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Interview with Margaret Atwood

25 MARCH 1991

   This interview was the only one in the collection where I encountered technical difficulties with the taping process. Whether the tape was affected by airport security machines, the tape recorder malfunctioned, or (more likely) I failed to press the correct buttons on it, I ended up with a blank tape. I reconstructed what I could remember of Atwood's responses to my questions, but could produce, regrettably, little more than a summary, even though she was kind enough to add a few clarifications. Since Atwood could recall few details about the composition of her Arthurian work, an early sequence of seven short poems entitled "Avalon Revisited" that was published in The Fiddlehead, 55 (1963), 10-13, the result is a very brief account indeed. After the difficulties we had arranging the interview, this is a disappointment, but I remain grateful to the author for finding the time to talk to me on a chilly March afternoon in Toronto about poetry she had forgotten she ever wrote.
   Having gone on to establish herself among the foremost of contemporary authors, Atwood looks back on this early work as little more than one part of the process of finding her own voice as a writer. It offers, nonetheless, a fascinating glimpse of a stage in the development of an important figure in the field of contemporary literature.

RT: What attracted you to the Arthurian legend as a subject for your sequence of poems "Avalon Revisited" (1963)?

MA: I had been studying Arthurian literature in university. I read Arthurian poems, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Tennyson's Idylls of the King, for the honours programme at the University of Toronto; I later reread Idylls of the King during graduate studies in Victorian literature at Harvard University. The Arthurian legend was one among many myths and traditions that I drew upon for my poetry, during this early period when I was trying to establish my own voice.

RT: Had you read any other Arthurian works that aroused your interest in the legend?

MA: T. H. White's Once and Future King, though I most enjoyed the first book, The Sword in the Stone. There was no Arthurian fantasy available at that time and there were few historical novels. I had read some works on the history and archaeological research of the Arthurian period, but not especially for the sequence.

RT: Did you do any additional research before you wrote the sequence?

MA: No. I did subsequently visit Glastonbury when I was a student staying in London. I was staying with a friend whose landlady grew suspicious of my continued presence. Since I had a rail travel pass, I used to go away on journeys at times to allay her suspicions, though the journeys grew shorter as I approached my distance limit. One of these trips was to Glastonbury, where I was shown the Holy Well by a woman I ran into. I also visited the fake Round Table in Winchester Castle. This happened after I had written the sequence, but it does reveal that I was still interested in the legend at that time.

RT: Were you conscious of working within a tradition when you composed the poems?

MA: Yes. I felt free to adapt this traditional material to my own purposes, however, just as others had done.

RT: Did the fact that some of your audience might be familiar with Arthurian tradition influence your treatment of the material?

MA: No, I did not think about the audience at the time.

RT: Why did you choose to treat the Arthurian legend in the form of a poetic sequence?

MA: I was influenced by reading Victorian poetry, and the sequence was more popular at that time than it is now. Tennyson's Idylls of the King is just one example of use of the form by poets, not necessarily Victorian. Others include Shakespeare and Meredith. The poetic sequence allows you to handle a narrative, but in lyric form.

RT: Was your choice of the sequence form at all influenced by the views of your editor?

MA: No. I have never had any problems with editors who wanted me to change my methods or point of view. I pay a lot of attention to editors, but in a different way. They sometimes catch mistakes and help with the order of poems in a book. I do not underestimate them! Indeed, I have been one myself.

RT: Did you find that any of the Arthurian figures took over in the poem?

MA: My characters always take over, but I can't remember whether that happened in this case. I wrote these poems thirty years ago and find it difficult to recall details about them.

RT: You focus particularly upon the central role of women in Arthurian legend, whereas earlier writers tended to keep them as shadowy figures in the background.

MA: Yes, the women always seemed to be most important to me, especially Vivien.

RT: Do you plan to write any more Arthurian poems?

MA: No.

RT: Thank you.