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Maria, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by discussing your book Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, particularly the idea of “personal poetry.” Could you start by explaining what your vision of that is?

My vision of poetry is that it should be based on some essential truth about what it means to be human and I think narrative poetry gets at those truths more directly and effectively than many other types of poetry. I want to give people permission to tell their own stories and to look at the world unflinchingly through the their own eyes rather than worrying about what critics or literary theorists say about writing. Like Faulkner, I believe literature is about the truths of the human heart and not about intellectual analysis. I trust the old lady who lives in my belly more than I trust intellect when writing a poem, and I encourage my students to go to that deep place inside themselves that I call the cave. I want them to get rid of the crow who sits on their shoulders and tells them everything that is wrong with them because that’s the critic that will keep them from writing. I believe in poetry that tells a story. I want poetry to make me cry or laugh; I want it to make the hair on my arms stand up. I want to remember it. I want to carry it with me for years after I’ve read it or heard it. For me, writing narrative poetry was very liberating. I started by imitating the work of other poets, but I realized, finally, that I was not an English Romantic poet, but rather that I could look around me and be a poet of the things I know. I know my father; I know 17th street in Paterson, NJ; I know Public School No. 18; I know what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a child of immigrants who did not speak English until she went to school. I know about grief and loss, the grief over the loss of  individual people in my family but also grief for war, grief for what we’re doing to the environment. If you can’t get rid of the crow who sits on your shoulders, you’re not going to write anything that will touch another person. One of the things I see in Allen Ginsberg’s work is his willingness to fight his own demons—his mother’s madness, his own fears, accusations against him for this poem Howl. He talks about that in the film Howl. He said he had to learn about everything. He ends up saying that everything is holy. If you are willing to go to all the places that maybe you’re ashamed of, and really look at them, you can make them blessed, you can raise them up, you can give courage to others just as Allen did. Literature provides window in someone else’s life and give us the connection between the writer and the reader. It forms a bridge between reader and writer. In writing narrative poetry, I think we learn about our own humanity. The writers I admire are ones who are afraid but go ahead anyway—Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Joe Weil, Jan Beatty, to name just a few of the great writers creating memorable work today.

Maria, what you say reminds me of something I heard the Canadian actor RH Thompson say once. He said that all theater training is essentially designed to get actors to return to their natural baby voice. Pointing out that babies can scream for days but never go hoarse, Thompson explained that humans have a natural knowledge of how to use their voice, how to speak loudly and clearly; at some point, though, he said someone turns to us and says “shut up” and we begin to feel our voice is a kind of vulnerability: we tighten our jaws and begin to speak from ‘the wrong place,’ to use our “inside voices” as we were so often instructed to as children. Actors must go backwards, Thompson said, and recover a place where their voice was actually them and not simply their voice. Would you say that this example is analogous to what you’re saying?

Yes, very much so. I think it is unfortunate that so much of our education trains us to subdue all that is wild and primitive and honest inside ourselves and in our writing. I think that we have to be willing to let go, to ignore our intellect and allow instinct to take over. In revision, we can use our intellects, but in writing the poem we need to believe that this instinctive voice knows what we need to write and as soon as we look that very middle-class,suburban inside voice, we lose the energy and vitality in our work. Even in revision, we have to be careful, to prune the work with delicate hands. We have to believe that our voices and stories are important and need to be heard. Did Whitman play it safe? Ginsberg? Anne Sexton? Adrienne Rich? No, they didn’t and that’s why people remember their work. Playing it safe is for accountants and not poets. Poetry needs the energy that only specificity and truth can provide.

While reading the book, I was struck by your focus on encouraging everyone to write. It’s a very democratic vision in that sense. That’s what I meant by radical because, as you’ve observed, many regard poetry as something for the academically minded. The book was very much like a portable version of the classic Maria Gillan workshop. I’m sad to say that I never had a chance to take a full class with you, but I did sit in on some of your weekend workshops, which were unlike most I’ve been involved in. I always felt that writing in that environment almost involved an act of faith. I have always been moved by how much faith you put in the very process of writing. In fact, you explicitly state that your book is about ‘process’ and not ‘craft.’

