Monday, February 3, 2020

The Poetry Center Celebrates Four Decades of Poetry in Paterson

Maria Mazziotti Gillan (Photo: Hannan Adely,
For four decades, The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson has been a force in contemporary poetry, hosting internationally acclaimed authors, leading workshops and writing contests, and bringing the written word into schools.

On Saturday, poets and literature lovers celebrated the Center’s 40-year anniversary and
Hannan Adely, of, covered the event and spoke with the Center's founder and executive director, Maria Mazziotti Gillan who said that they have drawn internationally acclaimed writers but it is also fully at home in the working-class city with a rich literary tradition.

“Paterson has a history of writers and a lot of people connected with writing. This is a place that is rooted in language, that is rooted in the ethnic experience, that is rooted in a lot of revolutionary people who were labor activists and anarchists almost. They did a lot of writing,” said Gillan.

In its four decades. the Poetry Center at PCCC has hosted readings from poet laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners including Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Lucille Clifton and Billy Collins. Ginsberg was a friend of Gillan's and she named the center’s biggest annual award after him.

After the morning celebration, the Center hosted a reading by the winners of the 2019 Allen Ginsberg Award.

Steve Rose, president of Passaic County Community College, said the school was fortunate to host an internationally recognized arts center with “incredible” leadership.

“I can be in California at a meeting or at a conference, and it’s probably happened 50 times – people come up to me and say, ‘You have that great poetry center,’” he said. “It’s wonderful to have a program that is just that special.”

From the early days of the Poetry Center.
At left, Allen Ginsberg signs a fan's book, Congressman Bill Pascrell and Maria Gillan

Congressman Bill Pascrell has been a longtime supporter of the Poetry Center, the college and the arts. In his tribute to Maria Mazziotti Gillan's achievements, Pascrell included two of his own poems.

Congressman Bill Pascrell

Gillan believes that poetry will continue to stay relevant in an increasingly high-tech world. Young people are drawn to poetry because it’s heartfelt and because they can write about their own lives and channel their anger and worries into words.

“Young people are realizing that there’s something in poetry that speaks to us as human beings,” she said. “Whether they find it in the spoken word or at a poetry reading in a bookstore, wherever they find it, it’s speaking to them about the human experience.”

Laura Boss
Laura Boss, a longtime friend and fellow poet, spoke at the event and called Maria Mazziotti Gillan a "visionary" and an "outstanding narrative poet."

Boss met Gillan early in their writing careers when both had won a writing contest in Paterson. They have remained friends and together hosted a long-running reading series in Montclair. Since 1987, they have offered weekend writing retreats for poets several times each year.

The Paterson Literary Review has become a poetry journal that Laura Boss says has become "one of the most respected literary journals in the country" publishing both major poets including Allen Ginsberg, William Stafford, Ruth Stone, Sonia Sanchez, Jan Beatty, Marge Piercy, Martín Espada, David Ray, and Diane di Prima, as well as new poets from the U.S. and beyond.

Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a force to be reckoned with and shows no sign of slowing down. She is currently finishing putting together her next poetry collection which will be her 24th book of or about poetry ans she will be teaching later this year in Italy. And the Poetry Center that is so closely identified with her continues to bring poets and attention to Paterson and New Jersey.

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