Patrick Lafontaine


Reluctant poet shines

SYLVAIN-JACQUES DESJARDINS | Patrick Lafontaine was more than a little surprised to discover he had won the prestigious Prix Émile-Nelligan for his first book of poetry. Not just because he was up against stiff competition for the prize -- which is awarded to the best original French poetry written by a North American author under 35 -- but because he had never actually submitted his name to the competition.

Unknown to Lafontaine, who is completing a doctorate in comparative French literature at McGill, the editor of his book -- L'Ambition du Vide (Éditions du Noroît, 1997) -- had secretly placed the poet's name in the running for the prize. The 26-year-old only found out he had won days before receiving his $5,000 prize at the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec on March 31.

"It was kind of strange to be paid to write poetry," says Lafontaine with a self-conscious grin, noting that it's virtually impossible to make a living as a poet. "But I was very proud," he adds. "It was a happy moment."

What made Lafontaine's win even more unusual was that he never wanted his poetry to be published in the first place. Originally written as part of his master's thesis in comparative French literature done at l'Université du Québec à Montréal, he did not intend for the work to be made public. However, upon the urging of his thesis director, Lafontaine submitted his work to a publishing house.

The reticent poet still had one reservation: he wanted the book to be published anonymously. Again, at the insistence of his editor and director, he relented and his name was added to the book. So why, exactly, was he opposed to having his name associated with his award-winning poetry? "I thought, and still think, that by including my name before the text, it weakened and weighed it down," he says, pointing to his book as he sits in his cozy east-end apartment. "I've always said that what's important is the work and not the author (a theme his poetry examines). But then I figured that if I didn't include my name, people would wonder who the author was and I didn't want to play a game and hide behind a mask."

The 50 or so poems in L'Ambition du Vide are all written in the first person, but are not necessarily based on the author's experience. Each richly worded text is linked and explores tangible and intangible themes of birth, death, intimacy, the physical body and God. This, coupled with Lafontaine's examination of family relations and his languorous pacing, makes his writing style eerily similar to that of American novelist William Faulkner.

"[L'Ambition du Vide] was one of the best poetry compilations that I have seen come out of Quebec in the last 10 years," says Paul Bélanger, who edited Lafontaine's book and has been an avid poetry reader for 25 years. "It's remarkable how Patrick, as a young author, is able to write with such clarity, fluidity, and use language so logically."

For now, Lafontaine has no plans to write another volume of poetry. "I'd have to take three months off just to do that," he says, adding he must stop everything when he composes and could never afford such a luxury since he must concentrate on writing his doctoral thesis over the next 18 months. He also has his hands full as a single parent with shared custody of his two sons, Louis-Christophe, 5, and Justin, 3.

Lafontaine says he would rather teach than write, as he has for the past year at McGill's Department of French Language and Literature. He is also considering a career as a researcher and thinking about doing a postdoctoral fellowship. All this, he says, "does not leave much time for poetry."

But Bélanger doubts Lafontaine will never fashion another poem. "A writer cannot give up writing so easily because of his or her need to create," he says. "Although it might be better for a poet to write each book as though it were his last, if Patrick's desire to write again only returns in five to seven years, I'm sure his new poetry will possess the same intensity as his first effort -- if not more."