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English professor Maria Mazziotti Gillan talks about "William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and Paterson: Poets of the City" on Nov. 4 in the Casadesus Recital Hall.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Professor/poet discusses link to Ginsberg
November 8, 2011Tweet
Another accomplishment can be added to the legacy of Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsburg: “courage teacher” of Maria Mazziotti Gillan.
“He is the one who taught me to have the courage to write the way I knew I had to write,” said Gillan, professor of English and creative writing. “He taught me to say, ‘Maybe people don’t need another English romantic poet. Maybe it’s OK to write as an Italian-American. Maybe it’s OK to write as a wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, a citizen of Paterson, N.J., a citizen of the United States, a child of immigrants who loved to hang out in the public library.’
“I’ve made it my mission to do that and try to get students to think about how honest they are being in their writing, how much the world needs that honesty and how we need to form through writing a bridge between ourselves and other people.”
Gillan, the director of the University’s Creative Writing Program, delivered the Harpur College Dean’s Distinguished Lecture to a group of faculty members and students on Nov. 4 in the Casadesus Recital Hall.
“Maria’s poetry is powerful, evocative and accessible,” Harpur College Dean Donald Nieman said in his introduction. “It probes the beauty and complexity of everyday life and relationships in a way that makes this reader remember, reflect and feel very, very deeply.”
Gillan is a prolific poet whose honors include the American Book Award for “All That Lies Between Us” and the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. She has published 11 books of poetry and her works have been featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “The Charles Osgood Show” on CBS-Radio. Gillan also is the founder and executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, N.J.
Paterson served as the backdrop for Gillan’s lecture, which focused on Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams and the importance of her hometown in their lives and writings.
Williams was a doctor from nearby Rutherford, N.J., whose income allowed him to work on his poetry and art.
“It gave him the freedom to develop a very wide circle of friends among artists and literary people,” Gillan said, citing Williams’ friendships with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
But Williams “felt there should be a place for the American voice in poetry,” Gillan said, along with “American locales and American rhythms of speech.” Williams did not see that in the European styles of Pound and Eliot, but was able to help younger writers develop his desired style.
One such writer was Paterson resident Allen Ginsberg, an Eastside High graduate who went on to Columbia University.
“He sent his poems to Williams, who was always open to helping young writers,” Gillan said. “He told Ginsberg that the poems were not really good, but his letters were wonderful! They were full of energy, electricity and brimming with ideas and a joy of life.”
These letters struck Williams so much that he later incorporated them into his multi-book poem about the Silk City called “Paterson.”
Williams asked Ginsberg why he wasn’t writing about the place he knew, Gillan said, and urged him to emphasize “the echoes of the voices around you when you were growing up.”
Ginsberg would go on to write such poems as “Howl,” “Cottage” and “America.”
“With those poems, he was able to change American literature,” Gillan said. “I don’t know that Williams thought that would happen, but he recognized in those letters that Allen was being constrained by his education rather than being broadened and opened up by his education.”
Gillan, who also graduated from Eastside High in Paterson, said she first met Ginsberg in the early 1980s. She convinced him to return to the city and read at the poetry center after a falling-out with Paterson officials.
“I got a letter from his agent saying Allen needed a modest bunch of flowers, a regal chair, a small table with imported honey and a certain kind of tea only purchased in a certain store,” Gillan said.
She was surprised when Ginsberg arrived in a three-piece charcoal-colored suit and even more shocked when he complained about the chair and yelled about the tea Gillan was pouring. Gillan said her daughter then asked why she was letting this man talk this way, as she certainly wouldn’t let “daddy talk like that.”
“Daddy’s not Allen Ginsberg!” Gillan said to laughter from the audience.
Ginsberg found a chair to his liking, became friends with Gillan and returned to the poetry center many times before his death in 1997 at age 70. His influence remains with Gillan.
“I always think that if the 50-cent word will do, you don’t need the $5 word,” she said. “I think that’s what Allen did in his work.”
Gillan concluded the lecture by reading some of her own poetry, including works about her father, son, her husband’s death, growing up as an Italian-American and a tribute to her students.
“We are so lucky at Binghamton with our students,” she said. “I think sometimes that they save our lives.”