John W. Sexton was born in 1958 and is the author of four poetry collections: The Prince’s Brief Career, (Cairn Mountain Press, 1995), Shadows Bloom / Scáthanna Faoi Bhláth, a book of haiku with translations into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock (Doghouse, 2004), Vortex (Doghouse, 2005), and Petit Mal (Revival Press, 2009). He also created and wrote The Ivory Tower for RTÉ radio, which ran to over one hundred half-hour episodes from 1999 to 2002. Two novels based on the characters from this series have been published by the O’Brien Press: The Johnny Coffin Diaries and Johnny Coffin School-Dazed, which have been translated into both Italian and Serbian. He is also the blog poet Jack Brae Curtingstall. He is a past nominee for The Hennessy Literary Award and his poem The Green Owl won the Listowel Poetry Prize 2007. In 2007 he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. His fifth collection, The Offspring of the Moon, is due from Salmon Poetry in spring 2013.
Tell me one little known fact about John W. Sexton.
I suppose I could tell you a few things that would make me look both marvellous and intellectually credible, but most interviews are full of that sort of stuff. So I’ll just trust you to give me the opportunity to make myself look marvellous later on. Not many people might know that in 2001 I appeared on RTE’s Children’s TV show The Den, where I
exchanged jibes with Dustin the Turkey; and it was the considered opinion of viewers to the programme that it was one of the few occasions in which Dustin was outsmarted. However, I think I may have gotten lucky. At the time of the interview I still had young children and as a result I’d actually previously seen the show; that meant I was forewarned as to what to expect. It’s a rule in this business that you should never appear on the same show as a puppet. The reason for this is simple, for there are only two types of puppet: puppets that are complete bastards or puppets that are operated by complete bastards. It came about because I’d been walked into the programme by my publisher, in an attempt to publicise my first novel; under normal circumstances I would have avoided such a gig, but in this instance it would have been too awkward to have backed down. As it turned out, everything went well, but that was only because both the bastard of a puppet and the bastard behind the bastard of a puppet decided they kind of liked me. Getting them to the actual point where they liked me though, on live TV, was a bit of a challenge.
I know you were born in England but I get the impression that you feel 100% Irish. Tell me about that.
I don’t feel 100% Irish, I am 100% Irish. I don’t recognise the term second-generation Irish. Simply being born in Ireland doesn’t make you Irish. What makes you anything is a combination of genetic factors combined with cultural upbringing. My parents left Ireland merely because there was no future for them here. They did not consider themselves non-Irish once they left its shores however. They took their Irish identity with them and passed it on to me and my brothers. All my cousins in England were Irish, the neighbours were either Irish or Jamaican, half the school teachers in my London schools were Irish, most of the congregation in our local Catholic churches were Irish and all the priests were Irish. I have an old school photograph taken of my class in junior school. I’m in second class and the photograph was taken in a North London Protestant school in the early 1960’s. There was no room in the local Catholic school at that time and a new school was in the process of being built. There are about twenty-two kids in the class. Not all of them were Irish, that’s not what I’m about to say. Only four of us were Irish. Of the rest, there was a combination of Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Nigerian, Kenyan, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Greek, Turkish, and both Greek and Turkish Cypriot. There was only one English pupil and that was a boy. There was no English girl in that class. The boy’s name was Colin. There was no English upbringing in England in the 1960’s, unless you happened to live in the East End of London! All those kids in that class, including us Irish, were brought up within our own cultures and were given a strong and urgent sense of personal identity. Mine was Irish. Every year of our childhoods we came home to Ireland for the full summer holidays. We called it “coming home” and that’s what it was for us. When I came home permanently to live in Ireland as an adult at the beginning of the 1980’s I was shocked at how few people knew who the fuck Pádraic Ó Conaire was, or how few knew anything of the work of W. B. Yeats beyond the few poems they learnt by rote in school; how few had actually read anything by Joyce; at how little most of them knew about Irish history beyond the narrow political hagiographies. Being born outside my country I had made it my business to learn as much about it and its culture as I could; but when I got home to Ireland at that time I had barely anyone to talk to about it. They simply didn’t know, or else weren’t particularly interested to find out. But I did notice that many of them felt somehow superior to me because they were born here and I was a mere blow-in. But let me tell you this: during the IRA campaign in England, none of us London-born Irish denied our Irishness. We never condoned the mindless killing, but we never denied our country and we openly declared our pride in our history, our literary heritage, and our culture. We did that in a country that looked upon us with suspicion and sometimes with a sneering superiority, but it didn’t intimidate us into denying our origins. So no, I don’t feel Irish; I am Irish. I was born Irish and then I made an effort at consolidating that identity. Feeling has only a little to do with it; it’s a complete state of being. All cultural identity is like that. And it’s important to realize that fact as well. Because I was reared in a multi-cultural environment, being neighbours with individuals from other cultures but ones who had a similar pride in their cultures as we had in ours, I came to respect and take an interest in other cultural viewpoints. This is where my interest in European and Black literature came from. In London I not only sought out my own culture, but other cultures too. Not far from where I lived, just a few stops on the bus, was the New Beacon Bookshop in Stroud Green, where you could buy any book by any Black writer from any part of the world. In Manor House there was BOOK MARX, the Marxist bookshop, where you could get books on Communism and Irish Political History. Down the road from it was an Anarchist Bookshop where you could just about get anything, even arrested. I frequented all of them. Identity starts inside yourself; but if you’re wise you will go outside of yourself to find ways of enhancing it with new ideas. That was my upbringing.
