Pleasant RidgeAugust 8, 2012
Ridge poet awarded $25K in Kresge artist grant
By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer
PLEASANT RIDGE — Mary Jo Firth Gillett wants the world to know that, contrary to popular belief, poetry is alive and well in the 21st century.
“A lot of people, even some that are avid readers, think this is some old-fashioned thing that doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “But I assure them that artists are still writing poetry today — it’s not just the same old dead white guys from centuries ago.”
As a renowned poet and teacher in metro Detroit for many years, Firth Gillett knows this better than most. The latest feather in her cap was becoming one of 24 artists from Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties chosen as a 2012 Kresge Artist Fellow. More than just a prestigious pat on the back, the recognition also includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant to help advance her writing career.
Success and acclaim did not happen right away for the 64-year-old Pleasant Ridge resident, however. For decades, Firth Gillett lived as a self-described “shadow poet,” crafting poems in her spare time while teaching English at Center Line High School. But it wasn’t until her retirement years that things really started to take off.
“I come from a very practical family, so writing poetry for a living was never really an option for me growing up,” she explained. “At first, I thought I could just shake it off. I thought it only had its jaws around my ankle, but it turns out that it actually had its jaws around some of the more vital parts. So this was never just a hobby for me; I loved it too much to call it that.”
Firth Gillett’s full-length poetry collection, “Soluble Fish,” won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award in 2007. She has also published three award-winning chapbooks — which are typically 16 to 30 pages in length, she said — of her poems: “Not One,” “Tiger in a Hairnet” and “Chandeliers of Fish.” Her work has appeared in the Harvard Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, the Southern Review and many other poetry journals. In addition to the Kresge Artist Fellowship, she has won the New York Open Voice Award, a creative artist grant from ArtServe Michigan and several Pushcart Prize nominations.
Firth Gillett said that she has always had a love for the inherent musicality and rhythm of language. She described her own work, which often focuses on the sciences and nature, as an attempt to combine her disparate interests into a cohesive whole.
“I’m very interested in bridging gaps, and for me, what poetry does best is to connect different things together,” she said. “I like to make connections between science and poetry because I feel like they share a lot of the same energy and passion and enthusiasm.”
She also believes that poetry has a strong subversive element that is too often overlooked. “I think that poets are truth tellers, and that takes a lot of courage,” she said. “I feel like it’s very brave to talk about what it means to be human.”
Even though she no longer molds young minds at the high school level, Firth Gillett is still teaching. She has been leading advanced poetry workshops since 2000, helping aspiring poets take their writing to the next level. One of her first students, Christine Rhein, of Brighton, still regularly attends Firth Gillett’s workshops a dozen years later.
“Mary Jo has been instrumental in my development as a writer,” said Rhein, who published a poetry collection called “Wild Flight” in 2008. “My own book would not have been possible without her and her teachings. It has 47 poems in it, and almost all of them were written for one of her classes.”
Firth Gillett has been a longtime inspiration for Rhein, both in terms of her writing and teaching skills, as well as the creative environment that she is consistently able to foster. For these reasons and more, Rhein believes that her mentor’s Kresge Artist Fellowship was well-deserved.
“It’s a recognition of not only her great poetry, but also her tremendous abilities as a teacher,” she said. “Mary Jo is always very encouraging to her students and very generous with her feedback. Her classes form this terrific feeling of a community of writers who are really eager to learn. That camaraderie of working together with a group of my peers was just invaluable for me.”
This is the fourth year of the Kresge Arts in Detroit program, which provides grants to local literary and performing artists on an annual basis. Since 2008, the program has awarded over $2 million to metro Detroiters working in a wide range of artistic disciplines.
The fellowships represent the Kresge Foundation’s desire to advance the artistic careers of artists living and working in the Detroit area, as well as to elevate the profile of the region’s artistic community. Detroit’s College for Creative Studies administers the fellowships, and the winning artists are also offered customized professional practice opportunities by ArtServe Michigan.
With her $25,000 grant, Firth Gillett hopes to enter some of her latest work into writing contests and attend a number of poetry retreats. She also plans to show her support for other writers by purchasing more poetry collections to add to her “towers of books” at home.
But whatever she decides to spend her award on, it certainly will be money well spent. “I’m a very frugal person, so you can rest assured that this money won’t be frittered away,” she said with a chuckle.
As a longtime poet in the independent, do-it-yourself mold, Firth Gillett feels that it is crucial for communities to establish a strong support system for local artists to continue pursuing their craft. Without such a system in place, she noted, it becomes exponentially more challenging for these talented “truth tellers” to keep producing the things that enrich the lives of everyone around them.
“That’s a big reason why these Kresge fellowships are so important,” she said. “I really believe that art is a measure of a civilized society; unfortunately, it’s also the first thing to go in a bad economy. But if a lot of people can’t afford to create art, then everyone loses out in the end.”
For more information about the Kresge Arts in Detroit program, call (313) 664-7940 or visit www.kresgeartsindetroit.org.
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