William & Mary

Mott’s poetry considers madness and memory

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See background on Mott

Michael Mott saved a copy of the The Flat Hat article covering his last on-campus poetry reading. The story, dated Nov. 15, 1985, included the headline phrase, “Mott unleashes words.”

“Un-lea-shes,” he says, savoring that word, rolling his tongue and stiffening his jaw as he enunciates the pleasing summation 20 years later. He recalls serving as the College’s writer-in-residence that year—the year of the all-star class when he came to William and Mary and was made to feel like a deity. Later in his career, he would describe it to fellow poets and professors. “I would tell tell them that being a writer in residence is like being an Aztec god,” he says. “You are feasted beginning in September. Flowers are brought to you. Then your throat is cut in April.” Even now, that year—his second stint as writer-in-residence at the College—remains a highlight of his 25-year teaching career.

Unleashes—whether or not the student press will make a similar verb choice to describe his reading on Nov. 17, Mott will not speculate. He only promises to bring the same energy that inspired that writer, Donna Coffey, to report, “Words on a page are dead, but words carried by a voice are living things, caged animals, released briefly to purr, to growl, to stretch, to fly, to run and wander … .”

“Of course, The World of Richard Dadd is a whole different thing,” Mott explains, referring to the recent volume of poetry and prose from which he will be reciting. “With Richard Dadd, I had this idea, and it seemed madness.”

Photo: Mott relaxes at home in Williamsburg. By David Williard.

Two years ago, Mott became interested in Richard Dadd (1817-1886) after seeing some of the paintings the London artist created during his 40 years in asylums. At the same time, he found himself looking back and rethinking the madness that he experienced as a youth during the World War II period in London.

About Dadd, he says, “He had the perfect name for a man who killed his father—d-a double-d. He was walking arm in arm with his father, and he took a knife out and slashed him up.” Concerning his own experiences, Mott recalls that he “grew up a bit scatty.” He refers to a specific poem, “Life Magazine,” from The World of Richard Dadd, to illustrate the middle-class English denial which contributed to that scattiness. His parents would read the magazine then hide the copies from their children, who, of course, knew about the hiding place in the cupboard. “It was part of a double-conspiracy. We [children] found out all about the Spanish Civil War, about the war in China, about all the horrors that were going on in the world, and we found out about them in large part out of Life Magazine,” Mott recalls. “Our parents were pretending to us that these things didn’t happen, and we were pretending that we didn’t know they happened.”

Ending “Life Magazine,” Mott concludes, “In the end we got away with nothing” (see related content). To add context, he compares the English mindset of the period to the Southern mindset he discovered after he began living in the United States in 1966. “I’ve talked to dear friends who, if they raised the subject of blacks at the supper table, were in real trouble with their parents, not because their parents were prejudiced against blacks but because they were guilt-ridden about the whole situation,” he explains. “It was much the same in England, but it was the poor people. I only had to mention that I had seen someone in rags, and my parents would stiffen up, wondering what I would say next.”

During the war, Mott was shipped to America for safety only to be returned in 1944. Within a week of getting back, he was on the streets with a shovel. “I was digging people out when the V-bombs came down,” he explains. “I had nightmares for years that I was too successful digging and that faces came out of the rubble. Those are memories that you aren’t likely to get rid of.”

On Nov. 17, Mott will read “Life Magazine” and other poems, among excerpts from some of his other works, including The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, beginning at 8 p.m. in Andrews Hall (room 101). He will not be drawing parallels between the madness he experienced then and what could be called the madness of denial in our own age—at least not directly.

“I can only give my poems,” he says. “What do I want people to take away from my reading? I want them to take away a combination of their thoughts and my poems. There has got to be space for the listener or for the reader in every one.”

As far as what the subsequent headlines exclaim, Mott will be accepting. After all, in retirement he is conscious that he is known for many things—teacher, writer, painter, husband, father, caregiver, friend. Henry Hart, professor of English at the College, who began his tenure on campus during Mott’s second writer-in-residence appearance, calls Mott a “Renaissance Man—he does everything and he excels in everything he does,” Hart says.
Mott would counter, “For years people have said that I am a poet, and that is wonderful. For me, there are days when I think I am a poet and there are days when I don’t think I am a poet. You, the other person, give the title; I cannot claim the title.”