So, despite being English… Only kidding. You stress the multi-culturalism of your upbringing. How did that compare to the Ireland you returned to in the eighties?
I came back home to a country not only in recession, but one that was politically and culturally reactionary. To compound my problems I had relocated to south Kerry and in those days it really was a backwater. The only non-National inhabitants in the whole of Kerry (but “foreigners” was the word used at the time to describe them) were two black Americans and one Turk, all three of whom had been brought over to play for some dumb-arse basketball team in Tralee. People would gawk at them in the street as if they had arrived from Venus in a cloud of green steam. It was fucking ridiculous. The nearest bookshop of any quality at that time was to be found two hours away in Cork city. I had come home with notions of committing myself to poetry and short fiction, but one of the most essential seedbeds for such an ambition is to have a constant flow of new reading material. Nowadays it would be difficult for younger readers to comprehend how this could have been a problem, but this was pre-internet. The only reading matter available back then was in printed form. Not only was the nearest bookshop so far away, but when you got to it there was nothing left-field or unusual to be had. In London I’d been used to buying individual Thomas Pynchon short stories (long before he’d consented to a paperback collection) in bootlegged chapbooks from the wire racks in the alternative bookstores. I was in the habit of strolling in and buying American science fiction journals like Fantastic (edited in those days by Ted White) and The Journal of Fantasy and Science Fiction (with Ed Ferman at the helm); I was used to buying poetry journals like Ambit and Stand straight off the shelves whenever I had the money; I even regularly bought Spare Rib, a feminist journal aimed solely at women, because it was the home of some amazing critical writing. Here in Kerry, however, there was no access to anything like that and nothing home-grown that I could find. And you must understand, I was far too poor to be able to take out a subscription for anything. I was totally dependent on what I could buy straight off the shelf. At that time also there was no current Irish literary journal that I could get any access to; they were to come a few years later, (like Tracks, edited by John F Deane and Jack Harte; and Stet, edited by Thomas McCarthy). But those later journals lasted but a few issues and then were gone, so the wait for them to arrive was doubly bitter. The only thing that saved my sanity was the daily newspaper The Irish Press. Every week, under the banner of NEW IRISH WRITING, they featured a full broadsheet page devoted entirely to short fiction and poetry. The editor, David Marcus, had made it a condition when he took up the post that the page would carry no advertising – every single word was devoted to new literary pieces. But the environment otherwise was oppressive compared to what I was used to in London. On every street corner in Killarney it seemed to me you’d find groups of nuns and priests, like they were in fucking gangs. I’d never seen so many priests in the one place in all my life, and the people appeared to worship their every idiotic utterance. It was as if I had arrived in Hell. Having said that, Hell was Ireland, so I was determined to stick it out. My plan was to do the reverse of Joyce and Beckett, and to give the country a shot. I was initially unemployed here for nearly three months and had no access to the dole. I had been wrongly advised in England that I could just sign on after I’d arrived here; but in Kenmare the dole officer had the position as an agent, and he was a foul, miserable creature who delighted in making “foreigners” beg. He told me to my face that I was nothing but an “English Hippy” and that I’d get no money from him. When my savings were just about depleted I landed a job in Killarney, working in a Department Store. I stayed there for eleven miserable years, privately learning and plying my craft in the evenings and weekends, balancing the few acceptances from journals with the countless rejections. I was isolated, totally devoid of any contact with other writers; yet I was constantly writing, devoted absolutely to the writer’s life. In my mind there was a kingdom comprised of nothing but poetry and fiction, and I retreated there and learnt how to live in it.
Did you start writing while you were still living in England?
I was nineteen when I began to seriously desire to write and be published. My original ambitions at that time lay largely with fiction, even though I was already writing poetry and considered myself a poet. At that time I’d been reading a lot of science fiction and came to think that the realm of the fantastic was a better way to express ideas. Even in mainstream literature there appeared to be a trend that confirmed this, for I was also reading Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Borges, Emma Tennant, Angela Carter and Beckett, all of whom seemed to work aspects of the fantastic into what they did. Ballard’s short fiction, especially, had an elevated hallucinatory effect in terms of how he seemed to treat time and space in a psychological way. He brought you inside his fictions in such a subjective, interactive way that was truly subversive; and all this was achieved largely through the manipulation of language. When I read that Ballard had said that “science fiction is the poetry of the 20th century” I bought completely into the idea. So, although I was writing fiction I still saw it as part of the poet’s vocation. This is when I discovered the short fictions of Harlan Ellison, who frequently experimented with new ways of writing stories, many of which to me seemed to mimic techniques found in poetry, from repetitive patterning to prose poetry to concrete design of the page. At that time I was regularly buying the science fiction journals and also a few British literary journals, the most exciting of which was Ambit. Ambit, having Ballard on the editorial board, frequently featured writers who were card-carrying fabulists, so the concept of a literature of the fantastic was all-pervasive in what I was then reading. All these journals, however, looked