August Challenge #2: Fairy Tale Poetry

In our second August challenge written by Foyle Young Poets, Meredith LeMaître asks you to write new poems that take us into a fairy tale world…

Illustration of a fairy tale-esque scene: a man dressed in red with a beard gestures to a child, while a woman in a long black flowery dress and a princess cone hat speaks back to him

The challenge: write a poem or poems inspired by a fairy tale, myth or legend.

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore – whether it’s Greek myth, the Brothers Grimm or the Disney versions of classic tales. There’s something so reassuring about the formula of fairy tales: the main character leaves their sedate life in search of adventure, or a partner, or to break a curse or seek revenge; they consult with a random magical creature who may or may not be on their side; then at the climax, they’re imprisoned, or about to fight a dragon, or be fed to a witch (in other words, things are looking a bit grim); the hero despairs; but some sort of miracle happens and they end up on top; and the story ends happily ever after to the sound of wedding bells.

Greek myths are a little bit different as they are told in a series, with repeating characters. That made them more interesting to me as I got older, but in recent years I’ve come back to fairy tales hoping they’d bring me the same sense of comfort and safety that they used to. I bought The Pink Fairy Book which is a collection of fairy tales from Japan, Scandinavia and Sicily, which I absolutely loved, and then I received The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Tales, a book of European fairy tales which I highly recommend. 

I’ve always found it interesting how Disney revamps fairy tales for a modern audience, cutting out all of the darker messages in the original story to make something squeaky clean and PG. For example, in the original Little Mermaid story, Ariel does distraught and her prince goes on to live happily ever after with another woman; and in the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, her step-sisters get their eyes pecked out by birds at her wedding.

Recently, I read a poem called ‘Fairy Tale with Laryngitis and a Resignation Letter’ by Jehanne Dubrow and it made me realise that the form of a fairy tale is perfect for a narrative poem: it has a very clear beginning, climax and resolution, which you can then fit the poem around. Plus, there are so many fairy tales which could inspire new poems. When I was asked to create an August challenge, I just knew that it would be the right fit.

Illustration of another fairy tale esque scene: a man stands before a glarned tree, and a woman (perhaps a spirit) gestures to him with her clothes whirling around

The Challenge

Re-read your favourite fairy tale, myth or fable. If you weren’t really into them when you were younger, why not take this chance to read some? A good starting place is to look up Brothers Grimm Fairy tales, Aesop’s Fables, or Greek myths. There are lots of local legends that you might not know about: why not take this opportunity to investigate some of the local fairy tales and folklore? 

Once you’ve found a story that interests you, think about whether you want to use a line or moment from it as a starting point for your poem. Is there anything in the story that gets missed usually, that you want to magnify?

Or maybe you want to write from the viewpoint of one of the characters, even if it’s not the main protagonist, to show the story in a different light. In ‘Retelling’ by Christine Heppermann, the tale of Rumpelstiltskin is rewritten from a modern feminist viewpoint. (If you don’t know the story, you can find a plot summary here.)

The writer starts off by listing all the things which the miller’s daughter won’t do (all things which, in the original, she is forced to):

No, I won’t give you my necklace.

No, I won’t give you my ring.

No, I can’t give you the child. The child will never exist.

End of story.

Then she begins her new version, set in a modern context, with the classic “once upon a time” before elaborating on the miller’s daughter’s new life:

Once upon a time, there was a miller’s daughter
who got a studio apartment.
Took classes during the day,
waited tables at night.

Who could you give a new life to? Which fairy tale do you want to change the ending of?

Or perhaps you want to write a satirical version of a fairy tale. Roald Dahl does this in his book Revolting Rhymes, where each story is told anew: ‘I guess you think you know this story. / You don’t. The real one’s much more gory’ starts his poem ‘Cinderella’. ‘Fairy Tale Logic’ by A. E. Stallings also pokes fun at the structure of fairy tales: ‘Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks … Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.’ Stallings uses an irregular rhyme scheme which makes it seem more like a nursery rhyme – maybe you’d also like to use rhyme and metre to mock a particular fairy tale. Which tale do you think deserves a critical unravelling?

Alternatively, you could parallel a character from or plot of a fairy tale with your own life, like in ‘Fairy Tale with Laryngitis and a Resignation Letter’. Here, the poet uses the story of ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a starting point (‘You remember the mermaid makes a deal’) then contrasts it with her resignation letter (‘Dear colleagues…’). Two story lines, that of the mermaid and the writer, unfold side-by-side throughout the poem, but she never tells us why the comparison is made – the reader gets to work this out for themselves. In Dubrow’s poem, the repetition of ‘Dear colleagues’ is particularly helpful with keeping the momentum up – it makes it seem as if the writer keeps getting distracted by the mermaid’s narrative and coming back to the task at hand (‘for weeks I’ve been typing this letter’). Maybe you’d like to do something like this.

