In Love with Language: An Interview with Maria Mazziotti Gillan

photo by Mark Hillringhouse

The author and editor of over twenty books and anthologies, Maria Mazziotti Gillan has most recently published Paterson Light and Shadow (poems by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and photographs by Mark Hillringhouse, Serving House Books, 2017) and What Books in Winter (NYQ Books, 2016), a collection of poems. 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 Creative Writing Program and Professor of Poetry at Binghamton University-SUNY.

The following interview between Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Here editing intern Courtney Botteron took place over email in Jan/Feb 2018.


Courtney Botteron: Was your poem “In Third Grade I Fell in Love” (first published in the inaugural issue of Here: a poetry journal) geared to a specific audience or instead for anyone who would listen?

Maria Mazziotti Gillan: Well, I hope when I write a poem that it is clear and direct enough to reach anyone who reads it. I was prompted out of my own need to explain my love of poetry written in English, particularly since I was an immigrant child who did not speak English when I went to school. I wrote it also in gratitude to all the teachers I never thanked for reading aloud to us in English and for making me hear the music of the language when it was spoken aloud. My own parents couldn’t speak English and couldn’t read to us in English, but those teachers gave me a gift that I can never repay. It’s only now, so many years later, that I wish I had written to them to thank them. Of course, now it’s too late. But wherever their spirits are, I hope they feel my love for them and my gratitude.

In Third Grade I Fell in Love

with language. The poems and stories read aloud to us

in the dusty classrooms of PS 18 in Paterson, New Jersey,

had a music that lifted me up above the scarred desks,

names, and hearts carved into them

by generations of children bored with what, for many of them,

must have been the torture of hours of sitting still.


For me, in my shy skin, the spaces in the school

meant for recess or gym were terrifying,

but inside the classroom, I loved

the books we read and the ones the teachers read to us.


At home, we spoke a southern Italian dialect

whose accents brought Italy to 17th Street.

But outside, I was in America.

I was always slightly wary that I wasn’t American enough.


In the classroom, I learned that English had a different kind of music,

one I could move to as if I were dancing.

I loved the poems that repeated themselves in my brain.

After I memorized a poem, I could carry it with me,

as though I had slipped it in my pocket

and could slip it out whenever I was alone and afraid.


My parents could not read to us in English,

but those teachers, all the ones I never thought to thank,

opened the door into a world removed from my Italian family,

its aroma of tomato sauce bubbling on the stove,

of rosemary and mint growing outside the back door,

bread baking in the oven.


The world those teachers gave me was one I wanted.

In books, I could find the way

to leave the skin I was born in,

the constraints of my immigrant world,


and entered the place where language

lifted me up and carried me away.


I hope this poem speaks to other people who also learned to love the way the language sounded when read aloud and learned to speak through writing when they couldn’t articulate what they felt inside to have conversations as I could not, because I was so shy.

Botteron: In that poem, you say that “The poems and stories read aloud to us in the dusty classroom of PS 18 in Paterson, New Jersey, had a music that lifted me up above the scarred desks, names and hearts carved into them by generations of children bored with what, for many of them, must have been the torture of hours sitting still.” Could you say more about what you mean by “music” there? Is there a danger that fewer will hear that music today because of all the distractions around us, such as the constant temptation of social media?

Gillan: When I say music, I mean that in a poem, there is a kind of interior music that carries you along— at least it’s music that I can hear. Certainly, Italian has its own kind of music because it is my first language. I will always love the sound of it; but English opened so many doors for me and led me to worlds I could not have imagined when I was a child. If you close your eyes and you listen to a point where out loud you hear a rhythm and a sound, it helps you to memorize the poem in order to carry it with you. For me, even when I revise poems, I have to read them out loud to hear when the sound falls flat. It helps me to revise the poem. I also find it helpful when working with my students, to assist them with revisions, if I read the poem out loud so they can hear where it goes off.

There is a constant temptation today to spend so many hours on social media. I think it’s not just that we don’t listen to poetry being read out loud, but that we don’t read. I would suggest to students who are not particularly fond of reading that they might want to get audio books and listen to them in the car. The more you get to hear the language, the more it becomes a part of your body. The more it becomes a part of that instinctive place where poems come from, the more you will be changed by the writing and by what the writer is trying to tell you.

Botteron: Near the end of your poem “Moll Flanders, Zia Louisa, and Me,” also first published in the inaugural issue of Here: a poetry journal, you say, “The world does not need to know; it only wants to pretend nothing is wrong, nothing is wrong.” Is this poem based on a true experience? If so, how did learning this about your aunt impact you?

Gillan: Yes, the Moll Flanders poem is based on a true experience.  My aunt and uncle lived upstairs from us on 17th St. in Paterson, New Jersey. My aunt always put on a brave face. She was so full of life and laughter, but part of that was a smokescreen to hide what was really going on in her life. Knowing that made me realize that so much is hidden in our lives because we are afraid to let other people know about our suffering. In fact, if people really want to know about the good that poetry does for us, it is that poems allow us to peel away the layers that we use to protect ourselves, the masks we wear because we’re afraid. I learned from my poems how painful it is to keep so much hidden.