very daunting in terms of sending off work to. At first I decided to try to get a name for myself and also make some money by trying a regular market that might be a bit more accessible. Of course, to the beginning writer all markets are equally inaccessible, but I didn’t realise that at the time. Every day of the week, from Monday to Saturday, there was a new short story featured in a daily newspaper called the London Evening News. We got that at home every evening and so I began to think this was a market I could try. The stories that were featured were only a thousand words maximum and the market was opened to everyone. Professional writers could have a story there on one day, and for the very next you’d have a story by some ordinary person. If it was somebody’s first publication, the paper would mention that, so the whole thing seemed extremely democratic. So, anyway, that was the first market I aimed for. Firstly, it was a good one to try to write to, because I immediately discovered how difficult it was to fit a complete story, with character and motivation and a solid plot, into a mere thousand words. It suddenly dawned on me that a thousand words wasn’t easy because of being few, but was actually possibly a more difficult discipline. Writing in that tight format was therefore a perfect beginner’s apprenticeship. Anyway, my first story was a ridiculous piece of nonsense about a man who misses his own funeral. I was nineteen years of age when I slipped it into the post-box. When it was rejected by the Evening News in the space of three days I was crushed; I’m now, however, somewhat relieved. To my credit I acted quite professionally and immediately sent the story out to several other markets, all of which promptly rejected it. I even sent it to the old London Mystery Magazine. They returned the story with a hand-written rejection slip, but the slip itself was a thing of beauty, containing as it did the magazine’s masthead: an enormous Gojira-type dinosaur rearing high over Big Ben, the City of London miniscule beneath him. In the meantime, I was writing other stories. It was a consequence of this continued writing, by which I suppose I was slowly improving and learning, that I was able after a few months to see why my first story was so terrible. With that realisation the story was torn to shreds and binned. I struggled for over a year, accumulating rejection slip after rejection slip and then I became impatient. I decided I’d cheat. Instead of sending my work to journals I thought it smarter to just go straight to a publisher. So I devised a sequence of stories, a kind of prose-poem concoction, and sent this off to a publisher. Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a big hit at this time, so that was the kind of effect I was aiming for. Anyway, the book went off and began to collect rejections. Many of these were actually letters; all of them encouraging. Hodder & Stoughton told me they loved the book but that it had no discernible market that they could see. Allison and Busby said the same. The letter from the last was so encouraging that I did something that you should never do: I phoned the publisher. I had a lovely chat for about ten minutes with Clive Allison who advised me to break the book up and send it to journals. He said that no publisher was in a position to publish something like that from a writer with no publishing constituency and he told me I needed to get one. When I rather naively told him that I’d just sent out a collection of poems that had no publishing credits he was horrified. “Young man,” he said, “this isn’t the way it’s done; there are simply no short-cuts. Look, let me tell you, I have a second novel on my desk here from Ishmael Reed and it’s absolutely fantastic. But if it’s anything like his last one, which was also fantastic, then it won’t sell. I have no choice but to send it back to his agent in the States but I don’t want to. I will, though. We haven’t a bob here at the moment, and I need something that might actually at least get back the money I’ll have to spend on it.” The chance of an unknown writer having such a helpful conversation today with a publisher is probably nil. Regardless of the sound advice, I ignored it all and continued to send out my two books, both of which came back to me with depressing regularity. I began to dread the sound of the manuscripts falling onto the landing from the letterbox. They each fell like a dead lump, more like a small corpse, and I began to refer to each book as “the lump”. Suddenly it all seemed very negative. You could tell immediately that the work was returned because the envelope was obviously bulked up with your manuscript. In those days you couldn’t send “copies”. Only original manuscripts, because everything was done by typewriter and the copies were created by the use of carbon paper, so they were a blurred blue. Many magazines also prohibited getting photocopies, because in those days they weren’t much better either, often being blurred and smudged with black photographic ghostly smudges. Typing up a fresh manuscript for each submission was therefore not feasible, so the same one was recycled for every submission. After several rejections it would become not only extremely grubby, but it was also obvious, to anyone reading it, that it’d been round the block and rejected by several previous editors. (I once got a story returned that actually had cigarette burns and ash all through the pages. Either the editor was telling me something, or he smoked a pipe, spluttering embers over everything that came into him!) Unlike the prose sequence, the poetry collection garnered no letters, only cold rejection slips. Nearly a further two years went by and I was writing less and less; all my hopes were riding on these two hopeless books. In the finish I realised that I had become somehow paralysed by them. I looked at them dispassionately and could now see that they were bloody awful. I needed a new approach. My relocation to Ireland was imminent around this time so I thought I’d make a fresh start when I got to Kerry. I packed up all of my books and manuscripts and headed off for a new beginning.
So who was the first poor idiot (have you noticed how close idiot and editor are as words) to actually publish you? If they didn’t pay when was your first sale?
