Matthew Rice: First off,
congratulations, Stephen, on winning the National Poetry Competition. That is a great achievement. When you first came up with the idea
for your winning poem, 'The Curfew', did you feel it could be a piece that you
could enter into a competition? Or was it something that became
more conceivable as the poem was completed?
Stephen Sexton: Thank you! I started working on that poem in June 2016, but I have a feeling it was in my head for a few months before that. I don’t recall coming up with the idea for the poem as such — that’s to say the poem didn’t come fully formed or in any form really. Like most people at some point in their lives, I got really into octopuses, so I was thinking a lot about zoos and aquaria, which are repulsive and fascinating. Sooner or later I got to thinking about the idea of zoo animals roaming around a town, but where to go from there was a mystery. I knew I wanted zoo break to be the context in which a poem happened. Looking over some early drafts, I had some atrocious ideas involving many orders of creature that I’m glad I ironed out. When I was working on it, though, I had nothing on my mind beyond finishing it, however it was to turn out.
I seldom enter these kinds of competitions. I couldn’t tell how well or not this poem might be received, but I took as a good sign the fact that I wasn’t bored of the poem after a couple of weeks. I happened to be sending some poems off at the time, and I figured I may as well send this one off too. I thought the poem was kind of funny, and I hoped someone else thought so. In other words, I was happy with it, and I crossed my fingers that someone else might be happy with it too.
MR: Which poets have inspired you in your work? Do you have a particular group of favourites?
SS: I often find that particular poems or collections stand out for me, rather than poets. Certain books appeal to me at certain times. If I’m having trouble writing, reading Plath always does the trick. I can’t think of how many times I’ve read Ariel, but every time I pick it up I read a line from a new perspective, or see an image more clearly. I suppose I read Paul Muldoon for business or for pleasure. I read Robert Hass’s Praise a lot. I’m really fond of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets for their zaniness. As a collection, it makes for an incredible, funny, sad read. I’m a big fan of Lauren Ireland’s poems for their energy and the kind of jagged elegance they demonstrate. Of course there’s always something like Heaney’s North, or Field Work — books that immediately set me ticking. I like Larkin a lot, and apparently I have three copies of The Whitsun Weddings.
Most of the time I can’t tell what’s inspired me. It won’t be until a year or so, when I pick up a book again, that I realise how a style or phrase has affected me. I want to be reconsidering my approaches to writing as often as possible. I find phrasebooks or grammar guides really peculiar — the older the better — because of the unfamiliar varieties of English they employ. In these kinds of books, it’s finding new quirks of the language that I really value.
MR: A number of your poems such as 'On Betrayal', 'The Daydream of the Jacket', appear to be set in a kind of dreamscape. How important are dreams for you, as a source of poetic inspiration?
SS: I think I’m attracted to dreams because they’re often intensely sensory, and most of the time, do a great job of expressing information as images. In this way, I guess you could say they’re a variety of translation. Susan Sontag says that photographs are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality, and I suppose dreams kind of do this too — they reconfigure. As far as inspiration goes, occasionally an image will arrive that is strange enough or troubling enough that I want to spend some time thinking about it, and trying to describe a dream with all of its sensations, hues, and temporality is a great way of reminding oneself of how poor a job words do of describing experiences.
If one is Joseph enough to be able to interpret one’s dreams, they can be useful lessons in how to make visual representations of whatever sensory data has been absorbed.
MR: Do you find that you can sit down and write a poem at the desk? Or does a poem begin for you with an image or a memory whilst involved in the bustle of the everyday, mentally noted to be expanded upon later?
SS: I can sit down and write a poem at a desk as long as all the other variables are favourable! That doesn’t happen so often. Most of the time writing requires the conscious effort of sitting down and doing it. The poems start somewhere: something someone said, or something unusual I’ve seen — of course galleries and museums are great too — but I carry these sparks around for long enough that I usually forget their provenance. I make notes on my phone and I carry a notebook when I have the pocket for it, but I generally remember the more serviceable ideas I have.
I don’t really want to discover a routine for writing poems; I want each one to require a new approach or angle of entry. Of course, there’s always the suspicion that you’re writing the same poem over and over again. When I sense that happening, I do my best to avert it, by which point it’s usually too late.
MR: Your pamphlet, Oils (The Emma Press), was a Poetry Book Society winter recommendation in 2014. How big an effect did that have on your career? Was it ratifying, or would you have been just as confident in the work regardless?
