Ciaran Carson and Stephen Sexton

Teacher and pupil read from their work at the 2014 John Hewitt Society Spring Festival in Carnlough: 'Everything I do in English, there’s always the shadow of another language'

In recent years, the scenic coastal village of Carnlough has been the base for the John Hewitt Society’s annual Spring Festival. This year, the one-day festival explores identity in contemporary Northern Ireland, with writers and readers from across the country gathering in the historic Londonderry Arms Hotel to listen and debate.

Omagh-born author, Martina Devlin, is here to talk about her novel, The House Where it Happened, about the Islandmagee witch trials in the 18th century, and later in the day, tackling segregation and reconciliation is discussed by the current chair of the Community Relations Council, Peter Osborne, with input from LGBT activist, Vincent Creelan and Nisha Tandon, chief executive of intercultural arts organisation, Arts Ekta.

But first, two Belfast poets, who use language to great effect to explore their surroundings, take to the floor: Stephen Sexton and Ciaran Carson.

Sexton released his debut poetry pamphlet, Oils (already on its second print run) last year, while Carson – incidentally, Sexton's former teacher – has a plethora of prize-winning works to his name. Indeed, Carson previously won the TS Eliot Prize, and has published multiple poetry collections, as well as prose and translation work. 

The pair are introduced by fellow poet, Paul Maddern, who describes Carson as 'a poet with a deep-rooted sense of integrity'. Regarding the ongoing issue arts funding, he reveals that Carson has always fought hard to keep the focus on creative freedoms – he is a poet who emphasises the importance of 'knowing where you come from, so you can know where you’re going'.

'He talks of "the small back room", where artists may devote themselves to creative expression,' Maddern adds. 'We need more artists like Ciaran Carson. In everything he does, he’s fundamentally concerned with the power and ramifications of language, the place where we meet and we learn from each other.'

Maddern argues that Sexton, meanwhile – a new poet – embodies all that Carson has passed on to his students, and 'a genuineness of humanity', which is apparent in his 'astonishing debut'. It is from Oils that Sexton reads.

Currently completing his PhD at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Sexton has been exploring poems that are written in response to photographs or characters. For example, his poem, 'Long Reach', includes a line from a Van Gogh letter and is inspired by the Dutchman's painting, 'The Starry Night'.

Sexton’s work juxtaposes reality in poems like 'The Death of Horses' – based on the true story of a mass grave of horses discovered in County Tyrone – with the imaginary, such as in 'On Betrayal'. 'What people know not to be real is just as affecting as what is real,' he says.

Meanwhile, the mundane realities of a call centre, where Sexton once worked, is brought to life in 'Credit History', while his penchant for using visual art to inspire is embodied in 'Elegy for Olive Oyl'.

Sexton ends with 'The Infinitive', his poetic response to a Yeats’ poem, made up of definitions of the word ‘arise’. This leads us neatly onto Carson, who always tells his students to look up every word in the Oxford English Dictionary, especially the ones they know.

'I bet that if you think you know a word, if you look it up, you’ll find you don’t actually know it at all,' Carson says. 'For example, "coming to terms". If you "come to terms" with something, you have to understand where you’re at, and that’s the hard bit. I’ve been trying to come to terms with language for a long time.'

Beginning with a musical introduction on the tin whistle, Carson weaves little nuggets of wordy wisdom throughout his reading. Well-known for his love of language and the complexities of it, he tells us about the aisling genre of song in the Irish language, often translated in English as ‘dream vision’.

'It was said that a beautiful woman representing Ireland appeared to a poet in his sleep, asking him to vindicate her cause. Sometimes, he is accused of writing in English rather than Irish, and this has a resonance for me. I was reared in the Irish language at home and learned English on the street. I’m always caught between the two. Everything I do in English, there’s always the shadow of another language. The aisling, to me, is an interlingual twilight zone, the place where poetry happens.'

We hear one of his most popular poems, 'Belfast Confetti', along with the alphabetically-inspired poems, 'O' and 'K'. Scattered in between are those slivers of wisdom.

'I was in Japan in 1998 and I realised I didn’t know anything in Tokyo. It’s a very good education to be somewhere where you know absolutely nothing. We have only a hazy idea of who we are. The badges we hold up with our identities are flawed. We should test them.'

Carson goes on to read from his most recent collection, From Elsewhere, published last year and including translations of the French poet, Jean Follain, as well as responses to his work.

Carson was also, of course, a good friend of Seamus Heaney’s, and he finishes with a pair of poems, 'Without Language' and 'In Memory', which were written in response to the few reports which, after his death, argued  that Heaney was ‘a nice man but not a very good poet’. Suffice it to say, Carson does not agree with the latter sentiment.

Fittingly, he closes the reading with a Heaney-inspired tune on the tin whistle, entitled 'The Blackbird'.