March 20, 2015

from A CONVERSATION WITH Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Maria Mazziotti Gillan


Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from AWP, the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for her booAll That Lies Between Usk,. She is the founder/executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey, 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 twenty books, including Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories and What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009. With her daughter Jennifer, she is co-editor of four anthologies. (website)

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Note: The following is excerpted from a 26-page interview.

GREEN: You talk a lot about being shy—

GILLAN: I’m still shy.

GREEN: Well, I don’t believe it. 

GILLAN: I am, I am. Watch me at a party. I sit on the sofa, I sit in the corner, and I’m afraid to get up. I’m afraid to go get my food. I can’t leave that corner. [both laugh]

GREEN: But you’re so not shy one-on-one, or in front of a crowd. 

GILLAN: Not in front of crowd, but in a social situation that little girl comes back. I hope I’m gonna lose her, but I don’t think I’m ever gonna lose her; she’s always there. She’s always ready to pop her head out and say, “Here I am, I’m still shy!” 

GREEN: I was going to ask if that’s what you meant by “writing to save your life” in the book. 

GILLAN: Yeah, that’s part of what I mean; writing did save my life. One thing is it made it possible for me to speak. I couldn’t speak one-on-one, but I could speak through my poems. It’s what I try to get students to do, to find that voice, to believe that they have something to write about. Because for a long time I thought if I didn’t write about daffodils or Greek gods, or threw all this other stuff in, people were going to think I was this little ghetto kid from a lower-class family who still has the accent in her voice. I had to throw in Greek gods and all the other references to prove how smart I was. And when my first book came out, a graduate school professor said to me, “It’s in this one poem about your father that you find this story that you have to tell.” And it was like a gigantic light went on and I thought, “Maybe somebody will be interested in this story of someone who didn’t speak English when she went to school, of a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter. Somebody who grew up poor. Maybe I don’t have to be Longfellow. Maybe I don’t have to be Keats or Shelley. Maybe I can just be me and people will be interested.” And what I found is that the more I wrote stories and narrative poems based on my life, the more people wrote to me from all over the place. It was wild. That somebody on top of a mountain in Montana would be interested in what I had to say. It was so wonderful, actually. And that gave me more courage. But I still get—I love giving readings, I’m a ham, you know, I love going places and meeting people, but still the little girl is there. That voice. And that’s what I think the crow is. Making you doubt yourself. I think to do anything, I don’t care what it is, to edit a magazine, start programs, you have to knock the crow off your shoulder or you won’t be able to do anything. 

GREEN: Explain that crow a little more, and the cave …

GILLAN: The crow for me is this creature who has in it the voice of every person who has ever been negative to you in your life—and that’s a lot of people for most of us. Teachers who put us in the bluebird row instead of the redbird row in math, a friend who says you’re not cool, or a man or a woman who treats you poorly, or your parents saying, “How could you be so dumb as to get in a car with that person?” All those voices are caught in the beak of the crow. And if you listen to it, because the crow whispers in your ear all the time, and if you let it, it will stop you. So I really believe you have to knock the crow away. And I think poems are in a very deep place inside yourself, the place I call the cave. It’s really here [in the stomach]. So you have to be willing to knock the crow off your shoulder and move down into yourself, and tell the truth. And if you can’t do that, then you aren’t communicating anything. I really hate the kind of poetry that is all language and no gut. No feeling, no willingness to take a risk. Go to the edge, for God’s sake. Take a little risk! And that’s what I try to get people to do in my workshops and classes. To see that they have something important to say, and that they don’t have to imitate other people. And there are all these young people now who are getting published and writing stuff that makes no sense at all. One of my students came in and she says, “I don’t know, all of these poets are getting published,” and I said, “I don’t care, don’t follow the latest trend. Find the thing you need to write about, and keep writing about it.” Look at Ruth Stone, stuck on that mountain in Vermont for twenty years, nobody paying an ounce of attention to her, in poverty, and she continued to do what she did. She kept writing until somebody paid attention. She didn’t change what she was doing. She just kept listening to her own voice and hearing that voice and recreating that voice in the poems. She’s original. The stuff is really original when you listen to it. She’s not worrying about what anyone else is writing. Isn’t that what we as editors look for, that voice of the person who has developed the confidence to believe that what they have to say, and the way they have to say it, is important. 

GREEN: Yeah, I always tell people to write for yourself and nobody else—

GILLAN: Nobody else!

GREEN: And if it works, great, and if not then at least you wrote something for yourself.

