Gillan, Maria Mazziotti 1940–
GILLAN, Maria Mazziotti 1940–
Born March 12, 1940; daughter of Arturo (a janitor and boilermaker) and Angelina Suhiavo (a seamstress) Mazziotti; married Dennis P. Gillan (a professor), June 28, 1964; children: John, Jennifer. Ethnicity: "Italian American." Education: Seton Hall University, B.A.; New York University, M.A.; Drew University, doctoral study.
Passaic Country Community College, Paterson, NJ, director and founder of Poetry Center and cultural affairs department, 1980-2000, executive director of Poetry Center, cultural affairs department, and Passaic Country Cultural and Heritage Council, all 2001—; State University of New York at Binghamton (also known as Binghamton University), Binghamton, associate professor, 2001-03, professor of creative writing, 2003—, head of creative writing program, 2001—. Board member, Private Sector for Paterson, 1990-94, and Leadership Paterson, 1990—. Adjunct instructor at Bergen County Community College, Bloomfield College, and Drew University, between 1972 and 1984; visiting professor at State University of New York at Binghamton and Northern Michigan University, 1999; visiting writer and lecturer at Naropa Institute, 1997, and St. Mary's Festival of Poets and Poetry, 1999; conference organizer, workshop participant, and contest judge; gives poetry readings, including readings on the radio program All Things Considered, National Public Radio and other television and radio programs. Katharine Gibbs School, member of board of trustees, 1990-95.
PEN America, Academy of American Poets, Associated Writing Programs, Poetry Society of America, Modern Ethnic Language Association of the United States, Poets and Writers, National Italian American Foundation, Italian American Writers Association, American Italian Historical Association, Association of New Jersey Cultural And Historic Agencies.
New Jersey State Council on the Arts, poetry fellowships, 1980 and 1985, and citation of excellence in poetry; American Literary Translator's Award, 1987; Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation fellowship, Virginia Center for the Arts, 1998; Poetry Club of New England, May Sarton Award, 1998, Firman Houghton Poetry Award, 2001; Poet and the Poem Award for Literary Excellence, National Public Radio, 1998; cited for "outstanding book for the college bound and lifelong learners," Young Adult Library Services Association and American Library Association, 1999, for Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry; editor's choice selection, Booklist, 1999, for Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to Be American; editor's choice selection, Small Press Review, 1999, for Things My Mother Told Me; John Fante and Pietro di Donato Literary Award, Sons of Italy in America, 2002; Aniello Lauri Award, Voice in Italian America, 2002; Special Achievement Medal, Spirit of Paterson, 2003; Author Award, New Jersey Academic Studies Alliance, 2004, for Italian American Writers on New Jersey; Dare to Imagine Award, Very Special Arts of New Jersey.
(Under name Maria Gillan) Flowers from the Tree of Night, Chantry Press (Midland Park, NJ), 1980.
(Under name Maria Gillan) Winter Light, Chantry Press (Midland Park, NJ), 1985, bilingual edition published as Luce d'inverno, CrossCultural Communications (New York, NY), 1987.
The Weather of Old Seasons, CrossCultural Communications (New York, NY), 1987.
Taking Back My Name, Malafemmina Press (San Francisco, CA), 1991.
Where I Come From: Selected and New Poems, Guernica (New York, NY), 1995.
Things My Mother Told Me, Guernica (New York, NY), 1999.
Italian Women in Black Dresses, Guernica (New York, NY), 2002, 2nd edition, 2003.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan: Greatest Hits, 1975-2002, Pudding House Publications (Johnstown, OH), 2003.
(With Laura Boss) The New Jersey Poetry Resource Book, Passaic Country Community College (Paterson, NJ), 1988, another volume (with Joe Weil), 1999.
(With daughter, Jennifer Gillan) Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1994.
(With Jennifer Gillan) Identity Lessons: Contemporary Writing about Learning to Be American, Penguin/Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.
(With Jennifer Gillan, and contributor) Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to Be American, Penguin/Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.
(With Jennifer Gillan and Edvige Giunta) Italian American Writers on New Jersey, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 2004.
Editor of annual Paterson Literary Review, 1980—; and (with Laura Boss) New Jersey Poetry Calendar, 1989—; Member of editorial board, Voices in Italian Americana, 1992—, Vivace Quarterly, 1996, Marsh Hawk Press, 2004, and Spiral Bridge Journal; member of advisory board, New York City Poetry Calendar, 1994—, New Renaissance, 1999—, and Feminist Press, 1999—.
