Coleman Stevenson is an illustrator, writer and tarot practitioner based in Portland, OR. She is the artist behind the Dark Exact Tarot Deck and the author of Breakfast: 43 Poems (Reprobate/GobQ Books, 2015) and The Accidental Rarefication of Pattern #5609 (bedouin books, 2012). Her poems have appeared in a variety of publications such as Paper Darts, Seattle Review, Gramma, E-ratio, Louisiana Literature, and Mid-American Review. She has taught at a number of Portland institutions in subjects including poetry writing, literature, curation & interaction, folklore, culture & design, and image & text interplay.
Ariel Kusby is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. She is a contributing journalist for Portland Monthly, Garden Collage, and Luna Luna Magazine. Her poems, stories, and reviews have appeared in Entropy, Bone Bouquet, Pith, 1001 Journal, Adolescent, and Hunger Mountain, amongst others. She works as a bookseller in the children’s room at Powell’s City of Books, and is the managing editor for Deep Overstock, the National Booksellers’ Journal. To read more of her work, visit http://www.arielkusby.com.
AK: Hi! Let’s talk about fairy tales!
AK: You are a poet, writer, visual artist, and tarot deck designer. Tell me a little bit about how your work is informed by fairy tales, folklore, and archetypes?
CS: I think my work is influenced by these in so many ways, from surface content to subtle undercurrents, to structural design. For example, I sometimes compose poems that overtly take a particular tale as subject, but I know that I am also so deeply infused with these stories and symbols they are pouring out of me all the time whether intended or not. I also am a fan of patterning, probably due in part to my early absorption of fairy tales and the years I spent in structuralist analysis of folk narrative (a delight to me but probably torture for my students when I’d make them memorize Olrik’s “Epic Laws of Folk Narrative”). As an artist now, I often conceive of the structure of a book, deck, or visual series before much specific content is even decided. I love systems. Just like an archaeologist or a botanist, there’s a real joy in discovering what a found specimen is, and in analyzing how structure and meaning are unified.
It’s also important to me to make archetypal ideas accessible to people, so I have been exploring characters from tarot narratives in multisensory ways, in particular attempting to translate something of their essences into wearable scents. I’m also beginning a new line of scents inspired by famous paintings. Maybe I should make some for fairy tale characters as well…
AK: A line of scents based on fairy tales would be so awesome! I love the idea that archetypes can be multifaceted and multisensory. In what ways can you examine archetypes more deeply through hybrid art forms than through traditional storytelling?
CS: There’s something about keeping it from being too fixed to the page… When these stories were exclusively oral, they had such a life of their own, altered subtly by transmission. So delivering the content now in a multifaceted way seems to liberate it again.
AK: I like the idea of freeing or liberating an archetype. In what ways do you think these structures hold us hostage? And in what ways have we constrained them? If it’s impossible to not retell these classic stories, how much free will do we actually have as storytellers?
CS: Well, to answer this best I have to state that I am an absolute believer that these stories have always been used for enculturation, indoctrination, or control. Initially, of course, this was an informal education in how to survive in a particular culture. Later the stories were locked down, moralized, and intentionally used to teach children how to behave in the way a certain society deemed appropriate. Because of print, as societies changed, the stories didn’t. The same literary versions are still accessible and read today because of print, but they are divorced from the social situations that crafted them. Even though their messages are outdated, we keep delivering them.
That said, we have long been revising and updating them in various media as well. For example, we retell them with a feminist slant, or place them in contemporary contexts which require certain content to be swapped out for something modern, for which there may or may not be an equivalent. When the context shifts, so does the message.
With all our media we have the ability to maintain or to shift societal norms. We tell the same stories, but perhaps we can think more about shifting the characters and breaking other expectations of plot and outcomes.
AK: You mentioned feeling so infused with folkloric stories and archetypes that they come out in your work whether you are conscious of it or not. Why do you think this is? Disney? The collective unconscious? How you were raised? A mixture of all of these?
CS: It’s a mixture of these, for sure. We’ve largely replaced oral storytelling in our general culture by new media. Fairy tales are read verbatim out of books, or watched as cartoons. They are also knowingly adapted and modernized in film, literature, advertising, and product design. But the tale types and motifs are so long a part of our lives from times of oral telling through today that we are often defaulting to them even when we think we are composing a new narrative.
