Author Tags: Fiction, Poetry
John Lent was born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia in 1948; he grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. He studied at the University of Alberta from 1965-71, concentrating in his graduate studies on Modernist art movements and experiments with form. He was taught by the noted Canadian novelist, Sheila Watson, and the Canadian playwright, Wilfred Watson. Lent's thesis was on the plays of T.S. Eliot: an analysis of "the schizophrenic adjustment we all have to make to the demands of Western society--a society that imposes material, social and spiritual roles". Lent pursued Doctoral studies at York University on Malcolm Lowry and the issue of subjectivity.
For more than twenty years Lent has taught English literature and Creative Writing at various universities: Alberta, Notre Dame (Nelson), Regina and (mainly at) Okanagan University College in Vernon where he lives with his wife, Jude Clarke, a painter and writer. His sequence of stories in Monet's Garden, now into its third printing, follows the members of a dsyfunctional family from childhood into marriage, from the interior of B.C. to the heartland of France. His follow-up collection of connected fictions is So It Won't Go Away (Thistledown, 2005). "My continuing interest," he says, "is the relationship between consciousness and notions of narrative in both fiction and poetry."
Lent has also co-authored a collection of conversations about writing with “Mr. Canadian Postmodern,” Robert Kroetsch, Abundance. It’s the fourth release from the Mackie Lake House Writer-in-Residence Project.
John's Lent's The Path to Ardroe (Thistledown 2012) is described as a novel about the terror and delight of accepting oneself completely and "an exploration of friendship and its limits, life changes and the transforming culture and sub-cultures that altered North American life in the 80s and 90s, especially changes in sexual
awareness and the aesthetics of art."
Also a singer/songwriter, Lent sings in a roots/jazz group, the Lent/Fraser/Wall trio, accompanied by guitarists Neil Fraser and Shelby Wall. They have released several CDs, including Shadow Moon (2005). A founding member of Kalamalka Press and the Kalamalka Institute for Working Writers, Lent is also a co-creator of the George Ryga Prize for Social Awareness in B.C. literature in conjunction with Ken Smedley of George Ryga House in Summerland and Alan Twigg of BC BookWorld.
A Rock Solid. Dreadnought, 1978.
Wood Lake Music. Vancouver: Harbour, 1982.
Frieze. Saskatoon: Thistledown, 1984.
The Face in the Garden. Saskatoon: Thistledown, 1990.
Monet's Garden. Saskatoon: Thistledown, 1996.
Black Horses, Cobalt Suns (Greenboathouse Books, 2000).
So It Won't Go Away (Thistledown, 2005).
Abundance [with Robert Kroetsch] (Kalamalka Press, 2007) $10 978-0-97380574-1
The Path to Ardroe (Thistledown 2012)
[BCBW 2012] "Poetry" "Fiction"
So It Won’t Go Away by John Lent (Thistledown $16.95)
The gluttonous, jazz-loving character of Neil Connelly in John Lent’s So It Won’t Go Away can never get enough out of life, no matter how much he over-indulges his desires: “Drinking, smoking, sex: a man’s hands twittering, eyes bugged out in a desperate longing to be held, fondled, stuffed, stroked. Guzzling and inhaling things in a big grab against death.” At the same time, John Lent can’t get enough of Neil Connelly and his two siblings, Jane and Rick. Nine years ago he introduced this trio in Monet’s Garden. Time has not been kind to the Connellys. In Lent’s seventh book, the middle-aged and childless Connellys are all ex-alcoholics struggling with feelings of inadequacy and depression.
