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Interview: John W. Sexton on “Down at the Goblin Boutique”

What was the inspiration for “Down at the Goblin Boutique,” or what prompted you to write it?

The basic concept is really a twist on something that occurs in many folktales and myths, where a series of warnings lulls the unwary into thinking that they are being aided and advised. Around the time that I was playing with this idea for a new poem I was leafing through the poems of Christina Rossetti and came across an old favourite, Goblin Market. The title immediately engendered another idea, not of a market that sold suspect fruit as in the original poem, but of a shop that sold something far more sophisticated, that catered to a more discerning and perhaps wealthier customer. Once I struck upon the notion of a coat with magical properties, the poem began to reveal itself to me bit by bit.

 

John W. SextonDo you see yourself as a fantasy and science fiction poet or as a poet who sometimes uses the tropes and language of fantasy and science fiction?

I see myself as a poet working within the tradition of the Fantastic. And as such a poet, practising the craft now for over forty years, I would identify with the Fabulist and Metaphoricist schools of thought.

Being a European my main influences in both would also obviously be largely European, so on the Fabulist side there would initially have been poets like Walter de la Mare, Tomas Tranströmer, W. B. Yeats, Vasko Popa and Lewis Carroll. However, when I started out as a young poet I was also reading a lot of fiction, and much of that was actually science fiction, and so I very quickly formed the opinion that the realm of the fantastic was a better way to express ideas. Even in the mainstream literature that I was reading in those days, and I’m talking now about the late ‘70s, 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. J. G. 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 in those days 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. So when I started out as a young poet the literature of the Fantastic was all-pervasive in what I was then reading. But Harlan Ellison had another significant influence on me. His often expressed complaints in those days that he had been ghettoised by the label “science fiction writer” always struck me as confused, for he seemed to confine himself to the very genre publications and publishers that he complained were limiting him. It seemed to me then that the only resort was to try and publish in the mainstream journals, so that’s what I did. And I’ve been publishing my fabulist poetry in the mainstream ever since. And believe me, it’s never been without resistance from the poetry marketplace.

 

In the United States, poetry doesn’t seem to be part of the mainstream consciousness today as much as it was, say, 100 years ago. Why do you think contemporary poetry has found a home among fantasy and science fiction readers?

You know, if you look at poetic tradition going back the last two hundred years, I think you’ll find that most cultures always had a healthy showing of fantasy amongst their poets. The Gothic tradition, for instance, seems to have sprung up everywhere. In America you had Poe and all those who followed after him. And in America the Gothic seems to have evolved into the Weird and in that way was kept alive and evolved further. But if you look at your mainstream you’ll find you also have poets who practise Fabulism as an integral part of what they do. You’ll find plenty of the elements of the Fantastic in poets like W. S. Merwin, John Ashberry, Slyvia Plath and Thomas Lux. And long before Lux you had Philip Lamantia.

In Ireland poets tend to write poems of the Fantastic as a matter of course, but they publish them in the mainstream journals because we have no tradition of science fiction poetry journals over here. In Ireland our solution seems to have been different to what happened in America. You created journals to accommodate your poetry, whereas we in Ireland seem to have stubbornly forced the existing journals to accommodate us! In Ireland this may have been somewhat inevitable, because in our culture the supernatural and the motifs of folktale and myth were often habitually used by writers here anyway, so the journals perhaps found it quite natural to continue publishing and encouraging such work.

 

Besides you, who are three other contemporary poets that our readers ought to go out and find right now?

At the risk of offending my fellow brothers in poetry, I’m going to recommend three women. To my mind the best poetry these days seems to be written by women anyway. It has emotion, resonance and passion, and that’s what I personally require as a reader. I’m also going to be partisan and choose three Irish poets, because I feel your readers will probably not be previously acquainted with them.

The first I’d like to suggest is Máighréad Medbh. When I first came across her over twenty years ago she was described largely as a performance poet; then she became political, and then confessional. Recently she emerged as a mystic and now, currently, she appears to be writing a kind of science fiction. What an absolutely marvellous and dynamic poet she is – always evolving, never still. That’s the kind of poet that inspires readers. Her most recent poetry collection is “Parvit Of Agelast” (Arlen House), an epic fantasy sequence in verse about a strange city and its equally strange inhabitants.

Next I’d recommend the poet Eileen Sheehan, whose poems even of the everyday are often imbued with the resonance of folktale. Her poems are often redolent with mysteries, and can be found in her collections “Song of the Midnight Fox” and “Down the Sunlit Hall” (Doghouse Books).

Finally I’d like to mention Eleanor Hooker, whose poetry vacillates between the haunting and the haunted, between terror and wonder, between the internal and the Other. Her two collections are “The Shadow Owner’s Companion” and “A Tug of Blue” (Dedalus Press).

(Photo of John W. Sexton courtesy of Niall Hartnett.)

 

“Down at the Goblin Boutique” appears in the November/December 2017 issue of F&SF.

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