Moll Flanders, Zia Louisa, and Me

Ah, Moll Flanders, of all the characters

in those novels I read when I was still young and in grad school,

it’s you I remember,

flamboyant, sensual, in love with life.


You always looked for the “Main Chance”

and I, who can barely remember a name

five minutes after I hear it, remember yours.


I knew you were self-serving, but I loved

that you never lied about it,

that you never made excuses for your behavior,


and I imagine you trying to make your way

in 17th-Century England, where a woman on her own

would have been vulnerable and afraid.


You remind me of my Zia Louisa,

            that woman who married four times,

            that woman who wore

                        a tan-colored corset with lace stays

                        that had to be pulled tight to hold in

                        her large breasts and belly,

            that woman who loved to dance the tarantella,

            her whole body exhilarating

            in moving and stomping.


And though I know Moll only through a male writer’s portrayal,

I know Zia Louisa from my childhood,

knew her from watching her move

like an iron-sided battleship through life,

past three dead husbands and onto a fourth,

handsome, elegant Zio Guillermo.


They lived in the small apartment above us

on 17th Street in Paterson, New Jersey.

My mother told me that in the night she’d hear

Zia Louisa crying, but in the morning

she’d come down the back steps,

her cotton dress stiff with starch,

her lace handkerchief tucked in her sleeve,

and she’d be smiling and laughing.


She never told my mother

what sorrow she carried hidden in her sleeve.


The world does not need to know;

it only wants to pretend nothing is wrong,

nothing is wrong, and you are mistaken

if you think you heard wild sobbing

in the night.


Botteron: Do you ever fear that you will run out of childhood memories to write about?

Gillan: Actually, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of memories to write about.  Our lives are so layered, so full of the people we’ve loved and lost, the times that we miss, the things we regret. The older I get, the more I remember and I try to keep those details as though they were pressed flowers in a book and I use them in my poems to bring a time and a place or person back to life.

Botteron: Do you believe in inspiration? If so, what people or experiences have impacted you the most?

Gillan: Yes, I believe in inspiration, but I think that inspiration comes not because you ask it to, but because it wants to. I think you have to sit your behind in a chair and you have to allow yourself to write. And it doesn’t have to start out as a poem. It can start out as a journal entry or just random notes and suddenly, before you realize it, the muse arrives and brings you a poem almost on a silver platter. It’s a wonderful thing about poetry, that it comes to you when you are least deserving.

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Many Lives: An Interview with Here contributor Kileen Gilroy

photo by Molly Shanahan 

Kileen Gilroy is a 7th-grade English teacher at Lincoln Public Schools (RI). She teaches mindfulness techniques, creative writing, and experiential learning opportunities that advocate for students finding their own voices in traditional classrooms. She recently earned an M.A. in Holistic Leadership from Salve Regina University. She is also a graduate of Eastern Connecticut State University.

Kileen’s poem “Many Lives” appeared in the inaugural issue of Here: a poetry journal in 2017.

The poem is reprinted here in its entirely and is followed with an interview that Eastern student Courtney Botteron conducted with her via email in January 2018

Many Lives
by Kileen Gilroy

My boss, who was once 
the best at what I do, 
with a jean jacket, long ponytail 
and metal bracelets stacked up 
strong arms that flip bottles
and pour shots of Maker’s Mark to fishermen 
coming from the Point 
with their pockets full of cash 
from dragging scup and squid 
below the ocean’s belly, 
tells me, between a drag from his cigarette 
sticking to his bottom lip, 
that people like us, 
who do what we do, 
live many lives.

After I ride my horse, 
take my dog for a walk along the ocean shore,
and finish applying for another teaching job, 
I step behind the bar at 5 o’clock 
with ripped jeans just grazing the tops of my thighs 
and a ribbed tank top showing just enough 
of my belly button ring––
a dangling arrowhead hanging 
between trouble and desire.

I see the way you look at me,
thinking you might want to stay for another, 
get to know me better,
kiss my soft mouth, 
or ask me to dance 
because you like the way I move as I shuffle 
between steps and your salty words,
knowing how your wife would kill you 
if she knew who you really were. 

You ask me for a shot of Wild Turkey Honey,
and I step to the left, 
reach the top shelf on my tippy toes,
drop the shot glass on the bar top,
pour with my right hand,
take your money with my left, 
let my fingers move free on the computer screen.

Maybe, just maybe,
I’ll pull back my hair
and wink at you.


Botteron: Was your poem “Many Lives” geared toward those freshly out of college or towards any audience who would listen?

Gilroy: Like all of my work, “Many Lives” wasn’t geared towards any particular audience. I write more as an expression of myself and experiences. If the audience can relate to the content or the work resonates with them, that’s a bonus in my mind. I write with intention, but I also believe in not attaching expectations or outcomes to the work. However, “Many Lives” is a special piece to me because of the many layers it has and its power to connect with audiences of all walk of life.

Botteron: Your poem “Many Lives “discusses your job as a bartender right out of college. What emotions from this poem are you hoping are portrayed?

