“I’m in Sympathy That Things Are Lovely But They’re Not Forever”: A Conversation with Stephen Sexton

April 2, 2020
A line drawing on a blue background with a book connected to a television connected to a video game controller. Text read: You Are a Super Reader
Illustration by Nathan Stazicker

Stephen Sexton, a poet from Northern Ireland, is the 2020 E. M. Forster Award winner and author of a pamphlet, Oils, published in 2014 and, most recently, If All the World and Love Were Young (2019). This latest book, which deals with the loss of his mother to cancer, has been awarded the Forward Prize for Poetry and in January was longlisted for the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize.

Our conversation was conducted over the internet and was interspersed with watching levels from Super Mario World, the 1990 Super Nintendo video game that inspires much of If All the World and Love Were Young. We talked about his memories of playing the video game, the interaction between the digital world and the real world, Walter Raleigh, and donuts.

Nicholas Pritchard: There is a big 2D feature to Super Mario World and to your book. There are a lot of going downs and risings back up.

Stephen Sexton: There are. There are lots of overgrounds and undergrounds. A lot of water and a lot of landscapes. I guess one of the things that is not a very funny joke but kind of amuses me is that Mario must go left to right and jump over things and avoid things. His destiny is to go from left to right, but he is beset by challenges big and small. That’s how English syntax proceeds: left to right. The poetic line moves left to right. One might encounter in that poetic line all kinds of things, not necessarily difficult things but certainly the sorts of things that complicate that movement left to right.

Nicholas Pritchard: The poems are quite square and pixilated to the eye. Is this to add to this video-game feel?

Stephen Sexton: Absolutely. It was my hope that it would feel blocky. Also, each line is sixteen syllables long as a way of approximating the processor of the Super Nintendo, which is able to cycle through sixteen bits in each cycle of its processor. The line is trying to mimic the processor.

Nicholas Pritchard: Some of the poems seem to be more involved with Mario World, and then it goes more into personal memories . . .

Stephen Sexton: I think that’s fair. There’s a movement into the real, I guess. If there’s a balance toward the start of the book, a greater percentage is Mario and a smaller percentage is real world. There’s a point at which that shifts and is inverted the other way; more of it is the real world and less of it is Mario. They cross over at some point.

Mario’s destiny is to go from left to right, but he is beset by challenges big and small. That’s how English syntax proceeds: left to right.

Nicholas Pritchard: Can we look at a level in Mario World to see how it relates to your book?

Stephen Sexton: A good one to look at might be “Yoshi’s Island 4.” I guess this is a good example of the video-game world: absurd floating platforms, and for some reason there are mines coming through. This is a typical kind of movement where there is the unusual, or canny, or vibrant, or weird kind of video-game world, which is described for a couple of lines and then a connection is made to a specific memory.

In this case, the specific memory is of a little seaside town in Northern Ireland called Bangor. It’s a lovely little seaside town where there is a children’s pool, there’s a promenade, there are weird pedalo things, which are in fact giant swans you sit in and paddle around. So that idea of being right next to open water, that is the memory drawn together.

What particularly happens in this level is that there is a bit where Mario has to jump over these strange feline cactus things. So, in the poem I have: “in a neighbouring province saguaro . . .” And saguaro are those big Mexican, Californian cacti. It’s trying to animate a certain kind of imagination. So, you see those cacti walking around in Mario World, and those cacti have needles, which then become intimately connected with chemotherapy. So, there’s this movement between a watery landscape of childhood, the video game, which then prompts the idea of a needle, which returns the poem to a real-world context again. There’s this movement between the video game to the real, back to the video game, and back to the real. That’s the idea of this back-and-forward between two worlds, I suppose.

Nicholas Pritchard: The amount of fruits, brightly coloured roses, flowers, and water—does that all derive from Mario World, or is that a memory you have put into the poem anyway?

Stephen Sexton: I was trying to think of the world of Mario as being a real kind of world. So, if you see things in it that are red berries, then they become intimately connected with the holly tree that was in my garden. It’s this sense of trying to understand the digital world through the real. If that digital world was a real world, what would it be like? Though I can’t describe what those berries are in Mario’s world, the closest I can get is to say that they are like holly berries.

The book starts very intimately in my house. As that note at the start suggests, it literally starts with someone looking at a television. The first section is someone looking out a window into the garden. The second section zooms out a little bit. One of the things that amused me—if that’s the right word—is that the second world in this game, “Donut Plains,” is so called because it has a big hole in the middle. But if you relax your vision a little bit, a map of Northern Ireland also resembles a donut; there’s a big lough in the middle of Northern Ireland. I don’t know if you’d be willing to go that far.

Nicholas Pritchard: Could you talk about the image described at the beginning of If All the World and Love Were Young?

Stephen Sexton: I think it’s sort of a stock image in many ways, because when I was trying to appropriate that image it turns out there were many images just like it on Google. But in my case, there is, or was, a photograph of me sitting and facing a television that was in the corner of the room. A photograph that my mother took of me as a child playing Mario. I remember seeing myself in that image.

Recently, in the last five years, when I’ve gone looking for that image, I haven’t been able to find it. I’ve gone through all kinds of shoeboxes of photographs and those sorts of thing. It’s effectively a small child sitting with a Nintendo controller in his hand, gazing at the television, and sitting cross-legged in front of it. It turns out there are loads of images like this. Without knowing it, it’s become quite a popular image of a young person with a video game.

