Reviving ‘Rapunzel’ for women of our time

To me, the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’ has always seemed like a really sexy story. Think about it: there’s a young girl, growing up alone, an adolescent coming into maturity. She’s trapped in a tower without window or door, and the only way to reach her is to climb up on a luscious rope of her beautiful, long hair. Her only companion is the evil fairy or sorceress who keeps her imprisoned; until the day a Prince learns the way in, and spends many nights alone with Rapunzel in her tower room. Whenever I pictured Rapunzel, I saw her as a creature full of many desires: desire for freedom, desire for love, desire for sex, desire for experience of the world she never knew.

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Otto Ubbelohde, “Rapunzel”

So when I was given the opportunity to perform in The Vagina Conversations in Byron Bay, I knew this was the story I wanted to tell. I knew it had something to do with Rapunzel’s journey toward freedom, even though it is extreme and non-realistic as fairytales always are. I knew that sex and desire were at the core of it, although vaginas are – not surprisingly – never mentioned in ‘Rapunzel’. And I knew that I somehow needed to convince hundreds of strong, alternative, liberated, Byron women, that fairytales still have an important role to play in our collective narrative of the feminine.

I spent the next week or so journaling my thought process, which was basically variations on a theme of “Oh my god, what have I done!? Talk about vaginas? Me? No way! I’m not bold enough, radical enough, sexy enough, feminist enough, empowered enough, to do that… I will end up making a fool of myself, or filling my poetry with cheap tricks which aren’t authentic to my inner world.” The truth is, I had already been writing the ‘Rapunzel’ story for a very long time – I had started about 7 years prior, and it had been resting (presumed dead) for at least 5 of those. But despite, or because of, its early failure, I must have carried that idea around with me until the time was right to revive it (as it turns out, this is good advice on what to do with an idea.)

It’s fascinating the way ideas emerge where they are needed. Through writing for what I knew would be an almost-exclusively female audience, I found that the ‘Rapunzel’ story started to reveal the little secrets that I felt it had always been hiding from me, indeed from the world, in its many incarnations as a children’s classic. And yes, one of those secrets genuinely was to do with vaginas!

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Arthur Rackham, 1909, ‘Illustration to a fairy tale of the brothers Grimm “Rapunzel”‘

‘Rapunzel’ goes back many centuries, and like all the fairytales we know today, was kept alive by people re-telling it orally to the next generation (mostly women, according to Marina Warner). Four versions are immortalised in my well-used copy of The Great Fairytale Tradition. In all of them, the story is initiated by a pregnant woman’s craving for a type of bitter herb or lettuce called ‘rapunzel’, which was so overwhelming that her husband was forced to steal some from an evil fairy’s garden. This reflected popular superstitions of the time, which held that one must grant a pregnant woman anything she desires, for fear of being punished with ‘a reddening and swelling of the eyelids’ (1); what a delightfully specific curse! Rapunzel was named after the herb, suggesting that the cycle of desire and punishment was in motion before she was even born. The fairy claimed the new-born child as retribution for the theft, took her, and vanished.

But you can’t fit much into a slam poem, and unfortunately I had to leave out this evocative prologue to get to the story’s core: the girl in the tower. What had originally resonated for me was the feeling of being trapped, and knowing how that would be really, really boring. Sure it’s also horrifying, but with no great urgency – you would have a sense of all the things you could be if you were out there – but meanwhile you are in here. I first became obsessed with this fairytale when I was, so to speak, trapped in a relationship, and couldn’t see any way out – it felt like being in a tower with no windows or doors. I went through all the creative ways I could keep myself entertained from within the confines of the relationship, but in the end, it had to give way. Later, I was able to see that this is part of the power of fairytales – they have the capacity to reflect universal experiences, partly because they are told with such broad strokes that we easily see ourselves within their structures. The tower reflects all kinds of traps that endanger the autonomy of young women in our society: poverty, discrimination, abusive relationships, glass ceilings, gender stereotypes. We are all familiar with it, as I point out in the poem:

Girls locked in towers.

Girls locked out of reach of their own powers.

While around the edges of their minds run stone-cold rings of doubt, like,

‘If only I were normal, they would surely let me out’.

The doubt I felt in the mind of Rapunzel was in part about sexuality. With her burgeoning womanhood, there must be a strong desire for intimacy and companionship; although this element is conspicuously absent from the picture of a patient, blonde innocent which so commonly appears in storybooks today.

