Books·How I Wrote It

Steven Heighton on respecting your poetic elders, both real and imagined

The author of The Waking Comes Late, the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award winner for poetry, on the diverse voices that populate the book.
Steven Heighton won the Governor General's Award for poetry in 2016. (Mary Huggard/House of Anansi)

Steven Heighton is a team player when it comes to poetry. In his latest collection, The Waking Comes Late, Heighton calls in assists from literary forebears ranging from the midcentury German-Jewish poet Paul Celan to... well, let's just say a very, very mysterious Spanish figure.

In his own words, Heighton fills us in on the tricks of his trade, which resulted in the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. 

Learning from the greats

"Some of the poems in this book are translations of other poets. I call these translations 'approximations.' Lately, because I'm writing and translating concurrently, it's a dialectical process, a back-and-forth between the translations and the poems I'm writing. They're cohabiting on my desk. And if I read a poem that's somehow similar to a poem I'm working on or have been thinking about, I might decide to do a translation of that. Other times, I'll start working on a translation and it helps generate a new poem of my own. 

"I wish translating was remunerative, but it's not, and I don't do it for the money anyway. I do it for the same reasons that I write poetry. Both are an avocation, a labour of love. The translation started because I wanted to teach myself literary French, and so I spent two years translating Arthur Rimbaud's le bateau ivre. By the end of those two years, I knew that poem inside out. Unsurprisingly, it generated new work of my own, and I realized I wanted to keep doing it. 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. When I teach poetry workshops now, I urge my students to try it. I'm really passionate about it." 

Made-up masters

"Over the years, I've translated several poets who do not exist. They're fictional characters. I'm a fiction writer too, and this is one of the ways in which fiction and poetry converge for me. No one has noticed this yet, and I'm wondering how long that's going to take. Guess I'm blowing my cover here. One guy Googled one of the poets I made up and said, 'there's very little online about him,' and I said to myself, wait, there's nothing online about him! 

"How did I start doing this? Well, I would write a poem and think, hmm, this poem doesn't sound quite like me. Rather than making it sound more like me, I wanted it to sound less like me. So I put it in the voice of a fictional character, a non-existent foreign poet. It's a way of not being trapped inside my own voice forever. Many readers of poetry think the form is inherently autobiographical, but that's not always true for me and I think it's not for a lot of other poets too." 

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The "nightmind"

"As I got busier and busier over the years, poetry got nudged to the side. I had to make a living and support myself and my family — mainly by means of fiction writing and teaching stints - but the poetry didn't want to stop coming. Increasingly it took over my night life and started to leak out in the night in the form of dreams — often auditory dreams, lines that I'd hear and then scribble down by flashlight. The lines delivered to me in this way were usually finished, more or less. It was as if my unconscious mind had been working on them for some time and handed them to me as a fait accompli. The first poem in the book, 'The Last Sturgeon,' came to me fully formed. About half the poems in the book came that way, as gifts from the nightmind. 

"The challenge in the morning would be trying to complete, using my daytime mind, what had come to me in the night. There's always a deep strangeness and oddness and authenticity in those nightmind lines. The key thing is not to hope you'll be able to remember them in the morning. You won't. You've got to sit up and write them down before they vanish. I guess in this one way it's lucky that I'm a light sleeper and often wake up between sleep cycles, when the dreams are coming. Still, even a light sleeper must forget and lose countless vivid dreams. I'm lucky that I've been able to hang on to these few."

Steven Heighton's comments have been edited and condensed.