They came from around the state and across the country to the historic Hamilton Club on the Paterson campus of Passaic County Community College (PCCC) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Poetry Center at PCCC.
The February 1 event also served as an opportunity to pay tribute to the Center’s founder and executive director, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, a Paterson native whose vision, determination, and creative genius shaped the Center, and the city, into a major destination for poets. A place where Pulitzer Prize winners and poet laureates come to give readings and workshops, and where all are welcome to share and appreciate the art of poetry.
“Back then, they told me I was crazy to start a poetry center in Paterson,” said Ms. Mazziotti Gillan in her opening remarks, “but boy did we prove them wrong.” Cheers erupted from the audience that included friends, family, public officials, colleagues, former students, fellow poets, and ardent fans who gathered in the elegant parlor of the Poetry Center’s Hamilton Club home. The early afternoon program also featured piano music by Joe Weil and a buffet luncheon donated by Sheldrake Lukas and Xandt Wyntreez.
Founded in 1980, when Ms. Mazziotti Gillan was an adjunct instructor of English at PCCC, The Poetry Center had humble beginnings, but grew steadily, even attracting participation from the celebrated Allen Ginsberg, a one-time Patersonian who became the voice of the mid-20th century Beat Generation.
Today the Center hosts readings and workshops that draw presenters and attendees from all over the country, publishes the respected Paterson Literary Review, administers annual poetry contests, and fosters community outreach with programs such as Poetry in Prisons.
All this resulted from the efforts of Ms. Mazziotti Gillan who, born to immigrant Italian parents and raised in a blue collar neighborhood in the city, often draws upon her early life experiences in her writing, paintings, and drawings. She has published 22 books, is director of creative writing at Binghamton University, travels internationally to read her works, and is the recipient of the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature (2014)), the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award (2011), and the American Book Award (2008)for her book, All That Lies Between Us.
The standing room only crowd that gathered for the celebration is a testament to her influence.
One by one, speakers took the podium to tell their personal story of Ms. Mazziotti Gillan and the Center.
“Maria has done a fantastic job here,” said Dr. Steven Rose, president of PCCC. “Wherever I go, people tell me they’ve heard of The Poetry Center.”
Congressman Bill Pascrell, who was instrumental in locating PCCC in Paterson, recalled the earliest days of the Center. “I remember readings back in the 80’s when there were three people in the room, and I was one of them,” he said. Then he surprised the crowd by reading from two of his own poems.
Mark Hillringhouse, a fine-art photographer and frequent collaborator with Ms. Mazziotti Gillan, commended her achievement through metaphor. Gesturing toward a stunning photo he took of the Center, bright against the night sky, the retired PCCC professor said the design showed that against the city of Paterson, “the Poetry Center gives light and illuminates.”
Calling Ms. Mazziotti Gillan “a visionary,” fellow poet and workshop leader Laura Boss told of their travels together through Sicily, Paris, Wales and other locales where they performed readings and led workshops.
The program included readings of proclamations from state, county, and local officials. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy calls the Center “a beacon of the Passaic County community” and “a haven for artists to bloom and flourish.”
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, hailed it as “an essential resource for the City of Paterson” that “offers working class people and recent American immigrants a new way of looking at American life through literature, art, and culture.”
In a touching moment, the Poetry Center staff presented their boss with a framed copy of one of her drawings and a poem. “Maria has been the best boss ever,” said Susan Balik, associate director of the Center.
Deeply moved by the tributes and the devotion shown by some former students who traveled across the country to be present, Ms. Mazziotti Gillan took the microphone to thank everyone present and to offer her philosophy about why poetry matters.
“There’s something in poetry that speaks to us as human beings,” she said. “People can channel their feelings, anger, and worries into words.”
When considering the purpose of The Poetry Center, Ms. Mazziotti Gillan recalled the generosity that filled her family home when she was growing up. “I always think of my mother and how she would welcome anyone who came to our house to the table. Even when we didn’t have much, she would say, ‘Pull up a chair.’”
Likewise, everyone – poet laureates, poet novices, and those who just appreciate the art – will find a welcome at The Poetry Center. “I’ve tried to give away poetry,” said Ms. Mazziotti Gillan. “I think Allen Ginsberg would be happy.”