GILLAN: And so you put it away in a drawer. We all have 20,000 failed poems.

GREEN: Do you think there are people who like that poetry, though, that esoteric—

GILLAN: Yes, there are, but I don’t. I’m not one of them and I’m not gonna push it. I think it’s been poisonous, in a way. Because if we’re going to have an audience for poetry, I think it has to be comprehensible, and I think it has to touch people. It has to make them cry or laugh or make the hair on their arms stand up. And if it doesn’t do that, what’s the point? What’s the point of writing a poem that’s only going to appeal to five professors? 

GREEN: A lot of people blame that on being academic, right? But here we are sitting at a university—how do you reconcile that?

GILLAN: Oh, I tell them to go to hell. [both laugh] No, I really don’t care. When I was growing up that was what poisoned poetry for so many people. You know, Billy Collins’s very funny statement, to get a poem and tie it to a chair and beat a meaning out of it. When they taught us poetry, that’s what they taught us. 

My first book came out and my neighbor called me, she said, “I always hated poetry”—she’s this very jocky woman, very smart, but not particularly academic, and she said, “I always hated poetry, the way they taught it in high school, but I like your poetry, it’s not like poetry.” And I felt that was a big compliment. Because I want to reach the ordinary person. I’m not interested in writing poems that are only for very select audiences. It’s not that I’m not worried about my craft, I do work hard on my poems, but I work hard on making them clear, being willing to take risks emotionally. To be willing to make a fool of yourself. Why can’t we take that risk? And why isn’t that comforting to other people? I think poetry saved my life, because I could have been married at eighteen with five kids and worked in a factory. So in that sense it saved my life, because it made me see that there was another life. 

But poetry can also save moments of your past. And people that you’ve loved. Better than any photograph, I think, it can make them permanent. It’s a way of giving them to somebody else. Not only to your children and grandchildren, but to the world. When my father died, people wrote to me as though they knew him. I’ve written a lot of poetry about him. People wrote to me from all over the country; you’d think that they’d actually met the man. And they hadn’t. But somehow they felt they had, I mean, I think they were actually convinced that they knew him. [both laugh] So I felt that was a compliment to the poems, to their clarity and specificity. 

I have to say that a long time ago, around 1977 I sent a poem to Ruth Lisa Schechter, from the Croton Review, maybe five poems, and she sent me back a note and said, “I really would like to talk to you, would you come up and visit me?” And she lives on Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and at that point I was going to graduate school, but I was still very much the little Italian wife and mother, and I didn’t go that many places by myself. And she’s telling me to drive up and see her, but you know it was about poetry, so I was going to do it, even though I was terrified. So I went and she said to me, “You know, this is a wonderful poem, but the specificity—this could be anyone’s father you’re writing about. Where are the details that are only your father?” And she said, “I want you to go home and re-read ‘Kaddish.’” And I did that. I went home and re-read Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” and I thought, “Oh my God, I read this before and I didn’t realize how brilliant he was.” That detail, that specificity—how could you ever forget his mother? Ever? That image of his mother on the bus, when he took her to the madhouse, the shoes she wore—the descriptions are so amazing. So I worked on that poem for a long time, and that was the poem that the graduate professor said to me, “In this poem you find the story …” Ruth and I became good friends, I went back to visit her a lot, and really credit her with making me see that my poems were beautiful image-wise, but they weren’t really taking a risk. They weren’t willing to tell the truth. Ruth pushed me toward Ginsberg’s poem, and that made me see what I had to do to make the poem work. 

GREEN: You talked about the crow on your shoulder, and having knocked it off. How do you do that, what advice do you give? 

GILLAN: Well, one of the things I think, if you’re going to knock the crow off your shoulder, you have to just say, “I’m going to forge ahead, and no matter what anybody else thinks poetry is, or what anybody else thinks a good life is, I have to define that for myself. I have to define what poetry is for myself, I have to define what I want to write about, and I have to believe that I can do it.” And until you do that, until you say, “I am going to do this and nothing’s going to stop me,” I don’t think you get rid of the crow. 

GREEN: Mhmm.

