Passion and the Poet

Amatoritsero Ede: One interesting thing about your work is that you are a novelist first, then a poet, or is it the other way around?


Steven Heighton: I started writing in my early twenties and from the outset I wrote both fiction and poetry. I continue to write both. People tend to refer to me as a poet who also writes fiction, but I think of myself simply as a writer whose impulses sometimes demand narrative presentation and, at other times, lyrical treatment.


A.E.: Does the one preoccupation ‘disturb’ the other. Usually a lot has been written about the prose of poets – for example by G. H Vallins. How does the one preoccupation define the other in your work?


S.H.: Generally I keep the two disciplines separate—treat stories as narrative and poems as lyric—so the preoccupations don’t really get in each other’s way. I don’t think I write a poet’s prose, or a “poet’s novel,’ in the usual sense that critics mean. I respect too much what fiction can do—in terms of drama, psychological insight, and narrative sweep—to write a static, poetic novel. On the other hand, there is definitely some spill-over between the forms. I’ve written stories and scenes in novels that are as much image- and language-driven as they are story-driven; still, the story always has to be there. As for the language of my fiction, it has been influenced by my poetry, but maybe not in the way you’d expect. Learning to write poems using tight formal constraints has taught me to be more economical as a fiction writer, sentence by sentence and scene by scene—not more poetic.


A.E.: There was a reading once, in Germany I think, where the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri started by ‘clearing’ his voice with a poem – one of his -- and then proceeded to read his prose work. Is poetry a clearing of the throat for you – in a manner of speaking?


S.H.:Poetry is an obsession for me. A neurotic sacrament. For me, poetry and fiction are co-obsessions.


A.E.: You seem to favour the narrative approach in your poetry. Is there any reason for this? I am thinking of the collection, The Address Book.


S.H.: Interesting—I would have said the opposite. I don’t think my poems narrate stories, or at least not complete stories. I’m most interested in the lyric moment—the crisis of insight, the intimate address, the emotional opening evoked through verbal music, the cri de coeur, cri de guerre, cri de joie. The Address Book is largely a book of “addresses”, poems spoken and sung to various “yous”. So, formally speaking, they’re closer to love letters than to any sort of narrative text. Still, I’m happy that you read them in such a different way.


A.E.: Do you experiment at all in your poetry?


S.H.: Most poets do, I think, every time. If you’re writing free verse, you’re experimenting with voice and music and breath and length of line and line-break until you find the right synergy and the poem becomes, for better or worse, the only one of its kind. If you’re working in “form”, you might invent a new one. If you’re deploying a traditional form, like the sonnet, you need to find some way to refresh it and make it your own—otherwise why bother? Every poem is its own cosmos, with its own origins, elements, inner laws and orbits and gravitational fields. And you have to experiment—i.e., try out new esthetic strategies—to articulate its full suchness and singularity.


Interview continues>>

Bernard Clark

Sentinel Poetry (Online) #41


Editor: Amatoristero Ede

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