They have survived their alcoholic father but it’s not clear if they will survive themselves--and their disturbing similarities to one another. All three find it hard to be intimate. All have addictive personalities. All have a keen interest in modern art and literature. All three are writers who teach about writing. Neil Connelly loves jazz and Lent is himself a singer/songwriter for an Okanagan jazz trio. Neil and Rick teach at the same university where John Lent teaches much the same courses. If that last paragraph sets off an amber light of caution, well, you’re only human. Philip Roth aside, most fiction writers who can only write about writers (ie., themselves) are sorely lacking imagination. But in John Lent’s defence, he’s had time to refine his style and hone in on what’s important to him. The short stories in So It Won’t Go Away are not plot-driven narratives. Instead they flip around in time, place and point of view, incorporating first, second and third-person perspectives. Lent’s dozen stories get as close to three-dimensional writing as is possible. Sometimes the reader is taken into a character’s mind as a child, sometimes she/he is addressed directly. Other times Lent interjects directly, positioning his characters like a conductor. Frequently the act of creation itself is explored, be it music, art or literature.
Cumulatively, this collection is more than a series of literary experiments and musings. It’s like John Lent is circling his narrative, studying it from all angles. Each story connects to others. Along the way we learn about Jane’s inability to find a permanent partner. We learn about Rick’s long-term marriage to a woman battling lupus. We learn about Neil’s break-up with his wife and his own subsequent breakdown. It’s not cut-and-dried. Instead it’s all jumbled together, like a family that messily combines past and present and future at the dinner table. Along the way, Colette, the 71-year-old mother of the three Connellys, maintains her own balancing act: “...it was a matter of two landscapes: the one they were driving through, and another one, of words and names and instructions, that became a second version of the one they were driving through—a landscape of language and facts and details which she would store away and pull out whenever she needed it —one that was, in some ways, the most important landscape, the most real.” Her three children come together in an idyllic village in France at the end, and their deep affection for one another could well be the remedy they need to help resolve their problems. The narrator muses, hopefully: “Was there another way of seeing it so you could fall into it, embrace it…gobbled up by an equally voracious God?” Meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with filling your lungs with spring air, devouring a tarte flambé, slurping down a good scotch, jamming jazz into your ear or fitting your body to another’s in an act of love. If the shoe fits, write it.
John Lent of Vernon has also released a new jazz trio CD, Shadow Moon, with guitarists Neil Fraser and Shelby Wall.
--by Cherie Thiessen
Cantilevered Songs by John Lent (Thistledown $16.95)
from Hannah Main-Van Der Kam
Driving the Okanagan in first snow, music (Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Lightfoot), teenage memories, college level teaching, birds and birdhouse, neighbours and mentors, the seasons—the lanky, easygoing musings in John Lent’s Cantilevered Songs are reminiscent of unrushed conversations with old friends.
In this work, the Vernon-based college administrator and jazz vocalist is fascinated with joinery. “…this mystery / of joining, of intersections, corners, fits, so / damn important in everything we do, each small jazz symphony we might construct…”
So it is that Lent explores corners and intersections of things architectural, linguistic, spiritual and material, “cantilevered cathedral of stars and nebula.”
Artfully constructed on the page in cantilevered shapes, Lent’s lines, though not cliffhangers, are not without risks. Philosophical but not intellectual, these longish prose poems speak of contentment and appreciation. Though not mystical, they are religious in the best sense of the word; awe, awareness and gratitude.
Lent nods to his (now relinquished) Catholic upbringing, “How to accept this vessel of flesh and bone, this home… this incarnation we are, the word made flesh, a molecular cathedral straining within itself…” 978-1-897235-66-9
The Path to Ardroe by John Lent (Thistledown $19.95)
from Cherie Thiessen
Don’t quit your day job. That’s what artists often hear. One alternative is to retire from it, as John Lent has done.
No longer regional dean of Okanagan College’s Kalmalka campus in Vernon, the former English professor now concentrates on being a vocalist for the Lent/Fraser/Wall trio, a long-established jazz group that features guitarists Neil Fraser and Shelby Wall.
Having started singing professionally, in Edmonton, at 18, and writing seriously at 25, Lent now has ten books and a CD called Shadow Moon behind him.
“Music and writing have always seemed inseparable to me,” he says, “but it’s funny how I don’t usually think about it much. Now that you asked me, it’s obvious writing and singing are connected.
