Books·In Conversation

The key to Steven Heighton's success as a Canadian poet and author is staying humble and true to the art

The award-winning Canadian poet, novelist and short story writer talked to CBC Books about his life and career.
Steven Heighton received the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry for The Waking Comes Late. (Mark Raynes Roberts)

Steven Heighton is a novelist, short story writer and poet from Kingston, Ont. His books include the poetry collection The Waking Comes Latewhich won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry, the novel The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep and the memoir Reaching Mithymna, which was a finalist for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Heighton, along with Canadian poets Canisia Lubrin and Louise Bernice Halfe, is on the jury for the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize. In addition, Heighton's latest book, Selected Poems 1983–2020, is a collection of new and previously published poems that reflects his standing as one of Canada's biggest names in poetry. 

Heighton spoke with CBC Books about his writing, his career and his approach to poetry.

You have won a host of awards over the course of your career. Do they offer validation and fulfilment to you as a poet and author?

I'm of two minds about awards. On the one hand, when it happens, it's thrilling. And the money is very useful as a full-time writer. On the other hand, part of me is trying to ignore them and not pay attention to the awards, whether they're small or large, because I don't want to become obsessed with writing in order to get acclaim.

I mean, we all want that. But if you're actually writing for the purpose of achieving acclaim or prizes, you're not writing the real stuff. 

The day after I win something, I want to get up and just start writing a new poem without thinking about the award.

The day after I win something, I want to get up and just start writing a new poem without thinking about the award. 

On the other hand, it is a thrill, plain and simple. And, for me especially, the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry meant a lot. It's because when I started writing in the early 1980s, I was reading people who had all won that award — whether it was Al Purdy, Margaret Avison, P.K. Page, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen or Earle Birney —and that created a criterion for achievement.

When did you decide to become a poet?

There wasn't a definitive starting point. But gradually, and over not a very long period of time, I became sure. I started off as an aspiring songwriter in my late teens and early 20s — gradually it became clear to me that the words were better than the melodies. So I started focusing on poetry. That's an elegant, economical way of describing something that was a lot more complicated.

Recently I've gone back and discovered that some of the melodies were actually quite fresh — better than I thought. I think I just became obsessed with mastering poetry. Then I started writing short stories as well. I became obsessed with mastering the craft of the short story and mastering fiction. There's a sense in which I put my head down and started working really hard. And when I looked up again, 30 years had passed! 

So it all began with songwriting. 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. 

Growing up in Ontario, what were you reading when you were younger?

I became obsessed with classics pretty early on, to be honest. I was reading a lot of dead writers, right from the beginning. The good thing about doing that is you're letting time do the choosing for you. Another reason not to take winning a prize too seriously is that any number of mediocre books have won major prizes over the years. They don't prove that your book is great. If you base your reading list on who's won prizes lately, you'll be reading a lot of books that will not stand the test of time. If you are reading these older books, time has done the choosing for you. If they're still being read 50 years later, they're good. 

I became obsessed with classics pretty early on, to be honest. I was reading a lot of dead writers, right from the beginning.

I read a lot of classics. Then I started reading friends and colleagues once I started working as a poet. I started reading a lot more Canadian writing after I started practicing as a Canadian poet. 

I think that gave my poetry kind of a different look in the early days because my influences were largely British and American, instead of Canadian. 

You've been cited as a huge fan of Al Purdy and his work. What is the appeal of Purdy's poetry? 

That's a good question, and I've never given it much thought. He started to kind of, but not really, mentor me. He seemed to like having me visit him — I would go there once or twice a year and we kind of became friends. He was like a mentor and a friend. That consolidated the connection that began for me as a student when I had to study his work.

I wrote an essay on one of his poems, one of his Arctic poems. I think his relationship to the land, especially the North, is one thing that attracted me. I lived out west and traveled in the North, and so I felt an affinity for that same landscape. It's something about his insights into what the North means, what the wilderness means, that spoke to me. 

Steven Heighton talks about the first time he met Canada's unofficial poet laureate Al Purdy.

How did the new collection, Selected Poems 1983–2020, come to be?

It was mainly old poems. They are only 20 pages of new poems, [and they are] at the very end. Well, what happened was Karen Solie, the editor of the book, read through all my old collections and sent me a list of the poems she wanted to use. I made a list, too, and we cross-referenced them. I didn't want to argue with her too much because she was taking time out of her busy life to edit.

There were a few poems I fought for, because I thought they really should be in it. 

You've been fortunate or able to have the opportunity to travel a lot in your life. How has all this travel shaped and informed your work? 

I travelled a lot when I was younger. It's funny, I've lost all interest in travel now. It brings us back to the [current] lockdown. Again, I feel a little guilty about how easy the lockdown has been for me because I'm a full-time writer, and I've just continued writing in a sort of locked down way.

I've kind of lost interest in travelling. When I was younger, I was able to do that. I always traveled really on the cheap. Travel certainly influenced the settings of my poems. I hope that there is a cultural breadth there as well, because I've immersed myself in a lot of different cultures. I lived in Japan for a year and learned a lot of Japanese, for example. 

I always traveled really on the cheap … travel certainly influenced the settings of my poems.

The main effect has been to make me more interested, I would even say obsessed, in languages. And increasingly, this has been really important to my poetry. I have become more and more interested in learning other languages, either learning them really well, or just learning enough that I can sort of dabble in translation. The last three or four books of my poems included more and more translations — or what I call approximations — that are kind of interspersed among my own poems.

How do you keep things fresh and exciting? How do you stay motivated when writing poetry these days? 

What's making it fresh right now is pursuing what I call poetry by other means, and that is songwriting. I've been doing that for the last year and a half. I'm recording an album of original songs that have kind of spilled out of me, one after another, over the last two years, as if they've been lined up waiting to come out. 

That's where I'm channeling my poetic energy right now. Will actual poems continue to come? I don't know, but I think that if they do, they may look a little different just because of the immersion in songwriting in the last two years, which is a different form, or course — related but different.

What writing advice would you offer to novice poets?

The best advice I can offer is to try writing a poem that's not about you. You might even use the first-person "I" — and yet the poem doesn't have to be about you. It doesn't have to come out of the ego. 

The best advice I can offer is to try writing a poem that's not about you.

You have to find a way of writing around the ego during the day because the ego is just going to pursue its own agenda and try to make you say things to impress or please other people, or to just get attention for yourself. But poetry wants to come from another place — and it doesn't have anything to do with ego. 

How do you and have you defined success as a Canadian poet?

It's actually being able to make a living. That is success, just on the practical level. But on another level, it's maintaining your curiosity and your enthusiasm as the years go by. If you maintain your curiosity and your desire, you are, in a sense, retaining your youth creatively. I don't mean physically, or in terms of appearance, but I mean you're keeping that young thing alive inside you.

That's something you want to do, right up until the moment you die — keep your curiosity and enthusiasm. In fact, if you're working honestly, year after year, you're probably going to become more curious and enthusiastic about work and about life.

That goes into abeyance, in times of depression and struggle, and all artists go through those. But even at those times, when enthusiasm wanes, the curiosity is still there. And that's success.

Steven Heighton's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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