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Professor wins American Book Award

By : Erin Owens

Although she has received many awards for her poetry, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is especially thrilled about winning the 2008 American Book Award for her most recent book, All That Lies Between Us.

Gillan, professor of English and director of the creative writing program and the Binghamton Center for Writers, said she screamed and ran around her house in excitement when she found out she had won the award.

“It was such a wonderful moment in my life,” she said.

The American Book Award is given each year by the Before Columbus Foundation to recognize outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community. Gillan, now in her eighth year at Binghamton, was among  the authors of 13 books honored at an awards ceremony held in Berkeley, Calif., in December.

“To win this big national award validates what I have been doing for a long time,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like you are alone in what you are doing, so it’s nice to get something like this that says your work is good.”

Gillan, who is also the founder and executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic Community College in her native state of New Jersey, has been writing poetry for nearly her entire life, but said this may have been the most difficult of her nine books of poetry to write. The poems deal with issues such as grief, loss and anger.  

Even though the book is often referred to as a memoir, Gillan said that is not exactly correct. She describes her poetry as narrative, but deals with issues that all people can relate to.

“This book is a way of exploring everything that happens to you as you grow older,” she said.  “I write about problems facing anyone living in 21st century America.”

Gillan does not believe in poems that are deeply philosophical, and is trying to fight against the thought that being deliberately unclear makes a good poem. She wants her poetry to be able to connect people from all different walks of life.

And that is exactly what she is trying to do here at Binghamton: connect people.

“The writing program has been a way of bringing the world to Binghamton,” she said, “which can sometimes feel like it is off the beaten path.”

Gillan, who is teaching a weekend intensive poetry workshop this semester, feels fortunate about the quality of the students at Binghamton, and says that she talks about them everywhere she goes. 

“Our students are down to earth, really bright and willing to open themselves up,” she said. “You don’t find that at other schools. Not even the Ivy League schools.”

What Gillan wants most for her students is to love poetry and writing as much as she does. She tries to emphasize to them that writing should be a passion, as opposed to being about the career.

Gillan is now working on her next book, What We Pass On, about the connection between generations. She hopes to continue winning awards, but if she doesn’t, that’s all right too.

“It doesn’t matter what happens,” she said, “I have to write. I have to do what I do and connect people. I’m not going to stop.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08