“What joins writing and music is the phrasing and its array of rhythms. The whole issue of ‘phrasing’ is as crucial in poetry and fiction. Even non-fiction, too. Strong lyrical rhythms have always dominated my poetry and my fiction. But first you must learn the fundamentals.
“When you have covered tunes so much, you acquire the confidence to improvise in music. When that happens, you really do move into an intuitive space of almost unself-conciousness during which you do not know what you’re doing, but you’re doing it.
“The great enemy of improvisation is the rational mind coming in to interfere and try to control things. You have to make sure it doesn’t. That’s when you lose the ‘feel,’ and everything begins to acquire a calculated contrivance. It might be technically good, but it has no heart or soul because it’s lost the feel.
“Exactly the same thing applies in my writing. Now, forty years into it, I write to surprise myself, to scare myself even, just as I do when I sing.
I want to write in a state of improvisation. Like the melody in jazz or folk or blues, you have to have the basic frame to hold you, but you are also improvising within that frame.
“That’s what happened in the novel. In The Path to Ardroe, I set up four characters in four very different settings. That was the frame. Then I began to improvise. When I sat down to write, I really did not know what was going to happen except I was going to write and generally stay within the frame. The details would come the way the notes do when you’re singing. You have to feel them.
“I see my songs as stories and poems. And I see my fiction and poetry like compositions: symphonies, sonatas, suites. I would see The Path to Ardroe in much the same way I might see the structure of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain or Coltrane’s Blue Train.
“But there are crucial differences in the kinds of thrills and rushes and satisfactions both forms offer. The painful thing about writing compared to music is that writing is slow and eventually completed in one form whereas music is immediate, very physical, and never the same twice. That needs to be said, too.”
John Lent first wrote about the Connelly family 16 years ago in Monet’s Garden, when he introduced the siblings Neil, Jane and Rick. A follow-up Connelly novel nine years later, So It Won’t Go Away, was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2006.
This time, the only Connelly in The Path to Ardroe (Thistledown $19.95) is Rick, one of four protagonists that include Rick’s long-time friends Peter Chisholm and Tania Semenchuk, as well as Melissa Picard, twenty-two-year-old daughter of another couple who are close friends to the older trio.
The four characters share the pages almost equally from four different places—Glendarroch, Strasbourg, Edmonton and Vernon—all on the same day in 1994.
In Scotland, Peter takes a little-used footpath to Ardroe, from Glendarroch, hoping for excellent coastal views and a glimpse of the hamlet of Ardroe. But he leaves too late, enjoys one smoke too many, lingers too long, caught up in memories of the woman he had come to Scotland to find.
Brave and open to mysticism, Peter is struggling with a painful family history, having lost his father and sister at an early age. His creativity is reflected in his dreams.
The book’s other three narrators are also on personal quests, but their explorations are interior. Rick is also a heavy drinker and smoker, and a writer. Twenty-two-year-old Melissa has spread her wings and flown to France, to write. She has left behind a nagging mother, a boyfriend called Brian, a divorced alcoholic father who has fathered an extramarital child, and several creative writing instructors who possibly did her more harm than good.
Tania is older, a teacher and a successful public figure who has an interesting story to tell us about her trip west with Rick when she was Melissa’s age. She’s a woman who has tragically lost her lover and who has chosen to raise a child on her own, a child who was deliberately and secretly fathered by Melissa’s father.
In metafiction, a novel usually imitates a novel, rather than the real world, so readers don’t have the luxury of losing themselves in a fictional story. The Path of Ardroe qualifies as metafiction. [William Gass came up with the term metafiction in 1970. Irony and introspection are two of its trademarks, and Lent uses both heavily.]
Another metafiction trademark is the superimposition of the author’s life on his characters. Sonia and Rick love jazz; Rick’s brother Neil is a musician. Lent and Rick also seem to have the same musical brother called Neil. All four characters grew up in Edmonton, as did the author. The first draft of The Path to Ardroe was largely written while Lent was on sabbatical in 1994, in Scotland.
Cherie Thiessen reviews fiction from Pender Island.