Thursday, June 21, 2018

Maria Gillan at the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival

The largest poetry event in North America comes to New Jersey’s largest city when the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival return to Newark from Thursday October 18th through Sunday October 21, 2018. For four days Newark’s vibrant downtown Arts District will be transformed into a poetry village featuring some of our most celebrated, diverse and vibrant poets and spoken word artists.

Maria Mazziotti Gillan will be one of the featured poets this year, and as part of their Ask a Poet series leading up to the Poetry Festival, they spoke with Maria.

What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?
Because I did not speak English until I went to school, and we spoke only Italian at home, I was gratified in grammar school to hear poetry read aloud by our teachers and I fell in love with it. It was in high school, however, that I was introduced to poets whose work really spoke to me by two amazing teachers, Mr. Weiss and Miss Durban. They made me brave in a way I had never been before, and taught me to shed my shy skin when I read poems aloud in those classrooms at Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. I was so fortunate to have these teachers who introduced me to poets like Amy Lowell, T. S. Eliot, Wordsworth, Yeats and e. e. cummings, poets whose work I still love. My only regret is that I did not write letters to those teachers to thank them for asking me to read poetry out loud in their classrooms, and for teaching me about the music of language. 
What is the role of poetry in today’s world?
As an immigrant child coming from a family with very little money, living in a house where English was not spoken, I was extremely shy and inarticulate. Through poetry, I was able to write down everything I was feeling, all the things I couldn’t express directly to other people in spoken English. Poetry gave me a voice and a way of communicating with the world. I have spent my life dedicated to poetry and its power to change our lives. Recently, I wrote a book on writing, called Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories. In that book, I try to give others the courage I learned for myself after much struggling. I think poetry can change the world and make a bridge between people that helps us to understand one another even if we come from various countries, places, and social classes. Poetry gives us the chance to explore what it means to be human. 
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
I’ve written a lot of things I was afraid to share. In the beginning, when I first started to write, I was trying to hide behind language and reference to Greek gods, and other things that I thought would erase the fact that I came from a poor, immigrant family. Gradually, I started to move toward putting details of my own life and my own experiences into my poetry, worrying less about proving that I was smart and more about how I was communicating through the poems. For many of my earlier poems, I put a screen between me and the world. I tried to get simpler and more direct in order to build a bridge between me and other people. But often I was afraid to be that vulnerable. Sometimes, I’m afraid of all I reveal in my poems. An example would be the poems I wrote about my husband’s early onset Parkinson’s disease and his 25-year illness. I tried to be honest about the complexities of that situation, and I still find some of those poems difficult to read without crying. They are poems I felt I needed to write, and they illuminate what it was like to live with a debilitating illness for a long period of time. I hope my poetry gives the people who read it the courage to open all the secret compartments in their own lives. 
What are you looking forward to most at this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival?
What I love about the festival is the energy it generates. There is electricity in the air from so many people listening to poems, and listening to poets talk about their work and about what poetry means to them. I find it particularly exciting on the student day, because I love to see the students so engaged with poetry. I think of how much poetry has helped me and how it’s saved me, and maybe there’s a student there who is shy and introverted, and has stories they are afraid to tell. The festival allows a person to find the words to express their feelings.

Meet Maria and many other poets at the festival!

Elizabeth Alexander* | Francisco Aragón | Renée Ashley
Ellen Bass* | Jan Beatty | William Brewer | Jericho Brown
Tina Chang | Cortney Lamar Charleston | Marilyn Chin*
Sandra Cisneros | Henri Cole | Aaron Coleman | Kwame Dawes* William Evans
 | Naomi Extra | Forrest Gander* | Ross Gay
Maria Mazziotti Gillan | Rigoberto González | Linda Gregerson*
Terrance Hayes* | Juan Felipe Herrera | Brenda Hillman*
David Hinton | Nicole Homer | Marie Howe* | Rob Hylton
Joy Ladin | Joseph O. Legaspi | Raymond Luczak | Khaled Mattawa
Peter E. Murphy | Eileen Myles | Marilyn Nelson*
Aimee Nezhukumatathil | Hieu Minh Nguyen | Sharon Olds
Gregory Orr | Alicia Ostriker* | Gregory Pardlo | Kevin Pilkington
Khadijah Queen | Nancy Reddy | Alberto Ríos* | Mary Ruefle
Christine Salvatore | Sapphire | Nicole Sealey | Ntozake Shange
Danez Smith | David St. John* | J.C. Todd | BJ Ward | Rachel Wiley
Jenny Xie | David Young
* Academy of American Poets Chancellor
Full poet list subject to changes and additions

Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for her book, All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions).
She is the founder/executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She is also director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of English at Binghamton University-SUNY.
Maria has published 23 books including her most recent, the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow, the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter and her collection of poems along with some of her paintings, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets . Maria's official website is

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