An interview with novelist, poet and essayist Steven Heighton
by Evan Jones
STEVEN HEIGHTON WAS born in 1961 in Toronto, and grew up there and in the small town of Red Lake, in Northern Ontario. He now lives with his family in Kingston, Ontario. From 1988 to 1994, he edited the influential literary magazine Quarry. Heighton’s poetry has appeared in London Review of Books, Poetry (Chicago), Best American Poetry, London Magazine, Best Canadian Poetry, TLR, Poetry London, and the anthology Modern Canadian Poets (Carcanet, 2011). He has published five collections – including Stalin’s Carnival, which won the 1989 Lampert Award for best first poetry book in Canada, The Ecstasy of Skeptics (1995), a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, The Address Book (2004), poems from which received the Petra Kenney Prize and a gold National Magazine Award, and, most recently, Patient Frame (2010) – and three novels – The Shadow Boxer (2000); Afterlands (2005), a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice in 2005; and Every Lost Country (2010). In 2011 he published Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing.
This interview was begun in August 2013 and conducted by e-mail, the interviewer in Manchester, UK, the interviewee in Kingston, Ontario.
I’ d like to start by asking about history – an important feature of your poems. How do you prepare/research for a poem like “The Machine Gunner”? Or “Selected Monsters”?
For the most part I don’t. I’m not being glib or coy about this. The truth is, much as I respect scholarship, I’m lazy and impatient when it comes to research.
I realize that many writers love to do background research and some even prefer it to the creative work that follows. For me, the labour of poring over sources and taking down and organizing careful notes is too much like being back in school and completing an assignment. Still, I value accuracy, especially at the level of concrete detail, so I do research my work when I have to, but usually not till after I’ve written several drafts. I call it retro-research.
Of course a writer has to set out with some knowledge of a subject, as I did with the historical anecdote at the heart of “Selected Monsters” (in 1460 Cosimo de’Medici arranged for various animals, including a giraffe, of all things, to be brought into an arena to fight each other, to determine which was the most ferocious). But I happen to think that a bare modicum of knowledge is enough, maybe even ideal. Run with what you know and imagine the rest. Don’t let pre-researched facts throttle your options. Novelists and poets need not be compliant clerks to reality. (Disclaimer: this attitude might be nothing but a rationalization of laziness.)
As for the “retro-research”: when the exhilarating first-draft rush is over, and while embarked on the slower, more onerous process of later-draft revision, I do research as necessary, to see where I got it wrong, and then I correct accordingly – so long as the “correction” doesn’t violate the spirit of what evolved during the first draft. (I find that that if I’ve managed to write my way into that zone where the work seems to author itself – a state of absorption, of self-forgetting engagement – my imagination will have gotten it right most of the time. If I haven’t managed to enter that zone, later factual corrections are beside the point, since the work will be dead on the page.)
A concrete example. In the bullring, presided over by de Medici and the Pope, were a lion, a bull, a bloodhound, a gorilla, and a giraffe. (To the crowd’s disappointment, the baffled contestants declined to fight.) If while working on the poem I’d decided that instead of a bloodhound I needed a more totemic beast, like a wolf – whether for symbolic reasons or because the word “wolf” better fit my prosody (the poem is consonantally end-rhymed and “wolf” might have paired with life/half/gulf/self, etc) – I would have shape-shifted the dog to suit my purposes with no scruple.
It seems to me that there is no distinct place for your history – there are poems set during the wars, during the Renaissance, in early 20th century America, in Japan or ancient Greece. What attracts you to different historical settings?
Two main things. First, I’m drawn by narratives of injustice, as in the anecdote above (the issue in that case being our habit of inflicting atrocities on the natural world). Second, especially in my fiction, I seem to be engrossed by stories in which a small, diverse group of people are isolated and forced together into a struggling microcosm. I see my last three novels – including the one I’m now working on – as a sort of trilogy of such narratives. The new book is wholly imagined, but the first two, Afterlands and Every Lost Country, are loosely based on real events, the first of which happened in the Arctic in the 1870s and the second in the Himalayas in 2006.
In your Workbook, you define a writer as “someone trying to extend childhood – its exuberant creativity, its capacity for timeless absorption – all the way to death, thus bypassing adulthood altogether.” Yet you also note that “intense creativity” is a joy because it “integrates an adult’s productive powers with the playful oblivion of a child.” Can you say a bit more about the connection between the childhood imagination, the extending of it through adulthood?
I’m obsessed with these issues, as the partial contradiction between those two memos suggests. (Contradictory convictions, if they’re not just a symptom of shaggy thinking, usually flag a node of obsession in the mind.) I just re-watched Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth and it struck me that one of the film’s conceptual oppositions involves historical time – the unhappy realm that adults inhabit, at least while they’re not asleep – and sacramental time, eternity, the realm of nature, early childhood and the dreaming mind. I’ve heard it said that we’re all geniuses while dreaming. I would add this corollary: given that small children spend much of their waking time (or used to) in a state close to dreaming – the same state that artists need to tap into while working – the child shares the genius of the dreamer. Anyway, if as an artist you’ve managed to remain childlike, that turnstile to eternity is easier to access and pass through.
I’m a man who wants to live as a child – a bit like my Greek mother – but who was also raised, by an old-school ex-Naval-officer father, to be stoically, responsibly, chronocentrically “adult.” I’ve come to value both modes, but I think I would have been content to remain a selfishly creative child if it weren’t for becoming a parent myself. As a parent, you do have to grow up – or at least moonlight as an adult. It’s a truth that terrified me at first. I figured that “parent-mind” – preoccupied with schedules, routines, logistics, crossing chores off lists, and caring for others – would be bad for the work, and in some ways of course it is, because it devours so much time and keeps hauling you out of the sacramental mode and back into the logistical/secretarial.
But on the whole I was wrong. As with any parent who doesn’t hate the job, my vision of life and, hence, my imaginative scope have widened hugely with fatherhood. Being a parent, and thus an adult, alters your vision of time and mortality. You can’t help starting to see yourself as part of a vast and communal enterprise, instead of a discrete, isolate being (i.e. an eternal child enwombed at the navel of the cosmos). Eternal children can write nothing but lyric poems until their lyric source is depleted; or else they write self-focused, first-person Bildungsromans, one or two at the most, till that source too dries up. A child who becomes an adult – even if an incomplete, part-time, sometimes grudging one – is inducted into the world’s larger life and can never run out of material.
The biographical elements you mention about your parents bring me nicely to notions of mother-tongue and to your interests in translation. In “Portrait of a Mother,” you write: “so foreign here, you were, your bones / not marrowed with frost.” A connection and disconnection.
I should clarify that while my mother was Greek, Greek was not my mother tongue. Greek was all around me when I was a child, but so was English, and English predominated. But it gets more complicated, because I was immersed early in several unusual kinds of English: the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English that my father, a high school and university literature teacher, often recited in lieu of lullabies or bedtime stories. And after quoting, say, certain lines in Anglo-Saxon from Beowulf, he would translate into modern English: "Bid men of battle / build me a barrow // High above Hronesness..." Or he would ham up the opening of Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales and then gloss the full sense and footnote the many words I didn't know. Then there was his theatrically-burred cover of "The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens." I soon got a sense of the English language not as a stable, finished, neatly-bordered entity but a sprawling, living, mutating thing . . . a many-mouthed monster.
Come to think of it, during the Greek Orthodox masses I attended as a child I came to realize the same thing about Greek, because my mother, albeit fluent in modern demotiki, couldn't understand or explain to me some of the liturgical Greek the priest would intone. Nor could she read newspapers in Greece in the late 60s, when we visited, because the fascist regime of the Colonels was forcing all newspapers to publish in the artificial katharevousa (roughly, "cleansed Greek"). Languages, clearly, were polyvalent and labyrinthine, not unified and monolithic.
I wonder now if in some ways that perception was daunting to me as a child. I wonder if one of the reasons I became obsessed with translation, both as metaphor and as actual practice, is that it seemed a way to impose order on chaos, that churning crucible of tongues and dialects? Of course, that's just retro-speculation. What I can tell you for sure is that translation is now a staple part of my writing process – a way to keep schooling myself in the craft, keep apprenticing myself to great poets. Spend a few months reading, rereading, translating and tinkering with a great poem in French or Latin and you've pushed yourself through a master class with whatever poet you choose, alive or a hundred generations dead. I love the challenge of trying to smuggle meaning across frontiers of time, space, and language. To conjure the horny Catullus back to life on a page or laptop screen! Wonderful.
