Documentary examines life of professor/poet
October 30, 2012Tweet
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is the subject of a 2012 documentary, “All That Lies Between Us,” that tracks the writer’s life from her humble upbringing in Paterson, N.J., to her success as a Binghamton University professor and award-winning poet.
Gillan, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Binghamton University, was followed by filmmakers Kevin Carey, professor of writing at Salem State University, and Mark Hillringhouse, professor of English at Passaic County Community College, for more than a year. She was filmed teaching classes, reading poetry, and revisiting Paterson, where she grew up.
“The filmmakers took me to the house I was born in, the house I lived in after that, my high school, and the factory where my father worked,” Gillan said. “Paterson is very important to me. My formative years were spent there. It influenced a lot of my stories.”
Gillan’s parents were Italian immigrants who spoke little English and had little money. She said she found her love of poetry at school and received most of her education from books at the local library.
“When I look back, I realize how lucky I was to have a loving, supportive family,” Gillan said. “When I told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she thought I was crazy and would make no money, but she went out with the two cents she made sewing at the factory and bought me a typewriter in a pink case. She supported me even when she was afraid it was a very impractical ambition.”
At 13 years old, Gillan published her first poem. Since then, she has written 15 books of poetry, has co-written four anthologies with her daughter, and has won numerous awards including the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Awards and the 2008 American Book Award. The documentary celebrates these successes, as well as details the ways in which Gillan has given back to the city where it all began for her.
In 1980, Gillan established the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson. The center features a reading series where acclaimed poets can share their work with other writers and host workshops. Gillan is also the editor of the Paterson Literary Review, an annual publication featuring international poetry submissions, and she is now working to emphasize the connection between literary figures, such as William Carlos Williams, and the city.
“Maria is Paterson,” Carey said. “During the making of the film, it was clear to me how proud she was of her life in Paterson and her connection to the city and its rich writing tradition. I think she’s done her part to continue that tradition and to keep Paterson on the map in that way.”
Carey said that the idea for the film came to him and Hillringhouse years ago when they attended Gillan’s poetry workshops and found themselves inspired.
“Maria had done so much for me personally and was such an important force in the poetry world at large,” Carey said. “I would describe the film as a documentary about the life of a poet, what made her who she was, the life she’s built around her poetry, and the influence she’s had on other poets.”
Leslie Heywood, a Binghamton University creative writing professor interviewed in the film, said that she, too, is inspired by Gillan.
“She has an amazing body of work that grabs readers in the most powerful ways through its specificity, through the way it invokes people’s daily lives and gives them meaning,” Heywood said. “Her work is about how we live and why, what we do to each other and ourselves, and how, ultimately we can be stronger ourselves and more generous to others. The movie captures all these things about her life and work, and is a fitting tribute to the poet we all know and love so well.”
Gillan’s newest book of narrative poetry, “The Place I Call Home,” was published in September 2012. The book connects the world Gillan grew up in and her memories of the past with grief over recent personal losses, as well as with grief over the state of the environment and what is happening in the world.
Despite the occasionally dark subject matter, Gillan says that she is an optimist and hopes that her work will help bridge the gap between people.
“We are all human. We all feel grief. We feel joy. We feel love,” she said. “Nothing makes me happier than having someone write to me from Montana and telling me that they read my poem, and it reminds them of something in their life. I’ve never been to Montana, and we could be from two different situations in life, but somehow my poems reach across that boundary to them.”
Not content to stop with Paterson, Gillan has also left her mark on Binghamton University. She established the Binghamton Center for Writers, one of the centers of excellence at the university, and the Writing Life Series, which brings in editors to help students and faculty get their work published. She also created the Binghamton University Milt Kessler Poetry Award and the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award, awards that have encouraged acclaimed authors like Jonathan Franzen to read at the university.
With all this, Gillan still finds time to teach graduate and undergraduate classes and counts teaching students among her greatest successes.
“I love teaching. The students are the best and most rewarding part of my job,” she said. “They are very open and not arrogant. I love the way they keep in touch with me after they graduate.”
Gillan is currently on a reading tour for her latest book, but has no plans to slow down when it is over. She has two book projects in the works—one a book of poetry, the other a book on writing poetry.
“I’m always writing,” she said. “It’s pointless to tell me to slow down. I don’t see myself retiring. I don’t like golf. I’ll probably die mid-stride. It’s okay—I’d rather die that way. I’m doing what I love.”
Gillan will read from her latest work, “The Place I Call Home,” at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13 in Science 1, room 149.