Little Mermaid Statue
Little Mermaid Statue by Eva Rinaldi, via flickr

Or you could even rewrite your life entirely as a fairy tale or Disney movie. Which fairy tale would it be? Are you the main character? Bad or good? Do you get a happy ending? Were you gifted or cursed at birth? You could try writing this as a ‘self-portrait’ poem. Inspired by self-portraits in visual art, lots of poets have interpreted imaginatively the idea of a self-portrait ‘as’ something or ‘with’ something else – for instance, read ‘Self-Portrait as Kendrick Lamar, Laughing to the Bank’ by Ashanti Anderson or ‘Self-Portrait with No Flag’ by Safia Elhillo. Could you write a self-portrait as Cinderalla, or self-portrait with glass slippers?

Good luck! I’m looking forward to reading everybody’s responses.

Prizes

Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Monday 14 September 2020. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with the subject line ‘August challenge #2’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and help us reach as wide an audience as possible.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Monday 14 September 2020, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

Photo: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society
Photographer: Hayley Madden

Meredith LeMaitre is a writer from Brighton. She won Foyle Young Poets Award 2017, 2018 and 2019 and writes for Risen Zine. She enjoys reading, dancing and thrift shopping. She came second in Young Poets Network’s End Hunger UK challenge.

For more August challenges, check out Lydia Wei’s challenge about re-mixing historical figures in your poems, Ife Olatona’s challenge about repetition and imagery, and Rian Paton’s challenge on spoken word.

Published August 2020

15 thoughts on “August Challenge #2: Fairy Tale Poetry

  1. Hello! I had two questions.

    1. Would submissions for these challenges be judged separately from the Foyle Young Poets’ award? For example, could poems get published in both places without consideration of the other?
    2. I submitted a poem for Foyle young poets, but I want to submit it elsewhere too- do you allow simultaneous submission?

    1. Hi Emily,

      If you’ve submitted something to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, we strongly advise you don’t submit it elsewhere. This is because, for instance, if your poem wins an August challenge and is published, you will then be ineligible for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Neither Young Poets Network and Foyle accept poems that have previously been published. Having said that, there are no firm rules about simultaneous submissions – it just means that if your poem was published elsewhere, we wouldn’t be able to award you anything in Foyle (or YPN). Hope that makes sense!

      Best wishes,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

      1. Hi!

        I think I miscommunicated what I was trying to ask in my earlier question…I apologise for that. I was wondering if I happen to win an August challenge, does that mean I cannot win the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award?

        1. Hi Emily,

          Sorry if I misunderstood! Are you talking about submitting different poems to each competition? If so, yes, of course you can submit to each competition, and you can win each of them!

          The only potential problem comes when you submit the same poem to Foyle and to (say) an August challenge. But you are very welcome to submit different poems to each competition!

          Hope that is clear now.

          Best of luck,

          Helen at Young Poets Network

  2. Hi!
    This is another Foyle question. Is it okay if I submit my Foyle poem into this one, but take it out if it has won? I realize the deadline is ~4 days before the Foyle announcement.

    1. Hi Marleen,

      You’re allowed to, but we would advise against this because it can get complicated! Could I ask where you’re getting the Foyle announcement date from? I don’t think we’ve said a specific date.

      We hope you’ll find enough inspiring material in Meredith’s challenge to write a new poem after a fairy tale.

      Best wishes,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

      1. Hi Helen,

        All right, I understand! There is no Foyle announcement date set, I just estimated the time from when it was announced last year. Thanks for the quick reply!

        – Marleen

        1. Hi Marleen,

          Great! Because of the pandemic, timings are a little different this year. We’ll let everyone know of the Foyle results by the end of September.

          Best wishes,

          Helen at Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Jamie,

      It doesn’t matter, but it makes administration just a little bit easier if they’re in the same email.

      Best of luck,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

      1. Hi Al,

        Don’t worry at all! We are a small charity so confirming receipt is one person going through the emails and replying to any that say ‘confirm receipt’ – so it may be a few days before you get a response.

        It doesn’t matter where you include the personal information. Anywhere is great!

        Best of luck,

        Helen at Young Poets Network

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