Stephen Sexton on the juxtaposition of poetry and Super Mario

As a child, video games were an escape for Stephen Sexton. As a poet, he has successfully married the two worlds in a collection covering grief and memory, and unusually – Super Mario. He chats to the Penguin team about his debut which is this year's winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. 

Stephen Sexton

Tell us a little bit about why you wrote your debut collection, 'If All The World And Love Were Young'?

I often feel that video games aren’t really taken that seriously. They’re seen as being gimmicky or a waste of time. Nevertheless, hundreds of millions of people play them every day and most of the time those people and that interest isn’t really reflected in literature. There’s been a couple of examples, such as the Coin Opera anthologies published by Sidekick Books, or more recently, Vidyan Ravinthiran’s poem ‘Mercy Invincibility’, about Super Mario. Hannah Faith Notess is an American poet who has written about video games too, and whose work I came to just after starting to work on my book. I really liked Jason Rekulak’s novel The Impossible Fortress too. Given the scale of how massive the industry is, it seems surprising to me that video games are only recently showing up significantly in literature. I wonder about all those people who might be interested, who might find poetry, for instance, more accessible or interesting or welcoming if it talked about something that they cared about.

Your collection switches between the real world of your family life and the virtual world of Super Mario. Why Super Mario?

It was an important part of my childhood. It sort of represents this adventure, this magical world that is very different from the one I grew up in. There weren’t any real-life flowers that gave me special talents or powers in this world but there are in the videogames, coupled with a kind of childhood sense of wonder. The most important thing is that it’s very vibrant, very colourful. It’s full of images and there’s not a lot of text, where as there are in some video games. So, I felt it kind of stimulated my imagination in a way that other games didn’t. 

Shigeru Miyamoto, the producer of the Super Mario, said in some interviews that he wanted his games to be a destination for play that children would go to; he thinks of them as a place rather than an experience. And looking back with a sense of nostalgia, it’s a place I wanted to go back to. Kind of like if you have a really nice holiday, from a really uncomplicated part of your life and you want to go back but the conditions will never be the same again. 

How does the poetry itself mimic the game?

I felt like it wasn’t enough just to describe the images that were on the screen, I needed to find a way to approximate the feeling or the experience of playing it. In Mario, you move left to right, jumping over things, avoiding objects or enemies which, in English anyway, is exactly the way a line of syntax works. The other thing is that the Super Nintendo, the platform Super Mario is played on, is a 16-bit console. Which refers to the amount of information which can be processed at once by the processor, so one cycle is 16 bits. It’s an absolutely miniscule amount of information of data, but it’s still processing all this information at once. I wanted the poetic line in this book to be like that processor, processing memory, so, every single line is 16 syllables. Also, the poems are quite square and blocky, so they kind of replicate the pixel-led experience, lots of little squares sat next to each other that end up creating an image somehow. 

How do you find being compared to Seamus Heaney?

It’s an extraordinarily generous thing to be compared to Heaney. I feel it’s worth saying that the book was compared, rather than myself as such. He is known for his exemplary art, marvellous poems and, just as importantly, quite a profound social conscience. He is always looking outwards his work has a gentleness to it, which is a really hard thing to do all the time. Even lots of big topics like politics and violence are always dealt with generosity, patience and skill. 

What do you think has contributed to the current rise in popularity of poetry particularly amongst young people?

My instinct is that young people communicate much more so with images than I ever did – you just need to look at Instagram to recognise that. Images offer, sometimes, a different kind of efficiency compared to language the poems that I like are made up entirely of images, by which I mean poetic images, rather than photographic images. ‘The Dream House’ by Matthew Sweeney is a fine example of a poem which is pretty much only a description of a house; there’s nothing epiphanic. It could well exist as a photograph. The ease with which photographs are created and shared must be having an effect on how language is used.

I wonder if that’s what the connection is: for people who have always been able to author images and communicate with them, language must be different. Maybe they see poems and they understand images in a way that some of us just don’t, because they’ve grown up with images in the way that I just didn’t. They know innately how images work and what their limitations are. So, for instance — not using it myself— I assumed Instagram was just pictures of people with cocktails on beaches, but even with that photograph there has to be a little bit of text that provides context, it’s not enough to simply have the solitary picture. So, I think people understand that there’s something this picture isn’t communicating — context — and that they need text to do that. If the text alongside that image says ‘best funeral ever’, that’s a really shocking context to put that image into. But if you say ‘cocktails with the lads on the beach’ then that text confirms what’s happening and provides context. The image itself can’t do that; you need language to do that. I just think people who use it a lot probably just know how images work, and how language works with an almost innate kind of sophistication.

Any advice you might have for aspiring poets?

It’s important to remember that there’s no wrong thing that can go into your poem. The things that you care about are valid, they matter and are what’s important.


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