by Lea C. Deschenes
It’s unusual for a poet to be writing about speculative fiction, but not as odd as you’d first think. My love of both forms (or indeed, of all writing) comes from their ability to open worlds, both new and familiar; to stir from our settled patterns into a whirl of possibilities; to give curiosity free rein to ask what if?; and to take on ideas so large they span the universe.
Fairy tales were my first case of reader’s True Love. I had a tattered volume of Grimm’s old enough not to have been sanitized to “child-friendly” mush and from the day my toddler hands got a hold of it, I read it like a holy text. To this day, I will contend that Snow White’s queen must dance in red hot iron shoes until dead dead dead or it’s not the real story (however many “real” versions of the story there are, that one is mine). I will never see Disney’s The Little Mermaid because I can’t bear to think of the mermaid’s knife-walking, voiceless martyrdom ending transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing Happily Ever After!, even though the character’s complete self-sacrifice for her mostly oblivious prince bugs every feminist bone in my body.
Fairy tales are ruthless, red in tooth and claw. As a child it seemed to me that they said everything that my suburban hometown’s polite veneer wanted to deny: Underdogs often make good. It’s good to be clever and better to be kind. Most of all, Bad Things Happen. They will happen to you. You’d better keep your wits about you and learn how to deal with that…
To this day, I can’t pass up a good fairy tale reworking, whether it’s Russia’s Koschei the Deathless, Japan’s Kitsune or a whole bag full of Grimm’s-flavored goodies. And somewhere along the way, speculative fiction has created its own bastions of myth and fable to be told and retold to fit the context of the day: rogue adventurers, schools for wizards and witches, genius detectives, spacemen and their cold equations, aliens, shapeshifters, hackers…ad infinitum, ad astra.
There’s a common saying, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” There’s poetry in that: the swiping, combining and recombining of tropes and life and bits of timeless metaphors to make something unique to an author’s voice, time and place. It’s poetry when their stories seem larger and wider than plot mechanics and words laid out in neat rows on a page. It’s poetry when an idea as old as human civilization connects itself to a reader and creates a spark.
There may be nothing new under the sun, but if Wallace Stevens can find thirteen ways to look at a blackbird, Neil Gaiman can find new ways of looking at The Jungle Book and African trickster stories, filing off the serial numbers so well that you’ll forget its connection to the original. If Anne Sexton could take on the Grimm Brothers, Ovid and patriarchy in Transformations, Octavia Butler could handle vampires and I can write a poem in which the dancer decides to take off her red shoes.
If Jack can kill his giant, so can you.
Lea C. Deschenes is a poet living in Worcester, MA. She once found a five-leaf clover during a solar eclipse. Her book, The Constant Velocity of Trains, is available from Write Bloody Publishing at Amazon.com, Powells.com and Writebloody.com.
To learn more about Lea and her work, please click on her website.