Using Fabulist Elements to Write the Difficult

   by MockingHeart Review contributor, Stacey Balkun*


I’ve become obsessed with reading and writing fabulism. My poem in Issue 1 of MockingHeart Review, “The Domestic Mermaid Fosters Her Crush,” turns a woman feeling trapped in her household into a mermaid: a creature truly out of place in her setting. She obsesses over sushi delivery because it’s something familiar. Her homesickness and emotional distress turn tangible and her search for intimacy, heartbreaking. All of this is amplified by the fact that she has fins! She has a secret; she’s so out of place. She literally can’t survive this situation.


I didn’t learn the term fabulism until recently. Fabulism doesn’t mean just that mermaids are fabulous but that the work is fabulist: relying on fables, moving in and out of this world and another. Magical elements are placed in a real world. When these magical elements are working, the reader doesn’t question how a mermaid housewife can even get to the door to answer it; they accept that a mermaid called in an order for delivery and focus instead on the human elements that are reflected through fantasy.


Moving into another world is how I learned to discover my own self: of another world. I was adopted as a baby, but I still don’t know many details about my birthmother or her circumstances. Inspired by Anna Journey’s “Fox-girl Before Birth,” I wrote an origin-poem called “Rabbit-girl Before Birth” (eventually changed to “Jackalope-Girl”). One imitation led to another, and imagining my baby self as a mythical creature allowed me to consider my birthmother as one too, so she became the beautiful, misguided, mythical Antler-Girl. She was no longer a blank space in my memory, and because I wasn’t imagining her in realistic terms, I could write without any reservations about making assumptions or being untruthful.


This is what fabulism allows. Realism, the domestic, mundane or even uncomfortable spaces can find new life with an element of myth, magic, or fantasy. For me as a writer and reader, fabulism is strongest when it exists in small doses. I like the real world slightly augmented: an antler, a pair of wings, a mermaid tail. Using only an element or two creates tension rather than fantasy. It allows the reader to feel grounded while still understanding great emotional resonance. Fabulist elements can resonate as metaphors, most often for feelings of not belonging.


Putting something alien into our world allows it to take on a new meaning, which is how poets have always used metaphor: Robert Burns’s love like a “red red rose” was surprising and new when he wrote it, but it’s certainly become a cliché now. Building a magical real world opens up new possibility for imagery and metaphor, which is crucial for telling it new.


It also allows us, as writers, an escape from difficult subjects. We can avoid it, or we can pretend things aren’t how they are. Fabulist elements allow a different kind of pretend by letting a writer look her subject in the eye, but from a distance that is comfortable enough to let the writing happen. I admire poets who can write difficult poems from that raw, painful space. I wish I could, but I tense up and turn away. Incorporating fabulist elements lets me get there in my own way. In Jackalope-Girl’s world, all of the discomfort I felt and all of my childhood feeling out of place became the world’s inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to encompass the strange—not her inability to fulfill normalcy. I don’t want to write poems that fulfill expectations of normalcy, either. I want jackalopes and mermaids and other fabulist elements that allow the poem to hop in and out of weirdness while staying grounded in the world; keeping it domestic, yes, but far from normal.


*Read Stacey Balkun’s poetry in Volume 1, Issue 1–here.

Balkun (1)


Stacey Balkun is the author of two chapbooks, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (dancing girl 2016) & Lost City Museum (ELJ Publications 2016). She received her MFA from Fresno State and her work has appeared or will appear in Gargoyle, Muzzle, THRUSH, Bodega, and others. A 2015 Hambidge Fellow, Stacey served as Artist-in-Residence at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013. She is a contributing writer for The California Journal of Women Writers and a teaching artist at The Poetry Barn.




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