AK: In what ways are you interested in making fairy tales new/contemporary? Or is this even possible?
CS: We as writers and artists may not realize the underlying origins of some of the stories we tell, but those frames and motifs are there all the same. Since it’s impossible to not constantly borrow, rehash, adapt, I think I am most interested in having the use be overt, intentionally drawing parallels between certain stories and characters and the occurrences of my own life. I like hiding personal information in poems inside elements from classic tales.
AK: Did you have a favorite fairy tale as a child?
CS: I know that a Grimm collection was in regular rotation at bedtime, but I have trouble differentiating certain tales orally conveyed to me then from their Disney film versions, also watched then. Stand-out stories from early childhood are “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella.” “Sleeping Beauty” had a strange elegance about it, some kind of aspiration quality which now seems horrifying to me. With “Cinderella,” I remember being filled with dread for her (and fear for myself ever being in such a position), and then anticipation to see that everything would work out ok in the end.
AK: Are there any modern fairy tales that you are particularly fond of? Or characters from childhood that you view differently now that you are older and are examining them in a different context?
CS: I think now I am drawn to tales with more complexity. I really love “East O’ the Sun, West O’ the Moon.” It has the classic “violation of the interdiction,” as Propp called it in Morphology of the Folktale, when the main character, of course, does not do what she is told (which is present in like every horror movie ever made…). But in this case the real story begins after that point. She is punished, but that doesn’t stop her. She does vast, unbelievable things to regain control of her circumstances. There is so much sorrow in that tale, but also redemption through effort. And in the end she makes sure everyone who is charmed by falseness sees the truth. I wonder what I would have thought about this tale had I heard it as a child.
Growing up has certainly shifted my reading of other stories. As a child hearing the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap” I felt fear and anxiety. I had no control over myself when I was that young, and worried for the child in the story who also seemed to not be in control of her circumstances. I might have thought twice about ever getting myself into such a dangerous situation. Reading it now, I am much more focused on the naivety and uselessness of the character, and read more into the necessity, for better or for worse, of the helper character (woodsman).
A contemporary audience often wonders about the helplessness of females in these classic tales and would prefer they be allowed more control over their circumstances. (I will note here that the Grimms had a version in which the girl and the grandmother learned their lesson and defeated another wolf all on their own, but that just seems patronizing to me.) We have also seen so much psychoanalytical criticism of these stories at this point that our retellings now allow those concepts to alter the narrative. I can think of two great examples of this. Angela Carter’s “In the Company of Wolves” has its famously shocking sexualized ending. And an editorial in Vogue Magazine’s September 2009 issue called “Into the Woods,” shot by Mert & Marcus, which shows us a much more powerful, almost wolf-like Little Red.
These examples are particularly interesting to me because they do away with the notion of escape entirely. What does that say about us in these more modern times?
AK: There seems to be a clear good/evil dichotomy in many fairy tales (Little Red Cap vs wolf), which can be potentially be helpful or problematic when teaching morals or other ideas to children. Much like your perspective on the characters in Little Red Riding Hood have changed, are there any fairy tale villains that you now find to be more interesting, complex, or empathetic than when you were a child?
CS: I should say yes to this. I feel that would be the responsible answer, and the one most true to life. People are rarely good or evil. We are all blended and complicated, but are set up by our fiction to believe that is incorrect, giving us all complexes about our own shortcomings and lack of purity. But if I am answering honestly, I have to say no. They typically do not attract me. I get really invested in the villain getting what is coming to her or him. My strong sense of justice is fiercely engaged by these stories. The only positive association I can recall having with a villain in a classic tale is only a loose association – I wanted to live in the witch’s walled garden in the beginning of “Rapunzel,” the garden from which the plant was stolen that sent everything spiraling out of control.
