Mary Jo Firth Gillett has done a lot.
She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Vermont College. Her work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Third Coast, The MacGuffin, and many other important literary journals. She’s won the New York Open Voice Award, and co-edited the anthology Mona Poetica with Diane Shipley DeCillis. She taught high school. Awhile back she was a spot welder, and a lactation consultant. For the past 7 years Gillett has taught advanced poetry workshops for Springfed Arts-Metro Detroit Writers. Oh, and let’s not forget she’s authored three award-winning poetry chapbooks: Not One, Tiger in a Hairnet, and Chandeliers of Fish.
Yes, Mary Jo Firth Gillett has done a lot. And now she can add another accomplishment to her bio…a book!
Her manuscript Soluble Fish won the 2006 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. In September it was published by Southern Illinois University Press. According to Gillett, the book has come together over a span of about ten years. The poet is both thrilled and grateful. “I am very happy to publish with a Midwestern press,” she says. “Southern Illinois was very professional—my book even came out ahead of schedule!”
On Thursday, November 8, Beaner’s Coffee in Royal Oak honored Gillett’s book release. Karin Hoffecker, Beaner’s poetry host, grins as she introduces her Springfed Arts teacher and friend. “I’ve learned so much from her,” she says, as she offers the floor to Gillett.
Dressed in snuggly attire—a purple fleece vest with black jeans and tennis shoes—Gillett rises and begins to read. In a few short moments, it’s clear her poems are as warm and amiable as that fleece.
Mary Jo Firth Gillett shares 7 poems. Her stance at the podium is easy. She jokes, seems at home here. Gillett’s first piece, “Like a Deity, Like a Diatom,” uses the image of her young daughter at the toy store to start a discussion on the subject of desire, the stuff which fuels life.
The poems selected orbit around science and love—two forces which do not oppose. Like in “Polywog,” they work together: connecting a terrarium to a young daughter and then to the human heart, a burglar/of good sense given to sudden extravagance.
My favorite of the night is called “Camping Out in the ‘50s.” Gillett introduces the poem by saying, “Most people are nostalgic about the ‘50s…and I am not one of those people.” In the work, Gillett relays tales from her childhood. The girl in the poem is young, yes, but not too young to understand the sexist societal norms. I hated being female, she reads.
Love poems are the hardest to pull off successfully, and Gillett pleasantly surprises with “Spindrift,” a piece she dedicates to her husband, Greg, who smiles at her from his chair. “We’re nearing our 35th wedding anniversary,” she playfully boasts. In the poem, Gillett praises a bond that is ever renewing, always present. She explains, I marvel at our bodies—/each other’s bookmark.
Her final poem, “Fish Tales,” is a point of origin for the book’s title. The line I must admit I believe in fish stories seems a theme for the book. It appears a credo, a summary of belief. This poem proves Gillett an optimist. It implies she is not waiting dully for a life after death, but rather shows her adoration for the here and the now—the abundant, joyous moments of this fleshly earth. The fish, then, appears a personal symbol of nourishment by way of language, nature, family, and love.
After applause and an open mic have concluded, Gillett and I take a quiet seat at the edge of the coffee shop. She asks me about my writing; explains how it takes a combination of tenacity and talent to earn publication. She then gives a reason why poetry is so important to her. “As a child we are taught to distinguish between apple and orange, dog and cat,” Gillett explains. “But poetry blurs distinctions. For once it is not about seeing differences—it’s about seeing the connections between people and things.”
In addition, she expresses enthusiasm for the current poetry scene in Metro Detroit, saying there is a resurgence of talent, interest, and available venues for poets to share their work. Gillett continues, talking excitedly about an upcoming reading she will perform at the historic Scarab Club in Detroit. She says there are noticeable depressions in the center part of each cement step leading up to Scarab’s front doors, made by so many feet. Walking there, says Gillett, “gives the sensation of following in the footsteps of decades of passionate writers and artists.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask about her hopes for the book. She carefully responds, “Every writer hopes their readers are reading for pleasure. I hope those who read Soluble Fish will enjoy the leaps of metaphor, the language play, and that the stories embedded in the poems connect with the reader.”
Beaner’s Coffee offers great poetry every second Thursday. Stop in from 7-9pm, to hear the featured poet(s), followed by an unpretentious open mic. Next month (Thursday, December 13th) the featured readers will be Vievee Francis and Matthew Olzmann. Beaner’s is in Royal Oak at 30332 Woodward, 2 blocks south of 13 Mile on the east side. For more info., please contact the series director, Karin Hoffecker, at 248-514-0103.
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