My first published short story was also a sale. As soon as I arrived in Ireland in 1982 I decided to write a story for New Irish Writing, the weekly literary supplement of The Irish Press newspaper. I worked on the story for about eight months. The maximum wordage for a full-page story in The Irish Press was 2,000 words, and I decided I’d use the maximum. My problem was, after the previous years of rejection I realised that my technique was fairly awful; so I had been studying short stories non-stop for about a year, pulling them to pieces to see how they really worked. Listening to theory is a complete waste of time, I had all that anyway and it hadn’t helped one iota in enabling me to write; the only way to do it is to take the story of another writer and rip it apart yourself, then you can see the living innards of it and you’ll soon get the idea of how it ticks. By this stage I’d analysed hundreds of stories in this way and I was beginning to get a real feel for it. I was yet to write a successful one of my own, however. Anyway, for my new task in hand I started by constructing a plot and then I laid it out on a sheet of paper. Once that was done I started it write it up. It was slow work, and inspiration wasn’t manifesting. I remember once sitting down for a solid two hours, actually writing continuously all that time, but at the end of it I’d written only a single serviceable sentence. I then began to take a hard look at my past writing. All the stories I’d done, including the tentative beginning of a ridiculous novel, were so truly awful that one evening I just put the whole lot into the open fire and watched the pages disappear into flame. It was actually a liberating moment. I felt strangely free, as if now there was no evidence of my past failure. I then reached for my piles and piles of unpublished poems, ready to throw them in too. But as I looked at the poems I realised that there was a lot of fairly good descriptive writing in there that I might be able to recycle for the current story, so I cannibalized some of that material. This was exactly what I needed to get back into the flow of the writing again and the story began to take shape. The writing was still slow, and I did it mainly in the evenings after work, but I always sat down to work on it every day. I went back and forth on it, polishing the sentences, tweaking paragraphs until it worked as fluidly as I could get it. When it was done, all those months later, I sent it off to David Marcus, the Literary Editor at the Press. I was expecting maybe not to hear for months, but I heard within a fortnight. When the envelope came through the letterbox my heart nearly exploded, because I could see that it was a small business envelope with a cellophane panel and the logo of The Irish Press in the corner, and not my entire manuscript being returned. The letter inside thanked me for sending such a strong piece of work and told me that I was being paid 70 Irish punts for it. That was a fortune of money in those days. I sat down and read the letter over and over again; I was like a small child getting his first letter from Santa. There was also a request to send a short biographical note. In the covering letter that I sent with the note I mentioned that I did the odd bit of reviewing “whenever I can get the work”. This of course was a total lie, but it was effectively a calculated attempt at dropping a hint to a literary editor. By prompt return I got a lovely little note from David Marcus asking for a list of my interests, with a promise that he’d do his best to send work my way. He added, however, that he was fairly over-subscribed with fiction reviewers, and suggested that I might stand a better chance if I was prepared to review anything other than fiction. Within three weeks I received a small parcel of books, all poetry, and was asked to write a 600-word notice. I did the review and received the truly princely sum of 40 punts. Over the next 18 months I became one of the paper’s most frequent reviewers, writing on anything from poetry to folklore to comparative religion. I also began to place my own poetry with David on the New Irish Writingpage. I was now earning fairly regular money as a writer, doing reviews and, just as importantly, getting my by-line on the books pages. It wasn’t enough on a regular basis to earn a living by itself, but it boosted my self-confidence and made me feel like a real writer. There was one other writer living near Kenmare at that time, Tomas O Murchadha, who wrote mainly in Irish but also did wonderful lyrical pieces in English for the weekly Arts page of The Cork Examiner. He’d just had a novella published in a collection called Triad, along with James Liddy and Ronit Lentin, which was brought out by The Wolfhound Press. But the thing was, when I was finally introduced to him he began immediately to treat me as an equal, and I realised that in a relatively short time I’d actually managed to gain a local reputation as “a writer”.
I feel you are primarily a poet (argue this one if you feel like it) but one that also works in prose. Would I be correct in thinking that prose is where the money (and therefore the profession) might lie?
I think that’s a fair description because poetry is hardly ever a profession, it’s more a calling. Some might even consider it an affliction, (and some poets actually do). I would consider poetry my vocation, but writing my profession. However, a calling still demands full professional standards of craft. I would also like to add that being a poet still requires the ability to construct coherent and elegant sentences; the fundamental elements of good prose-practice are essential before you can even dream to imagine you should be writing poetry. The only substantial money, generally speaking, to be earned from poetry is from bursaries and prizes, and every poet under the sun is angling for those. Poetry collections do not earn advances or any kind of payments for most poets. Prose, on the other hand, can earn money. Writing fact or fiction books, writing for radio or television, writing any kind of saleable prose, is really where the potential income is. Outside of any direct income from writing poetry, a poet’s other earnings will be fairly minimal. Fees for festival readings are generally quite small, and hundreds of poets are jostling for such work in the same marketplace. The best income potential for poets outside of poetry is usually from teaching, but that can be exhausting and certainly draining of creative energy. But the same is indisputably true, to a large extent, for prose writers as well. Unless you can turn out a book a year, or manage to produce a hot property or a best-selling series, or sell movie rights, then most prose writers are on the same competitive treadmill as the average poet. Foreign-language rights for novels, a few of which I have under my own belt, are usually sold for fairly modest amounts of money, and as glamourous as they may appear on paper the fact remains that short money is always short money. The amounts that most fiction writers earn is generally spent fairly quickly as the figures aren’t large for most of us. Sadly, there’s also a perception out there, certainly in terms of performance and readings, that poets are prepared to do things for free. This notion simply undermines the writer’s value. Contrary to what people might naively imagine, “publicity” isn’t worth much on its own. And as any writer will tell you (and as you know very well yourself from personal experience), selling books at readings and festivals is a hard, sometimes soul-destroying slog. Books sell at such events, if they manage to sell at all, mostly in ones and twos, not by the dozen. But even in teaching, poetry is a fairly hard one to sell. I get a substantial amount of teaching work through the writers-in-schools scheme (which is administered, as it happens, by Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann), but for the majority of it I’m asked by schools to teach plotting and story construction. I feel there is often an unrealistic expectation amongst beginning and younger poets that there is an income stream for them somewhere out beyond the blue ocean. The only thing out beyond the blue ocean is more blue ocean.
Tell me about your career as a poet.
