The Next Chapter

Steven Heighton on Al Purdy's lasting legacy

The Toronto author talks about meeting Canada's unofficial poet laureate.
Steven Heighton is a novelist, short story writer and poet from Toronto. (Rachel Rose/Harbour Publishing)

This interview originally aired on Dec. 24, 2018.

Steven Heighton is a novelist, short story writer and poet from Toronto. His works include the poetry collection entitled The Waking Comes Late — which won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry — and 2017 novel The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep.

Heighton was a huge fan of the late Al Purdy, known as Canada's unofficial poet laureate, and provided the foreword to Beyond Forgetting: Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdyan anthology featuring poems written in tribute. On Dec. 20 2018, Purdy would have been 100 years old. 

Heighton stopped by The Next Chapter to reminisce about the first time he met Purdy.

"I was in school and Al Purdy and Earle Birney came to our English literature class. This was around 1983 or 1984. Birney went up first. He had a heavy cold and was very old by that point. And, of course, to his students in their early 20s, he seemed completely ancient. He read well, but in this kind of weak and quavering voice. Finally, he just sagged back down into his chair looking utterly depleted. We gave him a long ovation.

"Then Al Purdy went up to the front, with a toothpick drooping from a half grin and said, 'What did you all think of Earl's reading here?' We clapped again and few people said they liked it. Al regarded us with a long, unamused grin and said, 'Well sure, a nice old man comes here to read. What else are you going to say?'

"Which, at the time, kind of shocked me. I knew already that Birney had been kind of a mentor to Al and I thought they were friends. It seems surprising, but I realized later that was part of Al's protocol and discipline as a writer; he was always competitive with other writers and with himself. It's one of the things that made him better. I also thought it was hilarious that he would do that." 

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



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