Friday, April 17, 2015

From a Long Conversation with Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Maria with Allen Ginsberg

Note: The following are 2 excerpts from a 26-page interview from Rattle #46, Winter 2015

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!”

[on the poetry in the schools program she created]

...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.