Contributor of poetry, short stories, and essays to more than thirty-five anthologies, including Gifts of the Fathers, edited by T.R. Verney, Crossing (Freedom, CA), 1994; Language Awareness, edited by Paul Escholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark, Bedford/St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2000; Roots and Flowers, edited by Liz Rosenberg, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2001; Ugly Poets, Beautiful Poems: An Anthology of Fusion, edited by Christie Casher, Lagoon Drive Press (New York, NY), 2004; and The Poets of New Jersey: From Colonial to Contemporary, Jersey Shore Publications (Bay Head, NJ), 2005. Contributor to periodicals, including Prairie Schooner, Louisiana Literature, Rattle, Connecticut Review, Feminist Studies, Journal of Poetry Therapy, Many Mountains Moving, North Dakota Quarterly, Christian Science Monitor, and New York Times.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan once told CA: "My poetry grows out of the American literary tradition of Walt Whitman (with his passionate, personal, elegiac poetry) and William Carlos Williams (with his insistence on using the American voice and scene in poems) and Allen Ginsberg (with his specificity and honesty and long lines). My work is a combination of all these influences, as well as of all the poets whose work I've admired in my life—Amy Lowell, e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg, Randall Jarrell, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Ruth Stone, Anne Sexton, Diane di Prima, et cetera. I love to read and I've always read a great deal of poetry. In addition, my poetry comes from the voices of people around me, the people of Paterson with whom I grew up and the people I've met throughout my work and my life. My poems are often narrative poems dealing with stories of my own life and of the people around me."
Gillan later told CA: "When I was growing up, my mother tried to draw a line around us because she did not want us contaminated by American ways. America was alien to her, so she thought if she could keep us confined to the world of our Nineteenth Street house, nothing could touch us or bring us harm. Whenever she ventured out into the streets of America, she was cheated and abused. I remember the sofa with the gold metallic threads in it that fell apart before she finished paying for it and the rudeness of store clerks who knew she was not American so they thought they could look down on her and speak to her with disdain. She put up with this treatment because she knew that only in America could she and my rather work hard and provide a better life for their children. Still she was afraid that American values would replace the ones she held dear, the Italian values that stressed the importance of family connections and of relying on one another. We needed those values because, to my mother, America was a place where girls went wild, left home and their mothers, and drifted off into other parts of the country like balloons, never to be heard from again. Of course, it was my mother who drifted off like a balloon when she left Italy for America and never saw her mother again. She was twenty-three years old when she left the village in southern Italy where she was born. Her exile was permanent and unbearable.
"My mother succeeded in bringing Italy with her. What I remember most about growing up in her house was the Italian language that still brings me to tears. I only felt that pervasive calmness and security at home. In school I learned each day how strange and foreign I seemed to other people, how un-American my family was. In the streets of America I was as much an immigrant, an exile, as my parents, even though I was born here. For years I was silent and ashamed of them and of myself. I tried to rub out my foreignness, had my mass of curly, wiry hair thinned constantly, tried to shape it into order, made up stories to tell my friends about my family, and seldom invited anyone home. I tried everything to blend in, including having my big Italian nose made smaller and less obtrusive. Later I married a man whose name I took in order to make myself more acceptable to America and to make my children's American-ness secure. I probably was forty years old before I realized that this erasure had cost me dearly. It was at this point in my life that I stopped trying to be a typical American and once again embraced my own ethnicity and social class. Of course in my mind and heart I think of myself as Italian, but when I go to Italy I know that Italians regard me as American. In essence, I discovered that I'm continually in exile because the Italy I love doesn't exist any more and perhaps never did. It is the Italy of my parents' memory that I love, the Italy of aunts and uncles and cousins, of laughter and political discussions and of tomato sauce and meatballs permeating that Nineteenth Street tenement kitchen. It is a space where no one thinks we are foreign or ugly or stupid. It is this space that I have tried to recapture in my work, this world I try to pass on to my children. I realize how fortunate I am to have this difference that may classify me as other, but because of my reclamation of it, I am no longer an exile from myself."
Gillan explained in greater detail: "Growing up as I did in the Italian section of Paterson, New Jersey, in a family of immigrants, I didn't speak English until I went to school and, as a consequence, I was always afraid that the Italian word would come out of my mouth when I tried to speak. I was exceedingly shy and introverted. Although in our apartment I felt very much accepted and comfortable, the Italian we spoke soothing me, outside the house it was America, and there I learned to feel shame. It is this sense of shame—at being foreign, poor, inarticulate, of being all wrong, that informs much of my earlier work. Poems like 'Betrayals' and 'PS# 18: Paterson, NJ' and 'Growing Up Italian' confront working-class issues, though we were always just a little below working class, just hanging on. These earlier poems have been reprinted many times in anthologies because they speak to outsiders, to people who don't feel included because of nationality and social class in the fabric of American life.