While at university I spent some months happily translating passages from obscure Icelandic sagas and poems so as to satisfy the requirements of Old Norse 400, a course then offered as a token, and seemingly punitive, alternative to Critical Theory 410. So thirty years ago you could still, just barely, avoid exposure to postmodern theory, and all my instincts told me I had to. Nowadays I have nothing against Theory – it's a useful tool, or toolkit – but I think I was right to avoid it at the time. It might have made me too self-conscious about the "constructed" elements of my own persona and poetry, thus inducing a kind of paralysis through analysis at a time of life when – if you're a budding poet – it's better to work in a visceral, propulsive, and unreflective way. Plenty of time for self-reflective cogitation later, when you're older and the pondering comes naturally. Ecstasy first, skepticism later; eventually, with luck, you find the balance.
You often wear masks in your poems: Borges, Catullus, Sahtouris, soldiers, Renaissance noblemen, murderers. All these different masks add up, suggest a lineage and your interests. But how different is translation from dramatic monologue?
Dramatic monologue is a sort of translation, but one involving the approximation of voice and character, as in fiction or drama, rather than approximation of form, language, and prosody.
Interesting – I think you're implying that through my choices of poems to translate I'm creating a kind of virtual monologue, an emotional autobiography told from behind a series of masks. That's a bit like the way an unfledged songbird separated from its kind will roughly reconstitute its species-song by instinctively picking out the notes it needs from the songs of other species around it. (P.K. Page first used that metaphor to explain how poets develop their own voices by reading other poets and finding there the sounds and modes that their natural inclinations require. But I think the metaphor works in this sense too.)
Derek Mahon calls his “translations” “adaptations.” Don Paterson uses the term “version”, and you go for “approximations.” Can you say a bit about your term?
I use the term – first suggested to me by George McWhirter after he read a few of my translations – to stress that I’m staking no claim to definitiveness or authority, especially in the case of a poem from a language I can barely swear or ask directions in. In those cases, by the way, I triangulate from existing English versions, usually while consulting the original with a dictionary in hand.
There’s a second reason I use the term “approximation”: it functions as a loose, inclusive rubric under which I can approach translation in either a traditional “faithful” manner – trying to stay as semantically and tonally close to the original as I can – or with a more contemporary freedom and audacity.
Two of the figures in your most recent book of poems, Patient Frame, seem to work as opposing poles. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and the murderer Roy Bryant. Thompson is heroic, elegised, Bryant villainous, the subject of a dramatic monologue. “Don’t do something in hope of reward, / …it might never come,” you quote Thompson. While Bryant says “Four thousand they paid” and gets his reward, in multiple senses. Are these two poems “rewards” in their way?
I can only hope. Because I see you're right – on one level, I was using the poems to try to confer both reward and punishment. How presumptuous – to rail against the failure of karma, to try to act as karma's deputy and step in and right two very different kinds of wrong (in Thompson's case, a heartbreaking neglect of recognition; in Bryant's case, the way he profited from his repulsive crime).
Still, if even a handful of poetry readers first heard of these men through the poems, and then looked further, my efforts weren't futile.
Let me add that if I'd been using these men as characters in a short story or a novel I'd have complicated them morally – because I'd have had the space to complicate them. A one-page poem about someone like Thompson is simply not the right form for the task. But I wanted to commemorate the moment that he transcended his own patriotic/conservative/obedient instincts and did something remarkable. And it was truly remarkable – hence the hyperbole of "archangelic." I knew the word, and the tone, would bother a lot of readers and in a way I think that's why I did it. Pure stubbornness. A pure gamble. This is not an excuse or a justification, merely an explanation. I'm weary of irony as a default mode and sometimes, out of pure cussedness, I push to the opposite extreme.
Then again, I'm not sure Bryant was morally complicated. After all, this was a man who on his deathbed was still whining that he'd only received a couple of thousand bucks for the story of his crime. No remorse. No repentance. Maybe it's a bit of a feel-good liberal myth that we're all complicated, all a mix of good and bad. It ought to be true, but maybe it isn't, not always; maybe some folks start off basically mean and just get meaner. Hence my ending to that poem, where I try to shock the liberal reader: the dying killer still rejoicing in his racist crime. By the way, the monologue came to me in a dream the night after I saw an excellent PBS documentary about the Emmit Till murder – I heard that voice speaking (no visuals) and woke up and wrote it down.
