Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: An Interview with Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from AWP, the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for her book, All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions). She is the founder /executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review.

She is also director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of English at Binghamton University-SUNY. She has published 20 books, including The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets (Cat in the Sun Books, 2014); Ancestors' Song (Bordighera Press, 2013); The Silence in an Empty House (NYQ Books, 2013); Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand, Guernica Editions, 2013); The Place I Call Home (NYQ Books, 2012); and What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 (Guernica Editions, 2010). With her daughter Jennifer, she is co-editor of four anthologies.

Loren Kleinman (LK): You've published 18 books, and your most recent are Ancestors' Song (Bordighera Press), The Place I Call Home (NYQ Books) and Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand, Guernica). Can you talk about finding the courage to keep writing? How much of writing is tenacity?

Maria Mazziotti Gillan (MMG): Actually, I am now up to 20 books, including The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ Books, 2013) and The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets (Cat in the Sun Books, 2014).

When I first started to write, I imitated the British and American poets I was studying. I thought I had to prove how brilliant I was by mentioning Greek gods and mythology. I started writing when I was seven years old, but my first book was not published until I was 40. My graduate school professor told me that it was in the poem about my father that I found the story I have to tell.

He gave me the courage to feel that people might be interested in reading narrative poems written by an Italian American, working class woman, reading poems about ordinary life. I'm shy and introverted, but my poems allowed me to say things I could not have said to anyone in person. I think poems build a bridge between us as human beings and that's why I think poetry is so important. It gives us the courage to say the unsayable.

A great deal of writing is connected to tenacity. I think you have to keep writing, keep moving forward. You can't give up just because you don't win a major prize in the first 10 minutes that you've been writing. I think you have to love writing; you have to need to write so that the writing is what is important and not the prizes or publications or awards. It's not that I don't want those things, but always the most important thing is the writing.

LK: Can you talk about winning the American Book Award for your book All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions). What was that like? What was it like to meet John Grisham?

MMG: I was at home and my assistant called me and asked if I had ever heard of the American Book Award and I said yes. "Well," she said, "they just called and said you won." I went dancing around the house yelling. I was so excited. It felt really good to be recognized after so many years of writing. I met John Grisham when we both received the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers. I gave a short acceptance speech and I was so nervous in the room full of literary big hitters, like Grisham. But once I started to speak, I felt better. When I came off the stage, Grisham said, "Way to go, kid!" and gave me the thumbs up sign. I've always loved mystery novels, so I was thrilled that he liked my talk.

LK: Why does poetry matter? Why should we care?

MMG: Poetry matters because it teaches us about what it means to be human. It clarifies all those emotions we all share -- love, loss, longing. It helps us to make emotional sense of our lives and to see ourselves and the world more clearly. When poetry works, it moves us to laughter or tears or to having the hair on our arms stand up. It is not just pretty words; it is rooted in the body and we respond with our bodies to it. For me, poetry is so important, because I can carry it in my mind and I can recite it and I am comforted. That's why I've spent so much of my life organizing readings and workshops and conferences and contests and awards. I want to share my love of poetry the way my mother shared food.

LK: Can you give some advice to novice poets starting their careers?

MMG: Yes. I would tell them to concentrate on reading as much as possible -- poetry, novels, memoir, newspapers, in order to absorb the language through all the pores of the skin. I would tell them to write every day, to get poetry tapes to listen to in the car, and to go to poetry readings. I would tell them to find or create a community of writers, and to think of what they can do for other writers, instead of always concentrating on what they do for themselves. Generosity of spirit feeds other people, but it also informs our own work. It's bread cast on the waters, and I have found that it comes back to you a thousand fold.