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Interview with Maria Jacobs

25 JULY 1989

   On my way to Vancouver, I broke my flight in Toronto to meet Maria Jacobs. We nearly missed each other at the airport where she kindly came to meet me, until I realized that I was waiting on the wrong level. Fortunately for me, her patience made up for my mistake, and we were soon on our way, through the scorching summer heat, to the welcome coolness of her home.
   Jacobs has written "Iseult, We Are Barren," a sequence of twenty poems that comprise the third section of a larger collection with the same title (Windsor, Ont.: Netherlandic, 1987). Based on the love triangle of Tristan-Iseult-Mark, the poems provide a sympathetic insight into the dilemma of all three figures, including the often maligned monarch. Her description of how the sequence evolved, slowly over a number of years, reveals some of the differences between the approach of the lyric poet and the novelist to writing about Arthurian legend.

RT: What first attracted you to Arthurian legend as a subject for your sequence of poems, Iseult, We Are Barren?

MJ: There are two answers, one general, one specific. The start of my general interest in the legend of Tristan and Iseult, I can pinpoint very clearly. I was fourteen years old and saw a French movie, Jean Cocteau's L'Eternel Retour, with Madeleine Sologne in the role of Iseult. It made an enormous impression on me and it stayed with me, much more than I realized at the time. That is what laid the groundwork, and since then I have read some of the stories of Arthur. I was always struck by the parallelism between Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot and Mark-Iseult-Tristan, although in British versions, which I guess mostly derive from Malory's Morte Darthur, I found that Tristan and Iseult got a very raw deal compared to the leniency that Lancelot and Guinevere received. As a young woman I also read Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan.
   Much later I took a course called Love and Western Civilization, or some such title. The reading list included Tristan et Iseut by Joseph Bedier, and that version of the story probably influenced me most strongly because it was the most recent one I read. It was really the same story all over again, except that there the lovers were treated sympathetically.

RT: Did you read these in the original languages?

MJ: No. The German Tristan I may have done, but I read Bedier in English translation. Then I read Malory's Morte Darthur, and modern Arthurian novels by Mary Stewart and T. H. White, though they didn't have much to do with Tristan and Iseult. Another book that had some influence on me was Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World, which has been quite helpful in pinpointing the tradition. Since I grew up in Holland, what I read at that time would be translations into Dutch. I did read the medieval Dutch romance, Ferguut, but I cannot say that I really pursued my Arthurian reading with any kind of persistence. It was just happenstance. At any rate, it was the movie that first aroused my general interest in the story of Tristan and Iseult.
   The specific reason why I wrote about the lovers was a quote from John Updike, which he calls Tristan's Law: "Appealingness is inversely proportional to attainability." It sounds so prosaic it isn't even funny. Nevertheless it triggered something that I used in a poem, called "Tristan's law--closeup," and that poem became the cornerstone for a series of poems.

RT: When you started to build the poems into a sequence, did you do any research to find out more about the Tristan legend, or did you just work with what you already knew?

MJ: I went with what I knew, or what I remembered, or what I imagined.

RT: How about afterwards? Did you look at other treatments for comparison?

MJ: No, I never felt that need. I came across a sequence of poems by Brian Fawcett which I read, but I didn't start searching for other works.

RT: As a poet you would not feel the novelist's concern to create verisimilitude by conducting research into the historical background, would you?

MJ: Exactly. An historical novel has to be factually correct, whereas poetry can be far more allusive and far more elliptical. Indeed too much concern with historical detail might cause poetry to become very prosy. I probably just didn't do the research because I wasn't that keen on knowing more, however.

RT: How conscious were you that you were working within a tradition?

MJ: Not at all. After the whole sequence was finished and it was being published, the publisher said, wouldn't you like to provide an introduction with some background because people who never read about Tristan and Iseult wouldn't know the story? So then I wrote the piece which they printed as a poem though it was really not intended to be a poem. It was intended to be a prose paragraph introducing the bare bones of the story. It's called "An old love story." Not a good title, in retrospect.

RT: How free did you feel to adapt the traditional material? Did you worry whether some of the experiences you were describing might not be part of the tradition?

MJ: Oh no, I wasn't worried about that. I borrowed the basic story, but I used it as a sort of clothes horse. It didn't, to me, matter whether what I said could factually have happened at that time. It's modern poetry, and today's experiences are hung onto that clothes horse.

RT: You're really describing the emotional experience rather than worrying about whether Tristan and Iseult were under that particular tree at that particular time, aren't you?

MJ: Right. And as for worrying about staying within the tradition, I figure pretty well anything goes because the story itself is so loose and so universal, relatively speaking.

RT: When you were writing the poems were you concerned that people unfamiliar with the legend might not recognize what you were talking about?

