The Monthly talks to Stephen Sexton, winner of the Rooney Prize for Literature 2020 – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

How did you go about producing your first collection?

After doing a Masters Degree at Queen’s, I wanted to continue writing, and I wanted to continue in the writing environment I was in, connected to great teachers and poets like Sinéad Morrissey and Ciaran Carson. I applied to do a creative writing PhD and part of that PhD was to produce a writing project. I started writing material which eventually became my first book. That was around 2015.

If All the World and Love Were Young is quite a strange piece of work because it is a book which pretends to be about the video game Super Mario World, but it really isn’t about that at all. It reveals itself, over the course of the book, to be an elegy to my mother who died in 2012.

I wrote the first draft of the book very quickly. It probably took about 6 or 7 weeks over a summer. But it took the next three or so years and various drafts to get it into shape for publication. So about three and half years from start to finish.

Did you get much of an overview from your mentors?

Yes, quite a lot actually. The book went through three or four drafts in that time. I was very fortunate to have Sinead Morrissey as an advisor for my PhD. Her critiques were always astute and she absolutely encouraged me to work to determine what exactly the book was I was working on. Without her experience and acuity, I wouldn’t have been able to realise what, mostly subconsciously, I’d been aiming for.

Poet – Sinead Morrissey

Your first collection has done extraordinarily well. How do you feel about that?

It is wonderful to have something I worked on be received so warmly. It’s particularly rewarding to feel understood. If All the World and Love Were Young is somewhat challenging as a book. It’s unconventional in its subject (Super Mario) but also entirely conventional as an elegy. That readers have been willing to invest in the book is something I’m very grateful for.

So, where to now?

I am trying to write poems and to finish the manuscript for a second book. The main thing is to stay curious and stay committed to writing. I get an incredible thrill from writing poems and I am working away at that thrill.

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