This year’s WRHC Award Winner in Poetry, “Confabulated,” takes a centuries-old story and shows a new perspective. Through powerful imagery, Sheila Dong has made their readers question whether we really want to live in a fairy tale, or whether we are better off just remembering one. Sheila was kind enough to answer questions about their process creating “Confabulated,” and what poetry means to them.

What were some of the challenges in writing and revising this poem?

Sheila Dong (SD): The writing of this poem came fairly easily to me compared to others I’ve written, maybe because I was drawing on a base of stories that already exist and are well-known (i.e. different fairytales). What I did then was more of manipulating and adapting those tropes and images, instead of inventing them from scratch.

My biggest challenge was probably the revision of the ending. My original ending was a little blah; I felt it tied things up too neatly, because the speaker just finished her observations and stayed resigned to her fate. In revision, I tried to introduce more mystery and a different kind of energy to steer the poem away from a flat conclusion.

When I wrote the improved ending, I couldn’t even understand it at first. But it just felt right; it had the right kind of allure. I felt that, in time, it would reveal itself to me and be what I’d been looking for all along.

What was going through your mind when you decided to write this poem?

SD: When I wrote this poem, I was (obviously) thinking about fairy tales. I felt like, as you get older, you start to question the narratives you were familiar with as a child, and to be more critical about their relevance to your life and to our time in general. And I thought how, if these characters lived in modern times, they’d probably be unemployed/poor/homeless/etc, stuck in a world that doesn’t care about them, yet still always waiting to become a hero or to be saved. In a lot of ways, it’s heartbreaking. And there’s that existential element – if you save someone, that means you are useful and you are good and your life has meaning, and therefore, you’ve saved yourself.

But then, this conflict emerged, because the speaker doesn’t want to be saved. She suspects that others would do it not out of altruism, but out of a need to fill a void in themselves. As the poem ends, her enclosure in the tower goes from a symbol of weakness to strength, since she actively chooses it (like Camus’ Sisyphus). You have to determine your own fate, since the world outside is uncertain and fragmented and bleak, and the old stories aren’t as powerful now.

How did you decide on the auditory elements of the poem? How important is it that this piece is read aloud?

SD: The auditory elements of the poem weren’t something I was consciously planning from the beginning; I feel they developed organically as I was writing. In all my poems anyway, I try to pay attention to the harmony and play of sounds, and here especially, the alliteration and assonance and euphony and subtle rhymes tie into the fabled atmosphere.

I feel this poem would be awesome read aloud. Because of the subject matter, it would invoke the ritual of storytelling, and since it’s in first person, it would also be really similar to a dramatic monologue.

Why do you think poetry is important?

SD: I think it’s difficult to talk about the importance of poetry without repeating things others have said – that poetry lets us see things in new ways, that it humanizes us by appealing to and validating our emotions, etc. I definitely agree with these ideas, but they are hard to stick to when you live in a society where poetry tends to be stereotyped as convoluted, elitist, and above all, irrelevant. (An exchange I read on an online forum: Q: “What is the function of the poet in today’s society?” A: “Cleaning my windshield at red lights.”) After living in this kind of environment for a while, a part of me reacted by embracing the “unimportance” of poetry. If “poetry doesn’t matter,” doesn’t it then gain another kind of elegance by not having a strict utility? If “poetry’s not important,” then, if nothing else, it can become a place where I can play and feel free and let out whatever breath I’ve been holding. And that, to me, is important.

What advice would you give to other writers and poets?

SD: My advice to other writers and poets would be to read as much as you can, to experience as much as you can, to consistently keep your eyes open both to what is happening in your immediate environment and in the larger world. I would also say to keep yourself open emotionally and not be afraid to feel, because in my opinion, sensitivity and the ability to feel deeply are beautiful (even if sometimes difficult) gifts. From all that you absorb, you start building this giant creative reservoir inside you to draw on for whatever your art is, which makes it rich and complex.