Maria Mazzioti Gillan:

North Jersey’s homegrown poet
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Last updated: Sunday December 14, 2008, 4:14 PM
“Remember me, Ladies,
the silent one?
I have found my voice
and my rage will blow
your home down.”
—Maria Mazziotti Gillan
“Public School No. 18, Paterson New Jersey”
Among the pieces of trash that cake the ground in front of her childhood home are a Papa John’s flier, a used coffee cup, a Snickers wrapper, two McDonald’s bags, a Wachovia bank printout and a pizza box.
Poet, professor and author Maria Mazziotti Gillan outside the house where she was raised on 17th Street in Paterson. “It was a wonderful childhood,” she says.
If Maria Mazziotti Gillan notices the litter, she is holding her tongue. She worries more about the changes to the character of the block — the vacant lot that is no longer there, the garden that has vanished.
“It’s so awful what they did,” she said earlier that morning, sitting in her second-floor office in downtown Paterson. “There were all these black-eyed Susans. It was wild with daisies. And my uncle lived upstairs, and he had this wonderful garden in the back yard, and you could smell the tomatoes and the corn. It was just a wonderful childhood.”
On a trip through her old neighborhood, she points to her right.
“This was a candy store.”
She points to her left.
“That was a little grocery store.”

Maria Mazziotti Gillan runs the poetry center at Passaic County Community College.
Everything seems smaller now, as if Rick Moranis borrowed the slice of Paterson she remembers and gave it the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” treatment. It is the thread that connects the brick schoolhouse where she wrestled with nouns and verbs, the two-bedroom apartment where icicles coated window panes, and the neighbor’s house where she went to watch television.
But the daisies and black-eyed Susans were not the only things to rise from the soil of this Italian neighborhood. The soil also fueled a poet. It offered Mazziotti Gillan inspiration and material — two logs that are necessary to stoke a poet’s fire. Mazziotti Gillan became a voice of Silk City, writing about Paterson in a language her colleagues consider simple but brilliant. Earlier this week, a collection of her poetry (“All That Lies Between Us”) was named one of 12 winners of the 2008 American Book Awards.
“She doesn’t write for a literary coterie at all,” said Jim Haba, poetry director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. “She writes for people in her neighborhood, people in her family, people like herself.
“People like those she grew up with in Paterson.”
Humble beginnings
There was a coal stove in the kitchen. Angelina Mazziotti would put bricks on the stove, warm them and then place them on the beds where her three children slept. Along with heavy blankets and flannel pajamas, those bricks helped Mazziotti and her two siblings survive without central heat.
“And we would get in bed and that would be it,” Mazziotti Gillan said. “You didn’t get out of bed. Once you were in bed, you were in bed.”
Her parents arrived from Italy in 1936, along with thousands of other Italian immigrants who crossed the Atlantic and settled in Paterson. Her father, Arturo Mazziotti, found work in one of the silk factories. Her mother sewed the linings of coats for a penny apiece.
Inside the walls of her Paterson home, Mazziotti Gillan spoke Italian. Outside, she was forced to figure out English. School terrified her. What if an Italian word popped out of her mouth instead of its English counterpart?
“I was really shy,” Mazziotti Gillan said. “I never spoke. I was the most foreign-looking person you’ve ever seen. My hair was kinky and stuck out from my head in 19 different directions. I had all the wrong clothes. I had no idea what regular Americans did. I never had a hamburger until I was 19 years old and a girl from college invited me home. And then I realized there were people who didn’t talk when they ate.”
Books were her guides out of this confusion. She began making walks up Madison Avenue to the Riverside branch of the Paterson Public Library. Mazziotti Gillan would take out seven books, one for each day of the week, lugging them back down the hill to the house on 17th Street.
Frances Durban and Al Weiss, two of Mazziotti Gillan’s teachers, turned her on to poetry, introducing their student to Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and their contemporaries.
“I started imitating other people,” Mazziotti Gillan said. “I would read [e e] cummings and I’d write poems like cummings. I’d read [John] Keats and I’d try to write poems like Keats. I’d read Eleanor Wylie and I’d try to write poems like Eleanor Wylie.”
