Tuesday, May 5, 2015
The Crow and the Cave - Maria's Rattle Interview part 2
The following is excerpted from a 26-page Conversation with Maria Mazziotti Gillan in the conversations section where Timothy Green discusses poetry and life with Maria Gillan.
Rattle #46, Winter 2015
GREEN: I was going to ask if that’s what you meant by “writing to save your life” in the book.
GILLAN: 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. 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?
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: How To Find The Courage To Tell Your Stories, 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.”
Maria's Official Site is at MariaGillan.com. Her latest publication is the poetry and art collection, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets.