"Solitude is necessary for writing, but writing is sterile without life, and life can rarely be found in solitude. So the trick is to be able to commute between the city and the desert."
"The heart of all good writing is structure. Experimentation is good for blowing the arse off the neighbor’s cat, but once you’ve done that the excitement is never so good the second time round."
"Poetry has never been a good career move. When I was a kid I used to be mystified as to why anyone would possibly think of doing it as a job...Little did I know that by the time I’d reach the age of 47 I’d be heading the same way."
Interview: John W. Sexton
Pity the biographer forced to categorize John W. Sexton’s work. After all, the poet, dramatist, children’s book author, broadcaster, radio scriptwriter, and lead singer has taken a few twists and turns during his career.
In Ireland, where he makes his home, Sexton is probably best known as the creator and writer of the cult radio series, The Ivory Tower, which ran to 103 episodes, and as the author of the children’s books—The Johnny Coffin Diaries and Johnny Coffin School-Dazed—based on the series.
The Ivory Tower tracked the adventures of 12-year-old Irish schoolboy Johnny Coffin as he and a cybernetic entity known as Professor Bang attempted to save the universe. The Hitchhiker-Guide-To-The-Galaxy-esque series was a crossover success with children and adults alike.
But Sexton is equally as adept at writing poetry. His collection The Prince’s Brief Career came out from Cairn Mountain Press in 1995, and Shadows Bloom / Scáthanna Faoi Bhláth, a book of haiku with translations into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock, in 2004.
Sexton's third volume of poetry, Vortex, was recently published by Doghouse. It's a powerful collection suffused with the tangled emotions of relationships, memory, and loss. But there’s joy in it as well, a kind of daredevil reveling in the beauty of the unknown, in the myriad possibilities that life offers.
It's clear that Sexton embraces life. His accomplishments include releasing an album with the legendary Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell, entitled The Sons of Shiva (Track Records), under the pseudonym Sex W. Johnston. The record label’s own review calls it “out there,” an “exercise in other-worldliness.”
VerbSap : You've said that you actually set out to create a cult radio show, then realized to your own surprise that you had. What do you think makes writing "popular" or "successful," and why are so few poets as popular as, say, J.K. Rowling or Madonna?
Sexton : Poetry has never been a good career move. When I was a kid I used to be mystified as to why anyone would possibly think of doing it as a job. Edgar Allen Poe died in the gutter, Hart Crane threw himself off a ship, John Keats died without his girlfriend—-it just seemed like an endless list of losers and no-hopers. Little did I know that by the time I’d reach the age of 47 I’d be heading the same way.
As for success, I think that’s largely an accident. The true path for most writers is obscurity. The fact is, most writers are unknown to most readers. The fame I had as the creator and scriptwriter for The Ivory Tower was a short-lived thing. Which is a good thing really. Being known for one thing forever is the worst curse a writer can get. That’s why I write different things, to keep something new before me all the time. Essentially I’m a poet and short-story writer, but there’s no plan needed for that. All you need for poetry is pain and love (very common things to come by, but very hard to master) and all you need for short fiction is a window open to the street. I think J.K. Rowling is worth something in excess of 200 million dollars, but now she’s talking of writing under a pseudonymn for her post-Potter books so that she’ll be taken seriously as a writer, so in her case fame has become an obstacle to reaching new readers. Anyway, what individual needs 200 million dollars? What would you do with it? I can’t even count to 200 million. (Seriously, I can’t).
Most of the time, however, success lies in simply keeping something going for as long as possible. When I was originally commissioned to create The Ivory Tower I set myself three tasks: to keep myself in work for as long as I could, to create a cult show so that my profile would rise, and to get a book deal. I managed all three, but that’s only because I saw the opportunities and was stubborn enough to make them happen. But it wasn’t easy. It never is. RTE (Ireland’s national broadcasting company) weren’t really sure how long the series would last, for their commitment at the beginning was extremely woolly, and they were originally talking of a six to eight week run. After two weeks of broadcasted shows (I was writing about three weeks ahead) they extended it to ten weeks, but after the reviews came in they decided to go on until Christmas, a run of sixteen weeks, with an option for a second series in the new year. The second season ran for thirty-two half-hour episodes and eventually I carried on for four seasons. It is a matter of pride for me that I did over a hundred episodes, and brought the series to a close on a high, with no slippage in script quality.
The working writer's task is usually one of surviving until something kicks in, but of course, nothing is going to last forever, so you must always have an eye open for the next project.
Sexton : Yes, Johnny Coffin took over my life. He took over my brain as well. In the end I decided to gag him and lock him in a cupboard. I left him there for over a year and went back to poetry. It was a bad move, because that boy could earn a living whereas I can’t. Anyway, there’s going to be two more Johnny Coffin books, and possibly a “Selected Radio Scripts” and then I’m going to do something else.
Sexton : Some rather large and noisy American publishers have been sniffing around the books and one day I might be rich. Jimmy Murakami (the Assistant Director on “The Snowman”) wants to turn the books into a movie and a TV series. So one day, indeed, I might well be rich. One day I might have so much money that I’ll have to get someone to count it for me so that I’ll know how wealthy I am. But of course, because I can barely count above a hundred they’ll probably lie to me and I’ll be defrauded and end up in the gutter with Edgar Allen Poe. Oh joy! To be in the gutter with Edgar! But then again, why bother making all that money when I can get to the gutter just by sticking to poetry?
Sexton : Pressure is good for some things. The truth is, in a lifetime most writers will only get to write one decent book or poem or story. That’s the real level of success. The real success for a writer is to be read after you’re dead. Solitude is necessary for writing, but writing is sterile without life, and life can rarely be found in solitude. So the trick is to be able to commute between the city and the desert.
VerbSap: Do you believe that you've written your one decent work, or do you think your own best is yet to come?
Sexton: The wise writer should always be dissatisfied with his or her work, otherwise the compulsion to improve on one's craft will begin to dissipate. It is the mastering of the craft that should be our driving force as writers. I look at the failures of each of my pieces and then strive to move on. It's a fact of literature that every piece fails in some essential way, but our job is to limit that failure as much as is humanly possible; that's what the editorial process is for. I spend at least as much time editing and fine-tuning my work as I do in the original composition. As for the merits in my writing, I'll let that up to others to discern. But one should never be dazzled by praise. To be dazzled by praise is as big a pitfall as to be depressed by negative critique. Writers should get on with their writing and let the talking about writing to those who want to talk about it. I'd rather write. I write to get better at writing, for writing is its own practice.
VerbSap: You were raised in London by Irish parents How much does nationality or a sense of place drive your writing?
Sexton : For me it’s one of the main fuels for my work. In general Celts have a highly defined sense of place, a sometimes mystical connection with our surroundings, and that has always been evident in anything I have done. Being Irish is the most important thing for me personally, but I don’t mean that in a political or narrowly chauvinistic way. It’s more a tribal thing, I think. Celts seem naturally very tuned in to the primal race-mind, it informs our thinking, gives us a sense of solidarity. It appears to me to be something that’s more evident in some races than in others. I believe that native American Indians have it, Africans have it, certainly most aboriginal races. And the Celts seem to have retained that tuning-in to the racial consciousness despite being partners to the modern age.
Sexton : Actually, if a robe of orthodoxy were to be placed on my shoulders it’d probably crap its pants. I think my personal unorthodoxy stems, once again, from the tribe. There are eccentrics on both sides of my family, but the fire that’s constantly burning in my head is definitely from my mother’s line.
Sexton: The heart of all good writing is structure. Experimentation is good for blowing the arse off the neighbor’s cat, but once you’ve done that the excitement is never so good the second time round. And anyway, yesterday’s experiments always become today’s structures. In poetry I work with formalism as well as free structures, and the same with fiction, but structure is where we must begin. I challenge you to name me a single significant author who didn’t understand structure. Writing must be a craft before it can attain art. I get very impatient with writers who are too lazy to learn their trade. And despite the fact that the gutter is our common destination, writing is indeed a trade.
Sexton: I’m first and foremost a poet. But I happen to be one of those poets who sees short fiction as a legitimate poetic device. Some fictioneers who inspired me to write are poets of the highest rank: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe, Thomas Pynchon, Harlan Ellison, Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Mark Twain.
VerbSap: Did you always intend to be a writer?
Sexton : No. Only a fool would commit himself to a life such as this. However, at the age of eighteen I woke up one day to discover that I was a fool. The path of the fool is a wonderful vocation. And being a fool helps numb you to the pain of constant rejection and little money.
Sexton : Ah, that’s where pain and love come in. My eldest son, Matthew, he’s nearly eighteen now, well, he has the mind of a young boy. He’s Autistic. Watching his body ageing while his mind remains innocent and confused is indescribably painful. But it’s also an indescribable joy. Responding to our own lives is another part of the writer’s task, so I try my best to celebrate my son through my writing. A poet must be prepared to be the secretary to life.