Poet Steven Heighton on Writing, Making Music, and Literally Losing His Voice

The author of nineteen books explains why success won't make you happy

A photo illustration of Steven Heighton in front of a purple and green background
The Walrus / Mark Raynes Roberts

Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry and finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers Trust Prize for Nonfiction, Steven Heighton is one of Canada’s most celebrated writers. The Kingston author’s nineteen books are testament to his range and restlessness: in 2020 alone, he published a memoir (Reaching Mithymna), a book-length essay (The Virtues of Disillusionment), and a children’s book (The Stray and the Strangers). The first of his many genres, though, was poetry; all of his writing, Heighton has said, shares “a poet’s sound sensitivities, at the level of the syllable.” Those sensitivities are on display in his landmark Selected Poems 1983–2020, published last year. Rob Taylor sat down with Heighton to discuss both his Selected Poems and his latest project: the release, from Wolfe Island Records, of a debut album of original songs, The Devil’s Share.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rob Taylor: You write fiction, nonfiction, and the watery in-between that is poetry. Could you talk about how each genre helps you get at the truths that interest you?

Steven Heighton: Some years ago, I spent an hour in a psychotherapist’s office. She asked me to talk as honestly as I could about certain aspects of my childhood. For twenty minutes or so, staring down at my folded hands, I tried to recall and speak accurately, to avoid all narrative reshaping, revision, hedging, conflation, embellishment. Eventually I looked up. The woman was slumped over her clipboard, lips slightly parted, eyelids closed, pen propped against the notepad in the way I used to do when I would let myself doze off in high school classrooms, one hand visoring my eyes so the teacher wouldn’t know.

I felt annoyed but also a bit hurt; I could not even pay someone to listen closely to a faithful account of my soul’s journey. Above all, rightly or wrongly, I took the incident as confirmation that my actual life and feelings were boring—or at least ordinary, unremarkable. But, having published several books by then, I also knew there were readers who found that same material engaging when it was dissolved in the creative alchemy of the writing process.

RT: You talk about this aversion to your “actual life” in one of your earliest poems, “Sailing, Gulf Islands.”

SH: I wrote “Sailing, Gulf Islands” in 1986, about events that supposedly took place around fifteen years earlier. But I’ve never in my life been in a sailboat with my father and never sailed among the Gulf Islands at all, except aboard a ferry. I don’t know the first thing about sailing. I never even saw the Gulf Islands till some point in the ’90s. In the genres you mentioned earlier, psychic/emotional truth is the only truth I’m trying to approach or approximate.

RT: And you’d say the factual details of your life would get in the way of those larger truths?

SH: I don’t understand writers (whether Instagram poets or prose writers) who dwell on seemingly untransformed personal minutiae—who choose to quote verbatim from the grimy little grievance workshop of the ego. Of course, when you’re immured there, you can almost believe it’s the realest thing in the world and everything beyond it is less real—a dream, a projection. But it’s the other way around. The world is real and the ego a construction—a little shadow theatre, like Plato’s cave.

To be fair, the ego has a vital job to do, but producing literature is not it. A strong ego operates as an interface, negotiating with the world on behalf of the self. It’s our advocate, agent, interpreter, day manager, tactician, translator, etc. Its function is logistical and administrative, not transformative and creative. Poetry or fiction that downloads directly from the ego might appear more honest or authentic than work that involves hours or years of transcreation, but it’s less so. At best, it’s a clear screenshot of the control room. The real work, because it takes far more time—rethinking, repatterning, revising, self-questioning, layering, the excavation of essential metaphor and symbol—draws the larger world into it, hour by hour, line by line.

For me, this is why, say, Sylvia Plath’s last poems, while recording the view from a precipice of personal pain and trauma, don’t feel banal in the way of the poetry of direct report. Her hard labour of transformation delivers something alive and of the flesh, hence closer to some kind of molecular truth.

RT: Perhaps as a way around the ego, you note in the introduction to Selected Poems that you’ve taken on “the role of stenographer to [your] nightmind.” Dream-inspired poems appear with increasing frequency from book to book.

In Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder describes poetry as “a constructed conversation on the frontier of dreaming” and notes that, in reading a poem, our minds are able to “move in a dreamlike, associative way” that mirrors the way our minds make sense of the world. You seem to echo this in Workbook, when you write that “we might do more if we learn to try less, to relax the mind so as to render it vulnerable to inspiration.”

