November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Maria Gillan, Poet/Interview

“Get rid of the crow

… enter the cave”

 

Maria Mazziotti Gillan is an American poet who grew up speaking Italian in an Italian immigrant family in Paterson, New Jersey.  She received the American Book Award in 2008 for her collection, All That Lies Between Us, and the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers. Gillan is the founder and executive director of the Passaic County community College Poetry Center, which publishes The Paterson Review. She is a full professor and Director of Creative Writing in the English Department at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. She has many books to her credit, and her poetry has appeared widely, including previously in Ragazine. She is the mother of two children with her late husband Dennis Gillan. Gillan’s efforts on behalf of young and unknown poets and writers has made her an inspiration to students and acquaintances alike. The following interview took place in April 2011.

By Emily Vogel

Q: Most of the time, when I read someone’s poem, my first question pertains to whether or not the poem is autobiographical.  Sometimes, it is difficult to tell because the poet might conflate true event with elements of fiction, or the autobiographical aspects are merely obliquely autobiographical.  The difficult part about autobiographical poems is that it might make the poem and/or the poet susceptible to a kind of “vulnerability.”  Your poems speak from the heart, and evoke both empathy and emotional reactions.  Could you say something about the autobiographical nature of your poems?

Maria Gillan: For many years, I wrote poems based in the English literary tradition and I was anxious to hide behind language, images, and literary references. Then when I was 40, my first book was published, and a graduate school professor said, “You know, it’s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell.” Then I thought, well I don’t have to be an English Romantic Poet, maybe I can be just what I am – a wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, grandmother, an Italian American – and write poems from those perspectives. I began then to write more directly and specifically about events and people in my own life, and to be as honest as I could be about what my life was actually like. It took me a long time to have the courage to write with honesty, specificity, and directness. Gradually, I made my language plainer and plainer in an attempt to lessen the distance between myself and my reader.

Q: Your collected book of poems, What We Pass On, speaks a lot to the “shames and eventual triumphs” of growing up Italian-American.  I know that when you were young, you and your family spoke exclusively Italian in the home, and that you were presented with the challenge of essentially “straddling and reconciling two cultures” in order to establish an identity and develop a poetic voice.  To what extent do the pain and/or healing of your assimilation into American culture still influence your work?

MG: My ethnicity and attempts at assimilation have fostered my sense of connection to all people who are outsiders. Consequently, I think that my own struggles with assimilation and with spending so many years trying to erase what I was will always be part of my work. I think that shy, introverted, foreign little girl that I was has never left me and is always there inside, even when I think I’ve left her behind.

Q: You write a great deal about family.  What advice would you give to emerging poets about exploring the depths inherent in family relations, with all the hurts, celebrations, challenges, and wealth of love in order to weave these into their poetry?

MG: The advice I give to emerging poets is that they have to get rid of the crow in their minds, the one that tells them everything that is wrong with them. The crow will try to stop them from descending to the deepest places inside of themselves, the place I call the cave, where all their memories and experiences, good and bad, reside. The cave is where they have to have the courage to go, if they are going to write, if they’re going to be honest enough to search for the stories they have to tell. It is in specificity that we find the universal, rather than the other way around. The mind does not control the poem. It is the old woman or old man who lives in our bellies, who helps us to be wise truth-tellers. We need to learn to trust that inner voice, and not to depend on the intellect to guide us.

Q: You also write a great deal about your late husband’s illness.  What difficulties and/or reliefs have you experienced while exploring this in your work?

MG: My husband got sick with early-onset Parkinson’s disease 25 years ago, and I have been able to survive, I believe, by writing about this very human experience of losing someone I love over a very long period of time. I don’t think I could have survived the pain and terror of this experience without my poetry. I hope by exploring the complications of love and illness that it will help other people who are going through similar experiences to realize that we’re all human, and they shouldn’t expect perfection from themselves or others.

Q: Recently, I heard you read a relatively new poem, which employed “parallel/simultaneous narratives” in order to get at the sentiment of the poem and the experience.  It was about (for our readers) watching birds on the television in one setting, while also attending to your ill husband at the hospital.  There seemed to be a discontinuity of “time” and a juxtaposition of two typically unrelated things, while at the same time these two experiences seemed to reconcile and inform one another.  The poem was very successful. As a teacher of poetry, how do you explain this overlap and weaving of narratives to students?

