The Poet’s Paradox: in Conversation with Steven Heighton

Jenny Haysom: Your newly released collection, The Waking Comes Late (House of Anansi Press, 2016), is your sixth book of poetry. To me, it feels like a natural next step, as if the writing has evolved organically from previous collections. If we follow your work, the tone gets increasingly wise and reflective, but also world-weary and skeptical. Could we expect anything else from a mature poet engaged with the world as it is?

Steven Heighton: I don’t know about “wise,” but thanks for saying it. As for “world-weary”— I’m definitely not, and I hope the poems aren’t either. I think the tonal element you’re referring to is one of acceptance, or maybe healthy disillusionment. Which probably sounds odd— but then again why should we always use “disillusionment” pejoratively? Think about it: both “dis” and “illusion” have a negative valence in English. So “disillusioned” is a double negative, hence a positive, just as multiplying two negatives gives a positive result. To be disillusioned should mean to be stripped and freed of your illusions, which sounds like a good thing to me, and maybe the best possible definition of adulthood. Then again, who really wants to lose those hopeful, consoling little lies? It’s natural to cling to them, and we all do, sometimes for years.

It occurs to me now that hopeful illusions are mostly, essentially, a denial of the life cycle— of change, aging and death. But any poet writing well past the age of 40 is going to have to accept and embrace change and death, not just as existential facts but as things that confer meaning, an attentive vitality, on our lives.

As for that other word you use, “skeptical”— it’s a touchstone term I’ve been using myself in poems starting with my second book, The Ecstasy of Skeptics, twenty years ago. And I still am trying to find a balance between ecstasy and skepticism, both in life and in writing. And maybe the balance shifts over time.

JH: In the title poem “The Waking Comes Late” you say that “little matters more / than knowing right names.” Your reply to the last question had me checking my laptop dictionary for a definition of “world-weary” (“boredom or cynicism as a result of long experience of life”), which I’d rather thoughtlessly used to describe your new book. You’re right of course; bored and cynical doesn’t describe you well at all. That said, the tone of this collection feels darker to me— but let’s go with disillusioned, in the positive sense! And you certainly do end the book on a positive note.

The concluding poem in the collection, “Variation on Lines Heard in a Dream,” is a string of three haiku-like verses on the cricket’s “final song.” In the last line of the last variation, you write that “the voice dies still believing.” No cynicism here. In fact, it makes me think of that beautiful phrase in “Lost Waterfalls” (The Address Book) that so poignantly describes the poem as a “whim / against what drifts to dark.” Are you still writing poetry because you still believe in it? And if so, how has your belief in the vocation evolved over time?

SH: Sure, I’m still a believer, and yes, the nature of that belief has changed.

Herman Melville (possibly quoting Friedrich Schiller) wrote, “Stay true to the dreams of thy youth”— a sentiment easy to mock, as are youthful dreams, but these days increasingly I feel that to have “stayed true” in that sense is one way of defining a successful life. And I think poets who continue to publish work past the age of forty come to see that a Melvillian stamina/fidelity/authenticity is the main sort of success on offer.

As for this “whim / against what drifts to dark”— everything drifts to dark, everything slips toward oblivion, and we all know it, but in my 20s and 30s I only knew it intellectually. The difference now is that I write from inside an acceptance of that truth rather than from the outside peering in.

It just occurred to me that neither you nor I would ask a professional songwriter, “Do you still believe in music?” Music and song— whether you’re singing, attending a concert, listening in the car or while you cook a meal— music clearly matters in a way that can’t be questioned. It keeps us company, wakes us up, gets us dancing, calms us down, mourns with us if we’re mourning, etc. It’s spiritually requisite. Yet sometimes we wonder whether we should go on believing in poetry— even though some poetry, lyric poetry, could be described as song without music. I wonder if it’s just a matter of poetry’s marginality— could the difference really be that simple, that shallow? All I know is that poetry does for me a lot of the same things as music does. One example: if I’m driving alone late at night, I’m as apt to quote the poems I’ve memorized as I am to sing favourite songs, to keep myself awake, to keep myself company in the dark. Both forms of utterance work the same way, at least for me, so why would I stop believing in one and not the other?