I think I did not make myself clear. Maybe an example will help. I was raised in a lower-class immigrant household where there were a lot of voices raised in argument and laughter. No one spoke of an inside voice. It would have seemed strange and unnatural to us. But when I was raising my children in a middle-class suburban environment, my own children pointed out that I often did not use my “inside” voice, indicating that I was too loud and boisterous and embarrassing. When I was growing up, I used to think that I would be truly happy if I could live in a middle-class community and raise my children there. My life was safer, more comfortable, but I felt that I lost some of the energy that was in my childhood home and that I had not been able to give my children the feeling of what that was like. I don’t want to play it safe anymore. I don’t want people to be lulled or put to sleep by my poems or any poems. I don’t expect contemporary poets to be bards, but in a way, I think they have to be able to communicate to people, not just to academics or other poets, and they should be able to read a poem so their reading helps to put the poem across. there are many writers and academics who will disagree with me and who will be angry with me. I don’t call my poetry confessional because it isn’t and because I think it’s a way that the academy has found of putting narrative poets, particularly women poets, down for not writing poetry that is so obscure that only an academic poet would understand it. That/s not a radical idea or a new one. I edit a journal, and have done so for 33 years. I am the only editor and I choose poems and stories and memoir based on my ideas about writing. I’ve organized a reading series for 33 years also, and again I choose the poets who are capable of reaching people of all types and classes. I am not interested in work that uses language as a screen and I don’t feature that kind of poet. I think my audience likes my poetic taste and they return month after month, year after year, to celebrate poetry that is rooted to the ground, poetry that celebrates ordinary life. I think that there is resurgence of narrative poetry because in this mechanistic world , people need and want meaning. I think of Shakespeare whose plays have survived because he wrote for both the elite and the people in the pit. I think that’s why we are still drawn to his plays even today so many years since they were written and performed.

This was another thing that struck me about your book: you insist that poetry is the work of the inner life, and your focus on everyone’s ability to engage in the process of poetry (or other art) as a result of the inner life. You affirm that everyone’s inner life matters and that it is their right–perhaps even their duty!–to cultivate their inner life. I respond to that because I did not come to poetry as an elite art that I aspired to in a class sense, but as something that broke through to my inner being in spite of these distractions. I guess I’m really interested, biographically speaking, in hearing about what led to this breakthrough. You spoke about wanting–for a time–to raise your kids in that  middle class safety, and later rejecting that safety in order to speak in a “clear and direct and specific” way. What was happening in your life that led to this?

Micah, I hope the book is like carrying Maria in your pocket. I truly believe in the writing process and I believe that people become better writers if they believe in themselves and the value of their own lives and stories. For me, poetry is a way of saving myself and others, so I guess I’m like a preacher, only I’m preaching poetry and not religion. (Of course, religion and poetry are not mutually exclusive, but poetry has been so important to me and I love it so much that I can’t imagine living without it, and so I want to share it the way a preacher wants to share loving God. I also am very opposed to the idea that poetry is an elite art written by upper class people for other upper class people. I want my poetry to be clear and direct and specific; I want to be able to reach anyone who reads or hears it. I remember once reading an article in the NY Times Magazine many years ago, and in it, the person who was then the President of the Academy of American Poets was quoted as saying something like “Poetry has always been an elite art; it will never have a large audience and it shouldn’t.” I went apoplectic when I read that statement (I’ve paraphrased it, but that was the gist of it, I think I want to be like the wandering minstrels who went from town to town reciting their poems and stories). I try to encourage my students to believe in themselves and to think of the audience for their poems, to think of that audience as much larger than the audience of 5 white guys from Harvard.

You have defined “personal poetry” over and against “confessional” poetry, which you feel has been used dismissively by critics, so I think it’s interesting that you bring class into this discussion. Generally, we think of the poetry community as a very progressive community, but you seem to want a more radical vision: creating a nation of writers, of bards. Was this always your vision or did you come to it over time?