Gilroy: The emotions of piece are more prominent in some areas, yet also hold a common thread throughout. The poem begins with the conversation with my boss, which always felt more like the “father/daughter” talk you have when you are trying to figure out the next step. At this point in the piece I was feeling complacent, frustrated, and really unsure of my life path. Despite trying to keep myself active and inspired, I still ended up at the bar every night. Sometimes in life, we have to do things or live many lives before we really find where we are meant to be. However, the poem shifts from this slow impatience towards action and the present moment, where I leave my authentic life and enter this world where I have a persona; the light and dark sides of me. I believe the final emotion is intuitive––knowing that something is not truly you, but playing the part anyway and taking on that role. The poem begins with a sense of powerlessness, an uncertainty of the future, but despite that shows strong emotions towards the end as the speaker takes back power with confidence and seduction.

Botteron: What advice do you have for Senior English majors who are scared about their futures?

Gilroy: My advice is it’s okay to be scared. You never know the ways the pen and creativity will manifest. It’s important to stay true to the craft, but also not solely invest in just your writing. Explore the other ways writing can be used in careers––collaborate and involve yourself in projects and, once you accomplish something, always look for the next step, the next level of growth. It’s good and healthy to reminiscence. I loved college, but I never truly wish I was back there. When we wish we were living in the past, to me, it is a sign to look inside the self, see where you are in the present and where you are going; that’s my gauge. The other piece of advice is whenever you are given an opportunity, no matter how small, take it and also understand that you have to make your own opportunities, especially in regards to writing.

Botteron: When was this poem composed? What in your mind demanded it to be written?

Gilroy: This poem really came to me. I composed it out of nowhere when I hadn’t written in a while. I had another piece that was part of a gallery exhibit in Wickford, RI, and I just felt compelled to write this and share it that night. There are some poems I have worked years on, and then there are others, like “Many Lives,” that just come to me. I’ve been really lucky, but at the same time, to me it is just an affirmation that poetry has always been a natural part of me.

Botteron: Do you believe in inspiration? If so, what customers from the bar inspired this poem and do you still think of the impact they had on you?

Gilroy: I 100% believe in inspiration, and more so, believe in staying inspired. Inspiration can come from an influential person in your life, but also one conversation with a stranger. Always stay open to the words and lessons others have to teach you. I always feel like everyone says something so poetic at times, they don’t even realize it; I keep my ear open to this and when I hear something, I write it down. Those were real words from my boss that really stuck with me.

This piece wasn’t just about one person who came into the bar, but one of the many scenarios I have experienced. Whether we are the patron, the boss, or the bartender, we all are living and have lived many lives. The bar often only shows one of them, or maybe there is only room for one to take over. I was also inspired by the True/ Authentic Self and the False Self, the light and dark aspects of who we are and this idea of “shedding” past lives to evolve. It reminded me of reincarnation and our ability to always begin again and not stay confined in where or who we currently are. My customers still have an impact on my life, positive and negative, large and small. Some are still my friends, and some are lessons in life. This is one aspect of my experience, but this poem has also ignited a spark in me to continue to work with the other facets surrounding this topic.

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From Here’s 10/5/17 release reading: Charles Fort reading “For Two Daughters”

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From Here’s release reading on 10/5/17: Charles Fort reading “The Town Clock Burning”

At our release party of Here on 10/5/17, we invited Here contributors to read their work published in our journal alongside selections of their other work. Here, Charles reads his powerful poem “The Town Clock Burning” from his collection of the same title.

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Here is here!

It is with great pleasure that I announce the arrival of the first issue of Here: a poetry journal.

The issue includes eighteen fabulous poets as well as terrific cover art by Eastern Connecticut State student Deirdre Volk.

We’ll be sharing teases from the journal in this blog and through social media from time to time. I’ll start today with my “Editor’s Note”:

Editors Note

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Here!

I am proud to present within these covers poems in conversation with each other and with many poems before them, poems that bear witness to all that one brings to being alive at a particular moment. I thank the writers published in this issue for contributing their poems and, in doing so, offering readers what I have found to be poetry’s most valuable, potent, and lasting gift: a reminder that we are not alone in the world.

In preparing this issue, I read through the first issues of many other journals to get a sense of what editors said in notes like this one. Many claimed something along the lines of “we need poetry now more than ever.” In these tumultuous, social media-driven times, one could easily make that claim again. My knee-jerk reaction to such a statement would be to agree. With a moment to reflect, however, I would say that poetry is no more or less important now than it ever has been. It has always been essential, especially to those voices who have felt nearly silenced, but have nonetheless found the courage, within themselves and within the voices of writers who came before them, to believe in their own value and power and to sing their songs. It is with that spirit, that history, that charge, that Here begins.

Daniel Donaghy
July 19, 2017

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Here is coming soon!

The first issue of Here, a new poetry journal edited through Eastern Connecticut State University by Professor of English Daniel Donaghy and his students, is at the printer! Stay tuned for details about the issue’s release party and further details about the magazine.

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