MG: For me, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” was a very difficult poem to write, because I could not confront my husband’s final weeks directly, and it became commingled in my mind with the BP oil disaster.  The black slick of oil on the sand and water made me incredibly sad at a time when I was watching my husband die, and watching his hands go black at the tips. The poem is a howl of sorrow for the world and also for my husband. One of the prompts I give my students is to go back and forth in a poem between two seemingly unconnected things, and find something in common between them to use as a thread to weave the poems together. I did that with this poem, but I think more than anything the sight of that dying pelican brought back my husband’s death, and I wrote the poem a couple of weeks after he died.  When I started writing, I had the image of the pelican in my mind, but very quickly, the poem took off and seemed almost to write itself. I do believe that happens when you let go and let instinct take over. I swear it’s as if the pen is moving by itself. I try to encourage students to let go when they’re writing. Sometimes, when they think too much, the poem is wooden and ineffective. I want a poem to make people laugh or cry or to make the hair on their arms stand up. I really believe poetry is rooted in the body, and that we react to it by smiling or crying or laughing.

 

* * *

 

The Dead Deer on the Side of the Road

When I see a dead deer on the side of the Rt 17 west,
its hind legs pointing up to the sky, stiff as sticks, its body
crumpled and still

I think of you in the ER cubicle at Valley Hospital, your
eyes suddenly blank and staring, your body motionless.

A doctor says “he’s gone” and closes your eyes.  Just
moments before your breath was a loud rasping in your
chest, your fingers turned black at the tips, and the doctor tells me,
“you know, don’t you that he’s dying?  He
probably only has an hour at the most.”

When I see that dead deer, the way life is gone from it,
I cry for you and for the deer and for all the other creatures
lost. I talk to you, as though you were actually in the car
with me and could help me carry the cup of grief
that I try to balance in my hands.

Too much death surrounds me now, my mother, father,
sister, best friends of forty years, all gone and I mourn for
them all, but you who were with me forty six years, you are
the one I am afraid to grieve for, afraid that if I start I will
have to know that I will never fill the space your going
leaves.  I pretend to myself that you are still with me in our
family room as in this car.  It is only when I cry for the deer
that I am able to cry for you.  “I love you,” you said, the day
before you died.   When I came into the room you turned
to me with a smile that filled your face with light.  I will carry
that smile in my memory like a talisman, a worry stone that
I can hold and touch when I am most alone, most afraid.

 

The EPA Comes to Binghamton, NY

The EPA says there’s a dead  zone in the Susquehanna
River that is growing wider with each day.
Nothing can survive in it.

Some days I feel there is a dead zone in me
as the world I knew, the one with you in it,
has vanished, and the world around me
with its dying lakes and rivers, its endangered
water supplies, its polluted air, grows larger.

As a child, the air smelled fresh and sweet,
even on 17th Street in Paterson, New Jersey
and the stars were huge and visible in the sky.

Why do we ruin everything we touch with our greed
and hunger?  We used to eat fresh snow in a cup
with espresso and sugar.  Are we ever grateful

for what we have without wanting more?  How carelessly
I held you in my arms when we were still young and you
could still travel, your hand in mine in Italy and France,
Spain and Portugal, in theaters where we watched
the plays and movies we loved, in the museums we visited,
the folk concerts.  It wasn’t until later that I realized
what I’d lost and now, how heedless we’ve been

with the prefect beauty of the world, how ashamed I am
of all I have held and failed to protect and cherish

 

Emily Vogel is poetry editor of Ragazine.

3 comments

1 Zaira Rahman { 05.03.11 at 6:32 am }

Quite a lovely piece of poetry.

I particularly liked the part where Maria mentioned that people need to let go off the crow in their minds, who creates hindrances in the path to follow our dreams boldly. It is important to let go off fears and see the realities within ourselves to be more creativity or to be more satisfied in our lives.

2 Hal Sirowitz { 05.06.11 at 3:19 pm }

Two great poems and an interview which rivals anything William Stafford could have said. It was obvious that Gillan never lowered her expectations – that the death of her husband produced two masterpiece poems that will live on and never age.

3 Tony Fusco { 05.16.11 at 3:15 pm }

Maria is an outstanding poet and a person with a big and good heart. Check out her book Italian Women in Black Dresses and see what I’m talking about.