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Ballygowan poet who used Super Mario to deal with mother's death nets award nomination

Acclaimed poet Stephen Sexton from Ballygowan tells Leona O'Neill about his first book of poetry which has been shortlisted for a prestigious Forward Prize due to be announced on Sunday. Referencing his favourite childhood computer game Super Mario World, it is a tribute to his mother who died from cancer in 2012

Stephen Sexton, who has written his debut book of poetry about the loss of his mother
Stephen Sexton, who has written his debut book of poetry about the loss of his mother
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

When Stephen Sexton was young, video games were a way to slip through the looking glass; to be in two places at once; to be two people at once.

Following the death of his mother, Elizabeth, in 2012, he started writing a book of poems that initially were meant to be frivolous and entertaining, revolving around his favourite childhood computer game, Super Mario World.

But as he wrote, while wrestling with intense grief, what developed was a moving, otherworldly, daring narrative exploring cancer, bereavement, family life, loss and memories.

Stephen, from Ballygowan in Co Down, says even from childhood, poetry helped him make sense of the world.

“I have a very distinct memory of being asked to write a poem in primary school,” the 30-year-old says. “I think it might have been ‘busy work’. I can’t think of what the educational benefit might have been. I remember really liking it, really liking making language fit. I think at that time the idea of a poem was that it had to rhyme, and how to make a pattern, how to make it happen.

“I remember my first poem was about a Mayfly. I had read about them in a children’s encyclopedia that they had very short lives, that they live only for a day. I remember having a distinct feeling for this little creature that lived for a short period of time. Whatever I was reading at the time clearly had a profound effect on me.

“I can’t imagine I got into great detail with it. I think it was around four lines long, eight at the most, so I can’t think that I solved life’s problems. I was about eight-years-old.

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“My parents read all the time,” he says. “They would have read newspapers. But I wouldn’t have said they read a lot of books. Occasionally maybe but I don’t think we would consider them literary people at all. My dad was a crane driver and my mum worked in the civil service.”

Stephen’s debut book If All The World And Love Were Young, published by Penguin Books, has been launched to immense acclaim and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

“This is my debut book of poetry but I have been writing for years,” he says. “All the way through the difficult teenage bit. But none of that has existed, thankfully, and has been lost somewhere. It wasn’t until I was around 21 or 22 until I started doing it seriously and that was a consequence of being at Queen’s University and being around like-minded people and having good tutors.

The front cover of the Super Mario themed book of poetry.
The front cover of the Super Mario themed book of poetry.

“If All the World and Love Were Young is the first line of a poem called The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd published in the 1600s by Sir Walter Raleigh.

“There was a poem published the year before by Christopher Marlow called The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.

“It’s a romantic poem which begins ‘come live with me and be my love’.

“It is all about this wonderful, ideal landscape where two people will live happily forever without consequences or time.

“The reply to that is Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem, which is the one that I took the line from. It says look, be realistic, things aren’t magical all the time. Things change, seasons change, people die.

“So I guess it’s part of this conversation about lovely landscapes and a perfect world.

Dr Stephen Sexton
Dr Stephen Sexton

“And I guess that title, if it means anything, says that’s all well and good, but it’s not right. It’s not how things go.”

Stephen says the book helped him explore his emotions around grief following the loss of his mum, aged just 60, to cancer.

“The book is mostly about Super Mario,” he says. “It’s about trying to think about those sorts of landscapes and what it’s like to be looking out the window and seeing a field or a tree and then looking at a video game and seeing a field or a tree and thinking, how are they the same or different.

“But ultimately it is a big elegy, it’s a way of talking about grief, about my mother’s death, but trying not to think about that directly, because it is often hard to find a way to talk about it. So my way of talking about it, is to describe Super Mario world, the video game.

“My mum’s name was Elizabeth, she died in 2012, which isn’t that long ago at all. She had cancer. She was only 60- years-old.

“She had bowel cancer and was unwell for a couple of years. There was a period of remission and then it came back again. She survived for four years from the first diagnosis. That period of time is just so hazy, it’s hard to work things out precisely.

“She passed away in a hospice in Belfast. I was doing a Masters degree at Queen’s University when my mum was sick. I wrote poetry during that time, whether or not I was confronting what was happening, I don’t really think I was. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I got around to processing it.

“I was 23-years-old when mum died. It was a deeply unpleasant experience. It’s strange, on one hand it is the most unique and unimaginable experience. On the other hand it’s something many people go through. So there’s always this kind of balance of ‘no one else knows what this is like’, but then loads of people know what it’s like. I remember that paradoxical moment.

“But I ended up feeling comforted that other people go through this. That it’s not an entirely unique experience and there were lots of very supportive people. There were wonderful people in the hospice who do remarkable things.”

