Steven Heighton, Governor General's Literary Award-winning poet, dead at 60

Steven Heighton was a Canadian novelist, short story writer and poet from Kingston, Ont. His books included the poetry collection The Waking Comes Late, the novel The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep and the memoir Reaching Mithymna.
Steven Heighton received the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry for The Waking Comes Late. (Mark Raynes Roberts)

Steven Heighton, an award-winning Ontario writer of musical poetry and widely published works of fiction and nonfiction, has died at the age of 60.

His publisher House of Anansi confirmed his death in an email to CBC Books.

"We received the news of Steven Heighton's passing with great sadness and send our deepest condolences to his loved ones. We had the distinct pleasure of working with Steven on both his poetry at House of Anansi and his work for children at Groundwood Books. We are honoured that so many of us had the opportunity to know Steven and interact with his writing," House of Anansi said in an emailed statement to CBC Books.

"Steven was a prolific and prize-winning author, poet and musician. He was also a kind friend and a true talent. He will be so missed."

His other publishers Penguin Random HouseBiblioasis and Palimpsest Press shared their condolences on social media.

The Kingston, Ont., writer published six books of poetry, debuting in 1989 with the provocatively titled Stalin's Carnival. It promptly won the Gerald Lampert Award for best first collection and set him up as a new and exciting voice in Canadian poetry.

"Steven Heighton introduced a new basis into Canadian poetry: an approach to traditional formal rigour that was entirely original and personal," said poet A.F. Moritz when Stalin's Carnival was reissued in 2013.

"It became the seed of what in the new Canadian poetry is most truly experimental and restlessly seeking."

Heighton released a second poetry collection in 1994, The Ecstasy of Skeptics, but started publishing more of his fiction in that decade. His first book of short fiction, Flight Paths of the Emperor, was a finalist for the Trillium Award and had the Globe and Mail describing him as a "young Ondaatje, a superb craftsman at ease in foreign places and distant times."

An interest in foreign places and languages manifests itself in much of Heighton's work. He grew up reading classical British and American literature, spent his youth travelling, lived a year in Japan and later became passionate about translating poetry.

His fifth book of poetry, The Waking Comes Late, drew from literary forebears like German-Jewish writer Paul Celan. The collection is a sombre and dark reflection on the state of the world and the struggle to have hope in its future. It won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.

"Some of the poems in this book are translations of other poets. I call these translations 'approximations,'" said Heighton in a 2017 interview with CBC Books.

"Every time you set out to translate a great poem, you enroll yourself in a master class with a great poet. It makes your own poetry better. It brings in points of view that you may not have come up with on your own. It's a process of enrichment."

LISTEN | Steven Heighton on The Next Chapter:

Heighton later published the memoir Reaching Mithymna, a finalist for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The book begins in the fall of 2015, when Heighton makes a sudden decision to go to Greece and volunteer to help with the Syrian refugee crisis unfolding on its shores. Once there, he found himself working in a transit camp offering support to refugees who recently made the harrowing journey across the sea from Turkey. 

"When you're trying to follow rough directions, the anxiety that you might have missed a turn or overshot your goal slows time to a quantum crawl. A 10-minute walk, especially in the dark, can seem like an hour as you scan both sides of the road with fading confidence," Heighton writes in Reaching Mithymna.

"This anxiety feels a lot like full panic when you're trying to guide 60 chilled, hungry people who have already had to be rescued once tonight."

Steven Heighton plays soccer with refugees at Camp Moria. (Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

Some of Heighton's other publications include the poetry books The Address Book, Patient Frame and Selected Poems 1983–2020and the novels The Shadow Boxer, Afterlands and The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep. His books were translated into 10 languages.

Heighton was an aspiring songwriter before he started writing poetry. He eventually fell in love with words over melodies and became obsessed with mastering poetry and fiction.

"It all began with songwriting," he said in a 2021 interview with CBC Books.

"That's an important point, because what critics and readers have talked about over the years is there's a musical dimension to my poetry. That's partly because, once I stopped actually writing songs, it's almost as if the poems were still songs, in the sense that they had to make their own musical accompaniment. By no longer writing melodies to go with the words, I put a healthy pressure on the words to make their own music."

In recent years, Heighton returned to his roots in music, releasing the album The Devil's Share.

LISTEN | 2020 by Steven Heighton

Heighton, along with Canadian poets Canisia Lubrin and Louise Bernice Halfecomprised the 2021 jury for the CBC Poetry Prize. 

The news of Heighton's death has led to an outpouring of sorrow and love on social media. Stories of his kindness reveal that Heighton was more than a great writer, he was a beloved member of the Canadian writing community.

"A brilliant writer, kind soul," said horror writer Andrew Pyper on Twitter.

"I'm personally indebted to him for launching my publishing career by forwarding my early stories to his editor — without me knowing. A glass of good whisky raised to you tonight, my friend."

"This is heartbreaking," writes poet Paul Vermeesch on Twitter.

"When I was just getting started, 20ish years ago, he used to call me up out of the blue every other month or so and quote a poem at me. I had to name the poem. He wanted to stump me. I loved that. And him."

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