Voyage to Her Roots

For poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, a working-class childhood in gritty Paterson inspired a lifetime of luminous literature.

Poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan at the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College, which her ties to Paterson led her to open in 1980.
Photo by Tim Townsend

At 75, Paterson-born poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan won’t rest on her laurels, substantial though they are. Along a road that she admits has at times been rough, Gillan has amassed a parade of accomplishments. She grew up in a cold-water flat on 17th Street, the shy daughter of Italian immigrants. “Believe me, at 19, people thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to be a poet,” she confesses. “Like, ‘Who the hell can make a living as a poet?’”

As a youth, Gillan was embarrassed by her heritage and social standing—and tried to distance herself from her working-class roots. Ashamed of her ethnic accent, she was mesmerized by the elegance of English, and especially by the poems of e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams, a fellow Jerseyan.

She began writing poems as a young teen, but not until decades later—while taking graduate courses at Drew University in Madison—did she recognize the role her childhood memories could play in her work. A fleeting comment by one of her professors changed everything.

“He said, ‘Listen, it’s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell,’” she recalls. “That was a mind-boggling thing for me, because I was trying to be Keats and Shelley—I thought I should be an English romantic poet, not a lower-class Italian from Paterson, New Jersey. It was very freeing.”

At that moment, Gillan began a voyage of introspection, examining her early life, her family and her immigrant roots.

Paterson became her muse, helping her focus her emotions and examine the intimate moments that would epitomize her work. In poetry, she was able to convey her fascination with the latest films at the Fabian Cinema on Main Street, or describe sharing the three-quarter mattress that wasn’t big enough to separate her from her bed-wetting older sister. The two shared that bed until her sister married at 24. In other poems, Gillan depicts her father, always smelling of Old Spice, handing out chocolates to the neighborhood kids; and her mother, in her homemade apron, often sneaking her a meatball before Sunday lunch.

In “Public School No. 18 Paterson, New Jersey,” from a 1995 collection, the young, introverted Gillan reappears:

Miss Wilson’s eyes, opaque
as blue glass, fix on me:
“We must speak English.
We’re in America now.”
I want to say “I am American,”
but the evidence is stacked against me.

For almost all her life, Gillan has written, but creativity sometimes took a back seat. She attended New York University at night and earned a 1963 master’s degree in literature while working as a claims representative at the Social Security Administration. The job was so “stultifying,” she says, that she left for a teaching position at Caldwell College that paid $2,000 less a year. It turned out to be a blessing. At Caldwell, she discovered her love for teaching and for encouraging young writers. She left to raise her two children.

Gillan was 40 when her first book of poetry, Flowers From the Tree of Night (Chantry Press, 1980), was published. By then, her true course had been revealed. She held up a mirror to herself and got to work, no strings attached.

One of Gillan’s most recognized poems, “Daddy, We Called You,” is about her father, Arturo, an Italian immigrant with a bad limp who worked as a night watchman and janitor at the Royal Machine Shop. The poem expresses how ashamed Gillan was of her heritage, referring to her father American-style as “Daddy” outside the house, reverting to “Papa” only inside the safety of their Italian home. In the poem, Gillan expresses regret:

One night, riding home from a date
my middle class, American boyfriend
kissed me at the light; I looked up
and met your eyes as you stood at the corner

near Royal Machine. It was nearly midnight.
January. Cold and Windy. You were waiting
for the bus, the streetlight illuminating
your face. I pretended I did not see you,
let my boyfriend pull away, leaving you
on the empty corner waiting for the bus
to take you home. You never mentioned it,

Gillan admits the episode was tough to divulge. “I couldn’t write about it until I was 50. I didn’t have the nerve because it was such a terrible thing to have done. He would’ve thrown himself in front of a bus for me. It was something I could never forgive myself for.”

For Gillan, writing aids the healing process. Her collection The Silence in an Empty House (NYQ Books, 2013) concerns her husband, Dennis, his 25-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease, her own role in that struggle and her grief after his death in 2010.

Jim Haba, a longtime friend, fellow poet and producer of the Dodge Poetry Festival for 22 years after its start in 1986, says Gillan has provided invaluable lessons to other poets. “Her willingness to be emotional, to trust emotion, to trust her own feelings, and to try to tell the truth about her feelings and her life… all of that has been a very healthy model for the poetry world,” Haba says.

Gillan’s 20 books of poetry have won numerous awards, including her most cherished, the 2008 American Book Award for her collection, All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions, 2007).

Gillan’s connection to Paterson is strengthened by the city’s place in the literary world. Two of the 20th century’s most important poets, Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, walked the same streets, lived in the same grimy apartments, and were inspired by the same Paterson icons. Pride in her hometown is a recurring theme in Gillan’s work, evidenced in poems like “Jersey Diners” and “In New Jersey Once.”

In the poem “The Herald News Calls Paterson a ‘Gritty City,’” published in Italian Women in Black Dresses (Guernica, 2002), she speaks up for her native city:

I see the old men sleeping in the dumpster,
the prostitute resting against the walls of St. Paul’s
Church, the empty crack vials
in the gutter, the transvestites on the corner,
but, under the gritty surface, a fresh energy rises,
and it is the heart of the city –
it beats in the shiny copper of the fountain
in Cianci Street park, in the old men in the Roma Club,
shrewd and wary, squinting against cigarette smoke,
playing Italian card games and drinking espresso.

To give poetry a permanent Paterson home, Gillan opened the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in 1980 after securing a $2,500 grant from the State Council on the Arts.

The center brings art programs and services to the diverse community, offering a monthly Distinguished Poet series; a poetry library; four annual awards to support artists; the Paterson Literary Review, which highlights work done by regional, national and international artists; and an annual anthology of work by Paterson students.

Gillan recalls people telling her, “It can’t be done—whose gonna come to Paterson?” But over the years, the center has presented such notables as Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and Stanley Kunitz.

The center encouraged the start of the PCCC Art Galleries, three contemporary exhibit spaces. Gillan also founded the PCC Heritage Council (PCCHC) in 1980, which supports more than 50 Passaic County organizations annually.

“One line of work for somebody is just part of what Maria does,” Haba says with a laugh. “She’s like a fountain of gifts to the world of poetry, and even beyond that, to the world of popular culture.”

All along, Gillan has continued to affirm and foster the arts as a teacher and by traveling the globe to conduct workshops and poetry readings—something her shy inner self has grown to love.

In 2014, Gillan visited San Mauro Cilento, the tiny village in Southwest Italy, about 70 miles below Naples, where her mother was born. The townspeople threw a parade for Gillan and placed a plaque at her late mother’s home. “It was so wonderful,” she beams.

Today, Gillan lives in Hawthorne and manages to teach poetry at Binghamton University-SUNY—where she is director of the creative writing program—while serving as director of the Poetry Center and PCCHC in Paterson. In recent years she has delved into painting, and inserted pictures between the poems in her latest collection, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets (Redux Consortium, 2014).

Haba says Gillan’s essence can be found in her many contributions to the arts. “Maria approaches the world of culture the way an Italian mother or cook would approach a meal—getting it ready for people, then mangia! mangia!—sit down, eat and enjoy.”

Gillan’s enthusiasm for her work has not waned. “The whole journey has been fun,” she attests. “I’ve been able to live my life the way I wanted to live my life. People say, ‘Oh, when are you retiring?’ I’m not retiring! Why would I retire? I love what I do, I love giving the poetry readings and traveling all over the country—I just love it.”

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  1. Mary Clark

    She shows that good poetry and good works make a fine life.