FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
STEPHEN SEXTON: Like many things, poetry started in primary school. When I was tasked with writing a poem, about the age of eight or so, there was the idea that it should rhyme. In fact, that was the only idea. At the time, I loved the idea of going to the edges of my little vocabulary, looking for words to rhyme with each other. In retrospect, it was kind of a pleasant experience, even something almost physical, the way thinking can sometimes feel mechanical and procedural rather than instant. At that time, poetry and rhyme were a puzzle to be solved. It’s not remotely how I think of language now, but I like to think I’m working with a little more language these days than I was then.
FP: 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 resist the feeling of being a poet. It’s something I’m much happier doing than having done. At the end of Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Oysters’ – a little manifesto of a poem — he describes being quickened “all into verb, pure verb”. I like that very much, that one’s relationship to poetry might be one of verb rather than noun.
I’ve been writing poems seriously for about a decade, but I did as a young person and again as a teenager. I noticed at some point that all the songs I liked I liked for the language. I started writing it seriously at university and came to adore the community of it and the intimacy of sharing poems with enthusiastic and passionate fellow readers and writers. After one’s confidence begins to grow, one can start to try new things, to follow whims and instincts, which occasionally pay off or lead somewhere interesting. I published a pamphlet of poems in 2014 and a book in 2019 and I’m immensely grateful for the very generous receptions they’ve received.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
SS: It’s impossible to overstate how significant it is to have Cheryl’s Destinies be shortlisted. One of the consequences of our times is that I’ve had many fewer opportunities to share work with friends or to talk about poems or ideas I’ve had. Subsequently, I have less of an instinct for this book’s character, even if it feels companionable to me. Like all of us, I’ve been negotiating uncertainty, and naturally that uncertainly has become interwoven into the poems. Embracing uncertainly as an aesthetic feels like the right way to reflect our moment; to record it, but it has its challenges for both reader and writer (I’m both most of the time). It is a source of great joy and validation that Cheryl’s Destinies has been shortlisted for this most coveted of prizes.
FP: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
SS: Some of the earliest poems in this book were written or conceived in some shape or form as far back as 2015. Although I’ve had the very great pleasure of being recognised by the Forward Prizes before, this book, Cheryl’s Destinies, feels more properly like a collection. Where my first book was more of a project book or concept album, this is a collection of some previously published poems among many unpublished poems. It does, nevertheless, have a conceptual and even narrative drive.
I’m gradually coming to understand the poems of this book, the more time I spend away from the moments of making them. The collection’s opening poem, ‘The Curfew’, concerning a speaker obliged to stay indoors for their own safety (a zoo break), has taken on a rather strange quality over the last year. I’ve always been interested in how a poem moves towards its context, and this poem seems to have found another kind of resonance years after it was first published. I’ve also a poem in memory of Ciaran Carson, a profound influence on my thinking about poetry. It took many late nights to get it right, but as the man himself would say, if you know where a poem’s going before you start it, there’s probably no point. Generally speaking, the book is trying to articulate, in some way or another, how the imagination responds to stress, how it comforts and preserves itself. I’ve been thinking about how poems are in the future of events, which has always been true, but since the future is a particularly fraught place at the moment, this observation seems more poignant than usual.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SS: There are many, but let’s see. Ciaran Carson and Sinéad Morrissey have been incredible influences on my both as people and as poets. Carson’s inclination towards narrative and yarn, as well as his remarkable passion for language and etymology is an incredible example. With Morrissey, I’m drawn to her remarkable clarity of image and invention. If I’m ever stuck with a piece of writing, or if creativity isn’t quite coming the way I think it should, Sylvia Plath is always the poet who unsticks my thinking. Will Harris’s RENDANG is a supremely intelligent and playful and moving collection. Anne Carson is incomparable in practically every way and I’m never not thrilled to read her work. Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions is wonderful and poignant. We the Jury by Wayne Miller is wise with history and complexity in the US, as are all of his books.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
SS: Mostly I want to be able to keep writing poems, to the have the time and imagination and opportunity to do so. I have no plans beyond what’s always been the plan: read what I can, write what I can. Naturally I’ve missed terribly the community poetry establishes and is enriched by. One of the losses, among the many losses of our recent history, is that of sharing a room and air with other people; having that same air vibrate with a poem and its music; to participate in collective and individual moments of interpretation. Soon, we hope.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SS: The main piece of advice is the obvious one: read lots of poetry, particularly contemporary poetry. It’s very hard to get a sense of one’s unique and invaluable relationship with language generally and poetry specifically without a good sense of the poems being produced at any given moment.
It might also be useful advice to say that poems are, first and foremost, events in language. They may well be directed or conducted by feeling and emotion — an essential component for me — but feeling is not what they are. There’s a difference between self-expression and the expression of a self. So, what actually happened, whatever the moment is you’re reimagining in language, doesn’t matter so much. Marianne Moore has that line about poems being “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”. It might produce good results to identify what the feeling is that bothers you, that won’t leave you alone, that makes you want to write. Then you take that feeling, distilled as it is, and plant it somewhere else and see what happens; in one of those enchanted spaces, like a supermarket, or a bowling alley. You remain true to that impulse to express a feeling, but it resonates, wonderfully, in a new and unexpected context.