Patrice Desbiens, poet (born in 1948 in Timmins, Ontario). One of the most important poets in French-speaking Ontario, Patrice Desbiens is also among the most highly regarded by francophones across Canada. During his career, especially in the 1970s, he contributed greatly to revitalizing Franco-Ontarian culture and identity, as did Jean-Marc Dalpé and Robert Dickson. He has received many awards for his work and was a Governor General’s Award finalist in 1985.
Mostly self-taught, Patrice Desbiens completed only a few years of high school, at Collège du Sacré-Cœur de Timmins and Timmins High & Vocational School. Before he had finished his studies, a literature teacher recognized his talent and encouraged him to try his hand at poetry. Desbiens left his hometown and moved to Sudbury to do so.
In the early 1970s, Les Éditions Prise de parole published his first poems. During that same period, he worked as a journalist at L’Express de Toronto for a year and collaborated with numerous literary journals in Québec and Ontario, including EXIT, Estuaire and Poetry Toronto Newsletter.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Desbiens led a precarious existence: he worked part-time, wandered into cafés and bars in search of inspiration, made music and wrote poetry. In 1988, he was invited to the Salon du livre de Québec and promptly moved to Québec City to live in his language. In 1991, he settled in Montréal, where he still lives today. He is a member of the Union des écrivaines et des écrivains québécois(Québec Union of Writers).
A prolific author, he has published nearly 20 poetry collections since 1974.
Desbiens received the Prix Champlain in 1997 for Un pépin de pomme sur un poêle à bois, and the Prix de poésie Terrasses Saint-Sulpice-Estuaire in May 1998 for his collection La Fissure de la fiction.
In 2008, he won the Prix du Salon du livre du Grand Sudbury, awarded to authors who publish steadily over a number of years and whose readership has grown over time.
Among his recent works are Pour de vrai (2011), Les abats du jour (2013) and Vallée des cicatrices (2015), all published by L’Oie de Cravan.
Franco-Ontarian Identity and Influences
From the very beginning, Patrice Desbiens’ marginality spoke to Franco-Ontarian alienation, and this quickly became his greatest asset. Neither in his work nor in interviews has he hesitated to comment on Franco-Ontarian identity. The sense of being a minority living in two worlds — but with only one foot in each — is a major theme in his work. His quasi-autobiographical piece, L’homme invisible/The invisible man (1981), is a testament to this double identity (the work consisting of a double-interpretation, rather than a translation) and it established him as one of the major voices in French Ontario. This work also calls into question the absence of Franco-Ontarians, generally speaking, in discussions about language preservation — an issue seemingly reserved for Québec. Desbiens does not shy away from this issue of language in his writings: “Je veux parler maintenant… / je veux parler du / Franco-Ontarien / qui se demande quand / va venir son tour / de se laisser parler / d’amour” (Poèmes anglais, 1988). [Translation: “Now I want to talk… / I want to talk about / Franco-Ontarians / wondering when / it will be their move / to let themselves talk / of love.”]
Desbiens brings his beloved French language to life by truly putting it to use. He specifically chooses the street language spoken by Franco-Ontarians, which echoes Québec’s joual but has its own identity. Desbiens plays with the peculiarities of this language, its occasional “franglais” and its idiomatic expressions. He creates images that are sometimes violent, syntax that is occasionally disrupted, and, above all, a singular rhythm. Everyday places (bars, restaurants, motels, alleyways, hospitals, etc.) become the setting for violent events and ordinary happenings alike. “Descendre en ville / le cœur pesant comme un blues / et l’atmosphère chargée / comme un douze” (Amour ambulance, 1989). [Translation: “Head downtown / heart heavy like the blues / and the atmosphere charged / like a twenty-two.”] Desbiens makes it immediately apparent that he is a poet of everyday life.
While perpetually compared to Charles Bukowski and Lucien Francoeur, he does not consider them among his influences; instead, he cites Paul Éluard and Richard Brautigan. Desbiens’ collection Dans l’après-midi cardiaque, which is dedicated to the memory of Brautigan, was a Governor General’s Award finalist for French-language poetry in 1985. Many of his poems also pick up on themes that are present in Brautigan’s work, such as fatality, invisibility and the sterility of certain places.
Patrice Desbiens is also a music buff with a special fondness for jazz. A percussionist, Desbiens has further explored this passion in his friendship with composer René Lussier, who shares his devotion to the French language. Lussier and Desbiens performed together on-stage as part of the Le Trésor de la langue tour and made two albums fusing music and poetry: Patrice Desbiens – Les Moyens du Bord (1999) and grosse guitare rouge (2004).
Desbiens has inspired numerous other artists. A documentary about him (Mon pays…, NFB, 1991) by Valmont Jobin, produced within the À la recherche de l’homme invisible series, won the Prix du meilleur témoignage at the 10th International Festival of Films on Art in Montréal in 1992. In 1998, Richard Desjardins made Desbiens’ poem “La caissière populaire”into a song. That same year, Desbiens collaborated on and was the inspiration for André Forcier’s film La comtesse de Bâton Rouge. More recently, Québécois singers Chloé Ste-Marie and Vincent Vallières created songs based on his texts. Franco-Ontarian theatre companies have adapted four of his works for the stage: L’homme invisible/The invisible man, Les cascadeurs de l’amour, Un pépin de pomme sur un poêle à bois and La fissure de la fiction.
Awards and Distinctions
Finalist, Governor General’s Award for French-language poetry, Dans l’après-midi cardiaque (1985)
Prix du Nouvel-Ontario for his lifetime work and contribution to Franco-Ontarian culture (1985)
Prix Champlain, Un pépin de pomme sur un poêle à bois (1996)
Prix de poésie Terrasses Saint-Sulpice de la revue Estuaire, La fissure de la fiction (1998)
Nominee, Prix Félix-Antoine-Savard de poésie (1998)
Prix du Salon du livre du Grand Sudbury (2008)
 Desbiens’ verse echoes Gilles Vigneault’s 1975 song “Gens du pays,” which became a nationalist anthem for Quebecers as well as the origin of a popular birthday song — an alternative to the English “Happy Birthday.”