How long have you been writing? I’ve been writing with a view to it being the major preoccupation of my life since the age of 18, but was writing from a sense of desire many years before that. My first publication, after seven years of self-taught apprenticeship, wasn’t until I was aged 25.
What was your first publication? My first publication was a short story, Blackthorn, which was accepted by David Marcus at the Irish Press and which appeared in New Irish Writing in 1983. It was short-listed for the Hennessy Literary Award in 1984. Before the story came out I had managed to secure reviewing work at the Irish Press and was one of their poetry reviewers in the years before the paper went into bankruptcy. At this time I also began publishing my first poems.
What have been the most significant developments, negative and positive if you like, in poetry in Ireland over the last 10 years or so? I see very few positive developments. The few developments that appear positive, for instance the seeming democracy engendered by online publishing and open mic groups, are largely illusory and will not finally, in my personal and weary opinion, exert any real influence over the direction of poetry here in Ireland. This is because the entrenched practice of gatekeeping amongst the current poetocracy simply won’t allow any of this to make much of a dent; reviews in the press and the poetocracy’s journals are carefully controlled so that only two publishers here get much exposure. However, the most negative development is the establishment of MA’s in Poetry. These MA’s merely foster the delusions of received knowledge and do not in any way help the development of prosody; they merely stifle it. As a result of the pre-eminence of certain Universities, what has been created is simply a bottleneck of competing and mediocre academic groups that are merely parroting theories and principals of prosody mired in the past; they also review largely within their own cliques, so that philosophies of prosody become inbred. There are no dynamic movements in poetry here, no new conflicting theories or schools of prosodic thought. We are fast becoming a nation of poetry nitwits, homogenized in a morass of insipidity. Irish verse has been taken over by the porridge boilers.
What do you think needs to happen, and what would you like to see happen, in Irish poetry over the next few years? Poets need to learn as much prosodic method as they can fit into their heads; they need to become conversant with as many conflicting schools of thought as possible; they need to perfect this learning individually and then create poetry of their own, and not simply boil the same old porridge that we find in our so-called journals of record. We need to be revolutionary. We need to create new poetries.
We quite often hear in Ireland of the pull from either Boston or Berlin: are Irish writers European writers in the English language or are we wholly steeped in the Anglosphere? The porridge tends to be Anglophile; a bland oatmeal mixed with nothing but more oatmeal. We need to be more European, certainly, but Europe really is simply and resolutely the past. It’s just another tired and bloated empire. We need to go out into the wider world and discover poetries we haven’t stumbled across yet. And when we discover them we should go forth without fear of stumbling. Falling over on our arses would do us the world of good. It won’t kill us; but staying where we are will.
Finally, if you had to recommend one regular poetry event in Ireland to someone, what would it be? There are plenty that are good but I’m not going to recommend any of them. That’s our ingrained and age-old problem: we’re too prepared to look at what we already have and be satisfied with it. This question is in danger of producing an exercise in pointless arse-licking and favour-notching.
John W. Sexton is a past Burning Bush contributor. He is the author of five collections of poetry: The Prince’s Brief Career, (1995), Shadows Bloom / Scáthanna Faoi Bhláth, with translations into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock, (2004), Vortex (2005), and Petit Mal (2009). His fifth collection, The Offspring of the Moon, was recently published by Salmon Poetry. 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.