Gianna Patriarca, in interview with Linda M. Morra

(Reposted from Morris House: Backstage, October 2, 2013)


LM: Religion and religious belief is used with great sophistication in your poetry. Might you comment on the many ways it is featured and why?

GP: Religion has been from the beginning of my life part, what has shaped me (good or bad). I suppose it is partly because of the time I was born and the location: the 1950s in Italy after the Second World War, the rebuilding and the renewal of faith and tradition of the people, as children we were immersed in the fanfare of it all.

I was taught by the nuns from age four. My grandmother taught me to pray the rosary and she took me to church every Sunday and all the novenas before Christmas. There was something beautiful about the rituals and the music and the smell of incense and wax and the grand statues. As a child, it was all so mystical. The church, the celebrations, the feast days the dedication to saints and the moral guidelines that young people were fed were completely embraced by us during those years.

When we emigrated to Canada in the 1960s, the immigrant communities were tightly tied to the church and our social lives revolved around occasions that were celebrated in the catholic communities: dances, dinners, weddings and so on. I went to a Catholic high school and then myself taught in a Catholic elementary school. I was a good Catholic girl. But I didn’t like it. I started to ask questions, read between the lines of the priests and their homilies. My world got bigger and there was more to discover and to be challenged by. Of course, being a woman was challenge enough in immigrant communities back then, but one that asked questions and formed opinions….not easy.

I feel that I am a very spiritual person and I do believe in some form of higher energy or the power of love, but I had to struggle with the contradictions of my religion and tried to work them out in my writing. My family is very Catholic. My mother and sister are very traditional and I have learned to allow what gives them the strength to cope and brings them peace, although I often find myself writing about the contradictions and the injustices. I can’t accept many things that my religion preaches, but I choose to celebrate certain aspects of it that I know give me a sense of history and identity.

But I haven’t gone to confession in 40 years; I do that with the poetry.

LM: If poetry is a form of confession, what else do you “confess” to and how do you then position the reader in your mind’s eye in relation to it?

GP: I suppose every writer has some personal confession in their work; I did not ever believe I could or would be a writer for the public. I always wrote for myself; our dreams were much more guided towards practical things when I was choosing a career–secretary, bank teller, hairdresser etc. Writing was for me an act of survival. It wasn’t until university that I was encouraged to pursue it at a different level, and, by then, my voice and my style was pretty much established. I was interested in the lives of women, particularly immigrant women whom I served in various jobs and whose stories touched my heart. I remember working for a psychiatrist as a receptionist in the late 1970s and most of his clients were immigrant Italian women. Before they ever spoke to the doctor, they revealed their lives to me because I spoke their language.

There were no role models for girls like me or for the women in the community. I almost felt a responsibility to write about it but always on a personal level because I would never be arrogant and assume to speak for a whole group of women. I think others find the link to their own experiences in my writing, because it comes from a very real and honest place. I have always tried to stay true to the observations and the experiences and write about them with a certain respect and sensibility–and hopefully with the beauty of language.

LM: You observed that you are interested in the lives of women — and the poems in collections such as Italian Women and Other Tragedies showcase this interest. What about the men?

GP: The Men! They are everywhere!!!!!! And I do mean everywhere, including my work, they are in Italian Women and other Tragedies as much as the women are–in (Dolce-Amaro) College Street, The Old Man, Stories From My Town, Roberto Pisapia, and so on. I have always been interested in the women’s stories, because they have never really been told–unlike the stories of men that are everywhere. Just look at the authors who write about immigrant experiences (Italian): the subject is always the struggle of the “man.” The woman is there but she is peripheral.

I have been called a feminist writer, but, in truth, I am a humanist. I don’t exclude the men and certainly I love them as much as the women in my work because they are in it together. The reasons I write so much about women are that they are closer to the reality of my association with women. I spend much time with them–grandmother, mother, sister, aunts–and do volunteering with senior Italian/Canadian women. Also, I taught elementary school where teachers are primarily female. My concerns also extend to the injustices faced by women around the world. Their lives and their struggles motivate me. Sometimes I wish it was motivated by science fiction and vampires: it might be less painful.