Highlights of Historical [Re]Tell

The Steel Pen Writers' Conference was a lot of fun and over all too quickly. I really enjoyed presenting with my fellow panelists. For anyone who is interested in the subject and couldn't make it to the conference or the panel, here are my presentation notes.

Me, P. Ivan Young, Cat Dixon, Laura Madeline Wiseman, Britny C. Doane

Panel Description:  
Historical [Re]Tell: The Writing & Craft of Telling Retellings of the Historic

“Tell the truth but tell it slant,” writes Emily Dickinson. This panel of poets and writers presents work that engages with the historical past by telling retelling of the historic, tales that offer what wasn’t said but should’ve been, what wasn’t written down but likely happened, whose voices speak that didn’t speak because at the time there wasn’t a platform on which for them to stand. Panelists explore the craft aspect of myths and legends retold from other voices, new perspectives, and counterintuitive stances. Accurate, inaccurate, or close, this panel of authors will explore how facts become transformed into the tales, histories, and family stories that inform how we tell our worlds.  


Lindsay Lusby
With a focus on the retelling of folk and fairy tales

1. What is the process for writing poems based on research and pre-existing texts?  
I think first there has to be a long steeping period. You do your research. You read all the available books and look down other tangential research avenues and you make notes: movies, music, scholarly texts and literary ones. Any retelling is, by definition, in conversation with the story’s previous versions, so it is essential that the writer familiarize herself with as many versions as she can find. And this seeking out of different versions of a story or history will often lead the writer down paths of tangential research that finally bring the writer to her moment of realization:
  • of what specific aspect her retelling will focus on,  
  • of what purpose it will serve in the canon (the body of literature already existing around this story or history),   
  • of how it will find something new and meaningful to say about something that has been told before, often many times before.

2. How does a poet navigate fact and (in)accuracy when writing about the past?
As a poet, I find that my allegiance is less to historical accuracy and fact and more to the integrity of the poem’s emotional truths and language. It is here that the work of research and allowing myself to steep in the results of that research comes to fruition. When the fact of what happened does not match the needs of the poem, I am able to create a new sequence of events from my research into various versions and details of a story, rearranging them in a way that feels true for the poem.  

3. At what points can a writer depart from fact in the service of the story that wants to be (re)told? 
I think the careful departure from fact (or previous versions of a story that are held up as fact) is essential in retelling. In the practice of retelling folk and fairy tales, most cases actually rely on the reader’s knowledge of past versions of a tale in order for these variations to have their intended effect—the new standing in contrast with the old. In these cases, it is this contrast, rather than the specific change itself, that draws out new meaning from an old story.    

4. What are the strategies of other contemporary writers who do similar work on the historical record?
Folk and fairy tales were born of the tradition of continued variation inherent in oral storytelling, each teller making small changes to make the story theirs and passing it on to the next teller to be transformed again. Contemporary writers who retell fairy tales are simply continuing in this historical practice and committing the results to print for preservation. Some of my favorite contemporary writers are retellers of folk and fairy tales: Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Italo Calvino, Kate Bernheimer, Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman. If I had to identify one simple way in which they all approach their retellings, I would say that each of them choose specific details (motifs, plot elements, etc.) of the “original” version or various previous versions that resonate with them personally as both writers and readers and make these details the foundation of their specific retelling. All other story elements simply expand upon that fascination, and they build their new version around it. During this process, the same story elements from the “original” are rearranged to create a fairy tale that is both familiar and strange. 

I approach my retellings in much the same way. As a poet, I often fasten on to particular details and images that fascinate me beyond the story as a whole. And then I take that detail and isolate it from the story, using this single striking image as a kind of colored lens through which to reimagine the fairy tale. In my poem “Girl with no Hands” (which retells the popular Grimm fairy tale “The Maiden Without Hands”), I zoomed in on a moment near the beginning of the tale that struck me as both odd and beautiful and terrifying. When the girl’s father is making his deal with the devil (or wizard, depending on which version you read) in the forest for an effortless wealth that will solve his family’s current problems, the devil’s price is what stands behind his mill. This is where a tragic misunderstanding occurs that eventually leads him to chop off his daughter’s hands. The father thinks the devil is asking for the apple tree behind his mill, but the devil knows that at that very moment, the man’s daughter is back there sweeping. Once I found the language to frame this fascinating moment—that the father has mistaken his daughter for an apple tree—I could create an entire new story around this one conceit, and in doing so, highlight themes present but unexplored in other versions (i.e. daughters as possessions that may be bought and sold, women as inanimate and alien creatures that do not feel physical pain, a kind of conditional love that a father may have for his daughter). As Elizabeth Wanning Harries notes in her book Twice Upon a Time, “Rather than simply retell the story… [the writer] focuses on one central iconic moment, a moment that her readers will certainly remember, but places it in a new context and reads it in a new way.” (Harries 162)

5. How does the influence of the world outside the poet hinder or enrich the truth as it is conveyed in poetry of (re)telling? 
I think, that for the most part, the influence of the outside world is an enriching one for the poetry of retelling. In the case of folk and fairy tales, many retellings are framed in a way that highlights or comments on historical social wrongs that may still be continued in different forms today. Awareness of the outside world provides necessary context in both writing and reading these retellings. Essentially, art is not created in a vaccuum and we are only hindered when we pretend that it can be and that it has no connection to our own social histories. This is one of the social responsibilities of the contemporary writer: telling it slant, but telling the truth.  





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