I’m not sure that career is a useful term when talking about poetry. If, as some poets have come to think, poetry is a disease, then the terms “medical history” and “prognosis” are probably more applicable. In that case, as a poet, my medical history is bad and my prognosis is probably even worse. This might seem flippant but it’s actually a far more useful way of looking at the “career path” of the average poet. My first beginnings, with regard to publishing, was when a poem of mine at the age of nearly but not quite nine was pinned to the schoolroom wall, right next to the blackboard, by our teacher Sister Eugenia. The poem was called The Fly and had three four-line rhyming verses, the first two of which I can still remember, but which I have no intention of relating here. What’s interesting is that the metre was a deformed twin of Three Blind Mice, yet was unrecognisable as such because it moved at a different velocity. When I realised that, in much later years, I came to see that I had an innate ear for rhythm and balance. I mention this because this is the first start in the poet’s vocation. We start with an innate gift. Many poets don’t go beyond that point. They settle for the gift; but whereas such an unformed gift might be charming in an eight-year-old, in an adult it is merely childish. The next step is to develop that gift, and at first we tend to do that on our own, without any focussed direction or guidance. We begin to discover things for ourselves and one of the first things we discover is failure. From that point I wrote little verses on into my mid-teens, by which time I was writing impressionistic pieces of condensed prose. At the time I considered these to be poems but my teachers, for whom I submitted them as homework assignments, merely took them as half-formed and unfinished stories and considered me lazy. It was only at the age of sixteen that one of my English teachers, Miss O’Sullivan, began to encourage me. She’d write notes at the end like : “excellent quality, but needs more quantity”. It wasn’t really until I was about twenty, and in a dry patch with my prose, that I began to focus seriously on poems, and even began to send them out. I met with rejection after rejection but during this negative period I began to go back to prose poetry. From that I got the idea of constructing short stories in a similar fashion to the way folktales are structured: in imagistic runs or sections. At this exact moment I began to see a direct relationship between poetry and prose narrative. Of course, although I was forming theories I had neither the ability or the knowledge to apply them in practice and my writing was fairly dismal. Despite this I persevered and continued to send out work, despite accumulating rejections. In those days it was arguably more difficult than it is now because there simply weren’t that many literary and poetry journals out there. In those days you sent to American journals, rarely having much idea about such things as “reading periods”, simply because there were more journals to send to there. However, this is the first level of the writers apprenticeship: perseverance in the face of constant knock-backs. Once I received my first acceptance for a piece of short fiction things began to open up a bit and I started to place more work, but this was more likely due to the fact that my writing was better honed by that stage. Now, though I always considered myself a poet by principal vocation, I always endeavoured to keep my short fiction and prose in the marketplace, and this always earned a modest, if somewhat sporadic income. Maintaining this presence in prose was actually essential to my well-being as a poet, because it allowed me to hold my head up with proof that I was a published writer. Just on the eve of me throwing caution to the wind at the beginning of 1994, and striking out to write full-time (which I’ve been managing to do, precariously, ever since), I had obtained a commission to write a children’s serial for a weekly Cork newspaper, The Muskerry Leader. In the space of thirty-seven weeks, by weekly instalment, I produced a 55,000-word children’s fantasy novel called The Boy Who Fell Into The Hedge. Although seemingly modest now, at the time I received 10 Irish punts a week for each chapter, which garnered me a sum total of 370 pounds. I received this payment essentially on publication of the last chapter, but by the standards of the day that was more than most writers were getting from Irish publishers as an advance on a published novel! During this period, from October 1993 to July 1994, I earned something just short of 400 pounds from this single newspaper – for the novel, various short stories and poetry. At that stage I’d been a published writer and poet for ten years, contributing poetry and book reviews on top of it all. In those days I’d been a book reviewer for both The Irish Press and The Catholic Herald, both of which were paying markets. The point I’m making is that in my case, and very much in my mind, the career of poet and paid jobbing-writer went hand-in-hand. Without the self-confidence I acquired as a paid prose writer I would have been unable to manage as well as I did with the constant unpaid slog of being a poet. By the time I began to focus singly on only sending out poetry, (this was late in 1994), I had acquired a publishing cv that was quite impressive by the standards around me. By the late ‘90’s, determined to be more single-minded with poetry, I began to find markets in broadcasting, mainly with RTE’s The Living Word, for which slot I contributed prose poems and which paid quite nicely. Because I was good, and produced good radio, the producer took me on as a regular. Because radio is a national medium this increased my profile as a writer and also gave me a wider audience. This led to other work on radio but also to my radio serial and hence to the children’s novels. With the increase in poetry credits and with the publication of a book or two, I was able to acquire a place on the Writers-in-Schools scheme and eventually, through pure slog and determination, a regular income through teaching that could keep the bills paid. However, and this is the essential point, all those income streams, from RTE to local papers to work-shopping and working in schools, earned money that was largely for anything but poetry. But the regular income gave me the time to spend writing and submitting poetry. Most poets do not earn an income directly from their craft; and if they intend to earn a living from writing then they must write other things as well as poetry. By the mid and late Noughties I was picking up favourable reviews and in 2007 was granted a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. This was possibly the most important point at that stage in my career as a poet, because it indicated a vote of credibility from the field. Thus today my standing as a poet is this: I have no regular wage, no pension, no savings, no discernible idea of what the future will bring, but I have a thirty-plus-year career behind me as a published poet and writer and the burden that today and tomorrow and the day after I must continue to write.
If prose is where the money was, tell me about how that area of your work developed.