Nicholas Pritchard: Does the image capture the moment you first sit down with the new console?

Stephen Sexton: I don’t know if it was exactly the moment of plugging it in. But not long after that. Maybe it was more a roll of film that hadn’t been finished and before taking it to the chemist—as I guess people used to do—maybe an image had to be used up on a roll. It wasn’t ceremonial, anyway. In my memory it seems very casual but nevertheless contains a moment of some kind.

Nicholas Pritchard: It’s accompanied with the Susan Sontag quotation, isn’t it? (“Photography is seen as an acute manifestation of the individualized ‘I,’ the homeless private self astray in an overwhelming world.”)    

Stephen Sexton: It is. My list of humorous epigraphs. I thought it was kind of funny to have Susan Sontag, John Ashbery, and Mario.

Nicholas Pritchard: One of my favourites of the sources you use and alter is Larkin’s “High Windows”: “down the long slide to crappiness.”

Stephen Sexton: I’m glad you got it. I’m never sure if what I find funny is actually funny. It’s kind of full of that. Maybe at the back is a list of other people’s poems, or other people’s texts, that I’ve kind of adapted or changed to suit the purposes. But that kind of cracked me up. I really love Larkin, but I thought that was funny.

Nicholas Pritchard: “High Windows” speaks to your book. “The sun comprehending glass” is a recurring image throughout the poems.

Stephen Sexton: There’s a lot of light in many ways. Photography is an art of light. The video game is all these landscapes, except they’re made of light; they’re not made of anything else. Light is the means by which we’d see a real landscape anyway. So, lots of light in my book and light on surfaces.

Nicholas Pritchard: The light that obscures the view on the television screen described in the photograph at the beginning?

Stephen Sexton: Yes, that idea of light obscuring things. The endless possibility. One of the things that’s happening is an attempt to complete that photograph because I can’t tell which level it is. But if I complete all of them then it must be one of them. This sense of completeness of the video game but also this sense of trying to complete that image.

Nicholas Pritchard: One credit is in the title of the book, which comes from a line from Walter Raleigh’s poem “The Nymphs Reply to the Shepherd.” How does Raleigh’s poem, itself a response to Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” fit within your own book?

Stephen Sexton: What I find really interesting about those two poems is that they constitute an argument. I guess they’re both pastoral poems, which I see my book as; it’s a pastoral elegy. In Marlowe’s case, it is idealistic, beautiful, uncomplicated. Things will be happy forever. For some reason, a shepherd can afford “Coral clasp”’ and “Amber studs” and silver. But maybe shepherds were different in 1599; maybe it was a better job then. But these are moments when it demonstrates its own artificiality, or it demonstrates its own idealism. I guess I’m mapping that onto Super Mario as an alternative place. As an idealized childhood-safety kind of thing.

Walter Raleigh’s reply is basically: No, things aren’t like that. Things change. The world is not ideal. So, in a subtle way, I’m falling on the side of Walter Raleigh. That is more realistic. Difficult as it is, that’s the world we have to live in. So, by taking that title I’m kind of writing that same poem but differently. I start with that first line, and then it goes on for much longer. In my mind, anyway, I’m in sympathy that things are lovely but they’re not forever.

Nicholas Pritchard: You include a few memento mori. The image of Melancholia I, for example, which seems more in tune with Raleigh’s poem than with Marlowe’s.

Stephen Sexton: Those images are really dark images in my memory. They’re really quite severe. I wanted this darkness. It is gloomy. I guess at that point of the book there is not a return that is happening. There’s no coming back from that position. So, I definitely considered them as a kind of alternate kind of darkness. In many ways, I just allowed my imagination to bring things in. It is difficult, or tiring, to look at every level of the game and think, How can I find another way into this? or How can I find another thing to say? So, I guess the poems start accumulating other people’s perspectives of grief or darkness.

Nicholas Pritchard: But by the end it’s quite validatory, and you even congratulate the reader at one point. Is this in search of a kind of balance between the darker and lighter moments?

The book becomes aware that someone is reading it in the way the game becomes aware that someone is playing it. The effect of that on me as a young person was bewildering.

Stephen Sexton: Congratulating the reader is something I had a lot of debates about. It’s something that happens in the game itself. It’s from the level “Funky.” This is a very difficult part of the game. I guess the developers of the game started becoming self-aware, and they gave the levels silly names like “Funky,” or “Awesome,” or “Groovy.” That’s the point in the book where the idea of a “you” as a reader starts to be addressed.

The book becomes aware that someone is reading it in the way the game becomes aware that someone is playing it. The effect of that on me as a young person was bewildering. The game says, “YOU ARE A SUPER PLAYER”—which was so exciting to me as a young person: “How does the game know I’m there?” Because that feels like such a moment of acknowledgement in the game, I really felt like I had to acknowledge that somehow. In my case it is: “You are a super reader.” It’s trying to find a way to approximate this feeling of being acknowledged by the video game. Being kind of moved by this idea of being directly addressed.

Perhaps that’s what happens toward the end of the book. This sense of whoever is narrating the book is speaking kindly and affectionally to the person reading it. In many ways, I hope this book never makes sense; I hope no one is ever in that position, but I guess people will be. So, there’s this sense of trying to directly address someone who might read this and understand it. To find some form of company.

February 2020

Nicholas Pritchard is a writer living in London. His articles can be found at Caña, Jewish Renaissance, WLT, and elsewhere.