The Place She Calls Home (Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s Iconic Poetry)
It was late September, 2012, when I first had the chance to step into the Hamilton Club Building located on 32 Church Street, in the heart of Paterson, New Jersey. I was invited to the Poetry Center to sit down and talk to the founder herself, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who has single-handedly rectified the feeling of the old Silk City through her olive oil and tomato poetic declarations. Church Street is just one of many infamous literary boulevards, which all take a sizable precedence in the influential timeline of American poetry.
The modern day abrogating slander of this reputed city has created a rift between its current conditions and its early urban roots. Paterson is a wholehearted homeland to some of our favorite scholarly personalities, such as William Carlos Williams and Beat generation writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. However, among the hype of the free-spirited, ever-changing actions of Ginsberg and Kerouac stood a dedicated girl looking to stay true to the area so many recognized writers spoke of in their work. The place was Paterson and the girl was Maria Mazziotti Gillan, the literary link that has kept Passaic County’s poetry world banded together.
As I walked into the Hamilton Club, the beautifully varnished wood that encases the beams of the staircase stupefied me. From such a prideful preservation, I could tell that the building held a lot of history. I walked up the stairs and down a long hallway to find Maria sitting in her office, smiling widely, awaiting my arrival. She graciously welcomed me and we immediately began to make small talk, which tellingly lasted longer than our formal interview. I was in the presence of a woman who had written the words of one of my college textbooks, Italian American Writers on New Jersey: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose, and here we were, gossiping (insightfully, though it was, nonetheless, blather).
Maria has managed to stay relevant and aware through every generational literary turnover, and with a lifetime full of experience, she is one of the most iconic cerebral women of New Jersey.
My first impression of Maria was a serious sense of her academic community and scholarly world. My second impression of her was an overwhelming human realness as a mother, woman, intellectual, and mentor. It made it easy to talk to her and lose all sense of the clock. Though conversation with Maria was down-to-earth and uncomplicated, I had a strong sense of her demanding agenda. I had been talking to her about setting up an appointment since early July, but she had been off doing book tours and readings across the states — a woman nearly 73 years old had the vivaciousness and drive that could outdo most go-getting 30 year olds.
Maria has managed to stay relevant and aware through every generational literary turnover, and with a lifetime full of experience, she is one of the most iconic cerebral women of New Jersey. She has published over fifteen books of poetry including Flowers from the Tree of Night, Winter Light, The Weather of Old Seasons, Luce D’Inverno, Taking Back My Name, Where I Come From: Selected and New Poems, Things My Mother Told Me, Italian Women in Black Dresses, Maria Mazziotti Gillan: Greatest Hits 1972-2002, Talismans, Talismani, All That Lies Between Us, Night Watch, Poems by Maria Maziotti and Aeronwy Thomas, Moments in the Past That Shine, What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 and her latest effort, The Place I Call Home.
Maria grew up in an Italian commune in Paterson, New Jersey, where she spent a large part of her younger years. She graduated from Seton Hall University with bachelor’s degree and from NYU with a master’s degree in Literature. She later obtained a Ph. D from Drew University. She then married Dennis Gillan and had two children, Jennifer and John. Jennifer has followed in the well-read footsteps of her mother. Maria has since partnered up with her daughter, and together they are co-editors of four different anthologies including Unsettling America, Identity Lessons, Growing up Ethnic in America, and Italian-American Writers on New Jersey. Maria is also the director of the Creative Writing Program of Poetry at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
In 1980, Maria founded the Poetry Center at Passaic Community College. The running mission of the poetry center was originally to provide an outlet for creative people in the area. The Poetry Center would serve as a playing ground for open-mic events and writer’ workshops. Maria’s main goal was to promote and help establish poetry. Maria had high hopes to have the poetic line acknowledged by a wider audience, which she fruitfully achieved.
She is alarmingly sincere about the small imperfections of her life, and not afraid to be too poignant or offensive.
Throughout the last thirty years, the Poetry Center has been awarded international recognition for many of the events that have taken place inside of it. Some of the awards the poetry center has received are the Allen Ginsburg Award and The Paterson Poetry Prize. Since opening the Poetry Center, Maria has also become the editor of the Paterson Literary Review, an annual anthology, which rejoices in the poems of community members who submit their poetry for review to Maria in her office at the Hamilton Club Building.
Maria has used poetry to help canvas her life experiences. Her poetry is thick and has well-crafted narratives that are not concerned with contemporary poetic structure. Her books reveal consistency and gratification. In her latest book, The Place I Call Home, which was released in September 2012, she speaks of her days attending Eastside High School, her aunt’s four marriages, her mother’s bon vivant refrigerator, personal poverty, guilt, adultery, emotional disconnection, family tension, and the loss of her husband, Dennis.
She is alarmingly sincere about the small imperfections of her life, and not afraid to be too poignant or offensive. Every poem is the rip of one band-aid; however, she wears each of them like a shiny badge. “A Poem like a Turnip” reveals a mother’s sorrow as she heals her daughter from a painful divorce: “My ex-son-in-law, the one that hurt me so badly / that I don’t know if she’ll ever recover, served me turnips once / I hated them so white, bland and difficult to swallow like his betrayal / his words. I’ve met someone else. I want a divorce,” leaving vacant feelings in her reader’s stomach.
In the poem “Why I Worry,” we see Maria as a fearful grandmother who is worried about her granddaughter who has an eating disorder: ” My granddaughter is five feet eight / weights 104 pounds. If she eats something / She has to exercise for an hour.” This disturbing stanza builds a cinema out of this grandmother and granddaughter’s relationship — this being the insecurity, which no grandmother wants to see. In “A Man Stands Over My Bed,” we see the loss of Maria’s husband Dennis. We witness her replaying their relationship in her mind and imagining he is still with her just like when they were young and thin: “ In the 3 a.m. dark / I swallow the pills to soothe the aches of my bones / as they try to heal, and I imagine you hold my hand / and watch over me while I sleep.” The Place I Call Home pays reverence to Maria’s community, education, triumphs, and demons. She has truly evaluated the highs and lows of her life and chosen to articulate them proudly.
Though Maria Gillan’s words do not venture far from the usual English lexicon, her brutal truthfulness is sharper than the vacuity we receive from trying ostentatious writer types. Her bluntness in being a human with flaws, and giving it a name, is an exploit we should all applaud.