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Walter Crane, 1882. “Rapunzel”

And indeed, earlier versions of the tale do acknowledge the girl’s very natural sexual curiosity when it comes to the surprise entry of a young man into her tower, albeit couched within the necessary behaviour expected of a lady: “And the negotiations went so well that the prince received many nods in exchange for his kisses, smiles for his bows, thankful glances for his kind offers… and after they became more familiar with one another, they decided to meet at night when the moon plays hide and seek with the stars”(2). The consequence is that Rapunzel (Petrosinella in this version) becomes pregnant, and soon her swelling belly reveals to the evil fairy that she has been deceived: her adopted daughter is not the obedient child she had wanted, and must be punished.

Clearly, the Italian storytellers of the 1600s had no problem with the idea of a heroine enjoying consensual sex with a male partner. (Incidentally, this version comes from a collection called Lo Cunto de li Cunti; which isn’t actually a pun on a certain word for female anatomy,  although it sounds like it). But by the time the Brothers Grimm got hold of the story in the 1800s, they believed that pre-marital sex was far too raunchy for their audience, and got rid of it. With no pregnancy, they instead had Rapunzel give away the secret of her relationship in a weirdly contrived dumb blonde moment: “…one day Rapunzel blurted out, ‘Mother Gothel, how is it that you are so much heavier than the prince?'”(3). In one swoop, the young woman’s desire and the natural functions of her body have been erased from the tale; replaced with this humiliating slur on her mental competence.

So with all her sexuality and sensual power removed from her story, Rapunzel becomes the patient victim, demurely awaiting her fate. She is thrown out of the tower after the fairy has cut off her long hair, the tool of her transgression, and left to fend for herself. The most severe punishment is reserved for her lover, who on his next visit, finds no sweetheart but a very angry Mother Gothel awaiting him, and jumps off the tower in his grief. He is blinded by the thorns at the base of the tower, and wanders the wilderness in misery searching for his lost love.

What does a tale like this mean for women, I asked myself, after writing and re-writing these scenes many times? What lesson can we take from it? There is no vagina in the story, but if there is, it leads to Rapunzel’s downfall and much suffering. This is a self-loathing story for a woman to tell. Or is it? Returning to the girl in the tower, I began to see an alternative narrative, one barely peeking through the patriarchal strands. Without wooing the Prince, Rapunzel may never have escaped from her endless imprisonment, or seen the outside world at all. If she weren’t such a ‘bad girl’, with such a curious vagina, she would still be trapped, without a story to tell.

Rapunzel’s hair stands in for her sexual power. It is a metaphor which seems to have lost most of its potent meaning in the tale. Historically, hair has always signified sensuality, intimacy, and the body, as indicated by monastic practices of shaving the hair, or not allowing women to enter a church bare-headed. For Rapunzel, I wanted the hair to have an added dimension of fate: it is because she was trapped that the hair grew so excessively long. The unused energy, untapped potential, and wasted days of her stopped-off life literally overflow into the strands of hair, that won’t stop growing. Eventually, after re-writing the story inside-out and upside-down, I realised the key element that made this a powerfully feminist tale: Rapunzel’s hair has been growing into the outside world since she was born, literally providing a way to escape.

the hair grew so long it reached from the tower and all the way down to the ground

because her body was intelligent enough to find a way out.

In fairytales, all tyrants come equipped with the seeds of their own undoing, and impossible escapes are manifested by something that was there all along. Rapunzel’s hair attracted the Prince, who then climbed up, declared his love, and bound himself to her. The supposed disgrace she then found herself in released her from the confinement of the expectations of her pseudo-mother, the evil fairy,  and through suffering she began to forge her autonomous identity. The tale ends, in most versions, with the lovers re-uniting by chance in the wilderness, where Rapunzel’s tears of joy magically heal the prince’s blindness. The twin children she has given birth to in the meantime, rejoice at meeting their father, and after a few more magical obstacles are overcome, the family finally reach safety. If the story implies that Rapunzel’s power was forged by her incarceration, it explicitly states that happiness is forged in suffering: “[The prince] was now extremely happy because he had been so unhappy, and he loved Rapunzel more than ever before and she him because they had lost one another.” (4)

In the process of uncovering or creating new layers of meaning in the Rapunzel story, I arrived at an understanding of why fairytales can be powerful tools of identity and political action. A story which has survived for centuries, through blatant patriarchal agendas and constant revisions, has a power which new stories don’t have: it bears the traces of thousands of women’s voices, if we know where to look. Even though the power of women’s bodies, their ingenuity and desire, may have been hidden beneath metaphors and good manners, it still exists in an enduring form:

that power echoes across centuries

that power has been shrouded in mystery

that power has been hidden beneath obscure symbols

that power has been smuggled into childhood through dainty illustrations and archaic phrasing…

