For the last 18 months I’ve been more or less bogged down, stalled, stymied – call it what you like. It started with a reading I heard at the Red Shed in Wakefield, a group performance by the Sandal Writers. It was a compilation, something on the lines of a radio ballad, about a pit disaster at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield in 1972. I can’t explain why it stuck, why it bothered me, why it generated random images and narratives. I just know that I wanted to/had to write about it. Which is when the the problem of The Sequence wandered into my head and won’t wander out.
I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘a sequence’ beyond the feeling that I want to write about a particular something and that one poem won’t do…and possibly not six or ten. How many poems does it have to be before it’s ‘a sequence’? When I published my first pamphlet it was simply a case of organising poems I’d written into some kind of order, with a suggestion of a beginning, a middle and an end. Subsequently I found I’d written sequences by accident, the unintended consequence of undeclared passion or obsession. My second pamphlet, Backtracks is a back to front narrative, Poems that tell the story of me, my parents and grandparents. Anyone can do that. It’s a given. There were other poems that became what I’d call ‘groups’..poems about one of my sons, about the Macpherson’s of Achnacloich, about the Norsemen and the NE Coast of England, about the Greek and Roman pantheons.
And then there were the problematic ones…the deliberately conceived sequences. For instance, when I was half-heartedly doing an MA in Creative Writing I determined to write a sequence about the Highland Clearances as they affected the Isle of Skye. I read a lot, and I went on a good many walks to clearance sites like Suishnish and Boreraig (including another kind of dereliction in the remains of an abandoned marble quarry). But the places didn’t fit my preconceived emotional narrative. I went looking for ghosts and found none. I wrote a handful of poems, but not the ‘sequence’ I thought was there, somewhere.
Then there was the late 19th C painter John Waterhouse…I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. I think that what it comes down to is something Helen Mort said to me…something on the lines that you can MAKE a poem be, but it won’t be any good. Pretty much what Keats said about poetry needing to come as naturally as leaves to the tree’. And I guess that applies to ‘sequences’, too.
And then there were the sculptures. I worked for a few years in a college in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and every day I’d pass Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated man‘ and Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I got in the habit of passing the time of day with the seated man, and conceived the notion that these great sculptures contained the souls of the famously transgressive and of fallen angels. Bit by bit, mainly because I really wanted to experiment with ‘voices’, I wrote enough fallen angel poems to fill a pamphlet. They are all dramatic monologues. Queen Victoria speaks in the style of Emily Dickinson, The Angel of the North in Miltonic blank verse. A lot of the poems involve pastiche. I enjoyed that, and it became a book, but I still wonder if it’s the real deal. I know I like performing them, and I know that the idea of the narrative voice was the key that opened the door. But when it comes the seven men killed in the Lofthouse Disaster (six never recovered) the key is elusive. A few weeks ago I went on a writing week in which I hoped there’d be a tutor who might help me find that key. I was disappointed. Worse, I felt as though I’d had my legs kicked out from under…I almost persuaded myself that it was a foolish notion, and indeed, that I should possibly give up the whole writing business. I’m over that self-pitying stuff now, but what helped enormously was to bite a bullet and get the chutzpah to ask poets I admire if they’d share their experience. Particularly, I asked three poets who write recognizable and wonderful sequences…..especially I asked them this
I’ve been struggling with a writing project. I’ve got shedloads of material…I’ve been assembling that for well over a year. What I can’t manage at the moment is to find a place to stand and say: we start here. I’m convinced that could come about in a trice. A phrase, an idea for a holding form, a structure, a phrase, a refrain. It doesn’t matter how.
Now, I’m not asking for help with this, so you can say ‘phew’ and keep reading. What may clear my mind though is to write a blog post for the great fogginzo’s cobweb in which I explore the issues of writing ‘sequences’, for want of a better word.
I’m particularly interested in the fact that each of you have done substantial amounts of research into a reality that absorbs and excites and energises you. It may be a blind roadmaker, your forebears who you trace to the banks of the Tyne, Amazonia, medieval priests and criminals, or half-forgotten musical acts.
At some point you had to make a decision, or one was made for you. Where do I start? What’s the language, the structure, the voice of the teller….there comes a moment, as I found in writing about, say fallen angels, when you see a way through.
Would you be prepared to share some thoughts about the experience? A paragraph would do…or maybe it wouldn’t. It’ll make its own mind up, won’t it?
So, here they are, each one identifying a different way into, a way of shaping, what they urgently wanted to say. I’ve learned a remarkable amout from them, and I hope you will too.
Keith Hutson: On research and poetic form
Here’s my response to your request. By all means share it with the others if you wish:
I’ve now written over 100 sonnets about music hall and variety performers, 30 of which have been published in a Poetry Salzburg pamphlet (Routines), more to be in a forthcoming Laureate’s Choice pamphlet, (Troupers). Quite a lot have been in journals and some have been placed etc in comps. And I’m going for 140 for a future full collection, Revival. So you could say I like sequences!
