack in the flowerpot
where the spider lives,
the distance between the wild grapes
and their tangle of vines
growing on the garage wall,
between the spirals in my mother’s long braid,
the whorls of hair on my father’s chest.

I’ve come back to find the quiet
between the shouts and raised voices,
the hush before the leather belt meets flesh,
before the door slams shut.
I’ve come back
to find the small child dreaming

How does her work affect you on a personal, and emotional, level?

Aaron: This was a very emotional journey for me. It was actually another reason I was interested in putting together the manuscript for publication to force myself to deal with my feelings about her passing. I tend to push deeper emotions away, and realized that might not be the healthiest way to handle something of this magnitude.

As I suspected, the more of her work I read, the more of a connection I felt with her. It was like a real conversation, and I ended it with much more of an understanding of her feelings and motivations. There were a lot of things I wish she had shared with me while I was growing up.

In addition to naturally being a sensitive and delicate soul, she had some traumatic experiences I wasn't aware of, or didn't realize how they affected her. I think before this experience, I didn't know the complete person she was. Now I do, and the best way I can describe it is “bittersweet.”

Debra:  Now we enter into a very delicate and emotional dialog.  To the readers, I want to assure you that Aaron has agreed to this portion of the interview.  He is a brave, young man who has suffered much, but through his compassion and love for his mother, has put aside his own grief to try and understand her more deeply than before.

So, Aaron, I appreciate your wanting to share with us.  I truly believe that this may help a great many people.  I would like to encourage you also to speak about your father, if you wish to.

Your mother and father were deeply in love.  Would you like to talk about that?

Aaron: Yes, my mother and father were deeply in love. They had very different backgrounds, but something inside of them matched perfectly. Over the course of their 41-year marriage, their bond only increased, and they needed less and less of the outside world. Neither one had ever been very interested in friends, and once they retired to the mountains, didn't see much of relatives either. They were completely happy to spend all their time together, working on art and gardening.

It was a huge shock in 2007 when my father was diagnosed with Interstitial Pulmonary Fibrosis, or IPF. It is an incurable, terminal lung disease, which rapidly hardens the lungs so they don't work anymore. At first, they thought it might have been a severe mold allergy, so he spent about a year trying to stay inside as much as possible, or going out with a surgical mask. When the doctors determined it was definitely IPF, he did go on prednisone, and some of the other medications prescribed, but none of them are meant to cure, just to slow down the progression of the fibrosis. My mother was devastated. She did a lot of research online, hours and hours of clicking through medical websites on a slow dial-up connection. She also wrote some poems. Although they are not in this collection, I'd like to share one with you, titled, "To Keep Out the Dread":

To Keep Out the Dread

Focus on anything
anything to keep out the dread:
the worn shellac of the pine floor boards
and especially the old nails you nailed in
every last one, with care, so lovingly
those years ago,
the way they pick up shine
and seem new again when the morning sun
touches them and brings out the silver.
Monet understood, painting the light
the light stays
long after we are gone.

Debra:  That is beautiful Aaron.  I appreciate your allowing us these glimpses into you’re mother’s heart.

Where were you when you found out about your parents, and what they had decided to do?  Was it apparent at first, or did you find out over a period of time?

Aaron: It was 2009 and I was at work in Buffalo, NY, when my sister called me with the news. They had sent a letter to their lawyer, and he had called her in NYC to let her know. My fiancé, now my wife, drove me the whole way to the country house to meet my sister, which was about an eight hour drive. My parents had decided to end their lives, painlessly, on their own terms. They each left a note. My father's said that he didn't want to suffer a long decline, being able to do less and less, like he'd seen happen with his own father. My mother's note said that she couldn't imagine life without her husband and love of 40 years. We still aren't completely sure if he knew that she was going to do the same thing.

Debra: The shock, grief and a desperate need to understand is a given, but please, tell us a bit about that day, how you felt and what you remember.  Tell us only what you are comfortable with sharing.

Aaron: I was in shock that day. My sister and her boyfriend, and my fiancé and I, stayed in a nearby motel for a few days. I actually can't remember what we did on the first day, as opposed to the second or third day. The police let us read the notes at the station. It was too emotional to sleep in the house, or really even go into the bedroom where they ended their lives.

At some point, we called my mother's parents. I was the one who made that phone call. If we called other people that day, it's just a blur. My mother and father were at the funeral home already. We brought some of their familiar clothes and had a meeting with the funeral director. Laid out, my parents looked nothing like they did in life. My father's hair was always in tousled bangs, and the funeral home staff had neatly combed his hair back. My mother's only makeup was eyeliner, when she wore any at all, so her face didn't look right the way they did it either.

We didn't have a funeral, just a cremation, and made plans to hold a memorial at the country house a few weeks later. My mother was Jewish, and my sister's boyfriend at the time was from Israel. We scattered some of their ashes around special places on the property, in the woods and flower garden, some near the stream and some near the daffodils, and he read a "Mourner's Kaddish" in Hebrew and English.

Debra: How did you feel about their suicide pact?  Did you feel abandoned?  If you can, please share this aspect of your grief.  Again, only what you wish to share.