So finally, ‘Rapunzel’ was for me a chance to revive a vital part of our cultural heritage, while reminding women everywhere that the most important action we can take with the fairytale is to re-tell them in our own way. It has never been a sacred artefact. Instead it always reflects the values of the storyteller her/himself, and it only endures through the centuries because of its capacity to evolve. I wanted to bring back the feminine power and sensuality which I saw was missing in the story; other tellers will revise it in more radical ways. There is so much to be done; after all, this remains a hetero-normative vision where older women are evil and a young woman’s greatest reward is to have a husband and children. I can easily see that this ending is just another type of imprisonment, one that will be revised by the many strong, ingenious women I am meeting every day.

It has been the greatest privilege for me to be able to share this poem with hundreds of women, live at the Byron Theatre and online. Slam poetry really does bring me closer to others. When women approached me to share their thoughts on it, their own experience of identifying with fairytales and their ideas for the stories we should be sharing with our children,  that was the most rewarding part of the whole experience. If you were one of those women, I thank you. You have inspired me to create a new women’s writing workshop about re-telling our children’s stories, which I hope to run this year. Please sign up for information on these and other workshops in the Northern Rivers. And if you haven’t yet, please get in touch and share your thoughts on the Rapunzel poem or the story you want to tell. The more we share our stories, the stronger we are.

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Walter Crane, vignette for “Rapunzel”

References:

  1. Zipes, Jack, ed. (2001). The Great Fairytale Tradition: from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Norton, New York and London. p475.
  2. Basile, Giambattista (1634). “Petrosinella”. Published ib id. p475.
  3. Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob (1857). “Rapunzel”. Published ib id. p.491
  4. Schulz, Freidrich (1790). “Rapunzel”. Published ib id. p.489

 

What to do with an idea

Some ideas take longer than others. The idea for my next performance poem has been 5 years in the making… that’s a long wait. So I wanted to share some thoughts on the process before I enter FREAK OUT stage – which is due any day!

According to my highly scientific calculations, I am now at peak re-write time (4 weeks prior to performance, right on schedule). The poem is 95% written, my voice likes it, my unfailingly committed poetry focus group (i.e. husband) likes it, tickets to the show are selling, and everything seems to be coming together.

The idea is in the right place at the right time.

But when it first came to me 5 years ago – no wait, more like 7 years ago – the idea was in the right place at the wrong time. I had an intense feeling of being trapped, with no creative outlets, and the feeling resonated deeply with traditional fairytales I was studying at the time – particularly Rapunzel, the tale of the girl locked away in a tower. I set out to re-tell the Rapunzel story from my own experience. It didn’t work. Maybe because I was still in that experience, without enough distance to see it clearly, the story became tangled and shuddered to a halt. My first attempt to perform it for a live audience was an epic fail: blank faces everywhere.

We need to put some distance, or some time, between ourselves and the experience in order to write about it clearly. In the time between my first attempt at the Rapunzel story and re-writing it now for my upcoming performance, the idea has had a good 5 years to rest, recover, and find its true shape. Even ignoring an idea can sometimes be the best way to deal with it, as long as you’re ready to pay attention when it speaks up again.

Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.

In his Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth articulated the habits of mind he felt were most conducive to writing about our inner lives. I’m going to share the full quote because he describes so beautifully the whole process of what to do with an idea:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment. (p26, Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, online source accessed 17 Jan 2018.)

For all its highs and lows, writing a new piece is certainly a process of enjoyment. Not only do we get to live through the emotion twice, appreciating the fullness of our experience and how it makes us greater human beings, we also have the pleasure of letting the mind do its work in peace. In my case, coming back to the idea years later has meant that I can see clearly where its significance lies in many other contexts beyond my own life, and that conversation with the world is one of the greatest pleasures of all.

So wish me luck at the show on February 14-15 at Byron Theatre, and grab a ticket if you’re in the Northern Rivers. Sign up to this blog below to hear more about how I re-wrote the Rapunzel story as a slam poem; writing tips, creative life, and more.

 

Happy New Writing!

Welcome to the new year! Here in the Northern Rivers, we’re getting pummeled by fat, drenching, subtropical rain, and then by riotous, skin-searing sun – in fairly equal proportions. Plant life is springing forth like nobody’s business; lettuces pop up in the lawn from stray seed and then burst into seed themselves just a short time later. It all feels like a recipe for renewal to me.

So, since new beginnings are a good time to make new stuff, I thought I’d share with you my pick of the best writing exercises to start the year. Whether using them myself or with students, the only measure of a good exercise for me is that it makes new things happen: new images, new voices, even new memories you didn’t know you had. Everything we need in order to write is right here. Use it!

