Belfast poet wins £5,000 National Poetry Competition

Read Stephen Sexton’s poem The Curfew, chosen out of 12,580 poems entered for UK’s Poetry Society prize

The winners and judges of the National Poetry Competition. From left: Gerry Cambridge, Sam Harvey, Patrick James Errington, Peter Wallis, Laura Scott, Stephen Sexton, Moniza Alvi, Holly Singlehurst, Marc Brightside, Caleb Parkin, TL Evans and Jack Underwood

The winners and judges of the National Poetry Competition. From left: Gerry Cambridge, Sam Harvey, Patrick James Errington, Peter Wallis, Laura Scott, Stephen Sexton, Moniza Alvi, Holly Singlehurst, Marc Brightside, Caleb Parkin, TL Evans and Jack Underwood

 

Out of 12,580 poems entered for this year’s award, Belfast poet Stephen Sexton’s The Curfew has been chosen as the winner of the National Poetry Competition, winning him £5,000. Judges Moniza Alvi, Gerry Cambridge and Jack Underwood selected the winning poem from entries from 73 countries worldwide – maintaining the competition’s position as one of the world’s biggest international open poetry competitions for single poems.

The winning poem combines reminiscence about a legendary miner grandfather with the emancipation of animals from a zoo and an unspecified industrial accident. With shades of magic realism and heartfelt storytelling of past and present events, the poem carries the reader through complex, intertwining worlds – and times – with a flourish, leaving questions unanswered as well as hinting at a deeper connectivity between the poem’s stories and our own world.

Moniza Alvi commented: “Exuberant in its energies, The Curfew, while scarcely pausing, admits the contemplative. It’s a poem to read and re-read, to ponder and to experience. Its conclusion tenders that which goes beyond accustomed language, beyond any language.”

Gerry Cambridge added: “The Curfew is a complex poem that slowly reveals itself to the reader but remains finally mysterious too. It skilfully intertwines several elements and time-frames: some sort of political suppression, the narrator’s grandfather and an unspecified bauxite mining accident, and the fine comic touch of the ungovernable animals let out of the zoo by ‘the radicals’. At once winsome, strangely happy, and peculiarly touching, it deftly conjures a world.”

Sexton, a former pupil of fellow poet Ciaran Carson, has had work published in many poetry magazines and anthologies. His pamphlet Oils was published by The Emma Press to great acclaim in 2014, and was chosen as the Poetry Book Society’s Winter Pamphlet Choice in the same year. Sexton lives in Belfast where he is working towards a PhD at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University.

Since it began in 1978 the competition has been an important milestone in the careers of many of today’s leading poets, with previous winners including Helen Dunmore, Ruth Padel, Philip Gross, Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott and Tony Harrison. Sexton follows in the footsteps of previous Irish winners such as Medbh McGuckian in 1978, Colette Bryce in 2003 and Sinéad Morrissey in 2007.

He described the feeling of having won: “It’s an outrageous honour to have this poem recognised by the judges and perhaps the most exciting thing for me is the plain old fundamental feeling of being understood. Even if I’m not sure what is lingering behind the poem, there is pure joy in thinking that whatever is being transmitted arrived at its destination intact.”

He detailed some of the thinking behind the poem: “There’s a lot of history in the poem, but I think I thought more of a series of contexts and the interplay of interior and exterior spaces, each folded within another. I wanted, through an aggregation of these contexts – animals roaming around a town in the present, a mine collapse somewhere in the past – to create a kind of municipal pastoral scene in which what’s happening and what’s happened are overlaid and integrated.”

The Curfew
by Stephen Sexton

The radicals sprung the locks that night, hurrah!
and their lovely collarbones were almost moonly.

Rhinos shrieked and bellowed, elephants tromboned
and the animals nosed into town.

Sunrise to sunrise and sunrise we kept indoors.
If you can’t count your onions, what can you count

my grandfather used to say. He said a lot of things.
Among the other miners he was legendary:

when no more than the thought of the pink crumple
of his infant daughter’s body came to mind

a glow would swell in the pit, the men
would mayhem bauxite by the light

his tenderness emitted.
Some of me lived inside her even then.

The memorial fountain says nothing
of the weeks before the rescue failed

but mentions God which, as my grandfather
used to say, is just the name of the plateau

you view the consequences of your living from.
Or something like that. He said a lot of things.

He grew wise and weary as an albatross
and left for that great kingdom of nevertheless.

It would have pleased his handsome shoulders
to watch this grizzly scoop for salmon

in the fountain of his friends, or the Bengals,
or the shakedown squad of chimpanzees

who bang and bang on the grocery window.
One by one eleven miners starved to death.

In the streets they collar or tranquillise
the ocelots and run a spike of ketamine

through the plumbing in the fountain.
Dromedaries blue-mood around the pub

aloof under their reservoirs of fat.
I don’t sleep, but oh plateau! these days

of violence have been my happiest.
Even a cabbage is not without desire

my grandfather said one day, and now
among the animals, I feel under my wings

the words for things I thought I knew
departing, and I understand him.

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