Essentially a writer learns to follow the best possibilities as they arise and that’s more or less what happened to me. But in the middle of all the possibilities there will always be periods where work suddenly dries up. It’s happened to me in the past and generally speaking it’s a common cycle that I think most writers are familiar with. And when the income streams don’t actually dry up, there are other factors that will rear their heads, such as competition from other writers trying to squeeze into an already overcrowded market. One must always recognise, of course, that before they squeezed in on you, that you had squeezed in on somebody else. Things can also be compounded simply by a writer getting tired or creatively burnt out from doing the same thing for far too long. In the late eighties I managed to survive both changes of editorial staff and the presence of newer, fresher writers, and keep a hold of the reviewing work I was getting at The Irish Press. It was a constant battle and the strain of that can be draining in itself. But then The Irish Press went into receivership and that particular golden goose was plucked and gone. I cast around in the following years and usually got something, like that brief but regular work from The Muskerry Leader, but the money was always small. The secret is to try and land something where the money is good and where there’s no direct competition so that you can stay in employment for as long as possible. From the late eighties to the late nineties I lurched from one cackling goose to another, never quite getting a golden egg, but sometimes a silver one, and oftentimes just a fistful of feathers. Then, in 1998 I shared a poetry reading in Killarney with the poet Mary O’Malley. This was on a Friday and I thought that things had gone well and that I’d left a good account of myself, but really nothing more than that. A few days later, at the beginning of the following week, I received a phone call out of the blue from a producer in the regional Waterford studios of RTE, by the name of Jacqui Corcoran. Jacqui said that my name had been mentioned to her by Mary O’Malley who, after reading with me on the Friday, felt that I would be very good bet for contributing and reading radio pieces. It just so happened that Jacqui was at that time the producer for The Living Word, which broadcasts a two-minute radio talk each weekday. Essentially a writer is expected to write five two-minute talks, usually of a contemplative nature, and then read them for broadcast on a given week. I’m quite fond of writing short lyrical pieces and took to it very easily. Jacqui also took to my writing and my style of reading and gave me regular work for the programme for several months. At that time my two sons were very young, and my youngest son was at that phase where young children are always asking strange and even sometimes profound questions, so a lot of my pieces were about these conversations and even sometimes simply reminiscences of my own childhood. The pieces apparently went down very well with the audience, who thankfully responded by sending in their responses. Anyway, some months into this Jacqui was charged with getting together a radio programme for children. She was kind of lumbered with the job I think, as all the other RTE producers with clout expressed no enthusiasm for the project themselves. Jacqui’s dilemma was that she didn’t really know any children’s writers as such and she needed to turn something round very quickly, so she phoned me up and asked me, largely on the strength of my childhood pieces for The Living Word, if I’d be interested. I said yes without hesitation. In taking this on I set out three goals for myself: to write a classic radio show; to keep myself in employment for as long as possible; and to try to somehow turn all of this into a book deal. Written down like that, in cold print, such ambitions look big-headed and hopelessly aspirational, but it’s only through ambitions that we can ever hope to be ambitious, and I always try to set myself high goals whenever I get a fecund opportunity. And this opportunity, to write a radio show all on my own, seemed pregnant with possibility. The resultant show, a comedy science fiction drama called The Ivory Tower, garnered not only a cult following, but also a regular listenership and good reviews. I realised very early on that our success would lie not only in appealing to children, but also to adults. My intention therefore was to maximise our audience as much as possible; in order to achieve this I wrote scripts that worked on two levels. On one level they spoke directly to young kids and teens, but at another lever they also addressed themselves to adults. After only the seventh episode was aired on radio we received a glowing review from Tom Widger in the Sunday Tribune, who even took the unusual step of naming the scriptwriter by name, which of course was me. Initially we were told that we would have ten episodes, but within a few weeks we were ordered to take the show up to Christmas and stretch it to sixteen. Before that first run was finished we were also firmly informed to prepare to come back after the Christmas break with a new season. That second season ran to thirty-six episodes. In the finish we went for over two years and ran to four seasons, with a total of 103 half-hour episodes, all of them scripted by myself. This amounts to over fifty hours of radio-time and is a record for Irish radio for a single show of its type. By the time we got to the second season the buzz went round that this wasn’t just a kid’s show and we had an extensive write-up in The Evening Herald where Philip Nolan called us “Irish Radio’s most subversive programme”. By the third season I was contributing, through Jacqui’s producership, to other radio work and earning a steady income. On the foot of the series, as I had initially planned, I managed to secure a book deal with The O’Brien Press and two novels were issued over the next eighteen months. Once the radio show dried up, and quite frankly I couldn’t have kept going for another season at the quality of script I’d been attempting to turn out, other work began to emerge on the back of the show itself and also following on from the novels. From this point I began to work in schools, giving talks and then writing workshops, and that eventually evolved into the position I find myself in today, spending much of my time teaching creative writing and editing anthologies of writing by teenage students, such as annual The Unfinished Book and the Graphic Novel projects, facilitated in Cork City by the Arts Office there and also by Cork City Library.
With all that going on how did you decide to concentrate on poetry – or what decided for you?
