| Judith Baumel, AWP President & Northeast Representative (2010-2014)
presenting Maria Mazziotti Gillan with the George Garrett Award
for Outstanding Community Service in Literature
Contemporary literature and AWP have benefited from the efforts of many teachers, writers, editors, and administrators who have done their utmost to help the next generation of writers find their way as artists and as literary professionals. In bestowing the annual George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature, AWP recognizes individuals, such as Maria Gillan, who have made notable donations of care, time, labor, and money to support writers and their literary accomplishments.
Maria received her award at the 2014 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Seattle (February 26 - March 1, 2014).
This is the text of her acceptance speech:
First, I want to thank David Fenza, and all the people who wrote letters of nomination, and to the board and the selection committee of AWP. Also, I'd like you to join me in giving a big round of applause to AWP, and all it does for writers and writing programs and all of us.
My parents were immigrants from Italy and when I went to school I didn't speak English. We spoke Italian at home. I spent a lot of time in school terrified that the Italian word would come out of my mouth instead of the English word. As a result, I was very shy and introverted.
I'd like to honor, therefore, those teachers who read poetry aloud in English in those dusty classrooms at PS18 in Paterson, NJ, those who first introduced me to the music of the language and made me love literature. I would also like to thank the librarians in the Riverside branch of the Paterson Public Library, where I started at A in the children's section and worked my way through the alphabet. I didn't have anyone to teach me the difference between a good book and a bad one, so this time I spent in that library was a wonderful education. For me, all those teachers and librarians opened a window into a world that I would not have had access to without them.
I'd also like to honor my parents who taught us to believe that we had a responsibility to others to share our talents and our knowledge, offer help when it was needed, to find what we love and make it our life's work.
My father spoke broken English, but he learned how to fill out income tax forms by reading the tax book and then filled out forms for the Italians of Riverside He became a kind of people's lawyer, helped the other Italians to send for their families or sell property in Italy. He taught by example how to have a generous heart. My mother worked in a factory and did not know how to read and write in English, but she was a brilliant cook and shared her food with friends and neighbors. She told me, "It was a miracle, the more I gave away, the more I had to give."
For me, their message translated into dedicating myself to writing poetry and to creating opportunities for other writers. I did this by creating the Poetry Center in Paterson and the Center for Writers at Binghamton University--SUNY, sponsoring and giving workshops for adults, seniors and children, starting a reading series, creating book awards and contests, editing the Paterson Literary Review and anthologies like Unsettling America, and teaching poetry. I have tried to make a space for other writers and create opportunities for them to share their work, to be published and heard. I want my students to understand that they cannot live for themselves only, and the more they help other writers, the more their own work will be positively affected.
Lastly, I'd like to tell you about the children of Paterson and the program I started many years ago to bring professional theater companies to the city. Through grants, I was able to provide these performances free of charge to children who walked from their schools to the college theater. Also, I sent writers into the schools to work with the students, and each year we hold a writing contest, prepare an anthology, and give prizes at a reading and awards ceremony. I love to see the children dressed up in their Sunday best, the parents proud of their children, and they proud of themselves. Like myself, as a child listening to those teachers read stories and poems aloud in English, who can know what effect one small moment in a child's life will have in the long term, and who knows, maybe in that group of children who read their winning poems, if there isn't some Langston Hughes or Luis Rodriguez waiting to be discovered.
AWP provides support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 500 college and university creative writing programs, and 125 writers’ conferences and centers. Our mission is to foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.
The award is named for George Garrett (1929-2008), who made exceptional contributions to his fellow writers as a teacher, mentor, editor, friend, board member, and good spirit. Garrett served for many years as the editor of Intro, an annual anthology of work by emerging writers; he served as one of the founding members of the AWP Board of Directors; he taught creative writing and literature for more than forty years; and he is the author of more than thirty books. As a writer, teacher, mentor, editor, or inspiration, Garrett helped many young writers who are now major contributors to contemporary letters. The award includes a $2,000 honorarium, in addition to travel, accommodations, and registration to attend AWP's annual conference, where the award is publicly announced and conferred.