Spring 2008






Writing from the Heart - The Poetry of Gianna Patriarca


by Venera Fazio


"To write from my heart and not have anyone notice my tears,” reads the inscription to My Etruscan Face, Gianna Patriarca’s sixth book of poetry. It is a quotation from the novel Memories of My Melancholy Whore by Gabriel García Márquez, Gianna’s favourite writer. “My writing is emotionally motivated,” she explains, her voice warm and passionate. “I am not the kind of writer who sits down at my computer every day and writes from nine to five, whether or not I feel like working. I write out of moments of inspiration when I am deeply moved. Each poem I write reflects a feeling, whether I am angry, joyful or feel insightful.”


Emotional trauma, specifically the distress of immigrating, is the reason she started to write many years ago. “I was nine years old when I left Italy in 1960,” she continues. “I went from being a happy child, living in a bright, sun-lit world to living in a dark basement apartment in Toronto where I felt lonely. I hardly ever saw my parents because they worked long hours. I was unhappy about my losses, had no other outlet, but I could pour out what I was thinking and feeling on paper. Writing became my friend, it helped me stay sane, to survive.”


For years, she kept her writing tucked away in drawers. It was her husband, Andrew, who assured her that her poetry was good enough to publish. Her work was featured in literary magazines before Guernica Editions published her first four volumes. “Still, it was difficult for me to have the courage to send my writing out,” she adds. “At that time there were no role models. When I was growing up, in the 60s and 70s, women were encouraged to become nurses, teachers, bank tellers, and secretaries, certainly, not writers. Immigrant children received even less encouragement to succeed. We were not even encouraged to go to university, let alone become writers.”


The complexity of being an immigrant is a major theme throughout all her books. Her poetry reveals her deep connection to her culture of origin, but at the same time, she doesn’t sentimentalize Italian identity or the hardships of being an Italian woman. Italian women, she wrote in the poem of the same title:

  Accenti INTERVIEW    Writing from the Heart - The Poetry of Gianna Patriarca  Venera Fazio


. . . breathe only

leftover air

and speak only

when deeper voices

have fallen asleep . . . .



i have seen them wrap their souls

around their children

and serve their own hearts

in a meal they never




She also writes poems from the point of view of other Italian immigrant women. We meet these women in all her books, but their presence is most strongly felt in Daughters For Sale, her second book. In the poem, “La Vacandin” childless, unmarried Esterina lives in her brother’s house as a maid to her sister-in-law. Esterina sums up her life by saying: “a woman without children has no home / a woman without a man is a guest / in her brother’s house.”


As an elementary school teacher, Gianna writes with the same compassion about her students, especially those who are victims of sexual or physical abuse. Her poems explore her own quest for identity and her relationship with an abusive father. She struggles with self-acceptance and is honest about aging. She visits her birthplace and acknowledges her losses. Interspersed between these poignant poems are joyful tributes to her husband and daughter, and other family members.


These same themes and topics preoccupy her in My Etruscan Face “But in this book, I have done something a bit different,” she says. “I’ve divided the poems into sections representing my past, present, and future.” She has recently retired from teaching, and a section of the book pays tribute to some of her pupils. She also says good-bye to beloved friends and relatives who have died. She struggles to accept her only child’s growing independence and, at the same time, the increasing fragility of her aging mother. “I have become acutely aware of the cycle of life, birth and then, death,” she admits, her voice sad. She questions the absurdity in the repetition of cycles, year after year, season after season. In the poem “How Temporary We Are,” she reveals her anguish in deciding what is important, as she moves into the next stage of her life:


more than

just a sad woman

she is a woman with doubts . . .


we are one breath

the measure of time

from beginning to end


and all is erased.



“Maybe,” she muses, “it is our creations and our imaginations that give repetitiveness meaning.”


If being creative is what matters, then Gianna should be pleased by what the critics have said about her work. In Books in Canada Charlene Diehl-Jones, writes, “[In Patriarca] we find crated poems, delicate and precise. Patriarca writes with passion and beauty.” American critic Fred L. Gardaphè, writing in the Chicago Italian newspaper Fra Noi, says that Patriarca “has succeeded in taking autobiographical experiences and making them speak to and for so many of us. Her style is straight talk that sings with power and beauty.”


Patriarca’s work has been broadly anthologized, adapted for stage and radio, and appears on the course lists of many North American universities. Italian Women and Other Tragedies sold over 3000 copies and was a contender for the Milton Acorn award in 1995. “However,” she insists, “it is not the medals or honours that are important. My greatest thrill is when I walk down the street and someone I don’t know, comes up to me and tells me they have read my books. Just the other day, an elderly Italian woman, probably in her seventies, approached me and said, ‘thank you, thank you for telling my story. I am not able to write it down, but you have done that for me.’” For Gianna, who at times, has felt vulnerable because her life “is an open book and people can judge or criticize,” there is joy in her heart touching another’s.



Venera Fazio is co-editor of Strange Peregrinations (Frank Iacobucci Centre, University of Toronto, 2007). She lives in Bright's Grove, Ontario.

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