WHAT GOT ME STARTED? This is a subject that interests and excites me. That, for any sequence, is essential I think. You have to have a passion about your subject. You have to want to research it because you like getting lost in it, totally absorbed by it. I had an uncle who, when I was a kid, took me up and down the country to watch performers (comics mainly but other acts too) many in the twilight of their careers. I was too young to appreciate them, but something stuck – the theatre atmosphere, the audience reaction, the fascinating otherness of this world, the joy and suspense of it. As a young man with a love of comedy I became a Coronation Street scriptwriter and a gag writer for a lot of comedians – and from the wings I watched a lot of greats performing, holding an audience, sweating but not seeming to, staking so much of themselves on the night’s performance. This, to them, was life and death. I bloody loved it. So, as a poet with a desire to write a sustained body of work about one subject, this was right up my street.
WHERE TO BEGIN? The problem is, the wealth of material for any sequence can be overwhelming, it can cause paralysis. I focused on one person, Tommy Trinder, then intensified that focus further, to his catchphrase, You Lucky People. Then I thought, I’ll try to capture the essence of the man, his world, the people he entertained, but not as biog – biog can be boring. A poem should transcend its subject, shouldn’t it? But what form should this first poem take? Well, as I was essentially writing a love poem, and I wanted to keep it intense, concentrated, and to showcase a traditional performer, I thought ‘why not a fairly traditional, strict form sonnet for this first poem?’ People like Trinder performed routines. A sonnet is like a little routine. So I didn’t start writing to see where I ended up, I deliberately set out to write a sonnet. If you’re interested, here it is
You Lucky People
i.m. Tommy Trinder 1909-1989
One simple line and you could tread the boards
for years. Nobody cared it made no sense,
it was the look, the timing, not the words
that packed them in twice-nightly. And the chance
to mock some spot-lit nincompoop who seemed
more desperate than them – which made a change:
back then most buggers looked like they’d seen
better days. They hadn’t. So, in droves, we came
each season, scrubbed and buffed, to scoff, but dream
too: heavy-handed lives on hold, we’d bask
inside the twinkle of a grin, a glance;
industriously bellow out the laughs;
gaze up at more ridiculous routines
than ours. A softer kind of song and dance.
WHERE NEXT? I thought, right, I like the sonnet form for my artistes, so I’ll set myself the challenge of sticking to sonnets for, say, half a dozen more poems. But who to write about next? And do I stick to a combination of light comment about the performer with a broader social or personal comment? Yes, I thought, because I don’t want this to be a trip down memory lane by an anorak who wants to corner you and bore for England. I then read, and made notes, from several books, and also mined my memory for impressions of people I’d seen, heard about, worked with. I love research, it’s voluntary learning. I left school at sixteen and have been playing educational catch-up since, so I crave information, knowledge, and I want to lose myself in worlds. So, I knew I wanted to write sonnets, and I knew what about, and I didn’t care if anyone else liked them or not, I just wanted to do it. For me, strict form in poetry is a strait-jacket made by angels – it gives me the chance to be liberated by discipline, so I see the sonnet, terza rima, ballade, whatever, as my friends. But the doubt as to whether I could sustain the sonnet form again and again, and (though with variety) make them recognizable sonnets not just 14-line poems, both made me anxious and determined.
100 sonnets later, I’m still at it. It is a labour of love. It doesn’t feel like effort. So I’d say this about any sequence:
- Love your subject
- Keep it narrow and let it widen naturally.
- Don’t write biog (or not exclusively anyway)
- Don’t be frightened of humour (a lot of mine are funny and light)
- Don’t try to show off your knowledge, it puts people off.
- Research, research, research.
- Don’t care what people think about your poems, Know that what you’re doing has value because it has value to you.
- But you must entertain, in the broadest sense, or it becomes self-absorbed, and there’s too much of that in poetry – that’s why it’s a minority sport audience-wise.
- Why not try to stick to one form, at least to get you started? Push yourself.
- If you get bored with it, your readers will get bored too. Anyone can write a sequence, the ones that work do so because the poet cares about them and has the ability to convert that care into the right words.
Steve Ely : on voice and persona…who tells the story?
I organised my third book of poems, Incendium Amoris, around the figure of Richard Rolle, the 14th century hermit and mystic. Rolle suited my purposes because he was associated with the Cistercian Priory of Hampole, which is located in my natal Barnsdale landscape, which remains an enduring obsession. My previous two books had written public, political poetry out of that landscape. I wanted my third book to reflect a more personal, autobiographical engagement. Further, Rolle’s mystical writings are charged with an earthy carnality – his relationships, with God, women and the created order are often erotic in both the technical and popular senses of that word. That suited me as well – my earliest concept of the book was that it was going to be about ‘shagging down the fields’. I suppose I reinvented Richard to suit my purposes (and partially in my image) and used his life, writings and landscape to unify, inform and perhaps soften the guerilla-pastoral idiom that wouldn’t be suppressed and broke out anyway.
Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica
My books grow organically, and Mama Amazonica grew very much like the Amazon rainforest it explores. But I can say that there was a single poem that set it all off, though I didn’t know it at the time, and this title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ was slow and painful to write, laborious even. But there seemed to be an energy in it that was new, so I persisted, even though it felt like one of those experiments that will probably not work. I showed an early draft to my husband, who is my first reader, and he encouraged me, and suggested I could expand it. He was excited by it and this made me more confidant. At the heart of the poem, and indeed the whole book, is the central image of the poem, of a huge waterlily in a slow Amazonian backwater, the water still and sluggish, the drama unfolding of the lily’s sex life, which involves pollination by beetles. I compulsively watched every time-lapse video of this extraordinary process. The lily is my mother and she is in a psychiatric ward undergoing deep sleep therapy, remembering meeting my father.
To write the rest of the book – all 112 pages (and there were many more poems I discarded) – I would concentrate on the lily in that backwater, like a trance. I didn’t yet know why, but by the time I had written eight more poems I began to see that for once in my life I was writing about my mother tenderly. The poems express love, as well as terror of her and of what she suffered. It astonishes me that I have created a book in which I love my mother. I did not love her and she did not love me. This felt important, to have an artefact in which our relationship was transformed.
So I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole sequence grew out of one powerful feeling, trancelike, filmic, a moving image of a flower in time-lapse motion that is apart from ordinary life and ordinary time. I did not think the book through analytically or consciously even, just let the images grow, and the feelings that are also colours and sensations and pictures. Because the book records what happened to her when she met my father, the tragedy unfolds chronologically, and that’s roughly how the book is ordered, like a story told in pictures and sculptures.
I hope this helps? I suspect we all have different ways of compiling a sequential collection, but I try to do what what Rilke advises, to search within myself to find my way, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write”.
Sometimes life gives you riches just for the asking. I feel a bit like one of those naive characters (usually girls…the male equivalents are often ‘fools’ or guizers) in folk tales who set off into the forests and thickets and are given things of power that help them to survive and flourish. The possible keys to the kingdom. Form. Voice. Image/motif. I’m glad it’s three, if only for the sake of narrative convention.
I’ve looked back over some recent posts and find I’ve been teasing this strand out for some time. A reminder, then, of other ‘keys’ to sequences that I’ve considered. Kim Moore’s work in progress ‘All the men I never married’ tells you that the key could actually be a title! (and there’s her sequence at the heart of The Art of falling where the key is the mythic narratives of metamorphosis). Ruth Valentine and Christy Ducker show you that alpabetical order can be a key. Jane Kite uses the timeline of an imagined family as a key. The answer for you might be to find a narrator or to build a chronology. And how about objects. I’m attracted by the title of a book on my shelf as I look up: A history of the world in twelve maps. And also by Uncommon ground which is a list sequence of dialect names for landscape features..one page for each and an accompanying photo, organised geographically from the SW to the very far North.
Whatever, the basic problem will be that an interest became an enthusiam or an obsession, that involved research, that eventually needed to be given some sort of poetic shape. If I think a sequence is anything, I think it’s something that involved you in research. Or maybe not.
Thanks for reading all the way through. Thanks and ever thanks to Keith Hutson, Steve Ely and Pascale Petit for their time and amazing generosity. The least you can do is buy their books. If by a miracle you’ve not read their work before, a bibliography follows, and also links to Keith and to Steve in some earlier posts.
Pascale Petit’s Poetry
Icefall Climbing pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 1994)
Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998)
Tying the Song Co-editor with Mimi Khalvati (Enitharmon, 2000)
The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001)
El Padre Zoológico/The Zoo Father (El Tucan, Mexico City, 2004)
The Huntress (Seren, 2005)
The Wounded Deer: Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 2005)
The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008)
What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, UK, 2010, Black Lawrence Press, US, 2011)
Poetry from Art at Tate Modern editor, pamphlet (Tate Publications, 2010)
Fauverie (Seren, 2014)
Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017)
Steve Ely’s Poetry , Fiction, and Biography
Steve Ely has published four books of poetry,
Englaland (Smokestack Books, 2015)
Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack Books, 2013).
Werewolf (Calder valley Poetry 2016)
Incendium Amoris (Smokestack 2017)
He’s also published a novel,
Ratmen (Blackheath Books, 2012),
and a biographical work,
Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).
His poems, apart from those in his current pamphlet, have been published in just about every poetry magazine and journal you can think of..including, recently, The Manhattan Review
Two posts involving Steve Ely’s work (and, ironically enough, some thoughts about sequences. I’d forgotten that)
and two involving Keith Hutson