Peter Thabit Jones interviewed Maria Mazziotti Gillan in 2016 for The Seventh Quarry magazine. An excerpt is posted online.
Peter Thabit Jones: It is several years since I last interviewed you for The Seventh Quarry, what have you been doing as a poet during that period?
Maria Mazziotti Gillan: I have a new book out called What Blooms in Winter (NYQ Press). I’ve been doing a lot of readings for it and of course, I am still Executive Director of the Poetry Center in Paterson, NJ, editor of the Paterson Literary Review, and Director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the Creative Writing Program at Binghamton University-SUNY where I am a professor of poetry.
PTJ: You have written the popular book, Writing poetry to save your life, about writing poetry. What were your main intentions in putting together this instructive book?
MMG: I wanted to give people the courage to believe that the stories they need to tell in their writing are important and need to be told. The book is partly a memoir of how I found my own courage and a pep talk for other writers. I’ve included a large section of prompts designed to jump-start other people’s writing.
PTJ: Kevin Carey, whom I met at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, kindly gave me a copy of the DVD of his and Mark Hillringhouse’s wonderful film about you, All That Lies Between Us. How did it feel to watch a film about your life?
MMG: For me, it was very exciting and also very moving. It brought my connection to my Italian background and to Paterson into focus for me. I loved the film. They did a wonderful job on it.
PTJ: Please tell us something about the teacher who taught you and Allen Ginsberg. What did you gain from the experience?
MMG: Her name was Frances Durban, and in high school I was terribly shy. Ms. Durban would call on me each day to read poems aloud to the class. She knew I loved poetry as much as she did and I felt validated when she singled me out in a classroom full of very intelligent and privileged upper-middle-class students. I was poor and lived on the wrong side of the tracks, but I loved that she chose me.
PTJ: What is your approach to teaching poetry in the classroom?
MMG: In my classes, I try to what I do in my book. I try to make the room a safe place for my students, a place where they can tell the truth about their lives. I want them to write the poems that come from a very deep place inside themselves.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan's most recent books are the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow and the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter. Her collection of poems paired with some of her paintings is The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets. Her artist's website is MariaMazziottiGillan.com and her poetry website is MariaGillan.com.