I heard yesterday that I’d won the Southport Writer’s Competition, with a poem called ‘Chimney-bird’. It should appear on their website at some point. I was also Highly Commended for ‘Night-scented Stock’. Having two results together like that is pleasing, because it suggests I must be doing something right. At least, as far as the kind readers in Southport are concerned.
Both poems come from sequences I’ve been working on in the last year or so. I like the idea of a set of poems that are related to one another, although I think they need careful thought, because there are more pitfalls when you’re expecting poems to work together than when they are totally independent of each other. Sequences also mean that the individual poems might not be strong enough on their own, so to take two poems from their sequences and have them approved as separate pieces is also heartening. Of course, it remains possible that individual poems work even if the sequences as a whole are less successful.
A couple of years ago I attempted a set of poems exploring women and warfare. In the end, I wrote around 70 poems, coming from various directions, and some of them were quite decent pieces – some even were published or won prizes. However, the theme, the central concern, with women’s experience of war did not really unify the poems in any way. In fact, what I found I was largely doing was writing different poems all the time – my desire to “cover all the ground”, as it were, led to poems whose relationships were accidental, if they had any connection at all. This, of course, would make it harder for people to get anything out of the aggregate of the poems. Individually, perhaps some strong pieces. Collectively, probably something of a ragbag.
I did attempt a couple of unifying ideas, such as using the same phrase in more than one poem (in the end, only one phrase seemed useful in what I was writing “I know what war is” – this actually did provide an axis of contrast between a few of the poems. However, by the time the project reached a natural conclusion, I didn’t feel I’d produced a coherent body of work. Luckily, however, there were a couple of small sequences produced within the overall output, and I learned something about writing a sequence through these.
One point of learning was the usefulness of narrative, or story. I wrote six poems, now five, on the life of Kim Phuc, the child napalmed in a famous photograph of the Vietnam War. Dealing with a real person, her real struggle, means that you have to be as sure as you can be that what you are writing is of value. Effectively, you are reducing someone’s life – in this case, a traumatic life – into a paraphrase to be read for “interest” or even “entertainment”. Sensitivity is needed. But, at the same time, the poet’s job is eased a little by the biographical data and the fact that all our lives make stories, in one way or another. The story unifies the separate poems.
So my first attempt at a decent length sequence (20 poems) took the idea of narrative as a unifying tactic to use as a structuring principle. Now, I didn’t want to “construct a story arc”, as popular storytelling is sometimes described, but I did want to make sure that development occurred through the poems, and that the protagonist moved through different states (of emotion, of understanding). I’m reasonably happy with how this sequence works in this respect. But I also found it problematic, in that, for the sake of clarity pieces of story-telling or narrative linking (e.g. “and so…”, “next”, “after that….”) are necessary. Where I didn’t make the narrative links between the poems explicit, people found the poems harder to understand.
But I’m not keen on poems which explicate everything, especially poems which, in effect, say things like “and so…”, “therefore…”, “consequently…” and so on. I want to offer subtle clues to my readers, if I possibly can, not lay out a roadmap of how to read the poems. In fact, ideally, I think a set of interconnected poems should work by readers perceiving links for themselves, and making their own minds up about the plausible overall narrative.
So narrative can be overly restrictive in a sequence, as well as helpful.
This sequence, “A Field Trip to Andromeda” is almost, but not quite, finished, I think. Before I’ve completed it, though, another sequence came along with quite a different motivation, and doing rather different things. I’ll write about this in another post.