JH: Your poetry is certainly musical, and always has been; in fact, you’ve “stayed true” to the voice that debuted in 1989 with Stalin’s Carnival. When this book was reissued (by Palimpsest Press in 2013), A. F. Moritz called it (along with The Ecstasy of Skeptics) “the seed of what in the new Canadian poetry is most truly experimental and restlessly seeking— a creative fusion of perception, emotion, and form.” Likewise, Michael Lista described Stalin’s Carnival as “a forgotten ur-text to so much of what Canadian poetry has become in the intervening quarter century since its publication,” and I think that these claims are important and true. Your lyricism and emphasis on prosody went against the current at the time, and subsequently influenced a generation of Canadian poets. Do you see yourself as the trailblazer for a wide-ranging group that we might call “new formalist,” or do you dislike the label and/or the way it can divide us?

SH: It’s good of you to suggest I might have been some kind of pioneer. It’s not for me to judge, but what I will say is that there were a number of us in the late-1980s and early-1990s who were casting around for models of rich musicality— approaching poetry as song, or at least as compelling sound, and reacting against an increasing prosiness and anecdotalism in mainstream Canadian verse. (Disclaimer: I and the others— including Ottawa-area poets David Manicom and Diana Brebner, to name just two— were probably magnifying and reifying a minor, passing phenomenon so as to have something to kick back against creatively. Which may be what every new generation does and needs to do).

As for accepting or rejecting that “new formalist” label— I mistrust all labels (who doesn’t?) and despise custodial nouns like “formalist” or “experimentalist.” I expect you feel the same way— that nouning the world is an unhealthy, essentially lazy practice. Yet we all do it, and we do it for the same reason that we map territories— to help us immobilize the chaos and navigate it. But the practice creates verbal/mental berms against reality, since reality is all flux: growth, decay, death, rebirth etc. Any artist should want to resist being nouned into nullity that way— being pinned down or penned in (pun unintentional) by abstract descriptions. Only verbs, especially present participles, can really capture what artists are trying to do— and then only for a moment. So when labellers libel Christian Bök as a mere “avant-gardist” or “Oulipian,” or describe Luke Hathaway as a “formalist” or “neo-formalist,” I get frustrated and impatient.

As for my actual writing, I’ll use techniques that could be described as “formalist” if a particular poem seems to demand them; or I’ll write a poem that will look, on the page, almost Black Mountainish if that’s what the evolving poem seems to require. To me, such flexibility of approach is essentially just what it means to be a poet— you pledge allegiance to poetry, to language, and to the work of trying to re-enact poetic impulses in the most effective way possible, rather than flashing your membership card in the “experimental” or “lyrical” school. Or any number of other schools.

JH: Though you may not have set out to influence a generation, you’ve worked as an editor, teacher and mentor since early on. In your poem, “How a Poet Must” you are still taking time to offer Rilkean advice, and you describe the ideal but near impossible conditions required to write poetry. Did you set up your life so as to achieve this delicate “flow… between… poles”?

SH: I wish.

I wrote that thing when I got tired of idly reflecting on, and complaining about, the poet’s paradox: that to write good poetry you need to be delicately receptive (a fancy way of saying “sensitive”), but to metabolize the ensuing rejection, criticism and indifference you need a kind of insensitivity or impermeability. And it’s impossible to be both ways at once. Luckily it does seem that as years pass you get tougher and more philosophical, but that healthy annealing also brings with it a new challenge: how do you ensure that the world can still find its way in to you through a toughening carapace?

As for dispensing advice, as I said in Workbook (a small volume of epigrams and essays) I only ever give advice to myself, then hope that others find it personally applicable and useful. Which in a way is similar to the poignant predicament each of us faces daily, whether telling an anecdote to a stranger at a party, revealing a thought to a friend, raising an issue with a spouse, or, yes, publishing a poem. We’re just soliloquizing, riffing on our own lonely obsessions, while keeping fingers crossed in the hope that another being will be interested enough to listen.


Steven Heighton’s most recent books are The Waking Comes Late (poetry, House of Anansi Press, 2016), and the Trillium Award finalist The Dead Are More Visible (stories, 2012). His novel Afterlands was a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice and was cited on best-of-year lists in ten publications in Canada, the USA, and the UK. The novel is now in pre-production for film. His poetry and short fiction have won four gold National Magazine Awards and have appeared in London Review of Books, Poetry, Best American Poetry, Best Canadian Poetry, Tin House, TLR, Agni, The Walrus, London Magazine, Zoetrope and Best English Stories. For his poetry Heighton has also received the P.K. Page Award and been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. He is leading the poetry workshop this summer at the Sage Hill Writers’ Experience; has been a writer-in-residence at a number of universities, most recently McGill; and is a fiction reviewer for the New York Times Book Review.

Jenny Haysom is Arc‘s former prose editor. Her writing has been published in a variety of magazines, most recently in The New Quarterly, CV2, and The Fiddlehead. She lives, works and writes in Ottawa.

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