Development & Alumni Relations Office 


30 March 2017

The 39th National Poetry Competition, which attracted 12,580 entries from across the world, has been won by Queen’s PhD student, Stephen Sexton, from Belfast. Organised by the Poetry Society, the winners of the annual competition for previously unpublished single poems of up to 40 lines in length, were announced this week (29.03.17).

Judges Moniza Alvi, Gerry Cambridge and Jack Underwood selected the winning poem from an astounding field of 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 work – The Curfew – combines reminiscence about a legendary miner grandfather with the emancipation of animals from a zoo and an unspecified industrial accident.

Commenting shortly after the results were announced, Stephen spoke of his surprise at winning the top prize: “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.”

Talking about The Curfew Stephen added: “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.”

In praise of the winning poem, Moniza Alvi said: “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."

Fellow judge, 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.” Stephen Sexton, who has a BA in English (2011) and an MA in Creative Writing (2012) from Queen’s, is currently a PhD student in the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. He has had work published in Granta, Poetry Ireland, Poetry London, and Best British Poetry. 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.

A recipient of an ACES award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2016, Stephen follows in the footsteps of previous Northern Irish winners of the Competition such as Medbh McGuckian (1978), Colette Bryce (2003) and Sinéad Morrissey (2007).

Established in 1978, the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition is one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious poetry contests. There are three winners and seven commendations annually. Winners include both established and emerging poets, and for many the prize has proved an important career milestone.

All the winning poems are published on The Poetry Society’s website. The top three will be included in the spring 2017 issue of The Poetry Review and there will be a celebratory event with some of the winners at Ledbury Poetry Festival in July.

You can read Stephen Sexton’s winning poem here.'The Curfew' was the winner of the 2016 National Poetry Competition. 'The Curfew' was the winner of the 2016 National Poetry Competition.'The Curfew' was the winner of the 2016 National Poetry Competition.


The Poetry Society was founded in 1909 to promote a “more general recognition and appreciation of poetry”. Since then, it has grown into one of Britain’s most dynamic arts organisations, representing British poetry both nationally and internationally.

General inquiries to Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office at Queen’s; tel: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.

Image: artwork by Isabel Rock

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