VERSeFest: GG-award winner Steven Heighton talks writing poems, novels and short stories

Steven Heighton is a novelist, short story writer and Governor General Award winning poet. For the first time he’ll participate in VERSeFest in Ottawa on March 26 and later this spring he’ll be taking part in the Ottawa Writer’s Festival. In advance of his VERSeFest appearance he took some time to answer emailed questions submitted by ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb.

Q. What does winning the Governor General’s award for poetry mean to you? Does it sell some books?

A. Knowing that several of my poetry mentors — who’d won the thing themselves in the past — would be pleased was one of the things I liked best about getting it. And then there was the money. The house needed a new roof and had needed one for several years. A week before I heard that I’d won, I finally signed the contract and the roofers got to work. Soon after, when the local paper announced the GG results, my neighbours decided that I must be replacing the roof on account of the windfall. It made a good story and I decided not to correct it.

As for book sales, I don’t know and won’t until I receive my next royalty statement. I’m sure it helps some, but poetry never sells a lot, and I think we all know and accept that.

Q. You have a novel Afterlands is headed to movie screens. What kind of role have you played there? Are you involved in writing the script? Or have you bowed out and are watching nervously from the sidelines?

A. Actually it was Pall Crimson — the Icelandic director who optioned the novel some years ago — who was nervous at first. I think he was worried I’d be nosey and pushy, that I’d try to involve myself, try to control the direction of the project. I think he was relieved to find out that I’m not interested in interfering. The last thing I’d want to see on the screen is an exact visual transcreation of my novel — as if such a thing is possible, which it isn’t, since novels and films are fundamentally different. I told him I was excited to see what his version of Afterlands would turn out to be.

And frankly, after working on the book and with those characters for four years, the last thing I wanted was to spend more time with them. I had to move on. It’s Pall’s project now. He’s working really hard to make it happen and I wish him a strong tailwind.

Q. You write poetry, short stories and novels? I’m sure each is equally important to you but what came first? And why?

A. I wrote poetry and fiction concurrently from the beginning, back at university in the mid-1980s.

Q. When you approach an idea for a poem say, what makes it become a poem and not a novel?

A. Creative impulses tend — at least in my case — to pre-identify themselves as poetry, or short fiction, or polemical essay, or whatever. Now and then, the genre seems less clear cut and I might have to take several runs at the impulse, to see what it wants to become. I like when that happens.

Q. And what makes the idea a short story and not a poem?

A. These days a lot of my poems arrive in the form of auditory dreams. I hear words, lines of poetry, sometimes whole short poems, and I wake up and write them down, and then, if possible, try to extend them during waking hours. Those lines, for better or worse, are pure poetry — there’s nothing narrative or potentially narrative about them. On the other hand (to use another oneiric example) a few years ago I had a dream that was highly narrative and visual, and it became the title story of my last collection, The Dead Are More Visible.

Q. You are a pretty prolific writer. That would suggest you are very disciplined about your work. Do you sit down every day and write something?

A. It’s an illusion. I’m hopelessly undisciplined. I seem to spend more and more time reading online news and sports pages, and playing hockey. I just spent two hours shovelling clear a rink down on the river. I boast sometimes about how not having a cellphone and not being on Facebook or Twitter helps me focus on creative work, but then I spend just as much time doing email, or interviews like this, or surfing online, or studying Greek, or staring out the window. Lucky those poems are coming to me in dreams or I might not be writing poems at all. The one thing that does make me work is a deadline. I can work crazy hours and stay focused for months to meet a deadline. It’s unhealthy. It’s inhuman. Increasingly it’s how I get things done. Sad, really. I’m going to make a fundamental change soon, and I’m saying it here to ensure that I hold myself to it.

Q. When you are writing a novel, will you break off and compose a poem or sketch out a short story if the idea occurs?

A. Absolutely. I’m never just working on one thing.

Q. Do you think poetry has re-emerged as a more popular form today? Why? I have a theory that hip hop and slam poetry has made verse cool again. VERSeFest itself seems to be growing and attracting a strong lineup.

A. I hope you’re right. In politically tumultuous times and locales people do turn to poetry — and in fact poetry has never fully lost its popular appeal in countries like, say, Russia, or else in the Middle East. Meanwhile middle-class Canadians and Americans have existed in a coma of complacency forever. Maybe we’re waking up a bit now.

Q. Have you been to VERSeFest before?

A. First time. Looking forward to it.

Q. What do you think of the idea of poet laureates? Do they serve a bigger purpose than just a salary for a poet?

A. A salary for a poet — as long as the folks who sign the cheques keep moving the money around between poets — is a great reason for a laureateship. The other reasons, whatever they might be, are secondary. Poets do work and should be paid for it.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.