I’ve been having a hard time coming to terms with the death of an old friend, though one I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. The loss of poet Steven Heighton has made our country, and the field of poetry, a poorer place.
I had written to him recently (we exchanged emails probably twice a year) and had no reply, which was unusual, though not unheard of in crazy busy times. I assumed a reply would come when a reply was ready. Sometimes that’s not the case.
There are very few writers that reach a certain level, at least that I can think of, who are nothing but kind and generous with their time and attention. He was one. And he was in that interstitial generation between my own GenX slackers and the self-assured Boomers who ruled the roost when I arrived on the scene in the late 90s. It meant much to have someone to look up to who was also someone I could have a beer with and shoot the shit now and then.
My favourite story about Steven was the first time we properly met. We were reading at Eden Mills, the two of us on the bill with Anne-Marie MacDonald. They were flogging novels, I was poetry — only my second book and people didn’t really know who I was. But he treated me like an equal.
We had some fun exchanges ribbing each other from the stage, but it was afterward at the signing table, when they sat on either side of me with a lineup for 30 or more people each, while I had a whopping ZERO people coming to get a book signed, that I realized what a nice guy he was. They were scribbling away trying to get through the demand while I sat between them looking down a long corridor of nothing. I’m serious, it was like being in a hotel hallway. But even as I stared into the abyss of apathy that dogs poetry as a pursuit, Steven would pause between signatures and talk to me in a chit-chatty way as though it were nothing out of the ordinary, and even though both of us were acutely aware of how miserable the uptake on my book was. He was just trying to distract me until some friends could come stand in front of me and pretend they needed their books signed. He was just that sort of guy. You could rely on him.
He was also friendly and good at talking, able to ask questions and tells stories that always took the conversation in new and interesting directions. Generous, was the best word to describe him. (Plus, he always referred to me as “Lord George”, because of the famous English soldier of the same name. And I kind of loved it.)
A few years back we were in Kingston and had dinner with him, and we got deep into some tough stuff. We talked of many things, private and public, and the complexity of lives and choices and careers and various hands we’ve been dealt.
This latest card he received from the Great Dealer Above was a shitty one, but this is a guy who’d played a long series of royal flushes at the table we call poetry, so I’m going to concentrate on that.
I started as a fan, became a friend, and ended as both. His book The Address Book was the inspiration for a poem of the same title one of my books — with my version questioning when it’s time to remove the dead from your contact lists.
Steven, I think you’ve just shown me that the answer is most likely “never”.
(The Quill had me review his recent selected, which was brilliant, like much of his work. I hope he has left us some more, because the world is a worse place without him in it, thinking.)