The Monthly talks to Stephen Sexton, winner of the Rooney Prize for Literature 2020 – Part 1

Do you have any early memories of being drawn to poetry or writing?

The only memories that come to mind are being in school, when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, and being asked to write poems. That is the most direct memory I have of being drawn to writing poetry.

Beyond that, in a woollier sense, I was told stories as child, going to bed, for example, and I suppose I’ve always had some appreciation for how a story works from experiences like that.

Was there a creative writing or poetry programme at school that you were able to be part of?

Not that I can think of. We certainly did some work on poetry in English classes. Poetry was part of the curriculum, but I couldn’t honestly say that it was a central part of my life. Very rarely was I tasked with writing a poem, though on one or two occasions that was the case.

I think it is important to see yourself as part of a community. One of the things I admire about Community Arts Partnership is that it’s all about people being part of a community of artists or writers. That the organisation promotes poetic writing in schools, as well as in the community, is very important.

Poet – Stephen Sexton

Were you encouraged to write at home?

My parents weren’t massive readers, and it wasn’t a house full of books. They read newspapers constantly but I don’t remember them reading poetry.

I did grow up with stories, anecdotes and tales. There was lots of storytelling in my life growing up. That was always there.

When do you decide to work on poetry as the thing that you do?

I can say that there are two moments, the first which is probably comparable to many people, when I was a teenager.

I was, for a long time, far more interested in music, and music was my primary creative enterprise. I listened to and played a lot of music as a teenager. I was always interested in how songs conveyed ideas and emotions, but I think it was when I went to Queens University and found a community of people who were really interested in poems and poetry. They were interested in reading, writing and talking about poetry. Sooner or later, as you get to trust those people with critiquing your work (and if you’re lucky), you end up with a kind of community of people with the same kind of ambition.

Queens University, Belfast

Encountering that spirit of creativity at Queen’s, I figured I had to choose between being half-committed to two things or fully committed to one thing. I felt I had a finite amount of creative and imaginative energy and I decided that I was going to devote my energy to writing poetry rather than music. It has been ten years now since I made that decision. And anyway, they’re practically the same thing!

Was there any particular incident that lead to that decision?

Paul Maddern was a great teacher and was an important point in the process. His classes were the ones in which I felt my thinking shift and change; where I started to get a handle on what my position was in relation to the poems we were reading and the conversations we were having . When I think of my beginnings in poetry, I think of the classes I took with Paul which were incredibly welcoming, interesting and rewarding.

Poet – Paul Maddern

How does your writing develop?

I’m not sure I have an answer to that or that I could say I have a specific process. I would say curiosity is probably the driving force behind how I approach language; how words go together and how images are conveyed.

More practically, writing can develop from doing a lot of reading, of both contemporary and non-contemporary. I’ve always had people I could show work to, who I trusted. It’s a joy to have that kind of community of people to talk about poems with.

Part two of this interview is here

artist forms link
New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.