Super Mario poet from Northern Ireland shortlisted for top prize
A Northern Ireland poet inspired by Nintendo's mascot video game character Mario has been shortlisted for one of the UK's biggest literary prizes.
What started out as a joke for Ballygowan-born Stephen Sexton (31), who lectures in creative writing at Queen's University Belfast, soon became an unexpected way to write about the death of his mother Elizabeth from cancer when he was 23.
His debut book, If All the World and Love Were Young, is published by Penguin Books and each poem uses imagery from a level of the 1990 video game Super Mario World.
The ominous castles and bosses at the end of the game levels were equated with real-life drama, such as visits to the hospital and a hospice in his mother's final years.
In homage to the memory of the 16-bit console he played as a child, each line also uses 16 syllables.
With a £5,000 award up for grabs, the work has been nominated for the Best First Collection at the Forward Prizes - described as the most coveted accolades in the UK and Ireland for established and emerging poets - with previous winners in the competition including Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and poet laureate Simon Armitage.
"I'm utterly delighted to be shortlisted," said Stephen.
"I thought it would be a bit silly to write about Super Mario. There's a big tradition in writing poems about paintings and I thought, 'Why not write about a video game?'
"About 10 pages in it occurred to me that wasn't what I was writing about; I was finding a way to talk about grief and the death of my mother. That was not my plan but I started looking at the landscapes on the screen and to think about them as actual landscapes.
"I saw a tree and it reminded me of a holly tree that was in our garden growing up, so that type of association started happening."
The pixelated graphics on screen also served as a way to describe the steady decline caused by a terminal illness.
Stephen added it had been "scary" to talk about such a painful experience in public.
"It's a book about grieving that's pretending to be something else. That's part of the effect because it's difficult to talk about," he said.
"My father and brother have read it and I wondered what they would think about me doing this. But I think the situation called for it and I had to be frank; there was no point in doing it without being honest."
The awards are to be presented in London at a special event at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on October 20.