Stephen says his mum didn’t get a chance to read his poetry, but that it is now a lasting tribute to her.

“I don’t think mum got to read a lot of my poetry,” he says. “Which is a sad thing. Recently when I was putting the book together I was thinking ‘how am I going to explain this to her, when she reads it?’. Until it hit me, that’s not going to happen. Memory is like that sometimes. Occasionally you forget. So that is a very sad thing. In some sense or another, this book is a way of preserving what memories I have so that I won’t lose them. I put them into language, into things that are a little more fixed so I can preserve them. She didn’t really read very much of it, but this is — at the very least a tribute — but in many ways a way of remembering.”

He says he began the project thinking it would be a silly pastime, writing about a computer game. But as time went on, it become something much more profound and moving.

“I started writing the book three years after mum died,” he says. “I initially thought I was going to write a book about Super Mario (above), because I spent a lot of my childhood playing it. It’s a game that is made up of levels. So I thought it would be a fun if I wrote a small poem for every single level of the game.

“I thought I would find ways of describing it as if it was a real place, a real landscape that I could look out over.

“And then when I got a little bit into it I realised that this wasn’t what I thought I was doing. I think subconsciously I was trying to find a way to talk about death.

“But it wasn’t my intention to write this long elegy. I thought I was doing something silly, then this started to emerge and I guess when I realised what I was doing — which actually took me by surprise — I decided to go with it.

“A lot of it wasn’t planned, it just insisted that it be written about.”

When a parent dies, it rocks us to our core. Stephen says that the grieving process for him, started when his mother was still alive.

“I guess one of the frustrating things about cancer is that one does a lot of grieving early on,” he says. “You kind of do a lot of grieving around the first diagnosis. It’s strange to be in grieving for someone who is still there. So there was kind of a long run-up to dealing with death. A lot of that emotional work had already been done early on. But, of course, the finality of it is terrifying, that life does suddenly end.”

And he found channelling his emotions through a character, easier to express.

“It is a little frightening to put yourself out there,” he says. “But on the other hand, sometimes it’s not me, sometimes it’s Mario who is saying these things. I’m wearing a hat, that is the way that I have allowed myself to do these things. So even in the process of writing this, I was in a uniform which is the only way I could allow myself to be that frank.

“It was difficult. But I don’t think about it as being vulnerable or exposed to anything necessarily. It was just about finding a way to say it that is both true of what it is, and using language in an interesting way.”

He says his father Michael and his brother Noel liked his work.

“My dad, Michael, told me he really liked the book,” he says. “Which mattered a lot to me.

“There isn’t a tremendous amount of intimate detail in the book. A lot of it is kind of suggested. But there is that private and public tension that happens, where you have to be a certain version of yourself for other people, for those public interactions around the days of the funeral. I certainly felt that. Whereas privately you can be truer to yourself.

“I have taken the strange decision to write about an extremely private thing, using an absurdly public video game. There are literally hundreds of millions of people around the world who know what this video game is like as well as I do, yet I am using that idea of a public thing to describe a private thing.

“I hope that there is a turning outwards in the book. Although it is specific to me, it might turn open towards the end.”

He says he didn’t set out with a specific aim for the book, but if it helps anyone navigating the same journey, he would be delighted.

“I don’t think that there was a particular aim for the book,” he says. “But when do most people read poems? At funerals. Those are the times when most people turn to poetry in a way that suggests that poems are for special occasions, they not relevant to people’s lives. I don’t think that’s true. I think that it’s a shame that it’s the case. So I do definitely want to produce something that is accessible to so many people to explain a private thing, if that was useful to someone in the future. Perhaps when they are thinking that they don’t know how to understand what they are thinking, or they don’t know how to do something. If it so happened that they read the book and thought, ‘I see now what it’s like’, that would mean an awful lot to me.

“I’m not entirely sure if I found it therapeutic,” he says. “Mostly because I started off thinking it might be a kind of a joke to do it. I guess when you say something is therapeutic you are suggesting that it heals or salves. I think what I wanted to do was to transform, to transform grief into something else. So rather than cure myself of it, I wanted to make it into something else.

“So it wasn’t entirely therapeutic, I just wanted to use whatever that feeling was to transform writing, this video game, into something else. I don’t approach writing as therapy, but I like the idea that it can transform things.”

He says he hopes his mum would be proud of what he has achieved.

“I can’t know what she would have thought of it,” he says. “I can’t have both. If I could show her this book, it wouldn’t exist. I think she would be proud. The costs are high. To have this book means that I can’t show it to her. It becomes a kind of totem, or a monument to her.”

Stephen’s Book If All the World And Love Were Young is available in book stores and online here

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