Is that something you see your poems doing (or perhaps something you'd like your poems to do): repairing past injustices?
Naturally I would love it if my poems could perform a task that momentous. Who wouldn't? But it's a pipe dream. As I say, the best you can hope for is that you'll reach, and move, and maybe (who knows?) even change a few readers a little. Poems have done that for me.
I think back to “The Machine-Gunner” and the way in which he is both villain and hero, philosopher and soldier. Thompson and Bryant, however, are separate individuals and more clear cut in their roles. One poem valourises, the other condemns, where "The Machine-Gunner" doesn't pass judgment, simply observes. Can you say something about the moralistic change here? About the moral responsibility of a poet? Have your morals changed since "The Machine-Gunner"?
No. I still believe that poets and fiction writers, most of the time, should practice a sort of neutrality, simply dramatizing, or lyricizing, and leaving the ideological conclusions to readers. But sometimes these days I choose to polemicize instead – to express a clear moral opinion in a poem – as in a recent one addressing ex-Pope Benedict on the subject of clerical sex abuse and his church's cover-up. Do those poems work less well? Do they not work as poems at all? I have no idea. Only time will tell – and time, let's face it, is not likely to be kind. I mean, it seldom is to any of us, especially if we're writing "topical" poems. Well, so be it. We can only write what we feel moved and called to write. Once the work is done, we're in the poignant position of sitting alone, fingers crossed, hoping that what we had to write also happens to be what others want to read.
Finally, I want to ask about Al Purdy, about what he means to you. You write quite a bit about Purdy the man in your Workbook, but can you say something more specifically about the poems you love? Which poems for you are ‘unbeaten’? And why?
I don’t think my poetry has much in common with his on a stylistic or formal level, but I owe him a lot in terms of theme. When I first encountered his work in my early twenties, I responded strongly to poems like “Necropsy of Love,” “Wilderness Gothic,” and “The Country North of Belleville,” poems where he was writing not just about sex and death but also about what endures – what transcends its historical moment. I guess I recognized those things as my own marrow-materials, and Al’s success with them encouraged me to approach them in my own way. But first I had to develop a voice. Themes float in a common pool from which anyone can draw, but each voice has to be distinctive.
For me, unlike some young male poets, it wasn’t hard to resist imitating Al’s voice, syntax, and signature mannerisms, partly because I’d already found other acoustical models, other musics, that better suited my sense of rhythm and tune: poets such as Dylan Thomas, G. M. Hopkins, Sylvia Plath, W.B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Wilfred Owen, and P.K. Page – all in their diverse ways great acoustical technicians. Plainspokenness didn’t appeal to me. It bored me. And I felt that some of my Canadian male peers, who were trying to imitate Al’s seemingly plain voice, were really just caving in to good old North American anti-intellectualism – the fear of seeming unmanly, fussy, heady, elitist, European. I sensed something spurious in their embrace and veneration of the demotic and colloquial. I thought it a kind of inverse snobbery. When Al invented himself, he had good reason to react against the Edwardian models he’d encountered in school – and at the same time to find a voice that squared with his own background, class, and autodidacticism. But his middle-class, college-educated acolytes were not forging a voice under the same urgent, and solitary, pressures. They were just mimicking.
My ear longed for a richer, denser music.
In Al’s best poems (not his best known, such as “At the Quinte Hotel,” which I wish to God people would stop anthologizing and imitating, because it misrepresents his achievement), he integrated the relaxed vernacular he began developing in the 1950s with a more traditionally poetic dignity of diction and cadence. And both these qualities are assimilated into a vision and landscape that’s unmistakably his own. Listen –
Perhaps the workman’s faith reaches beyond:
touches intangibles, wrestles with Jacob,
replacing rotten timber with pine thews,
pounds hard in the blue cave of the sky,
contends heroically with difficult problems of
gravity, sky navigation and mythopoeia,
his volunteer time and labour devoted to God,
minus sick benefits of course on a non-union job –
(from “Wilderness Gothic”)
STEVEN HEIGHTON's work appears in Poetry, The London Review of Books, and Best American Poetry. His most recent book is Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing (2011).
EVAN JONES is Partisan's foreign correspondent. His most recent book is Paralogues (2012).