Welcome back to our Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.
Today, we’re talking with Maria Mazziotti Gillan!
What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?
Because I did not speak English until I went to school, and we spoke only Italian at home, I was gratified in grammar school to hear poetry read aloud by our teachers and I fell in love with it. It was in high school, however, that I was introduced to poets whose work really spoke to me by two amazing teachers, Mr. Weiss and Miss Durban. They made me brave in a way I had never been before, and taught me to shed my shy skin when I read poems aloud in those classrooms at Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. I was so fortunate to have these teachers who introduced me to poets like Amy Lowell, T. S. Eliot, Wordsworth, Yeats and e. e. cummings, poets whose work I still love. My only regret is that I did not write letters to those teachers to thank them for asking me to read poetry out loud in their classrooms, and for teaching me about the music of language.
What is the role of poetry in today’s world?
As an immigrant child coming from a family with very little money, living in a house where English was not spoken, I was extremely shy and inarticulate. Through poetry, I was able to write down everything I was feeling, all the things I couldn’t express directly to other people in spoken English. Poetry gave me a voice and a way of communicating with the world. I have spent my life dedicated to poetry and its power to change our lives. Recently, I wrote a book on writing, called Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories. In that book, I try to give others the courage I learned for myself after much struggling. I think poetry can change the world and make a bridge between people that helps us to understand one another even if we come from various countries, places, and social classes. Poetry gives us the chance to explore what it means to be human.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
I’ve written a lot of things I was afraid to share. In the beginning, when I first started to
write, I was trying to hide behind language and reference to Greek gods, and other things that I thought would erase the fact that I came from a poor, immigrant family. Gradually, I started to move toward putting details of my own life and my own experiences into my poetry, worrying less about proving that I was smart and more about how I was communicating through the poems. For many of my earlier poems, I put a screen between me and the world. I tried to get simpler and more direct in order to build a bridge between me and other people. But often I was afraid to be that vulnerable. Sometimes, I’m afraid of all I reveal in my poems. An example would be the poems I wrote about my husband’s early onset Parkinson’s disease and his 25-year illness. I tried to be honest about the complexities of that situation, and I still find some of those poems difficult to read without crying. They are poems I felt I needed to write, and they illuminate what it was like to live with a debilitating illness for a long period of time. I hope my poetry gives the people who read it the courage to open all the secret compartments in their own lives.
What are you looking forward to most at this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival?
What I love about the festival is the energy it generates. There is electricity in the air from so many people listening to poems, and listening to poets talk about their work and about what poetry means to them. I find it particularly exciting on the student day, because I love to see the students so engaged with poetry. I think of how much poetry has helped me and how it’s saved me, and maybe there’s a student there who is shy and introverted, and has stories they are afraid to tell. The festival allows a person to find the words to express their feelings.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for her book, All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions). She is the founder/executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She is also director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of English at Binghamton University-SUNY. She has published 23 books, including Paterson Light and Shadow (Serving House Books, 2017); What Blooms in Winter (NYQ Books, 2016); The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets (Cat in the Sun Books, 2014); Ancestors’ Song (Bordighera Press, 2013); The Silence in an Empty House (NYQ Books, 2013); Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand, Guernica Editions, 2013); The Place I Call Home (NYQ Books, 2012); and What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 (Guernica Editions, 2010). With her daughter Jennifer, she is co-editor of four anthologies. Visit her website, www.mariagillan.com.