Writers who are desperate for work can never quite understand why writers who are constantly in demand complain so much about their lot. Certainly when nobody was knocking upon my own door did I ever imagine that plenty of work could, at some crucial stage, be a negative thing rather than a positive one. However, over the years, being one of the few lucky writers whose phone will often ring, I have come to understand only too well some of the paradoxes and illusions associated with being in demand. My own experience with the initial success of the radio show and the children’s novels is a case in point. It is often remarked upon that working in children’s fiction can be something of a poisoned chalice, and my own experience really proved that to be very true. In the first eighteen months following the launch of the children’s novels, boosted by the popularity of the radio show, I was offered work that hadn’t previously been open to me, but this consisted largely of library visits where I’d give an hour’s talk to classes from a local national school. This work was relatively well-paid and was fairly frequent, but no writer really sets out to do this kind of thing as an ultimate aim, it’s always seen as a first step onto work that’s more satisfying. Because I was very good at what I did, and because word spread from teacher to teacher, I began to get invites to visit the schools themselves and to teach in a schoolroom setting. This kind of work was far more satisfying to do by comparison, so the classroom gigs began to replace the library work. At that time I was already on the Writers-In-Schools list that’s administered by Poetry Ireland, so this ensured that I was paid for my work at professional and decent rates. During this period I was also contacted by various Arts and Literary Festivals in order to facilitate workshops for children and young writers. Of course, because writing for children wasn’t my principal calling, and was really only something I’d gotten into in order to keep food in the larder and pay the bills, I also had the hope that this new exposure would also give me opportunities to push my poetry and adult writing as well. Unfortunately, the former proved to be an obstacle to the latter. Literary festivals were very happy to have me give children’s readings and workshops but were reluctant to offer me anything else. This wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been compounded by a common prejudice that children’s writers often encounter, which is usually revealed by phrases like “well, so-and-so is a real poet, who writes for adults” or “but you only write for children really, don’t you?”; after a while you begin to get the very strong suspicion that you’re not really respected and have only been brought into the festival so that no parent can complain that their children are being discriminated against by having nothing provided for them. Faced with this kind of nonsense, children’s writers quite understandably begin to feel a bit demeaned. The other very real problem with being on the children’s programme of any festival is that the children’s writers often feel segregated from the other writers. After a while many children’s writers, especially those who are accomplished and widely published in other areas, begin to resent this exclusion. After about three years of having to deal with this kind of thing I just felt I had to cut down on the children’s events and get back to writing and publishing poetry. Trying to get a foothold on the adult reading circuit proved difficult at first, because instead of opening doors the children’s work had often caused the doorkeepers to bolt the doors on me on the grounds that I was “really just another children’s writer”. Nowadays I ten d to keep the children’s writing very much in the background but this causes an added difficulty because the children’s writing earns money, whereas poetry rarely does. My principal vocation however, my true calling as a writer, is in poetry; so I dedicate myself to that no matter what. At the moment my principal income comes from teaching and editing writing projects, mainly in secondary schools or with groups of teen writers; but, although many say that I am a born teacher by both instinct and flair, teaching is not my vocation and never can be. I am a poet.
Is there a model whereby poets could make a living in the modern world – as the commercial, capitalist model just doesn’t work for poetry?
No. Any idea that a poet can access income-streams other than teaching (which becomes increasingly gruelling the more you do it) is naïve. Poetry is, for the most part, a vocation. Its usefulness, being emotional and metaphysical, is not easily demonstrated, so no one is really prepared to pay for it. In ancient times, when poets told fortunes and could transform themselves into animals and birds, poetry was respected far more. These days poets are seen largely as drunkards and pains in the arse; we’re greatly underappreciated. Until poets relearn the skills of charming away evil and foretelling destiny, the demand for them will wither. Far too much contemporary poetry is ordinary, far too many poets are mundane; the call of poetry is now seen as something open to everyone. With everyone doing it there is no essential alchemy imbuing it with power, and therefore no pressing need for poets anymore. And now, in a bankrupt world economy, there is no financial backup. The only model for poets is the one where we step off the edge of a building. All we can do these days is simply fall, but the total abandonment in which we do so often fills others with awe or surprise. What we do now is largely intangible; we have once more become magicians, true Fools of the Tarot. Unable to earn a living all we can do is become slaves to our obsession with words. First there is language; then all else will follow.
What other media – apart from those you work in – give you inspiration?
Art, especially painting, has been an inspiration and I often look to artwork, even photographs, for ideas. When I was younger it was the fusion of story and artwork in American comic books that fuelled my imagination and I like to think that this was the seed that led to the focus on imagery in my own work. I’ve been told that my writing is extremely visual and I believe that the image is central to poetry. Image is the source of metaphor. When I was around nine I came across Marvel comic books for the first time and was exposed to the visual story-telling of Jack Kirby in particular. His visionary and extrapolative visualisation of story is something that has stayed with me. But art inspired me in another way as well, and that was in the realisation that the image could be a vehicle for wit and concept. Abstraction doesn’t really propel ideas, just mires them in processes of circular and pointless, endless thinking; but the image can capture many ideas all at once and resonate through different levels simultaneously. So artwork, the visual image, is a major foundation for me.
So where does the future lie for John W. Sexton?
As Ireland, in line with most of the world, is currently struggling with a bankrupt economy, it is unlikely that arts funding for either poetry or for the continuance of the Writers-In-Schools Scheme will continue much more into the future. This will leave most of us quite seriously adrift but our only recourse is to continue writing regardless. In March of next year my fifth poetry collection, The Offspring of the Moon, will be published by Salmon, and that impending event is something I’ll be holding up as a lamp for the darkness. In the meantime I’ll be doing what every poet does and will simply be writing new poems and sending them off to literary magazines. Yesterday I received an acceptance from an American poetry journal which will pay me twenty dollars. Hardly enough to keep me in luxury, but it’s more than I’ve received for any of the other poems I’ve placed in journals over the past few weeks. The payment for poetry is usually nil and the future for most poets is generally bleak even at the best of times. I can’t imagine anything changing in that regard but, paradoxically, that’s the normality of the poet’s life; so the future can truly be said to be stable. That’s the poet’s lot, and that’s about it.
What about a change of career to rock star?