I started publishing poems when I was thirteen, but it wasn’t until I was 40 that my first book of poems was published. I had gone to graduate school when my children were in high school, and one of my graduate school professors said to me, It”s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell. He gave me courage, made me feel that someone might be interested in reading poems by a working-class woman who did not speak English when she went to school, poems by a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, an Italian American so my poems became more rooted in place,memory, and narrative. This was 1980; my first book publication coincided with my starting the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ in 1980. I also was and still am the editor of the Paterson Literary Review. As my own work began to gain critical attention, my own self-confidence grew and I was willing to take bigger and bigger risks in my writing. There’s something about shutting the crow up that is very freeing. At this point, I believe that what I’m doing in my work is what I need to be doing; and I want my students to believe in themselves and their work in the same way. Prior to my 40th birthday, I was teaching as adjunct in various colleges and trying to be supermom. The more I went out into the world, the more I read my poetry in public, the more students I taught, a big change came over me. Somewhere along the way I stopped being that introverted, bookish, shy little girl I had always been, and I discovered that I could make things happen both in my work and in creating programs. Everything we do ends up feeding our courage.

Speaking of risks, allow me to risk a characterization of your new book of poems The Place I Call Home. I have read a number of your books, and yet this book seemed different to my sense. While still being rooted in your life, these poems seemed more expansive in their scope, their claims. Would you agree?

Yes, I do agree. My grief over my husband’s long illness and subsequent death, led me to a wider examination of grief to include my grief for the way we have managed to destroy so much of the natural world and even the world of human connection. My book The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ books) deals with these issues even more specifically. I have another book called Ancestor’s Song (Bordighera, CUNY) which ties together many of the themes of my earlier books with the new direction that my work is taking. What I advise my students to do is to let go. I do believe that a force wiser than we are guides our writing. It’s fun to be exploring new territory even after all these years, and I’m happy to find that my production of work has not slowed down; if anything, I feel more prolific than ever.

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THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE

BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN

 NYQ BOOKS, 2013

ISBN 978-1935520-89-4

silence-in-empty-house-

All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.

Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision.  In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.

In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.

Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:

My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small

Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper

with orange vases, bright yellow flowers

and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,

especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.

The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop.  Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place.  Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.

The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.

Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a  more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:

 Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing

at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her

that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice

it has no right to require.

This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”

Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’  The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:

 How grateful I must

remember to be, to hold

so much in my hands.

so much in my hands.

All the hipsters are making their aggravating lists made of poets from Brooklyn and Amherst with good haircuts, trust funds and irony. Lists where the majority of poets have one book and slept with the writer of the list. I have nothing against poets sleeping with each other but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good list. In an age of truly remarkable work these lists are full of too many gutless poems made of flippant language that make one big metaphorical turn near the end and we are supposed to go ooooh and ahhhhh. Many of these poems show the shallow influence of a poet like Dorothea Lasky but without her wit and ability to create a voice of endearment. They want to be Lasky, but the young poets don’t have her talent. All they have is a Brooklyn address, connections, and great internet savvy. Oh and an MFA. And ironically their ironic poems are DISEMBODIED and RHETORICAL in the worst way. These lists are aggravating, full of poems of the moment, books that will soon fade into youthful oblivion but in a year when some of the best books I have read in my life, books that can sustain a person for decades and not lose their relevance have been published, collections by some of our grand masters and some young sharp guns from the outer edges, I want to offer some poets I have not seen on any list floating online despite some of them winning big awards or garnering academic notice this year:

Whether first books, second books, and career collections, what these books share is a commitment to make a poem that— even if linguistically playful, still has a commitment to speaking to this world, and the idea and importance of experience and identity (such a dirty word to the hipsters, played out they say, how passé’ they say) and how we negotiate both in this difficult world. They all share some commitment to negotiate the body through lived space, and language. Perhaps pulled in so many directions by the confusion of late Capitalism, by the disconnect of technology, our best poets are reclaiming the body and lived experience and space? In the corrupt spirit of these lists I also tried to choose poets that I actually knew, since it seems that is what you are supposed to do with a list. Though I failed here in not really knowing everyone on my list. And sadly I failed again: I did not sleep with any of them.

