As much as it relies on transformation as a plot device, the fairy tale as a mode is delightfully transformable. Because it is so malleable, it has been used for centuries as a way to comment on past and present, to give voice to the forbidden or unspoken. This is why it remains attractive. We want to retell or remake it in order to make it ours—to tell our audience, this is how this story goes in the here and now for me, for you, for us. Running a literary journal (Gingerbread House Literary Magazine) that looks for work with this magical element has made me consider how poets might approach fairy tales as source material—and also, why are some fairy tale poems so successful while others less so?
I’ve found that a successful retelling of a fairy tale relies on the poet’s ability to keep familiarity present enough for recognition and to change tropes enough to feel fresh. Doing that takes a certain level of precise awareness of craft, and not everyone might know where to begin, and so I thought it might be helpful to come up with some helpful hints.
We often turn repeatedly to the stories we think we know—but I would encourage any would-be writer of fairy tales to re-read Perrault, Grimms, and Andersen. Also, think of fairies and/or magic in stories beyond the traditional tale: Shakespeare, Spenser, Carroll, MacDonald, Baum, Barrie, C. S. Lewis, etc., and fairy tales from other cultures. Perhaps there’s a minor character who’s never been discussed, whose story is waiting for you—or an object you see in an original way. For example, how many people know that in Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast,” there are two sisters as cruel as Cinderella’s? How many poems have been written about Dorothy’s magic silver shoes? Clearly, there are wonderful poems written about the familiar, but I always get excited about a new angle.
Make the language fresh and unexpected.
Magic is about surprises, so I am somewhat disappointed with how often I’ll see “Once upon a time” or “There was a princess who . . . .” While these conventions are sometimes a good way for a writer to start engaging in the material, for the reader they can seem too familiar. If the poet catches me immediately, I’m invested and want to keep reading. This can be done by writing a wonderful first line (Mary Jo Bang’s poem “Gretel” begins with “Mother, I am bare in a mist-mad forest”), by writing in open form, which mitigates any kind of sing-song rhyme (which can in the wrong hands seem juvenile), or by writing in highly crafted form (see Sara Henderson Hay’s sonnets). Any time there is lovely language, I will read a submission twice.
Start after the “happily ever after” or offer a new perspective.
One of the most successful fairy tale poems to me is Louise Glück’s “Gretel in Darkness,” which offers us a glimpse into the psychological consequences Gretel faces after pushing the witch into the oven. Matthea Harvey’s prose poem “The Morbid Mermaid” takes Andersen’s mermaid’s tendency toward myopic fascination and twists it to something darker (“Mer-funerals are the worst since, poof, the merfolk just morph into seafoam. But she circles the days before their dying, making the other mermaids whisper, ‘Yuck, the necrophiliac’s back’”). Delia Sherman’s “Snow White to the Prince” also offers us new insight into why Snow may have opened the door to the Queen multiple times. See your favorite character through a different lens, and see what happens.
Frame the tale in a new location.
Putting familiar characters from the fairy tale world into contemporary situations can lead to interesting results. What if Snow White has to shop at the local grocery store to feed her family of seven dwarves? Is she cutting coupons, looking for the end cap deal, or trying to trim down Happy’s girth? Shifting the story from that undefined “once upon a time” into, say, World War I, could also highlight an aspect of a story we’ve never thought of before and make for an interesting read. Using the fairy tale as a metaphor for a contemporary situation is also a great way to play with the form. One of my favorite fairy tale poems is “The Gingerbread House,” by John Ower, which highlights how divorcing parents might “gobble” up their child.
Consider the purpose for retelling.
In the Victorian age, it was common, as Jack Zipes has noted, for authors “to use the fairy-tale form in innovative ways to raise social consciousness.” From the 1970s through the 1990s, a great deal of fairy tale poetry was devoted to exposing and protesting sexual abuse, most notably beginning with Anne Sexton’s “Briar Rose.” Women’s issues remain important in our current climate, but the fairy tale poem also has the potential to illuminate concerns about race, disability, class, masculinity, LGBTQ concerns, and gender fluidity. The fairy tale has traditionally used for warning or protest, to uplift or to expose. Work in that tradition.
Please & thank you & what the hell.
In an interview in Compose, Ada Limón says that “that there are really only two prayers: thank you, and please”—and I think these are two states we can also approach with the fairy tale. Is the character saying “please transform me” or “I am grateful for my transformation?” Keeping this in mind might be a fabulous way to begin a poem. I also like an idea embedded in Alice Hoffman’s gorgeous novel, The Ice Queen: “Every fairy tale had a bloody lining. Every one had teeth and claws.” Think of what pain is necessary for a transformation to occur. Show us that.
Those poems which do several of these at once are the most memorable. And of course, the more memorable a poem is, the more likely it is to be well-crafted, which increases its likelihood of publication.
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Christine Butterworth-McDermott is the author of Woods & Water, Wolves & Women (2012), and the founder and head editor of Gingerbread House Literary Magazine (https://gingerbreadhouselitmag.com). Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, River Styx, and The Southeast Review among others. She teaches creative writing at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.
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