Stephen Sexton on his debut collection of poems and the impact of Super Mario Brothers on his life
What began as a joke, as opposed to his earlier, serious poetry led to a complete collection filled with Stephen Sexton’s ideas about the longing and grief brought on by the death of his mother and the video game which he played as a child became a channel that voiced these emotions.
Poet Stephen Sexton, among those shortlisted for Swansea University's Dylan Thomas Prize, writes about Super Mario Brothers in his debut collection, If All The World And Love Were Young, and explores one level of the video game in each poem, intertwined with memories of his childhood. His poems describe the world of the Mario Brothers — the flowers, grass and landscape, how all these elements are to be found in his backyard too — and simultaneously recollects how he spent his afternoons playing the video game with his brother.
Currently a teacher at the Seamus Heaney Centre of Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast, the Irish poet would write what is referred to as ekphrasis, or poems which describe paintings while pursuing his doctorate. It was during this time, upon getting a bit bored with this practice that he thought about writing a poem for each level of Super Mario Brothers. What began as a joke led to a complete collection filled with Sexton’s ideas about the longing and grief brought on by the death of his mother and the video game which he played as a child became a channel for this elegy.
In an interview with Firstpost, the poet talks about his debut collection, how Super Mario Brothers has had such a deep impact on him, what it means to be nominated for the Dylan Thomas Prize and whether playing video games carries the same joy for him today.
Which are a couple of your most cherished memories of playing Super Mario Brothers with your brother and those of the time you spent with your mother that led to If All the World and Love Were Young? Are any of these featured in the collection?
It’s hard even for me to understand the impact Super Mario had on me. Looking back, it seems to have constituted some of my earliest imaginative experiences. Playing it, one is able to be both oneself and a character; move through fantastic and hyper-vibrant landscapes and worlds, and yet be entirely separate from them, sitting in front of a television screen. The feeling of being engrossed, or transported to another place; the sense of leaving one’s own body almost, is such a profound feeling, though is perhaps only one you register when you come back to yourself, and hours have passed.
I remember the first evening the Super Nintendo arrived in the back seat of my mother’s small red car, secured with a seat belt, as though it was a passenger. With no regard for the instruction manual, we managed to get it going after a few minutes. What we played then, I can’t be sure, but I’m certain my brother and I loaded up a Mario game, taking it in turns (as is the custom) to progress. In those early days, not many of the games we owned had a competitive element, but sooner or later, the racing game Super Mario Kart came into our happy possession, and to this day it’s a feature of a Sunday afternoon. You could call it sibling rivalry if I wasn’t so often and resolutely the victor!
However, these moments aren’t really included in the collection, even if they’re around the edges. The book itself takes its cue from a photograph my mother took of me as a child, sitting cross-legged before the television. It’s a moment the book tries to recover, in my ways. Even as I know I can’t have it, I want to have that moment back: me being recorded for a future, my mother just over my shoulder.
Could you also elaborate a bit on how you managed to bring two such seemingly opposite things together and further imbue the poetry with themes around grief and loss?
I started writing poems about Super Mario World as something of a joke. There’s a certain kind of energy or enthusiasm mischief seems to offer me, and I wrote a draft of the book very quickly – a month or two over a summer. I’d set out to write a poem for every ‘level’ of the game, to ‘complete’ it in language as well as in play. It had not been my intention to write an elegy, but to praise the game which had brought me such excitement.
It wasn’t my intention either to put into contention what we might call the ‘high art’ of poetry and the less-high art of the video game. I don’t think of those media in those terms, but I’m certainly aware that they might be thought of in those terms. As I found myself revisiting that world of dinosaurs and carnivorous plants and colourful landscapes, I found myself thinking about my childhood, and, thinking about my childhood, I found myself thinking about my mother. She died in 2012, and I started writing the book in around 2015. I discovered, rather to my surprise, that I couldn’t view the game with the innocence a child might; I couldn’t describe its landscapes without thinking about the first time I’d seen them, long before my mother’s death. Nevertheless, I started to feel a familiar kind of presence at my shoulder, and as I kept working on the poems, I found myself at work on elegy.
It’s true that the elegiac poem and Super Mario World might be somewhat unalike, but we might say that’s something poems do: to establish unlikely connections between things. There are two worlds in the book: our world; the ‘real’ world of my childhood, my memories, my mother’s illness and death, and the video game world. The book moves between these two worlds, describing at times the 16-bit landscapes where a red fruit hangs in a digital tree, and then the world outside, where holly berries hang in the holly tree in our garden.
Mario has his unreal world of perils and challenges, and for me, grief made the world seem unreal; dented somehow, changed imperceptibly but utterly at the same time. Super Mario World is, for me, a thing, a place, of pure joy. Perhaps counter intuitively, joy seemed the most appropriate way to approach grief: if grief is what I’m compelled to say, joy might be the way to say it.
Do you still play video games, and if yes, which are the ones you enjoy the most? And does being in front of the screen still carry the same pleasure for you as it did in your childhood?
I do play video games from time to time, but I try not to sacrifice too much time to the screen! My brother and I often enjoy the championship of Super Mario Kart (I win, though he would contest this). While the particular game the book is based on – Super Mario World – is still exhilarating on some level, it is changed too. It’s less a thing to view and more of a place to go to.