SH: Yes, although fully oneiric poems—in which the lines emerge directly from dreams and are barely revised, if at all—aren’t written on that frontier; they issue from the psychedelic country beyond it. I don’t think the word “constructed” applies to them. They emerge without the work or interference of the conscious mind—at least until the moment of waking, which always cuts short the process like the “person from Porlock” who allegedly interrupted Samuel Taylor Coleridge and shattered the trance in which he was writing “Kubla Khan.” But, yes, when I try to extend lines received in a dream, or when I write a poem that has an “argument,” like a sonnet, the work is exactly as Zapruder describes.

RT: To what extent do you think the logic and movement of “the nightmind” has entered into the DNA of your “waking” lines and stanzas? Looking over your books, do you find yourself moving more associatively—with a mind more relaxed and vulnerable—within individual poems?

SH: I hope by now my mind moves more vulnerably and associatively. But I wonder if any progress I might seem to have made just reflects the fact that most of my poems now come from dreams. As they have to, because my days are now consecrated to forms of writing that can bring in money. Still, anything I write during the day, including the occasional poem, I draft instinctively, quickly, no idea where I’m going, and that helps mobilize a freer, laterally associative frame of mind.

RT: You may now write first drafts quickly, but getting yourself to a final product still seems like a slow haul. In What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, you spoke about endlessly tinkering with the last three lines of “Night Skaters, Skeleton Park” (which appears in the “New Poems” section of Selected Poems) and noted the arduous nature of “a poet’s sound sensitivities, at the level of the syllable.” How do you balance these two: the relaxed dreamlike mind and the rigorous editor’s mind, in which “every line has to be catechized and polished”?

SH: Balance? Fuck me. I’ve failed to find or at least sustain balance in any area of my life, personal or creative. There is no equilibrium, simply a struggle that’s renewed with every poem, every story. I’m now writing songs, and one of the revelations of working in that form is finding that the synergy of words and music—which, for me, develops collaterally and often very fast—helps eliminate the balance problem. I’m not sure why; it might be simply that songwriting is a more balanced pursuit. Certainly it recruits more areas—and presumably complementary ones—of the brain than writing does on its own. I know it involves the body more, for instance through tempo and rhythm and the very physical act of singing, or of playing a guitar, the two hands doing different things. I’m not surprised that the corpus callosum—the neural balance beam or interface between the two hemispheres of the brain—is especially well developed in musicians.

RT: You also get your two hands “doing different things” by writing translations (you call them “approximations”), which—like your dream poems—have been appearing in greater frequency from book to book. To what extent do you think your interests in recording the nightmind and “approximating” the poems of others spring from a common source? A way to leave the self that circles back into a finding?

SH: Beautifully phrased. Yes, I’m trying to shake up my perspective, to uproot and relocate it beyond ego. I want to escape the position of “subject” and its tedious, interminable soliloquy. I’m trying to gag that captious control freak seated in the forebrain.

RT: Of translation, Don Paterson once wrote, “If we are not prepared to make a choice between honouring the word or the spirit, we are likely to come away with nothing.” What’s your balance between translating a poem’s literal words and its spirit? Does one or the other have to be chosen, as Paterson suggests? I suppose another way of asking this would be: What is the spirit of a poem? Is it inherently tied to the poem’s form and sound?

SH: It depends on the poem. I’m not consistent enough in my approach to advocate any theory of translation. But, yes, I’d say that form and sound are metabolically part of a poem, of its physical essence and spirit. In poetry there’s no Cartesian separation of mind and body or content and form. A prose crib of Le Bateau ivre passing itself off as a translation, as does the standard Penguin edition of the poem . . . it’ll never do. The poem is its music. Poetry is a form of song in which the words are obliged to create their own rhythmic and musical accompaniment. So, as a translator, you have to try to approximate the poem’s rhythms and, if I can put it this way, melodies. And, if the original is rhymed, well, that’s part of its essence and you need to try to reenact it somehow in your translation.

RT: I agree you have to try to do it all, but at the micro level, don’t you sometimes have to choose? One word will recreate a poem’s sound, another its sense? If your poems were to be translated, which element (sound, sense, “spirit,” etc.) would you most hope to have preserved?

SH: If I were to be teleported onto a distant Earth-like world, what parts of me would I hope survived the trip—body, mind, spirit? But, if the body doesn’t make the trip, there’s no mind left, because the mind is what the brain does, and the brain is a bodily organ. And what we call spirit/soul is an epiphenomenon of mind and therefore of body.

But maybe I’m being disingenuous here. I mean, there are poems that could be translated literally and still work okay—not as powerfully as the original, maybe, but still interestingly. Rumi’s poems, for instance. Matsuo Bashō’s haiku. Some of Pablo Neruda’s and Federico García Lorca’s. Any poem that contains vivid imagery and brilliant metaphors—those things do translate. Still, what you end up with then is like great lyrics that can be read only because the music has been lost, the tune forgotten.

