|Maria at the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson|
Photo by Mark Hillringhouse
The family struggled financially, but her mother scrimped to buy her children games like Parcheesi and Monopoly. Gillan's father worked multiple jobs including as a school custodian, a job that eventually afflicted him with a limp. He was so eager to learn math, he sat in on classes at the Paterson school where he worked. He grew backyard fig trees and saved the fruit for Maria.
Maria spoke Italian at home along with a close-knit, noisy clan of neighbors and family.
But she found shame in her heritage when she entered the city's school system. Teachers used slurs like "spaghetti bender" and insisted that students, "must speak English. We're in America now."
Gillan began writing poetry as a shy elementary school student, but admits she wasn't good at it.
Later, when she was married and a mother, she enrolled in a workshop at Drew University. Like many young poets, she started by imitating other "intellectual" poets and included classical allusions and obscure imagery.
One of her professors told her that it was in the poems about her father that she had a real story that she needed to tell. She began telling those stories in her poems.
Her first book of poems, Flowers from the Tree of Night, was published in 1980. Around the same time, she started The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson.
The Center began with a mimeographed literary review, but in the three decades since it has become one of the most well-respected resources for poetry in the country.
The mimeographed review evolved into the Paterson Literary Review, a literary magazine which contains poetry, fiction, reviews, and artwork by individuals with international, national, and regional reputation as well as work by promising new voices. The journal has published poets such as William Stafford, Ruth Stone, Sonia Sanchez, Laura Boss, Marge Piercy, David Ray, Diane di Prima and Allen Ginsberg.
The Poetry Center also sponsors workshops, readings by distinguished poets and awards.
"This city was just about abandoned by folks in the arts," says Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8th District-NJ), who has known Gillan for 40 years. "Maria is a non-politician with a vision, of people getting along, of how the material things aren't important in life. The center isn't a sidebar, it's a lifeline in the community."
Here is a poem that chronicles Maria's movement from shamed schoolgirl to proud poet.
Miss Wilson’s eyes, opaque
as blue glass, fix on me:
"We must speak English.
We’re in America now."
I want to say, "I am American,"
but the evidence is stacked against me.
My mother scrubs my scalp raw, wraps
my shining hair in white rags
to make it curl. Miss Wilson
drags me to the window, checks my hair
for lice. My face wants to hide.
At home, my words smooth in my mouth,
I chatter and am proud. In school,
I am silent, grope for the right English
words, fear the Italian word
will sprout from my mouth like a rose,
fear the progression of teachers
in their sprigged dresses,
their Anglo-Saxon faces.
Without words, they tell me
to be ashamed.
I deny that booted country
even from myself,
want to be still
as these women
who teach me to hate myself.
Years later, in a white
Kansas City house,
the Psychology professor tells me
I remind him of the Mafia leader
on the cover of Time magazine.
My anger spits
venomous from my mouth:
I am proud of my mother,
dressed all in black,
proud of my father
with his broken tongue,
proud of the laughter
and noise of our house.
Remember me, Ladies,
the silent one?
I have found my voice
and my rage will blow
your house down.
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
from What We Pass On: Collected Poems: 1980-2009 (Essential Poets Series)