That said, I feel I’ve done an act of not insignificant vandalism to the game; one only I can see. Now I’ve intertwined those memories of this world with the world of the game, it’s hard to undo them: the spines on a cactus in the video game become like the many needles of compounds a cancer patient might receive as treatment. To revisit the game for me is to be confronted with how I’ve described it. The joy is still there, however tempered it is.
Lately, I have been playing the bizarre and brilliant Death Stranding, in which one takes on the role of a deliveryman in a kind of post-apocalyptic USA. One must deliver foods and supplies, among other things, to isolated communities of people who are unwilling to leave their homes. It’s uncannily resonant in these times, when many people may not, for the greater good, leave their homes. It’s hard work, but it’s honest.
How old were you when you wrote your first poem? Can you recall what it was about and when and how you set your mind to the task of becoming a poet?
I think I was about eight years old. In primary school we were tasked with writing a poem, and since I’d read about the mayfly in a children’s encyclopedia or something like it, I had my subject. I can’t think I was a particularly gloomy child, but I suppose I was fascinated with the very short lifespan of the mayfly, and however we might think of our own lives.
Naturally the poem is long-lost, but I remember some rather questionable rhymes and, despite this, some feeling of satisfaction. Like many adolescents, I had feelings, and those found their expression in the kind of teenage verse we all hope is truly lost for good. It wasn’t until I started reading and writing poems at Queen’s University, Belfast – where I teach now – that I started taking writing seriously. The company of other writers and readers makes all the difference: then you have the feeling of it being a truly live art, and one of people, rather than one of the self. And even still, I’m a little uneasy about becoming a poet. I’d much rather be someone who writes poems than a poet: the doing rather than the being.
In this digital age, when there is tons of media content to be binged every day, what according to you is the significance of poetry, which is to be read, contemplated and absorbed by a reader taking the time out to experience its essence?
In many cultures, the ancient roles of poet and historian were one and the same, and while we might not think in those terms any longer, it’s worthwhile to note the idea of the poet’s responsibility as record-keeper, and recorder of events.
One significant aspect of poems is the scrutiny they put language under. The ambiguities of a word or phrase, as well as their resonances and etymologies all come into play when one gives a poem time and thought. The reader’s mind is where poems happen, anyway. All this is to say that while poems might exist as particular instances and structures of language, the same mystification and pleasure is to be found in all language which isn’t only in poems. One might read a poem about a chestnut tree, then come to see the chestnut tree differently.
Besides that, I’m inclined to think poems might be of particular use when we come to think of images. A staggering number of new images are created and shared every day. We ought to remember that there was (and still is) something miraculous about the photographic image, yet we’re utterly immersed in images. The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media by Nathan Jurgenson is a wonderful book on this topic. Since the poems I like most are those which privilege the concrete image over the abstract, I wonder what we can learn by comparing the poetic image with the digital image. How we perceive one might teach us something about the other.
Does writing poetry that expresses your grief and the fond memories you hold on to ease the burden of the sorrow that weighs heavily on the mind, or does it become painful to dive deep within yourself, embrace this sorrow and then write about it?
Since it wasn’t my intention to write directly about grief, I felt I didn’t quite make this decision. I’m not sure I’m inclined to think that writing poems exorcises powerful emotions, at least I’m not sure it did that for me. When I did find myself writing about it, my impulse was to work to transform grief into something else; to intertwine my memories with the computational memory of a video game.
It’s true to say that I approach this loss in a rather round about fashion: using a video game structure to contain it, but there’s no right way to grieve, and this might be as good as any other.
There are aspects of the book I found difficult to write. It was necessary, in my opinion, to describe frankly what I remember of the end of my mother’s life. Accessing those memories, even with Mario as my crutch, was profoundly sorrowful. I faltered more than once.
You have received several accolades for your work and are now among the finalists for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize. How do you perceive these honours? Are they an incentive to write more and do better as well as an acknowledgement of your work being recognised?
These acknowledgements and accolades are extremely significant. It’s an honour to have my name occur on lists near to those of so many writers I admire, whose work has meant so much to me. While uncertainty seems to be a useful mode in which I produce work – one may permit and synthesise all manner of images and circumstances – that uncertainty never quite leaves. It’s a thrill to have readers engage with the poems in ways I’d hoped they might; it’s an immense encouragement and confirmation of my ambitions and aspirations. It’s a special privilege too to have readers engage with the work in ways I haven’t anticipated or expected.
The social distancing put into effect due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a lot of free time on our calendars. How have you been utilising these weeks? As well, since now is also a good time to immerse ourselves in literature and books, could you recommend for our readers some works of poetry that would make for good quarantine reading?
What are we most often saying to each other: “in these ____ times”? In whatever these times are, strange, troubling, unusual, I’ve been glad to have been able to continue talking to students and friends about poems and about writing, and of course, to participate in some exemplary ‘pub quizzes’, won and lost over various video apps.
I have been fortunate to have the time to read with a little more focus and attention than I can usually summon. Lately I’ve been reading Citadel by Martha Sprackland, Shine, Darling by Ella Fears, The M Pages by Colette Bryce, RENDANG by Will Harris: all marvellous collections of poems. They are wonderful reading, quarantine or not.
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