GILLAN: And the crow comes back. It’s not like you get rid of him permanently. The crow is really my little girl, the little shy girl who shows up when I’m least expecting her—there she is, me hiding in a corner at a party, and the little girl won’t shut up. I can’t say anything, I’m wordless and the little girl is there in my ear. So I think you just have to make up your mind. What I try to do with my students is to give them the courage to make up their minds. That they’re going to do it. And what I tried to with Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, it’s sort of a pep talk book. It’s not a book about craft. Because there are a million books on craft, and I think the best way to learn craft is to read everything you can get your hands on. Let the language get into your skin. Read the poems out loud. Let it become a part of you. Memorize poems. Because then the music of poetry gets inside you. And then it comes out. I can tell reading your poems that you’ve read a lot of poems. Because the music is there, and you’ve absorbed it through the pores of your skin, and then it comes out when you write. So—did I get off the track there? [both laugh]

GREEN: We were talking about getting rid of the crow …

GILLAN: Getting rid of the crow … I think that you have to believe that you can get rid of it, and it’s not permanent. You can’t think, “I’m getting rid of the crow and now I can do whatever I want.” One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to be relentless. You never give up. You decide, I’m doing this, and you keep moving, one step in front of another. My mother went through the third grade. She was completely illiterate in English. And she would say, you know, you fell on the floor, you have a broken leg, “Oh get up, it’s all in your mind, you can overcome it. Just get up and keep walking!” And I always think of her. And in a way, that’s what you have to do if you’re going to do anything. I don’t care what it is, write a great novel, write poetry, be a great lawyer, be a great doctor, you have to say, “Oh get up,” and keep walking. “So you tripped, so you look like an idiot. Get up and try again.” 

What I noticed when I first started running the events at the Poetry Center was that there were a lot of reading series going on, there were a lot of magazines, there were a lot of people who, when I first started, were a lot better-known than I was, already publishing a great deal, who fell by the wayside because they didn’t immediately win the Pulitzer Prize. Hey, you can’t expect to win the Pulitzer Prize. If you win it, great, but you are writing for yourself, and you just have to keep going. I’m amazed at what you can accomplish if you don’t give up. Whether it’s about your writing, or creating programs. How do you create a program? How do you create a magazine that’s known throughout the country? You never give up. You just keep moving forward. That’s it. Right? Somebody could have said, “What gives you the idea that you could be the editor of a magazine, you’re a kid! You don’t have the right background, what gives you the idea?” But were you going to let anyone stop you? N. O.! 

GREEN: But that crow was there, though, for sure; I remember feeling very young, the last time I was here at SUNY Binghamton … [laughs]

GILLAN: You looked like a baby to me, darling—

GREEN: I felt like a baby—

GILLAN: But now don’t you feel confident? I mean, you should be confident, because of what you’ve done with the magazine. You can really feel good about that—but you’re not gonna stop with that! You have a lot of ideas—I always had a new idea a minute. And every time I’d think, “Oh, it isn’t that big of a deal, I’ll just do it.” And then it’d turn into this gigantic thing—we had 10,000 kids through this program last year. 

GREEN: Just in Paterson?

GILLAN: Yes, well, it’s a big city, Paterson. They don’t have anything else, so they’re grateful. But who would have thought, I wanted to replicate my experience with South Pacific for some of these kids, and I thought I’d do a couple theater programs. I didn’t expect to have an elaborate poets-and-writers-in-the-schools program. It was a little idea I had, and it became a big idea. And I think, in a way, everything—that’s what you’ve done, you’ve taken a smallish thing and made it a big thing, and it’s fun to do that! And no one is ever going to stop you from doing that. Nothing’s gonna stop me from doing this; I figure I’ll die behind my desk. I hope they don’t get too upset when they find me there [laughs], but I’m not going to give up, ever. I try to say to the students, “If you’re only here for publishing, if you’re only in this because you want fame, then you’re in the wrong field. If you’re in this because you want an academic job that’s secure, then just go ahead. Just do that. But don’t think that you’re going to write a poem or a novel or a story that’s going to have a lasting effect in any way on anybody.” And isn’t that what we want to do? We want to write poems that people remember. And when we’re editing, we want to edit a magazine that touches people, that changes them, because that’s what literature can do, it can change you. Just like when those lights went on in South Pacific—my life changed. I just didn’t realize how beautiful language could be. 