Aaron: I don't know if it can really be called a suicide pact. I'm still not sure if my mother's was thought out in advance, or just decided by her that day. I went to a suicide survivors support group for a few weeks afterwards. It was helpful in its own way.

My parents had researched a way to go painlessly, as my father assured us in his note, and that was a contrast from some of the stories from the other survivors in the group. For a long time after, I had problems watching violence on TV, and it seemed like every show involved a suicide. I got over that, but it still disturbs me how carelessly people constantly mention wanting to kill themselves over mundane things like standing in line or talking to someone boring. I know it's said jokingly, but it bothers me every time.

To answer your question, yes, sometimes I feel abandoned. From an outside perspective, it seems like a very romantic, Romeo and Juliet-like story. As one who was left behind, I can't share in that same feeling. I know how hard it is for the survivors. There actually is a possibility that I've inherited the gene which would predispose me to IPF. I haven't gone through with the testing, because I don't want that knowledge to affect the way I live my life. Either way, I'll cling onto life as long as possible, even if it means breathing through a tube at a hospital until the end, because I don't want to put my loved ones through the same thing.

Debra:  Aaron, I am so sorry that you had to go through this.  I find your way of coping extremely poignant and brave. I admire your decision to honor your mother, and the way you have approached accomplishing it.

At what point did you decide to pay tribute to your mother by having her poems published?

Aaron:  After the first few months, I stopped going to the survivors group, and went on with ordinary life. As I mentioned, I think I tend to push away deeper emotions, and wanted to force myself to face them.

I started to read my mother's collection. She wrote the manuscript to deal with her life, and I read it to deal with her death. I realized for the first time how sensitive and emotionally scarred she was from life, and how difficult it was for her to just get through her days. I found out that she had been raped as a teenager through one of her poems.

At that point, I didn't feel comfortable publishing that one, but "The Call" in this book is a metaphor for the rape and her feelings about it.

As if that wasn't enough of a trauma, when she was pregnant with my brother and me, she fell ill and my brother was stillborn. I did know about that, and didn't realize the extent of her guilt and grief. In addition to learning about her inner thoughts and emotions, I realized what an excellent poet she was. This work had to be shared. It's a way of keeping her spirit alive, and the memory of her in the world.

Debra:  You have the soul of a poet, Aaron. I am positive that your parents are happy with what you are doing. 

Splitting the Velvet Dark is essentially a journal, or diary, written in poetic form.  Why do you think that your mother chose this format to write her life’s journey?

Aaron: There were poems which were completely fictional, or about other topics, but the most powerful and evocative ones were those about her personal experiences. Poetry was the best vehicle for her to express complex emotions, a framework on which to lay metaphor and imagery from her inner world.

Debra:  What is your impression of her body of work?  Did she write for pleasure, or release, perhaps?  Do you think it started out for one reason and evolved into another?

Aaron: Her body of work is both an amazing autobiographical journey, and a meditation on the meaning of life. She wrote as a way to deal with life. As an individual, she was quiet and shy, so a lot of her thoughts and feelings about the events of her life went into the poems.

There are revelations about the search for peace and beauty in this world, gems of insight into universal struggles and truths. I think her first poems, some of the early ones, not in this collection, were more about finding her voice and the form of the poetry itself. By the time these poems were written, she'd definitely found her voice and style, and poetry became a type of release and therapy.

Debra: Do you have plans for any videos connected with your mother’s poetry?

Aaron: Through the film work I've done, I've made some contacts with folks who do videography and editing. The publisher of Splitting the Velvet Dark, the wonderful Deanna Roy of Casey Shay Press, has agreed to let me do a few "poetry videos" to post online. They should be completed by mid-August, and feature dramatic readings of some of the poems, intercut with interesting visuals. The first one will be "The Apartment," which is a poem from the collection about the early part of my mother and father's love story. I'll post the videos to YouTube, and put links to them on GoodReads and my own website.

Debra:  Aaron, will we be seeing more of your mother’s works in future volumes?

Aaron: Yes! My mother wrote over a hundred poems. Since this collection is only about twenty of those, I've submitted the larger manuscript, In Love With the Dark, to about a dozen of the current crop of publication contests. Considering how well the chapbook is doing on Amazon.com, I'm optimistic that the good buzz her work is receiving will lead to some new offers.

Debra:  Aaron, I want to thank you for participating in this interview, and for your courage to share what you have with us today.  I would like to express my sincere sympathy for your loss, and admiration for what you are doing to help your mother’s name and talent live on.

I would like to end this interview with the review I recently posted on Amazon and Goodreads:

5.0 out of 5 stars An Honor to Read July 10, 2014
By Debra Shiveley Welch
Format:Kindle Edition

Splitting the Velvet Darkness has been an honor to read. The poetry contained within this offering is, not only pleasant to the inner ear, but touches the soul as well.

Unpretentious in its writing, Splitting the Velvet Darkness is an autobiography written in rhythmical, evocative language, projecting pictures upon the inner eye. It flows through the mind like a gentle breeze, as we follow the author's life from childhood to retirement. The author appears to be musing over her life experiences, as if opening a treasured scrapbook, and allowing the reader a peek inside.

I love this book, and will read it again and again. Five stars is not nearly enough.

Aaron is willing to answer any questions you may have.  We look forward to your comments and questions.


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