The Next Chapter

Steven Heighton on dreaming up his poetry

The Governor General's Award winner for The Waking Comes Late explains how poetry forced its way into his sleeping mind.
Steven Heighton is a poet, fiction writer, essayist and teacher who believes poetry shouldn't be forced. (Mary Huggard)

Steven Heighton began his career writing poetry, but in recent years, poetry was increasingly sidelined by fiction projects and teaching gigs. He also made a decision that when it comes to poetry to never force it, and now he waits for inspiration to hit and when it does it's at night. Heighton's latest book of poetry is The Waking Comes Late, which won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry in 2016.

Like so many writers in mid-life tend to find, it was getting harder and harder for me to make a living, so I had to focus more of my time on fiction and essays, reviews, little logistical tasks, teaching stints. I'd always written poetry and fiction concurrently, and at the beginning I spent roughly half my time on each. Over time, poetry got squeezed out, but in the last five or six years it started to leak back into my creative life in the form of lines that would come in the night. I'd say about half of The Waking Comes Late emerges from moments like that.

The thing about those poems that makes me feel they're authentic is that they feel sort of finished — they're not perfect but I can't really do much work on them. It's almost as if my subconscious mind has been working on them for awhile and then hands them to me, and I have to go with what's there. I gradually realized as this five- or six-year creative period went by and the poems started, that if there was a theme that was unifying them it was the idea of trying not sleep and somnambulate through one's life. You realize life is going by fast, and you're just half asleep the whole time — not awake to the wonders, to love, to less pleasant things as well.

Steven Heighton's comments have been edited and condensed.