Over the years I have been fascinated by the ways these classic tales are still with us in unexpected places, with their known characters and plot points being used or subverted. Much of this has taken place in the world of advertising. Speaking of Little Red, we have now seen her all grown up and looking sexy in a Campari ad, with a snarling wolf at the end of her leash. Or in one for a chocolate beverage, looking sweet but sporting a wolf tattoo, with the caption “Just a little naughty.” They are also used for humor, though we can still analyse the underlying messages; a Wonderbra ad has Little Red at the foot of her grandmother’s bed, with the caption of “Oh Grandmother, what big…!” A recent SNL episode also had a great fairy tale-inspired Weekend Update joke about Trump’s new immigration policy of separating children from parents at the border which cast Jeff Sessions as Rumpelstiltskin.
But my favorite examples of contemporary occurences of fairy tale motifs come from the world of reality tv. I enjoy examining the way that editing crafts the narrative in this genre, and I see subtle and not-so-subtle fairy tale references all over them. In shows like The Bachelor, more than just the obvious “happily ever after” type endings, we have motifs such as quests for the most beautiful bride (motif H1301.1 in Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature), brides being won by feats of strength or displays of wit and cleverness, and the general atmosphere of the characters’ constant fear of doing something wrong, which I see as a version of violating the interdiction. The good and evil motif is strong in such shows as well. I remember some seasons back, the “final two” women were entirely visually contrasted, the favorite blonde wearing a white gown, and the underdog brunette dressed entirely in black. Guess who was chosen? Every time it is down to the last two, I am reminded of the end of “East O’ the Sun…” when the heroine saves the Prince from marrying his false troll bride (motif H305).
AK: In all honesty, villains don’t attract me either (my Libra’s sense of justice at play here I guess), which made this an even more dangerous dichotomy for me as a child. If I am repelled by a villain’s character, I automatically want to identify with the “good” character, many which are, as you said, helpless, and in lack of autonomy or personal power. While I think that retellings like Carter’s are telling of our culture’s impulse to question and dismantle dangerous power structures, I think we are still wrestling with these influences on a daily basis. I like that, as you say, the notion of escape may be totally erased, because we exist within these folkloric structures that so much of our culture is built upon.
CS: Yes!! And what you and I cannot imagine, in terms of the available roles, is what it must be like for people of other races and ethnicities to almost never see any examples of characters that resemble them except for villains. How frustrating. Disney has taken so much flack for this over the years and has made some attempts to correct for it, but it’s still problematic. Maybe the issue is more that we are still retelling primarily European tales even though American culture is diverse.
AK: And when we do retell fairy tales from other parts of the world (Disney’s Aladdin, for example), it is still through a European lens.
CS: There was so much controversy around that film, and rightly so.
AK: Are you drawn to fairy tales from a particular culture?
CS: Since the genre of tale we typically refer to as “fairy tale” (märchen) is in large part a European genre, it’s hard to say. But if we are speaking of folk narrative in a broader sense, I am really drawn to Japanese ghost legends, which in my mind do the best job of explaining why hauntings occur. It makes the ghosts so…human, and therefore more frightening. We see in them our own potential. I’m also a huge fan of analyzing urban legends. I love the way they shift and migrate, incorporating expressed fears about “the other” and technology in a changing society during certain critical decades in history. In terms of my love of structure again (tale types), there are pre-automobile versions of what we now call “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” with ghosts jumping on people’s’ backs or sitting behind riders on horseback. There are collected versions from around the world, including Japanese, Korean, and Russian taxicab versions. So again, everything is connected, but different.
AK: Do you retell stories from cultures other than your own? If so, how do you approach this? Do you ever feel more of a responsibility to retell or revisit stories that originated from your own ethnic background?
CS: I try to be very cautious about borrowing elements from cultures not my own when making art. If such elements ever appear in my work, I make sure to explain exactly where the symbolism originates and why I have included it. If the approach is more scholarly, it seems less appropriative, but then anthropologists have been compromising cultures around the world for decades under that same label.
AK: I think this also brings up the question of what is appreciation and what is appropriation. Like you said, I also think it’s worth looking at what basic structures come up in folktales across the globe, what is inherently connecting.
CS: Exactly. Sharing culture and appreciating/understanding each other as individuals vs. copying/stealing other people’s culture as your own or exploiting it for profit. When it comes to folk narrative, the similarities are global. We are often telling versions of the same tales, populated with faces and objects common to local lives. We can’t assume, however, that the same tale type told over here will have the same meaning when told over there. Meaning is not fixed. It is contextual. Make no assumptions. That said, certain human conditions are universal; we all are born and we all die, at the very least, and many of our stories are concerned with just those basic elements of existence.