I have to say, Allen Ginsberg’s teacher was my teacher at East Side High School in Paterson, and I loved poetry. I just loved the way it sounded. I loved the music of it. And she did, too. She would call on me—I was in these Alpha classes, and all the kids with me were from these well-to-do families. There was a very wealthy section. The poorer kids were in commercial courses. They weren’t in the honors classes, that’s for sure. But I was in these honors classes, and I was so lucky to have her. Because she loved poetry as much as I loved poetry. And she knew I loved it. And she would call on me to read it. She didn’t call on these wealthy kids, she called on me. That was such a major thing for me. Because I loved it, and I read it like I loved it. I still love reading poetry out loud. I love it. I love the way it sounds. And I love all sorts of poetry read out loud. Except poetry that doesn’t make sense [laughs] to be honest, but I like to read poetry that has music to it. I love Dylan Thomas. I love Hopkins. I love T.S. Eliot. I often don’t understand T.S. Eliot, but I love the music of it. The music of it is so beautiful. I think when you write and when you edit that’s what you do. You fall in love with the way the language sounds. And if you’re only in it—there are so many careerists. Sometimes when I go to AWP it makes me sad, because they’re not really in love with literature. They’re not really in love with the language. They’re in love with getting a job where they can only teach two courses a semester. That doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t cut it in teaching either. You have to love being there. You have to want to change people’s lives. 

GREEN: Talk a little about that music. You mentioned that you don’t like poems that you don’t understand, but then you also said you love the music of T.S. Eliot so much that you don’t care that you don’t understand it.

GILLAN: Right, but his poems, while they’re not totally understandable, they’re always understandable on a certain level. I’m talking about the stuff that is incomprehensible, I don’t know what the hell it’s saying. [both laugh] Eliot’s is, “The women come and go talking of Michelangelo.” “Indeed there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” That does makes sense. 

GREEN: But what I’m wondering is if you think the music can be good enough that the meaning doesn’t matter at all. 

GILLAN: No. No, I actually don’t. I want it to mean something. And that poem has always meant something to me. Because I really understand the total alienation and loneliness that the poem was written out of. The total inability to be a complete person that the poem was written out of. So for example, Dylan Thomas doesn’t make the most sense sometimes. But “In my craft or sullen art/ Exercised in the still night/ When only the moon rages/ And the lovers lie abed/ With all their griefs in their arms,/ I labour by singing light …” It’s incredible. And he’s saying what I’m saying, in a much more beautiful way. What he’s saying is he’s writing for people, writing out of what it means to be human. And it’s not really the person who’s paying you to do it who’s important. It’s that you’re reaching out to a world with this. I went to Wales, I was invited to read there, and for a week I drove around in a car with Dylan Thomas’s daughter—this was like being in heaven for me. And she got us into his boyhood home, and all of a sudden I saw that “Poem in October” was so clear when you looked out his boyhood window, and the seabirds whirling, he’s at the top of the hill. I mean, the thing is really clear once you actually see the place! But I always loved it anyway.

That’s not the lack of clarity I’m talking about. Some of this new poetry that is being written is not even musically brilliant. It’s not anything, really. It doesn’t stay in your ear the way Dylan Thomas’s poems stay in your ear. And I feel like if it doesn’t do that, then it isn’t doing anything. It’s got to stay there, it’s got to be—as you say, when you read a poem you know whether there’s a voice in the poem. And what you’re saying, not only is there a voice, but that the person has captured a way of speaking in the poem that pulls you in. I think what we both want is to pull the reader into the poem and make him or her love the poetry as much as we do. I want people to love poetry. My mother gave away food; I give away poetry. I love giving poetry readings. I love sponsoring poetry readings. I love sponsoring poetry festivals. I love that getting together of people who are published in the anthology. It’s so wonderful a thing. It’s such a gift, and in a way it’s a balm for the people who do it, for the people arranging it it’s also a healing process. 

When my husband was so sick, I remember one of the women who was taking care of him calling me up, I was getting ready to start a poetry reading, and she spoke to me for about an hour, just ranting and raving on the phone, and I was so disturbed and upset—she wanted to tie him to a chair, and I was really upset. So finally I said, “Look, I have to start this program.” And I got up, I think it was the Allen Ginsberg readings, and the first poet went on, and then the second poet, and all of the sudden I could feel myself healing. It was so wonderful, and they were so happy to be reading their poems. And the poems were amazing and unique that by the end of it I felt better. This is a way of being saved. This is a way that means more to me than a lot of other things, other ways of being saved. Because in a way, that healed what was broken in me that day. And feeling their excitement at the poetry. And feeling them loving the poetry the way I loved the poetry was just mind-boggling to me. That this could go on in a place in Paterson, New Jersey, right? I mean, here we are in the middle of an inner city. And people have come from far away to read their poems. And they’re happy. And they’re loving it. And they’re talking to each other. And there’s excitement crackling in the air over it. I love that. 

from Rattle #46, Winter 2015