National Poetry Competition 40th anniversary: Q & A with Stephen Sexton

In advance of the National Poetry Competition’s 40th anniversary readings at Kings Place on 20th March, The Poetry Society speaks to one of the ten poets featuring at the event Stephen Sexton, who won the National Poetry Competition in 2016 with his poem ‘The Curfew’, which you can read here.

What first encouraged you to write poems?    

I don’t totally understand whatever impulse led me or continues to lead me to write poems. I remember one or two instances at school where I had to write something resembling one as an assignment of some kind. I expect they were lousy silly rhyming things about feelings or war or the kinds of subjects which are important to teenagers. After that, I dabbled a bit on my own, but the texts I produced were abstract and obscure in a sorry way. It wasn’t until I took a creative writing class at university that I felt something click. In other words, it wasn’t until I interacted with other writers that things began to make sense. I’ve been fortunate to have had tremendously nurturing and generous teachers, such as Paul Maddern and Ciaran Carson, as well as Sinéad Morrissey, who won the National Poetry Competition in 2007.

I remember another school assignment: to construct out of cardboard boxes and tubes and Sellotape some kind of device that would sort coins if you dropped a handful in. I’ve no idea how a child was expected to achieve this, or even what the purpose was. It seems like extravagant busy work. In my failure to manage this, I developed a minor obsession for building odd structures I could run a marble through in ever more convoluted paths. It was a kind of exceptionally boring Rube Goldberg machine. Wikipedia describes one as “a machine intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and overcomplicated fashion”, which also describes many of the poems I like.

How did your National Poetry Competition win impact on your writing practice and your perception of yourself as a poet?

I’m generally quite reluctant to think of myself as a poet. It seems too auspicious a designation. I prefer to think of myself as someone who writes poems, but perhaps that’s splitting hairs. Winning the competition meant a tremendous amount. It was thrilling — I remember where I was when I received the call, though I don’t remember what I did afterwards. Winning it gave me confidence, of course, that I was on a path in the right direction. That the judges — whose work I admire very much — liked the poem meant and means a lot. 

On the other hand, because of it, I’ve become better at scrutinising my own work, and the decisions I take in its generation. It made me wonder if I write a certain type of poem, or if I rely on a set of tics or turns of phrase. As such I’ve become more guarded against doing an impression of myself when I try to write new things. Much like the contraption above, this is a long way of saying I think it made me a more perceptive (and maybe better) writer.

What top tip or tips would you give to a young poet or a poet starting out about developing their poetry?

Everyone says it, but read. Read poems, read novels too. Read books about embroidery or euchre or how telephones work, or about art history or about the art of art history. I once read most of a book about trout by a man who really revered trout. In other words, be curious about the world and the things in it. Some of those things might snag on your imagination. Often they come with their own terminology, and you might end up with a new angle on a word. Which reminds me, read the dictionary. Look up etymologies; they’re their own little narrative.

I wish I had a regimen of writing I could recommend. It’s tempting to think everyone has their own method that works for them, but a high proportion of successful writers seem to get up very early in the morning. I have no first-hand evidence of the fruitfulness of this approach. I can’t imagine there’s a wrong way to go about writing though. That said, when you get around to it, I feel you should sit down to write poems, not poetry.

Book now to hear Stephen & nine other poets at Kings Place on 20th March at the National Poetry Competition 40th anniversary readings