My Top 3 writing exercises for making new stuff:

  1. ‘I remember’
  2. Best first lines
  3. Re-sentencing

You don’t need any writing experience to have fun with these. They are designed to bypass what you think you know, and dig into the fertile soil of imagination and association. I’ll be honest with you, when I go to the page to try and write some new stuff, often I never get past doing exercises. Why? I’m kind of fickle when it comes to ideas, I don’t like to commit to them. But when exercising, there’s no role, in fact no room, for commitment. You just open up to what’s endlessly possible.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

– Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind

So get your pen ready…

  1. Memory is always a rich source of inspiration, but sometimes we need a nudge to make the most of it. In one of the simplest and most effective exercises I know, we take the words ‘I remember’ as our starting point. Go to the exercise.
  2. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife”… and a blocked writer must be in want of a prompt! Try using the best first lines in literature to create something new. Go to the exercise.
  3. In this exercise, new material is generated by re-purposing a piece of found text into an unusual writing prompt. Like all the best exercises, Re-sentencing is both challenging and liberating, and you might be surprised by what comes out. Go to the exercise.

If you have tried any of these exercises and created something new, congratulations! If nothing emerges, keep trying. Whatever happens, don’t throw away your first attempts, even if you see nothing of value in them yet. Just put them aside for later. As with gardening, in creative life we sometimes need to rest our garden beds in order to let the nutrients back in.  If we turn over the soil too often we might disturb the seeds that begin to sprout, unnoticed. So do your exercises, close your notebook, and look forward to the next step – figuring out what to do with the raw material. But that’s another post for another day.

Happy New Writing to you in 2018. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share!

 

What comes first: rhythm or words?

I had a great question from a punter after my performance at M-Arts last weekend. (You can watch the live performance here).

“When you’re creating a poem, do you start with the words or the rhythm? Do you write something and then make it flow, or does the flow dictate what you write?”

The answer, of course, is not straightforward, and that’s what makes it an excellent question. I have had so much fun investigating this very problem that I wanted to share it with you.

Many of the great slam poets around today, such as Luka Lesson, Omar Musa, and Kate Tempest, came from a hip-hop background. These extraordinary wordsmiths can tell you loads more about ‘flow’ than I can; they have spent countless hours, weeks and years honing their skills rhyming, freestyling, laying words over beats or vice-versa. When they deliver a poem with only their unaccompanied voice, they bring an expert sensibility of rhythm and flow, which makes their work so much more complex and compelling to listen to.

It’s like the difference between plain handwriting and calligraphy:

there’s an extra layer of expressiveness which is just beautiful to immerse your senses in.

I didn’t come into poetry from hip-hop, but I grew up learning music from a young age. I’m sure that has had a big impact on the way I use language to compose poetry. As a kid I spent equal amounts of time every day practising guitar, which my mother taught me to play, and burying my nose in books. So by the time I discovered slam poetry at the age of nineteen, the fusion of spoken language with the qualities of music just made sense to my music-trained brain.

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Like many writers, I keep copious notebooks, which no one else reads (see Natalie Goldberg for the value of letting yourself write junk, and lots of it). I’ll comb through these when I’m looking for ideas, and often what jumps out is something that has an interesting sound, as well as an interesting sentiment.

There’s sometimes a weird moment when I realise that some little line I’ve written has lodged itself in my brain like a catchy guitar riff, pestering me to make a whole poem so that it will have somewhere to live!

So when I’m composing (and ‘composing’ may be a more apt term than ‘writing’), I’m focusing as much on the sound and rhythm as I am on the meaning of words. When I speak a line of poetry out loud, I’m trying to become aware of the physical sound of the words: the cadence, the tone, whether it seems to burst forth with explosive energy or coil slowly around the tongue; whether the line wants me to take my time or get carried away. It’s not always simple. Sometimes the meaning is clear but the rhythm isn’t working. Sometimes too much rhythm diminishes the meaning. And sometimes the particular mood or energy of the piece just takes a really long time to reveal itself.

The challenge for any poet who performs is to strike the right balance of sound and sense.

There’s no point having lots of verbal tricks if you’re not saying anything meaningful; and likewise, no point in performing a great poem if there’s nothing for the ear to enjoy. It’s a fine balance, challenging, occasionally maddening, but ultimately so rewarding when you share it with a live audience.

If you’re interested in trying slam poetry yourself, please sign up to follow my SlamCraft series. If you’re nearby, watch out for my workshops in the Northern Rivers. Subscribe below or follow me to hear about it first.