"But although these are early poems, they are not the first poems that I wrote. My first poem was published in the Saint Anthony's Messenger when I was thirteen years old, and it was about a dog wagging its tail. It is ironic that the topic of my poem was one that I knew absolutely nothing about, and that lack of knowledge of subject matter was significant for me. As I grew up, I read all the English Romantic poets and others, and I spent a good deal of my time imitating their work. It wasn't until 1980 that one of my professors at Drew University said it was in the poem 'Betrayals,' published in the collection Flowers from the Tree of Night, that I found what I really had to say. I realized that I had been hiding from myself, trying to pretend that I was an upper-class woman writing poems that included references to Greek gods. This realization was a huge breakthrough for me.
"It was at this point that I began to write about my family, my background, my life as a child and a wife and mother. In this period I wrote 'PS# 18,' which is, I think, one of my best known poems and the one that has been most anthologized. This was followed by 'Arturo' and 'Growing Up Italian,' which deal with the same themes, but with more emphasis on social class and poverty. "'My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance, 1981' is an early poem from my collection Winter Light. It pays homage to the imagistic tradition, but also includes personal details. It traces a very human fear that mothers have about their daughters, the fear that they cannot protect them or that they need to balance keeping a child safe with allowing her to grow and learn. 'In New Jersey Once' deals with the theme of loss and with my concern about the environment. This poem, too, has been published in anthologies. Using very simple language, I try to raise awareness of how badly we are treating the earth and how many of the things I remember from when I was growing up have vanished or are covered with blacktop. Also dealing with themes of the environment, 'The Black Bear on My Neighbor's Lawn in New Jersey' confronts the way we are destroying the natural world and investing so much of our selves and the product of our work in counterfeit goods, including plastic that will never disintegrate.
"As I grew older and my own children grew up, I began to realize that all the things my mother attempted to tell me, the things I tried to escape, were coming back to me. Since my parents left Italy when they were young and they never had the money to go back, I never met my grandmother or great-grandmother. I had to try to piece them together from what my mother and father told me about them and from my mother's behavior. In 'I Dream of My Grandmother and Great-Grandmother' I try to recreate them based on my mother's actions and words. I trace the connection between them and my mother, myself and my daughter, see them all walking down the mountain where they lived toward me, as though I could lift them all from the dead from watching my mother and daughter work and laugh.
"Another theme that has been very important to me in recent years has been that of losing someone through degenerative disease. My husband became ill with Parkinson's disease in 1987, and I have watched him lose a great deal of his physical mobility and strength over the years as the disease has progressed. I wrote a series of poems about a loss. 'Daddy, We Called You' is a poem that represents a celebration of my heritage. I was fifty years old before I was able to write it because it contains an incident that took place when I was seventeen and passed my father by, without acknowledging him, because I was ashamed to admit he was my father. The poem ends with an incantation to my father and to the way I have learned to value all he did for me, the way I have gone out into the world and written about him as though I were shouting his name.
"I have tried to live my life based on the principles taught to me by my Italian parents. They believed, as I do, that it is not enough to live for yourself and your own work; but rather it is necessary to try to change the world. For my mother this meant giving away food; for my father it meant doing things for other people; for me it means trying to give poets a community of writers in order to share the poetry I love and to try to bring others to this same love of poetry. It is not enough for me to read and write my own poetry; it is important and necessary for me to increase opportunities for other poets to read, to publish, and to gain a wider audience for their work. I am happiest when I am listening to poetry that is powerful and moving, poetry that makes the hair on my arms stand up, and I want to share that excitement about poetry with others—through editing, sponsoring readings, and teaching workshops. My mother used to say that the more I gave away, the more I had to give. I feel the same way about poetry and my work as a poetry organizer, professor, editor, and poet."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bona, Mary Jo, Claiming the Tradition: Italian American Women Writers, Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
Dougherty, Sean Thomas, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Guernica (New York, NY), 2003.
Gardaphe, Fred, Dagoes Read: Tradition and the Italian American Writer, Guernica (New York, NY), 1996.
Giunta, Edvige, Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Authors, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Mannino, Mary Ann, Revisionary Identities: Strategies of Empowerment in the Writing of Italian American Women, Peter Lang Publishing (New York, NY), 2000.
Scambray, Kenneth, The North American Italian Renaissance, Guernica (New York, NY), 2000.
Vitiello, Justin, Beyond the Margin: Readings in Italian Americana, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, NJ), 1998.
Louisiana Literature, spring-summer, 2003, Joe E. Weil, review of Italian Women in Black Dresses.
VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, spring, 1999, Stephen Paul Miller, "Scrutinizing Maria Mazziotti Gillan's 'Where I Come From'"; fall, 2000, Rachel Guido de Vries, "Exquisite Light: The Poems of Maria Mazziotti, Gillan."
Maria Gillan's Poems,http://www.pccc.edu/poetry/Mariapoem.htm (November 3, 2006).