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An Interview with October Poetry Curator Stephen Sexton

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Courtesy of Stephen Sexton.

Stephen Sexton is the author of two collections of poetry, If everyone and love were young and Cheryl’s Fates. He lives in Derry, Northern Ireland and teaches at the Seamus Heaney Center at Queen’s University Belfast. As October Poetry Curator for the Poetry Curator Series, Sexton chatted with us in the Green Room about his favorite pool player, finding inspiration in Tokyo’s iconic crosswalks and how his musical curiosity l led to poetry.

Q:

Which poets have influenced you the most?

A:

I think of all kinds of people: Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn. Also, Seamus Heaney, who continues to be this outstanding example of how to be a poet in the world and an individual in a society – to have political responsibility as well as artistic and aesthetic responsibility.


Q:

How has the pandemic affected the way you think or write poetry?

A:

What’s most interesting about the pandemic is how hard it is to write, and yet there’s this desire to try. At first people found a lot of awkward analogies. There were people who said, “It’s like being in prison,” and it’s like, no, it’s not the same thing at all; you are at home. It struck me as interesting that a metaphor needs two people to work. We couldn’t come up with metaphors, because we couldn’t talk to anyone else – that’s what you think of when you’re up all night, starting work at 11:30 a.m. until three in the morning, kind of thinking: Why is our language failing here when we’re trying to come up with this?


Q:

What is a place you haven’t visited yet but want to visit?

A:

These famous and massive pedestrian crossings in Tokyo. He holds an incredible fascination for me [ever since I first saw it depicted in video games as a kid] and is a place where my imagination comes from. It’s the only place I really passionately wanted to go. But it is very far.


Q:

How do you deal with traffic jams?

A:

There’s a lot of roadwork on my commute from home to work, and it feels like kind of a moral test in some ways. But if I can sit down, it will be better. So I listen to the radio. I listen to podcasts. I can deal with it.


Q:

Where did you write your recent book, Cheryl’s Fates?

A:

Most of them really took shape during the confinement, at my place, here, in Northern Ireland. I started working at 11:30 p.m. in the evening. All that thinking in the weird hours of the middle of the night – thinking about what was going on in the world, not exactly feeling lonely, but just all that time being awake at night and eager to get out again… It was written when the place was particularly deep as an idea. We were tied to it.


Q:

What music are you listening to now?

A:

I went through a great phase of listening to country singer Jason Isbell. At this time of year, something about fall, I tend to put on REM. I listen to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins. And, I’m very late to the party, but Taylor Swift is really good. I have two albums that fundamentally changed my life: In the plane over the sea by Neutral Milk Hotel and Lubbock (over everything) by Terry Allen. They changed the way I think about life and art, like good albums sometimes do.


Q:

Who was your childhood hero?

A:

I really loved watching snooker, and my favorite player was a guy called Stephen Hendry. I think it was mostly because my first name is Stephen and my middle name is Henry, which is extremely close to Stephen Hendry, so it could have created that kind of automatic connection.


Q:

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing instead?

A:

When I was a teenager, one of the things I did a lot was play music. I spent all my student loans buying more and more ridiculous instruments that interested me. So I spend a lot of time listening to music and instruments and being curious about how sound works in different ways. At that time, I thought I wanted to play music, and I taught music for a little while, which I enjoyed. But there came a point when I realized that of all the music I liked, what I really liked about it was the lyrical quality, the language.


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