Her first poem was about a dog. Her family did not have a dog.
She wrote about Greek gods. She had never met a Greek god.
It was when she broached closer-to-home subject matter — her father’s broken English, her husband’s ongoing 21-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, her daughter’s first kisses — that her words began leaping from the page. She wrote about Paterson, and she wrote about growing up Italian.
“[There are] a lot of people in New Jersey who talk about ethnicity, but very few people who can actually capture the ethnic experience through good writing,” said Marlie Wasserman, director of Rutgers University Press. “It’s a small handful [of people], and she’s one of them.”
Inexpressibles expressed
The poem begins on Page 99, part of a collection called “Things My Mother Told Me.” Longer than most of her other poems in this volume, it is a story of her father and an adolescent act she wishes she could take back.
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.
What follows is not just an apology, but an apology that drips with empathy.
I think of my own son
and the distance between us
greater than miles.
“That’s a remarkable poem,” Haba said. “That’s just so full of candor and generosity. Even if the generosity comes late, it still comes. It’s an intensely human document. I think that the best of her work conveys exactly that.”
“She’s not afraid to be really honest about us and about herself,” said Jennifer Gillan, Mazziotti Gillan’s daughter.
Jennifer Gillan remembers riding around in her mother’s Volkswagen Beetle, windows closed, mom’s cigarette habit flooding the car with smoke. On these drives, Mazziotti Gillan would sometimes recite poetry, instilling a love that her daughter carries to this day. Like Maria, on staff at both Passaic County Community College and Binghamton University, Jennifer makes her living on a college campus. She is an associate professor of media and culture at Bentley University in Massachusetts.
“A lot of people turn to poetry to express the inexpressible and to say things they might be afraid to say,” Jennifer Gillan said.
Jennifer’s mother has never been bashful. A few months after Governor Corzine took office, Mazziotti Gillan was invited to Drumthwacket, along with other members of the New Jersey arts community. Wasserman, the woman who published one of Gillan’s books for Rutgers, was also there. She said Mazziotti Gillan did not wait for an introduction. She marched up to Corzine and let him have it, filling his ear with information on the latest cause she was championing.
“I think he was a little surprised,” Wasserman said. “But then he reacted very courteously, but of course promised nothing.”
Championing clarity
A paper cup of cappuccino sits on the poet’s desk. Not good cappuccino; convenient cappuccino. For the good stuff, she would have to take a field trip to Cianci Street.
“I love this city,” Mazziotti Gillan said. “I love the light when I come out of these buildings at night. There’s something about the color of the sky here. It’s probably the chemicals from the chemical plant, but it is the most incredible lavender color. … When you look out at the hills here, it is really a beautiful city.”
And she tries to give back to Paterson. The Hawthorne resident established a poetry center at Passaic County Community College. She invites poets here to give readings. Some of the best writers in the country have made trips into Silk City just to read for Mazziotti Gillan’s audience.
Mazziotti Gillan does not invite the academic poets — the writers who use elevated language and cannot relate to readers.
“I want clarity,” Mazziotti Gillan said. “I want specificity. I want people to cry or laugh or have the hair on the back of their neck stand up. When I read, I want people to take out their tissues.”
She wants people to appreciate those vacant lots, where daisies mingle with Black-eyed Susans, where daughters ignore their fathers, where wives care for their Parkinson’s-stricken husbands.
These are the places where both poetry and poets take root.
BACKGROUNDName: Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Hometown: Hawthorne
Born: Paterson
Age: 68
Occupation: Poet, professor
Family: husband Dennis; two children
Personal: Mazziotti Gillan has also served as executive director of the Passaic County Cultural and Heritage Council. … Her collections of poetry include “Where I Come From,” “Things My Mother Told Me” and “Italian Women in Black Dresses.” … The building that houses her office at Passaic County Community College was once home to a gentlemen’s club.
Quote: “I’ve worked my whole life to try to promote poetry that’s accessible, that’s clear, that’s direct, that’s about ordinary life and human feelings. And so what I’ve tried to do is to make a poetry that people can understand right away without getting a dictionary or a thesaurus to understand it.”