RT: According to Don Coles, sometimes “what you admire most in the work of this man or woman you’re translating reappears, in fitful gleams and glimpses, in your own work.” As you move back and forth between your own poems and your “approximations,” do you see more of these gleams and glimpses? If so, how do you think they manifest?

SH: I work on approximations alongside my own poems, going back and forth constantly. After any stint of translating, I return to my own work reinvigorated, acoustically resensitized. So I have to assume there’s a lot of healthy cross-contamination happening. I don’t glimpse those influences myself, but then I reread my work only when it’s unavoidable—say, while editing for publication or at a public reading.

RT: I noticed in your Selected Poems that you rearranged the sequence of the poems in The Address Book and Patient Frame so that the approximations were interwoven with the other poems (instead of lumped at the back). Was this a way of highlighting moments of cross-contamination?

SH: In the collection that follows those two, The Waking Comes Late, I chose not to sequester translations but to weave them in with my own poems. I felt the integration fairly reflected how every piece in the book, original or translated, emerged from a single period and process of reading and pondering, writing and revising. Plus, as mentioned, I commute constantly between the two forms. So the interleaving was meant to create a more coherent, dynamic, naturally flowing book.

RT: You’ve published seven books of poetry since 1989, but you took a ten-year break between 1994’s The Ecstasy of Skeptics and 2004’s The Address Book. I’ve always thought of your poetry books as divided before and after that ten-year gap—something formalized (in style, in content) over the intervening years, though I wouldn’t be able to pin down exactly what. Of course, what looks like a “gap” or “leap” to a reader can feel far more gradual for the writer themselves. Can you talk about that ten-year gap between poetry books and what happened to your poetry in that time?

SH: Two things intervened and changed my relationship to poetry. First, I became a father. Wanting to take the job seriously, I set out to generate more income. So writing fiction took precedence. It was no way to get rich, but it paid better than poetry. I started seeking out writer-in-residence gigs too. Poetry increasingly got pushed into the margins of the day or into the night.

The second thing, and it follows from the first, is that I stopped beating the bushes for poems, quit doing rain dances, and let them come when they would. Too much of The Ecstasy of Skeptics was written because it could be or because I felt I needed a certain poem or kind of poem in the book. To be fair, sometimes I was hoping that if I played scales for an hour, a real tune would start to come—and sometimes it did. But, once my life changed, there was no time for baiting or willing inspiration. I had to complete larger projects. Poems would have to well up on their own, when their arrival was emotionally—in fact physically—necessary. And they did, just not often.

RT: Do you think that changed the nature of the poems in some fundamental way? Was what you sought out different from what presented itself?

SH: I think the poems I hunted down were different from the ones that hunted me, in the same way that the “I” you publicly present and narrativize differs from the self that emerges when you dream. The ego wants to represent and even sell a construction of you (look, I’m a lyric poet with pre-Raphaelite curls and a bottle of wine); the deep self helplessly receives the truth, however unwelcome, and at times feels honour-bound to report it.

RT: Let’s talk about this shift toward music: in “Untaken Turns,” published over five years ago in The Waking Comes Late, you write about a poet who laments that in his “writing there was no such ‘turn,’ / nor likewise in his life.” I don’t want to conflate your life with those of your poems’ speakers, but in light of you releasing your debut studio album, I wonder if this can’t be seen as a way of finding a bit of a turn in your life. Could you talk about coming to, or coming back to, music?

SH: Right, the speaker in that poem is not me but has more in common with me than many of my speakers or characters. He is hurtling through life on a one-way throughway, always scanning ahead, seldom looking to the sides or behind, rarely residing in the moment. A spectre in his own life.

Yes, I hope this is a turning—or re-turning. (Re-tuning?) I started my writing life trying to write songs, busking, playing small gigs. Then I focused on poems, stories, novels. When I looked up, half a lifetime had passed.

As the much-lamented John Prine sang, “Your heart gets bored with your mind and it changes you.” In one song I faintly echo him, along with two other great songwriters, Steve Earle and Ferron: “The head believes it’s the one in charge / And the heart’s a lowly driver. / But when the crash comes, and come it will, / There’ll be just one survivor.”

RT: This idea of the heart as the one survivor chimes well with what you wrote in your introduction to Selected Poems, where you note that you’ve taken to music in part because, if you “sing the words instead of write them . . . it’s harder to overthink them.” You touched on this earlier, but I was hoping you could speak more about how music has offered you a freedom from the editor’s “catechizing mind.”