AK: That is a very comforting idea! That human beings are united by our need to tell stories and to express certain ideas in certain ways.
CS: We certainly are. Storytelling is worldwide and ancient.
AK: In your Dark Exact Tarot Guidebook you make several references to Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which analyzes the value of fairy tales for children through a Freudian lens. In what ways were you consciously thinking about fairy tales when creating your tarot deck? When reading tarot for yourself and others?
CS: I don’t think I was consciously thinking about that when making the deck. That project was more of an intuitive one. The symbolic values were recognized after the fact when I was editing and writing about the card images. But the concepts in Bettelheim that interest me the most are the ones about personal development by proxy, about learning the self by watching a character do it. I think the same applies to the narratives embedded in the tarot. It is the same sort of method of externalizing problems and situations. The cards guide you “through the woods,” so to speak.
AK: It’s not surprising that media and advertising companies are using these same stories & reworking them, because I think they get at a very tender place in us–an inner-child sort of place that is impressionable and sensitive.
CS: So true. And the stories are so familiar to people it provides a sort of shorthand. Just like the archetypes of the tarot, or how figurative devices in poetry accomplish greater understanding in a compressed space, commercials are short and rely on our ability to understand their ideas fast. Once you know the system of meaning, you can communicate with its ideas very quickly.
AK: As an artist and storyteller, what is it about these structures and patterns that is so inherently appealing and effective? Why do you think of these structures when designing a tarot deck, book, or visual series? What kind of freedom can you exert within them?
CS: Part of it might be that shorthand we were just discussing. I also like structure because it makes me feel like the work is more guided, and that it can be understood on multiple levels. I also enjoy establishing something stable underneath and then having the freedom to experiment on top of that. In learning about folk narrative, in particular seeing how all tales are connected by certain patterns, was a delightful discovery for me. It made the world make sense. Nothing is arbitrary. This is also connected to my love of the tarot. There is a binding system there, but makers and readers are able to exert freedom in how those fundamental ideas are conveyed through design and nuanced through interpretation.
AK: If nothing is arbitrary and everything is connected in a system in which we can learn the rules and learn to play with certain elements, that sounds a bit like witchcraft and ritual to me. When you’re telling a story, how is that similar to divination, ritual, witchcraft, and working with what you hold divine or sacred? In what ways is writing a spiritual sort of alchemy?
CS: The structure of ritual feels very much like narrative. The chosen elements have defined symbolic value and are used in a certain placement or order, just like a story unfolding. With tarot, it’s even more direct in that a good reader connects all the cards in a spread to make a story that the querent can identify with and understand. For me this is all very practical, actually. The mind wants and needs connections. No one can change their behavior or make solid decisions if they are not able to internalize the messages of the reading. Narrative makes this more possible.
Writing and making art is definitely alchemy to me. It is magic. You take base elements (ideas and materials) and combine them, treat them to certain conditions, and if you do each step “properly,” a whole new thing is formed. In the process, the self is transformed as well. Sometimes you don’t even know how you got to gold, so it might seem like it was there all along. No. The act of doing the work, of practicing, every single time leads you to a place that is more channelled and automatic. It is a collaboration of a sort – between the self now, all the selves you’ve ever been, and all the ideas put into the world before you by everyone else. The more you invest in the process, the more you can become the Magician, the Alchemist.
AK: One final question, speaking of collaboration…If you could collaborate with a fairy tale character on a creative project, who? What would you make?
CS: I think I would like to moderate a panel discussion for all the characters from one of the classic tales. Oooo, or maybe a talk show style panel for the characters of “Sleeping Beauty” (the rape version), complete with jeering audience. I like this idea of taking the tale completely literally and pushing it into spectacle, the ultimate contemporary translation.
Otherwise, I just want that witch from “Rapunzel” to let me collect seeds from her garden. I’ll do some weeding in exchange. That said, it’s hard to not worry that I will end up trapped in a tower. And really, I’ve just escaped from one and have no interest in going back now.