FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
STEPHEN SEXTON: I was certainly asked to do it at school as a child, and I wrote it of my own accord when I was teenager and discovered alternative rock music and my feelings and the need to express them. Bad poems, it must be said, for all the obvious reasons.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
SS: I think I resist the idea of being a poet in favour of being someone who writes poems, but maybe that’s being pernickety. I find the idea of writing a poem much more approachable than the idea of writing poetry. There seems to be an awful amount of tradition and history and, necessarily, exclusion involved in ‘poetry’ that I don’t feel is there in the word ‘poem’, at least not to the same degree. I really like talking about it with people who don’t like poetry at all, especially because, often, it turns out that they like poems.
Whatever it is, I started doing it in earnest when I got to university. The obligation to read contemporary poetry, and to discuss it with a class helped me shape my understanding of how a poem could speak to a moment, or how, particularly, it might not be composed entirely of feelings.
Since I continued to hang around, I got to know an outstanding community of students and writers in Belfast. The rich and varied and sometimes relentless conversations about poems and poets in the UK, Ireland, the US, helped me develop my thinking and improve the broadness of my reading. That said, just as often, the conversations not about poetry helped too.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
SS: I started this book as a kind of joke! The idea of writing poems, or little texts, or a whole book about Super Mario World seemed mildly absurd, and utterly compelling. I started writing it around the spring of 2015, and soon thereafter realised that this particular game was so much a part of my childhood that I couldn’t write about it without thinking of my childhood, and I couldn’t think about my childhood without thinking about grief. So, I discovered I was actually writing an elegy for my mother, which came as a surprise to me. In terms of genre, it’s a pastoral elegy, and the digital landscapes of Mario’s world are put beside the actual landscapes of our world.
My impulse in the first place to was to write a book that praised this video game as an object of joy. I’m fascinated by how technology affects how we perceive and respond to visual culture, and it’s especially thrilling to me that, compared with today, the fairly unsophisticated Super Nintendo still occupies such a part of my imagination. Perhaps another thing to say is that I consider the book a kind of translation of Super Mario World, and I felt I had to think about what it would look like in English. I made a conscious effort to try out a line and style completely unlike what I’m used to in order to account for its colours and vivacity and its obstacles and creatures, and even its sense of scale and adventure. Ultimately it’s a book about loss and memory, though. Super Mario World was just the vehicle that allowed my imagination to make sense of grief.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SS: Goodness, so many, but two Carsons to start with. When I think of people who are influences on this book, I think of Anne Carson, particularly her book Nox, and Ciaran Carson, and his book For All We Know. I’m a fan of Anne Carson’s work for her inimitable and capacious and kind of funny tone. Nox is an important book for me for the intensity of its focus on language, and how she composes her elegy and translation from that scholarly, meticulous approach.
Ciaran Carson’s book is formally and technically outstanding in its constraints, and how it takes on the structure of the fugue as its means of organisation. It’s a book about memory and language and history and fragments of folk song. On that topic, his book Last Night’s Fun is also a masterpiece. I really like Emily Berry’s work for its monologues and moments of utter poignancy (‘Bad New Government’ is a poem I read all the time). Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, is, as everyone knows, utterly astonishing. It’s so many things at once: tragic, exhilarating, deeply moving, furious, elegiac, even, for a country and the state of its politics both contemporary and historical. Matthew Sweeney’s poems have been delighting and astounding me for a long time, for their imagination and, occasionally for their silliness. Silliness is one of my favourite qualities in a poem.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SS: I’m afraid it’s the same old advice I received: read poems. This is imperfect, though, since it can be easier to respond to a book of poems if you see something of yourself reflected in it. For many people, a book of poems, however celebrated and admired, may offer them nothing of themselves. If they can, I’d recommend someone starting out with poetry should look for people or communities who also care about it. I absolutely believe in the community of poets and writers and artists interacting with and encouraging each other; it’s been essential for me.
Besides that, curiosity is marvellous quality in a writer of poems. It can range from etymological curiosity to the level of image and metaphor and concept. Personally, I look up the ancestries of words all the time.
Finally, I’d encourage someone to trust in their own curiosity and in the things that matter to them, and to allow that curiosity to lead them to unexpected places only they could access. Then come back and tell us about it.