SH: Listen to an affecting song and the music disables that thing in your head that’s always judging, objectifying, and it pierces the protective layers encasing your heart. Once melody cuts through the Kevlar, the words enter freely and deliver the coup de grace. It’s like music turns each word into a bullet.

Music cracks us open in a way we sometimes resist but always need. And, if this is true for a listener, it’s also true for the writer. Sometimes a melody arrives unbidden and—through its intervals, tempo, chord progressions, key changes—articulates an emotion you’ve been failing to embody in words.

For someone who tends to overthink, overexplain, and translate all he sees and feels into the abstract medium of language, re-embracing melody and rhythm is a deep reprieve, like a remission from illness, even a kind of revival or conversion. Language is also part of song, yes, but lyrics are words redeemed, reanimated by their fusion with tones and rhythms. Which is what I’ve been trying to do with my poems for years—though, on the page, the words, as I said earlier, have to score their own musical backing, and I’ve longed for more.

RT: For all these new freedoms, has music brought with it new burdens that the poems avoided?

SH: I’ve discovered just how desperate the music industry is now. We thought we had it bad as writers. Musicians are worse off—and not just because of the pandemic. So writers need to keep fighting their rearguard action against changes to the book industry and copyright law. If you manage to sell a thousand copies of a poetry book, you might make around $2,000 in royalties. Not great, but something. If your ten-song album gets streamed a thousand times, for 10,000 total plays, you might earn as little as thirty bucks.

RT: The theme of disillusionment (financial and otherwise) sits at the heart of your lecture/essay The Virtues of Disillusionment. In it, you write of your younger self, on the cusp of publishing his first novel: “I still believed or hoped that success could transform me—that it was not in fact an ungraspable, shifting, fickle thing but instead a concrete destination I could reach and then reside in securely.” As you move into this new if equally impoverished space, do you have an entirely different mindset from that of your younger self? Is “success,” and its transformative powers, still a motivator in your creative life?

SH: The short, savagely honest answer is that I now fully grasp the virtues of disillusionment—happiness depends on transcending the pursuit of happiness and outgrowing “hope” as conventionally construed—but much of the time I still fail to take my own good advice. In other words, my soul has figured it out, but my ego, surprise surprise, still craves attention and distinction.

In Workbook, there’s a memo that points out a paradox I think about sometimes: “The writing life’s cruellest irony: while failure can make you miserable, success won’t make you happy.”

RT: One cruel irony you explore in The Waking Comes Late is that, just around the time you were turning back to music, you experienced a throat injury that caused you to temporarily lose your voice (“your ‘yells’ like whispers of a Scorsese thug”). What effect did this have on your singing voice? And, more broadly, did the injury itself help reignite your interest in vocal performance?

SH: It was a fractured larynx—a crushed voice box—sustained in a pick-up hockey game. Dangerous injury. The ER doctor warned me that, if I didn’t stay totally silent while the voice box healed, I would never speak again—“And you’ll definitely never sing,” he added. Then, “Do you sing?” It made me think about how I’d always wanted to make a record, had in fact written several songs that had (I felt) held up over the years, and now maybe it was too late. The speaking voice gradually came back, though gravellier and a bit lower, and then I worked to recover the singing voice. I felt pretty sure that an inferior version of the okay voice I’d had before would not belong in any recording studio, but with work I managed to get back what I’d had and then some. I also came to understand that the diseased perfectionism I too often bring to my writing had no place in the recording or performing process. After all, most of the singer-songwriters I loved had, at best, serviceable voices. The key was singing with soul and authenticity—two things that no amount of virtuosity, vocal training, or autotuning can make up for. Plus, as Emmylou Harris said, “Style is a product of your limitations.”

RT: In Workbook, you write that “the natural medium of the achieved spirit is silence.” Yet here you are, concurrently releasing your nineteenth book and first studio album. So perhaps there’s some work to go on that front, eh? In all seriousness, do you think of yourself as being on a path toward silence? Do you see a time when everything you want to say has been said?

SH: Do instrumentals count as silence? They’re wordless, anyway. There’s one on the album called “The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep” and I’m working on a new one now. Maybe that’s a start. In truth, I can’t imagine reaching a point where I’m no longer trying to figure things out verbally and/or talk myself through the harder nights. That’s what literature is for—poetry, philosophy, novels, songs. And what did I mean by “achieved spirit” anyway? Mountaintop sage? I’m trying to do the necessary work, but I haven’t done nearly enough, so expect more books from me.

Rob Taylor
Rob Taylor’s most recent book is Strangers (2021). You can read more of his interviews at roblucastaylor.com/interviews