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BU poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan captures Italian heritage in verse

All my life, people have expected me to be strong,to carry them like sacks on my back, to juggle several lives in my hands without dropping anything. “Amazing,” they say, “How do you manage?” and I kept on going. Only my mother was stronger than me who always thought of myself as weak and small by comparison, until she died and I had to step into her shoes and was shocked to find how well they fit me. — Maria Mazziotti Gillan, from “Mothers and Daughters” in her book “Things My Mother Told Me” (Gunerica, 1999)

When you read Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poetry, you feel that you know her. It is as if you have grown up alongside her and experienced every aspect of her Italian, post-World War II upbringing in Patterson, NJ.

Gillan draws inspiration for her touching and revealing poetry from her everyday life. “In the beginning, I thought I had to write in the old literary tradition like Keates and Shelley,” she said. After publishing her first book in 1980, however, one of her professors at Drew University, where she studied for a doctorate, told her that her best poem was one she had written about her father entitled “Betrayals.” At the time, it was the only poem she had ever written about her own life. Gillan also admired poets such as Sylvia Plath and Alan Ginsberg. “They were the first ones to really put themselves on the pages,” she noted.

Gillan observed that women have made admirable strides in poetry over the past 50 years. But she has also seen a recent backlash of conservatism. “I want to write the kind of poem that makes the hair on my back stand up,” she said.

Some contemporary readers and critics, however, feel threatened by such personal poetry. “I don’t think they’re comfortable being opened up in that way,” she said. Gillan has published 12 books (see sidebar), but her most successful book is her recent work, “Italian Women in Black Dresses.” All of her books have received second and third printings, which Gillan said is rare for a small press, and recently, National Public Radio broadcast readings of her poems, “In My Family” and “After School on Ordinary Days.” She also travels frequently for public readings, has visited places ranging from Harvard to University of California at Santa Barbara, and she has blazed a trail across the country reading her work at writers’ conferences and universities. A Chinese writers’ group even invited her to China recently for a reading, but she could not attend because of her own family commitments.

Gillan believes that everyone has a story to tell. A poet lives inside all of us. “Everyone is teachable,” she said. “I try not to judge students against one another and I get them to move ahead.” She has also seen some amazing work here at Harpur College. “The students are of such high quality! They’re doing some moving, risky work,” she said, and she also predicted there are going to be some prize winning books from them.

Gillan recommends that all aspiring writers be tenacious in their work. “Keep going, even when you feel everyone else is ignoring you,” she advises. This, in fact, is exactly what Gillan has done. Indeed, in 1980, she started the poetry center at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey. She also came here as a visiting writer in 1999 and eventually took over directorship of Harpur College’s creative writing program in 2001.

She recently hosted a conference called “Speaking of Jersey: Italian American Women on the Garden State.” An anthology with its roots in that conference, entitled “Italian American Writers on New Jersey,” edited by Gillan along with her daughter, Jennifer Gillan, and Edbige Guita, will be published in October 2003.

This is a career she has always aspired to have. “When I was seventeen, I said I wanted to be writer,” she recalled. “In fact, in my high school yearbook, I said my ambition was to become a famous writer.” Still, she is a bit surprised at her own success, “Who would have thought it would come true?” Looking back, Gillan said, “It’s been a fun journey.”

More Books Written or Edited by Maria Mazziotti

Gillan Italian Women in Black Dresses (Gunerica, 2003)

Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction About Learning to Be American (co-edited with daughter Jennifer Gillan) (Penguin Group, 1999)

Things My Mother Never Told Me (Gunerica, 1999)

Identity Lessons: Contemporary Writing About Learning to be American (CO-edited with daughter Jennifer Gillan) (Viking Penguin, 1999)

New Jersey Poetry Resource Book (Passaic County Community College Poetry Center, 1996)

Where I Come From: Selected and New Poems (Gunerica, 1995)

Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (CO-edited with daughter Jennifer Gillan) (Viking Penguin, 1994)

Winter Light: Poems (Chantry Press, 1994)

Italian Heritage (Cross-Cultural Communications, 1991)

Weather of Old Seasons (Cross-cultural Communications, 1989)

Flowers from the Tree of Night (Chantry Press, 1981)

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