Maria Mazziotti Gillan was recently visited in her Paterson office at the Poetry Center at PCCC by journalist and poet Maria Lisella. Not surprisingly, interviewer Maria found interviewee Maria working on a new poem.
Lisella is the sixth Poet Laureate of Queens, NY, where 60 percent of the borough’s inhabitants were born outside the U.S. and where 139 languages are spoken. The interview explored some of the background that powers much of Gillan's poetry and migyt be summed up with the title of one of her poetry collections: Where I Come From.
The interview appears on the Italian cultural website Bridge Puglia USA and some of Gillan's responses are excerpted here.
"I published my first piece when I was 10 and it appeared in St. Anthony’s Messenger. I remember declaring to my family that I planned to be a poet.
My family was aghast – it was not a practical decision. I did pursue 'practical work' in an office, but I thought I would die. It took me time and a smart professor to counsel me to stop imitating the writing of others and find my own voice, it opened a new world to me. Teaching opened that avenue, too.
Being with my mother’s family in Cilento, my cousins were so proud I made a life out of poetry. The town had a parade and translated my work into Italian. Young people read it out loud.
I am competitive with myself. And I am full of ideas for more books, for anthologies. As soon as I send a poem to one journal, if it is rejected, I send it to another. I want my work to be read.
The social markers are strong in America. Coming from where I came from –a coal stove in the kitchen, no living room, we never had a sense of how little we had. TV changed all that and made us aware of affluence for the first time.
I may be rooted in my Italian American background but I hope my work transcends that. I grew up in the 40s, a tumultuous time. Immigrants from Italy, particularly from Southern Italy, were despised and seen as low-life people. Factories had signs saying “No Italians or dogs need apply.”
There was a lot of prejudice and when the U.S. went to war with Italy, many Italians tried to hide their backgrounds by changing their names. I find the current attacks on immigrants very frightening and malicious and not so different from the past."
In her craft book, Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to find the Courage to Tell Your Stories, Maria Gillan offers that rare gift that was given to her. “What I hope to accomplish in this book is to give writing prompts that will help you to get past all the outside influences that keep you from believing in yourself and in your ability to write.”
The full interview is available at www.bridgepugliausa.it
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is the author of twenty-one books. Her latest publications are the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter and the poetry and art collection, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets . Maria's official website is at MariaGillan.com.