How to sequence a sequence
A few weeks ago I went to a workshop at Lyra Bristol Poetry Festival run by Lucy English, a poet and lecturer at Bath Spa University. The workshop was sponsored by Satellite of Love, a Bristol poetry group. We were told to bring 6 to 8 of our best poems with no suggestion that they might have been written as a sequence or even with a sequence in mind. Lucy English had some useful ideas and said she hadn’t published them but I might use her ideas in an OCA blog to help students.
As a starter we were all asked to write down four words which represented our poetry, including a colour, an action, a texture, an emotion: I chose purple, woven, provokes, striking.
Next we were asked to find the keynote or standout poem whose title might become the title of the sequence. I chose a poem called Mending Ladders set in the 1950s when women wore silk stockings that laddered but when most department stores had a counter with a ladder-mending machine. Since several of my poems were about the lives and activities of women, both in the past and more recently: eg an early 20th century woman explorer from Bristol who travelled to Iran (Persia); an imagined meeting between Lady Gaga and Frankenstein’s monster, the occasion when Diana Dors won third prize in a beauty contest in Weston-super-Mare; one about 21st century children not understanding what an old-fashioned typewriter was; one about the Wright brothers and how their sister supported them as pilots.
Then we had to decide where to place this kenote poem even if we hadn’t yet got a general order for the other seven. I decided to place Mending Ladders last as it worked as a kind of summing up. Our next instruction was to edit out any poems that didn’t chime with the keynote poem. I decided I could keep all of them in to begin with. Then we were asked to look for the way in which our four words chosen earlier were reflected in the keynote poem and eventually in all of the poems.
Now we moved on to getting all eight poems in some sort of order that would link them to each other and, in my case, culminate in the keynote poem. We looked for connecting themes, for a narrative, for a chronology.. Having achieved an order that I have to admit at first I doubted was going to be possible, I began to feel quite pleased with the way this random selection of poems had turned into a sequence.
Then we were asked to disarrange our sequence and put the keynote poem somewhere else, and even to find a different keynote poem and then to see what happened to the rest of the sequence. Of course it became a different sequence although the poems were the same. Finally, Lucy suggested paying attention to the first and last poems and to the first and last lines.
For me this was a totally new way of putting a group of poems together and although I might not keep any of the three different sequences I came up with, the workshop had allowed me to see connections I might not have otherwise seen or certainly not planned. So you might want to try this for yourselves: you could use it not only for poems, but for short pieces of prose fiction, or pieces of prose memoir.
I append the Mending Ladders poem so you can see if it seems to be a keynote sort of poem and in what ways it could be said to cover the four words I chose as being representative of my poems.
Damn, another one gone,
as you pull on your stocking
it catches on a jagged finger nail.
You try to stick the run
with nail varnish hoping
not to be late for work.
Then you try Elastoplast
but the elusive stitch makes
its leg-length getaway faster
than your thumb can pull
the cover off the sticky bit.
So it’s a new pair of stockings.
Next day you’re into Debenhams
watching the girl pulse the needle
in and out on the machine,
wish all life’s unwanted ladders
could be fixed just as quick,
for 25 p or two and six.