April 12, 2016

Monday, January 17, 2011

King Day of Service

Our country began celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday with a federal "Day of Service" in 1994.

According to "The History Behind MLK Day" at, President Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act in order to honor King "with a call to action of Americans to transform MLK Day into a day of civil action.

You can visit the MLKDay website, plug in your zip code, find a project and go help!

Today, I'd like to honor a poet who has spent her career serving the poetry community and emerging writers in particular.

Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a winner of the 2011 Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award. (Read the full citation here.) It's an aptly named award for Maria. She's a champion of poets and the poetry community.

I met Maria at the beginning of my poetry journey. She was leading a poetry workshop for teachers through the Dodge Poetry Program. Maria became a mentor to me, as she has been for many poets.

She is fiercely devoted to her hometown, Paterson, NJ. There, she founded and still directs the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson. Maria is editor of the Paterson Literary Review and sponsors several awards for poets and writers.

One of the themes in Maria's work is social justice. She writes about the immigrant experience, drawing from the history of her Italian family. (Full disclosure -- these poems strike a particular chord with me. My Italian mother-in-law is also from Paterson and later moved, like Maria, to the suburb of Hawthorne, NJ.)

The theme of immigrants and first generation Americans coping with social injustice doesn't just appear in Maria's own poetry. Maria has edited three anthologies with her daughter, Jennifer Gillan, about the identity and political issues we face as our families integrate into American society.

They are: Identity Lessons, Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction About Learning to Be American, and Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry.

Unsettling America is one of my favorite poetry anthologies, full of rich, honestly personal poems.

One of the first poems I remember hearing Maria read is "Eighth Grade." The finely drawn details of the classroom and teacher drew me in, but it's the combination of hope and hurt -- so true to eighth grade -- that make this poem stay with me.

Eighth Grade

by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

 Eighth grade smells of chalk dust
mingled with Miss Richmond's sultry perfume.
The feel of our smooth wooden pen holders,
the silver nibs, the black ink in our inkwells,
the initials caved into our desks and
the bottled ink, the wooden floor,
scratched and scarred, the sun falling across it
in swatches and the dust swirling
like atoms through sunlight,
the green blackout shades, the maps
on pulleys that slide down over the board
Miss Richmond in her tight sweaters,
her gold jewelry, her high heels tapping,
tapping on the wooden floor.
A sense of life seethes below the surface,
all the rows of young people
yearning for their lives to begin.

One day Miss Richmond said,
"Today I'm going to tell you
who will go on to college,"
and she went down each row and said,
"you will and you won't and you will
and you won't."
I prayed and crossed my fingers for luck
and prayed. "Please, please, let her say yes."
When she came to me, she paused,
looked at me
a minute, and then, slowly, hesitating she said,
"You probably will."
Her hesitancy burns in my memory,
a would that will never heal,
a taste in my mouth cruel and bitter as tin.

Reprinted with permission of Maria Mazziotti Gillan from What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009(Toronto,Canada Guernica editions, 2010).

At a time when our society is discussing the power of language, Maria's poem reminds me how important it is for teachers to pay attention to the words they use and the effect they can have.

Congratulations, Maria, on a well deserved award. You truly are a "Writer for Writers." I appreciate your service to the poetry community.


Tabatha said...

Happy MLK Day, Laura! Thanks for sharing Maria's work with us today.

Teachers sometimes think that the kids aren't paying attention to them, but they are.

I have to wonder what Miss Richmond was thinking. Why say that to her students?

Author Amok said...

Hi, Tabatha. Different times, I guess.

I'm sorry to say that, over the years, I have been in "inclusion" classrooms and had the resource teacher tell me IN FRONT OF THE STUDENT, "She's very limited." Maybe, like Maria, kids who are spoken down to will get angry enough to prove such teachers wrong.

Tabatha said...

I had a teacher who treated me rudely and was patronizing...I think I just gave a mental shrug about it, although I never forgot it. I never forgot the ones who praised me either. I'm so glad that you are there to encourage your students' creativity!