SS: I’m not certain I have a career! It was a really wonderful surprise to hear the news that the pamphlet had been picked. I was already so grateful to Annie Freud, who wrote a lovely introduction to the pamphlet. Luke Kennard and Denise Saul selected Oils for the PBS, and it was exciting to think that people whose work I admire so much thought well of my poems. The pamphlet was the first time more than a couple of my poems had been published together. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to publish, and might not have, if Emma Wright and Rachel Piercey hadn’t (over the worst falafel of my life) so kindly invited me to publish with the Emma Press. Their confidence meant a lot, and I’m so grateful to them. I guess there can be pressure on a first publication — a pamphlet or a book — to be noticed. No one wants it to go under the radar, or be disregarded. Some people wrote lovely reviews of the pamphlet, and the fact that PBS acknowledged it in this way means a lot to me.
MR: You are part of a buzzing contemporary poetry scene in Belfast at present. Do you show work in progress to your fellow poets? Do you accept criticism from them, and vice versa?
SS: There does seem to be a tremendous amount happening in Belfast at the moment, although it seems to have been happening for a while now. There are many poets and writers (widely acclaimed and not yet widely acclaimed) who continue to produce exciting and challenging work. I have the good fortune to be able to discuss poems and writing with so many people. And we do often share our work. I very much believe in the community, and it often seems there is the sense of a “convection current”, as Michael Longley put it. I have learned a huge amount from the poems and readings of — for instance — Stephen Connolly, Manuela Moser, Padraig Regan, Caitlin Newby, Emma Must.
And absolutely, poems are shared and talked about, and I’m grateful to have readers I trust, who know enough about my proclivities and habits to suggest where I might take a poem if it isn’t working (and never say the bin), or help bring out better what I’m aiming for, if it’s buried in less than graceful verse. I always take on board what people say, but from time to time — and perhaps to the detriment of the poem — I stick to my guns. One outcome of the poetry workshop could be to find a reader who gets where you’re coming from, and gets where you want to go. I think I’m lucky to have found several.
I’m always excited to read the poems of my pals too, mostly because they’re often so good, as you might agree yourself. Besides that, devoting yourself to reading with care and attention can be a kind of thrill, maybe not unlike finally getting to hold the scalpel after several years playing Operation, and realising it has taught you nothing.
MR: You are finishing up a PhD at Queen's University Belfast. Have you found your academic work has helped your poetry? Has it provided you with the odd prompt?
SS: Academic work has helped me refine how I think about poems, and it’s a pleasant thing to have the time to read and think about approaches to writing. Besides encountering and hanging out with outstanding tutors and fellow students, the greatest benefit of doing a PhD for me has been the time it’s allowed me to write. I guess you can end up absorbing principles and techniques and approaches to writing, but it’s another thing to have the opportunity to apply these ideas to one’s writing, and furthermore, to talk about them. The PhD has also been about being part of the environment at the Seamus Heaney Centre, and being immersed in writing and poems much of the time, and meeting visiting scholars and practitioners.
As far as the actual research is concerned, I guess there are particular critics and essays I’ve read who have impacted how I think about poems. I remember reading Cleanth Brooks years ago, and being really struck by his argument that “the poet works constantly to resist any reduction of the poem to a paraphrasable core”. I liked this as a way of thinking about what a poem is, and more recently I suppose, I’ve been thinking about it again, and writing poems that almost beg to be paraphrased, like the titles to Friends episodes — ‘the one with the animals and the grandfather’, for instance, might be a way of describing the poem you mentioned above.
MR: Finally, what for you, makes a good poem? Is there a technicality in verse that pleases you, or do you prefer to be 'led' by the language, as it were?
SS: It’s hard to say. I don’t think there’s a formula for what I like, but there’s plenty I don’t like. I’m always willing to be wrong, however. I’ve spent far too much time looking through the fossilised remains of websites from the 1990s or early 2000s, as exhibited by Angelfire’s archives, or Geocities’ archives. Many of the pages under ‘Arts’ and ‘Literature’ still feature really charming poetry sites. Much of it is what might be called ‘bad’ poetry, but it brings to mind the days of the personal website with visitor counter and guestbook. They’re really handsome relics full of broken links and hideously garish backgrounds, in an outsider art kind of way. Most of the pages are those of teenagers who might have forgotten by now that those pages existed. I’ve learned as much from ‘bad’ poetry as I have from ‘good’ poetry, and perhaps the best challenge I ever set myself was to set out to write the worst poem I could imagine. It opened up avenues towards the surreal and the silly, and made me think of how even a clumsy or ugly phrase can possess a sort of shimmer depending on its context.
I’m not sure if many of the poems I like are good poems. Most of them, however, seem to be interested in language, and what it can and can’t do. They seem to be interested in how the words we use now carry some element of history with them. I’m certain to like a poem if that poem happens to be ‘From March 1979’ by Tomas Tranströmer.
Stephen Sexton lives in Belfast. Poems have appeared in Granta, Poetry London, and Best British Poetry 2015. His pamphlet, Oils, published by The Emma Press, was the Poetry Book Society’s Winter Pamphlet Choice. He was the winner of the 2016 National Poetry Competition and the recipient of an ACES award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.