Rising up from the lower class can be tough, but doing it through poetry is even tougher. Maria Mazziotti Gillan, director of both Binghamton’s Center for Writers and the Creative Writing Program, is the star of a documentary short that screened last week, following her life out of the lower class and to success in the world of poetry.
Filmmakers Kevin Carey and Mark Hillringhouse visited Binghamton on April 18 to screen their recent documentary, titled “All That Lies Between Us.” The event was sponsored by the English department and the Center for Civic Engagement. Despite only being a 15-minute film, the documentary goes deeply into Gillan’s life, closely examining the correlation between her life, poetry and the impact they have made. Beginning with a brief reading in Cambridge, Mass., viewers get a sense of her personality as a poet. As the film progresses, we see Gillan work her magic with graduate students at Binghamton. The movie also films her visiting her old stomping grounds in Paterson, N.J. These settings depict the amount of success Gillan had despite growing up in a lower-class family.
Although Gillan’s life is an essential element of the film, her poetry is the overarching theme and highlight. A quick visit to her home in the film illustrates the enormous amount of poetry she’s written and still continues to write by using her life experiences as a source of inspiration. We also see Gillan’s life through the eyes of the people she has encountered, ranging from students to fellow poets. One of her fellow Binghamton colleagues, Leslie Heywood, credits Mazziotti as helping others be able to distinguish poetry as being “more than just clever words.”
The individuals featured in the documentary offer nothing but praise. Nearly all of them cite her for the enormous changes she’s made in the poetry community, including her work in founding the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in her hometown. Following the screening, there was a question-and-answer session with both the filmmakers and Gillan herself.
Filmmaker Kevin Carey spoke about the editing process and the fascinating experience of interviewing so many people from Gillan’s past. Additionally, Gillan talked about her reaction to watching the film as well as how her poetry evolved once she stopped trying to write similarly to her influences. Before the question-and-answer session shifted towards a performance by Bob Evans from the film, Gillan left the audience with a recount of how her experience about how poetry helped her gain courage.
“We’re raised to not be honest with anyone outside the home,” she said. “I spent a good portion of my life biting my tongue. The more I taught poetry was the braver I got.”