Funny you should bring that up. In 1998, just a short while before my fortieth birthday, I got introduced to the British guitarist and Stranglers frontman, Hugh Cornwell. At that time we had both been approached, separately, by Candy Records with a view to taking part in an arts projects they were intending to undertake with independent art publishers Booth-Clibborn. The idea, essentially, was to get writers and artists to collaborate with rock musicians and create tracks for a cd. The cd would be part of a coffee-table arts book that would also contain writing and artwork. It was quite an ambitious project and most of the budget was used up between the rock stars and the artists. It was a modest enough budget and no one was coming away with big money, they were doing it largely because it was interesting, but by the time the money was almost depleted they realized that they had nothing left in the kitty to include writers and poets. Coinciding with this was a fortuitous moment which impacted on me directly. Through some agency (largely just sheer luck) someone at Candy Records had come across my poem “Mantra of the Awoken Powers” and felt this would be eminently suitable for the project. Luckily for me they had contacted me about it fairly early in the proceedings, so the long and the short of it was that I ended up being the only poet, or indeed writer, who got into the finished project. They did feel, for some reason, that my name, John W. Sexton, wasn’t quite rock’n’roll enough, so they asked me if, ahem, I happened to have another name that I could use. I immediately turned my real name into an anagram and said, “you can call me Sex W. Johnston”. What happened next was that they sent the poem to the ex-Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell, appended with the name of Sex W. Johnston, and asked him if he liked it enough to turn it into a track. Hugh, I’m happy to report, absolutely loved it. I was hoping at the time that I might get to do the vocals on the track, but Booth-Clibborn were keen to have an artist involved, so they came up with the idea of asking the Irish sculptor Barry Flannagan to render the vocal on the track. Barry, being quite old at the time, was actually perfect for the vocal, because his voice had that unsettling hint of the ancient about it which thus gave an added resonance to the track. When the track had been cut Hugh asked Candy Records what we were going to be called, as he very much felt we should have a name like a band. Candy Records duly phoned me up then and asked me to furnish a name, so, off the top of my head I just said “you can call us Servants of the Vortex”, which I thought was fairly cool. Candy Records then phoned Hugh straight back and said, “Sex wants to call the project “Servants of the Vortex”. Hugh immediately agreed and said he’d send on the fully mastered track. When the track arrived, however, it became immediately apparent that he’d misheard the name, for the track was labelled Serpents of the Vortex. We all felt that was actually better, so we kept that version of the name for the record. I was then drafted in to work on some of the text for the coffee-table book, and so I had a further involvement in the project as a whole. The book and cd were eventually released under the album title of We Love You, and featured most of the British Sensationalist School of British artists, including Tracy Emmin. During this period I met Hugh for the first time, at the Graucho Club in Soho, and we just got on like a house on fire. I then met up with Hugh a few more times after that and on one of the occasions he suggested that we make an entire album together, with myself furnishing the lyrics. I sent him a few dozen poems and bits of text and to my surprise he loved all of the material. About three days after posting him the work he phoned me up one morning and said, “Sex, I’m sitting in the garden reading your poems and my mind is filling with music”. It was from that moment that our collaborative album was really begun. We put the tracks together over a few short months and the album was fairly quick finished. I ended up doing the vocals on the entire thing, which was a great experience. Before the album was completed Hugh turned around and said that he felt we should use a different name for this project, so we came up with The Sons of Shiva, (Shiva being the god of the Cosmic Dance). In the finish we named the album eponymously. Eventually we got signed to Track Records. The album has picked up a cult following over the years but I like to think of it as a sleeper; my hope is that one day it’ll just catch on universally and my pension will be secured! Hugh and myself considered a second album but we both just got caught up in other projects. Hugh is very much like myself and doesn’t like to do the same thing twice, so I suppose we just moved on into other things. A thing we both have in common is that we’re both restless spirits, forever reinventing ourselves through new projects. In recent times I’ve been playing with the idea of a new musical project, but would like to do something that’s more easily portable. Travelling on the road with an entire band is fraught with expense and troubles, so I’m thinking of maybe just collaborating with a dubstep dj or possibly even a bass guitarist, but at the moment that’s just an idea. If the right collaborator turns up then I might do something yet. A second musical project that fuses my poetry and vocals would be quite exciting and I’m in the appropriate frame of mind for that now, but it would all depend of finding the right person to work with.
On a light note, two questions to finish up with: You are on death row convicted of murder (in error) but tomorrow you die. What is your last meal?
I see this as a serious question and will attempt a serious answer. No one should have the power of life and death over anybody else, and I’ve always seen this idea of a last request or a last meal as a sop to the executioner’s and the jailor’s conscience. If I was condemned to die by another’s hand I would in no way enable their excuses for killing me and I would in no way allow them the idea that they had somehow given me a mercy. I would eat no last meal. I would go to death hungry. I may well indeed go there that way yet.
If you were an artist in any other discipline (painter, singer, actor, sculptor etc.) and you were to be a one-hit-wonder, what single piece of art (existing, by another artist) would you be content to have as your legacy?
The only work of art by another artist that I would have any interest in claiming as my own no longer exists, so you’ll simply have to be satisfied with that. No other work of art created before or since that particular piece has been so profound, though it probably lasted but a short time. The piece of art I have in mind was a sculpture, I think that’s the best way to describe it, and it was created by Michelangelo. In his “Lives of the Artists”, Giorgio Visari recorded that the ruler of Florence, Piero de’ Medici, after a great deal of snow fell in Florence, had commanded Michelangelo to make in his courtyard a snowman. The idea of a work of art that is fleeting and destructible, recorded only by hearsay and folk memory, appeals to me greatly. That’s the kind of thing all artists should aspire to, for it transcends the artistic ego. The idea of writing a poem that no one can remember, but at the same time one the effect of which is so memorable that everyone speaks of it through all of subsequent history, enchants me completely.