Poet talks about crafting his works

The pathway toward writing a finished poem often takes many curves and switchbacks. That is what poet, novelist and essay-writer Steven Heighton finds.

After he spoke at the 10th reading in this year’s Canadian Writers in Person series on March 4, Heighton took questions from the audience, including one from a student majoring in creative writing who wanted to know about Heighton’s writing process. He said he rewrites his poems many times, and in some cases has accumulated up to 60 drafts through which the progress toward the final version can be traced.

Right: Steven Heighton (Photo by B. Clark)

Heighton read a selection of works from his freshly published book of poems, The Address Book (House of Anansi Press, 2004). “The book is an eloquent collection of love letters, elegies and evocations of moments of heightened insight,” said series organizer John Unrau, Atkinson professor of English.

“One of the most memorable poems he read is about a small daughter covering herself with phosphorescent stars unpeeled from the sloping gable of her bedroom, then calling her father and waiting to surprise him as he walks up a darkened staircase. The title poem is about the experience of transferring names from an old to a new address book – a process that involves cutting out those who have died or faded from friendship or acquaintanceship. The poem ends on a chilly note:”

Bad luck, it’s said, to enter your own name in the new
book – as if, years on, in the next culling,
an executor will be leafing through and calling
or sending word to every name but you.

Heighton also read a passage from his best-selling novel The Shadow Boxer (Knopf Canada, 2000), which was voted Best Book of 2000 by The Globe & Mail, and from Flight Paths of the Emperor (Porcupine’s Quill, 1992), a travel meditation, and Stalin’s Carnival (Quarry Press, 1989). Joseph Stalin (Russian political leader from 1929 to 1953) was in his younger years a poet; Heighton has written imagined reconstructions/revisions of some of the dictator’s works, explained Unrau. “A number of the most interesting poems Heighton read were translations – he called them ‘approximations’ – of classic poems in other languages.

Heighton has written other books, including The Admen Move on Lhasa: Writing and Culture in a Virtual World (House of Anansi Press, 1997), a collection of essays; The Ecstasy of Skeptics (House of Anansi Press, 1994), finalist for the 1995 Governor General’s Award for Poetry; On Earth as It Is (Porcupine’s Quill, 1995), a novella and short stories; and Foreign Ghosts (Oberon, 1989), a book of poetry. He was poetry editor of Quarry Magazine in Kingston, Ontario, from 1988 to 1994, and currently is writer-in-residence at University of Toronto’s Massey College.

A number of awards have been bestowed on Heighton, such as the Petra Kenney Award for poetry, 2002; National Magazine Awards Gold Medal for fiction, 1992; Prism International Short Story Competition first prize, 1991; Gerald Lampert Award for Best First Book of Poetry, (Stalin’s Carnival), 1990; and Air Canada Award for Poems and Stories Published in Literary Magazines, 1989.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The final two readings in the 2003-2004 series will take place on Thursday, March 18, with Wayson Choy, and Thursday, April 1, with Anne Michaels as the featured authors.