~

These are serious books. I sometimes wonder if the young poets still know how to make “serious” art, but then I read The Backlit Hour by young Jose Antonio Rodriquez and I know they are more than capable. This book is western, political, and deals with the conflicts of gender, class, race, and power through story and lyricism. If only more young poets had such bravery. Another poet with such bravery is Corey Zeller whose book Man Vs. Sky offers us a series of poems in the voice of his friend who committed suicide. In a year of many books of such grievous loss this original voice and point of view stands out. And other young poet is Cody Todd whose book Graffiti Signatures is such a experimental gem. A hip hop DJ and graffiti artist, an old B Boy from Denver, Todd combines his knowledge of experimental poetics with the street and structure of the turn table. I know that after her death the grand tome of Lucille Clifton will help many people to live and understand the terror and joy of our country. Roger Bonair-Agard offers us a book both streetwise and worldly, one that unflinchingly crosses borders. Charles Fort’s Selected Poems brings together one of our most important and under praised African-American poets and prose poets who tackles issues of race, love and form. Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems brings us together one of our master New York School lyricists. Ron Padgett has always been my favorite NYC poet, and one who has that rare ability in poets, to express JOY. I always grieved he was far in the shadow of John Ashbury as I found Padgett’s work far more engaging and …. And well true. Jillian Weise presents a book that reads as a 21st century book, full of slips and slight moves of lyricism while maintaining an interrogation of the body’s role in Being. Yona Harvey first book Hemming Water brings us a long awaited book that pushes sound and music into fragments only the body and history can hold and by doing so sustain us. Another great first book is Mathew Olzmann’s Mezzanine, a book of remarkable range and metaphor whose interrogation of Spaces evokes for me memories of the French theorist Batchelard in the best way. Joe Weil’s auspicious Selected Poems gathers his many poems from the small press into one beautiful tome. It covers the territory of cities, the self suffering, the idea of the other, of labor and loss, in a manner both tragic and comic rarely found in American poetry. Mary Biddinger’s edgy O Holy Insurgency, continues her project of exploring the body, the spirit, and the beautiful wreckage of the things and moments of our lives. Lastly, Jennifer Militello’s second book Body Thesaurus firmly presents herself as a quiet heir to the Lorcan tradition, a poetics of lyricism and emotion and dare I say duende. There are thoroughly fierce books, often political, the kind of books that Milosz wrote “can save nations” if we will only listen. Buy them.

GRAND MASTER SENSEIS

Lucille Clifton The Collected Poems 1965-2010 BOA Editions

https://www.boaeditions.org/bookstore/the-collected-poems-of-lucille-clifton.html

Ron Padgett Collected Poems Coffeehouse Press

http://coffeehousepress.org/shop/collected-poems/

Charles Fort We Did Not Fear the Father: New and Selected Poems Red Hen Press

http://redhen.org/book/?uuid=35FD4A0F-6C64-2656-C499-99E8419A08DB

Joe Weil The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems NYQ Books

http://books.nyq.org/title/greatgrandmotherlight

SECOND (or THIRD) BOOK ASSASINS

Jennifer Militello Body Thesaurus Tupelo Books

http://www.tupelopress.org/books/body_thesaurus

Bury my Clothes Roger Bonair-Agard Haymarket Books

http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2013_p_bonair_agard.html#.UrLegdJDsYE

Jillian Weise The Book of Goodbyes BOA Editions

https://www.boaeditions.org/bookstore/catalog/product/view/id/944/

Jose Antonio Rodriguez Backlit Hour Stephen F. Austin University Press

http://www.powells.com/biblio/71-9781622880041-0

Mary Biddinger O Holy Urgency Black Lawrence Press

FIRST BOOK NINJAS

Yona Harvey Hemming the Water Four Way Books

http://fourwaybooks.com/2013spring/harvey.php

Corey Zeller Man Vs. Sky Yes Yes Books

http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781936919130/default.aspx

Cody Todd Graffiti Signatures Main Street Rag

http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/product/graffiti-signatures/

Mathew Olzmann Mezzanines Alice James Books

http://alicejamesbooks.org/ajb-titles/mezzanines/