MJ: The poems themselves were triggered, not by the legend, but by life, so that if they didn't stand on their own then they didn't stand on their own. They weren't good poems. If they did stand on their own, then it didn't matter who the protagonists were, who the "I" was, who the "you" is. It doesn't matter.

RT: You speak of the poems being triggered by life, by contemporary experience. Which aspects of the poems do you consider to be of particular concern to a contemporary audience?

MJ: I don't write to instruct people. I write because I want to express something in the best words I know how, and then the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If people pick up on it, great; if they don't, too bad. I didn't really want to be very relevant to contemporary concerns. I wanted to deal with a basic human situation: the eternal triangle, and how people react to such a situation. I've tried to get into the heads of all three characters. That was the difficult part.

RT: Yes. You managed to show sympathy for all three figures, in a way that is not often found in treatments of the story. Mark's role is never an easy one because it slips so readily into that of the fool who has been deceived, or the vengeful cuckold, doesn't it?

MJ: The sad part is that if you read Malory after you've read the German and French poems, then you feel sorry for poor Mark who is made out to be so horrible. You feel for all three of them. I think that may have had something to do with why I wanted to write these poems the way I did. I felt that Malory really lacked compassion, or else he approached their story in a way that seems rather unappealing. He is particularly harsh on Mark, but even Tristan and Iseult are never treated as well as are Lancelot and Guinevere. Although I'm saying this after the fact, I may have written my poems to right the balance a little.

RT: Since you also write short stories, I wonder whether you would feel tempted to tell the story of Tristan and Iseult in prose fiction as well as poetry?

MJ: This story? No. What I like about writing poetry in general, and a sequence of poems in particular, is that you can get at the story from all angles without necessarily making a linear narrative. These three people can speak for themselves without some omniscient author saying, this is what they really intended. You could do that with poetry without being punished for it later, without anyone saying, well yes, but you didn't tie up the loose ends. In prose my tendency would be, if I know myself, to write a pretty dull, plodding tale, and I don't want to do that.

RT: What led you to the idea of writing not just one or two, but a sequence of poems?

MJ: As I said, I started with one poem; then I wrote one more; then I said, hey, I can use this voice for another one; then I thought, well, why not use some of the other characters as well? So that's how it went. Little by little.

RT: Do you have a particular interest in the sequence as a poetic form?

MJ: No, it just happened. I used it once before but that was a very different story, wholly autobiographical. I used different voices in that as well. The technique worked for me then, and it worked for me in this sequence too. I love so much the possibilities that poetry writing gives you--this short, incidental light that you can shine on your subject.

RT: You mentioned before we started taping that the first publisher of your prose hadn't been interested in a sequence of poems. Did you feel tempted at that point to give up on the idea?

MJ: Oh no, no, no, no, no. I knew they were good. I seriously felt that the poems were of a piece, and I wanted definitely to publish them sometime. Some of them had been published here and there in little magazines, but not all together, and I felt that I wanted that. Definitely. So I just hung onto them and waited until the time was right.

RT: Were the poems written over a number of years?

MJ: Yes. I would say they took me about three years.

RT: Did you ever go back and re-write an earlier poem to make it fit what you had written later?

MJ: No, I didn't re-write once the poem was done. If I did so I would lose what I aimed for, and that is this coming at the experience from various angles. If you're going to adjust the angle here because something else is shedding some other light on it, then you're really losing a dimension. If you leave that at that angle and you come in from a very different one, then you have a real contrast; whereas if you try to align them and get them parallel, then you lose the whole point.

RT: Did you try to alternate the point of view consistently from one character to another?

MJ: No, nothing as ordered and thought out as that. I wrote a poem because I wanted to write about this particular experience, and then I chose the point of view that could best represent the emotion or situation.

RT: Since you were working on the sequence over so long a period, did you find any advantages to returning to the task after being engaged in other things?

MJ: Different projects are on the front burner in your life from time to time, and others have to be set aside for the time being. One of the big advantages of writing poetry is that you can deal with a certain subject one poem at a time. You don't have to have the continuity of thought that a fiction writer needs. The biggest advantage is the incidental nature of looking at a theme.

RT: Did you find you could return to the sequence without difficulty?

MJ: Oh yes. No problem. I also feel, however, that you never really say the last word. Fiction writers must feel this too because they are always writing sequels to sequels. That is certainly the case with poetry, for I find that I continue to write poems even though the original series was published long ago. I'm still adding to it. As a result you feel that you can never publish until you've one foot in the grave. You want to make sure that you've said everything that you want to say on the subject.

RT: Did you find that your conception of the subject changed as the sequence progressed?

MJ: Well, this presupposes that I had a certain conception of the group of poems to begin with, which I really didn't. They grew organically; they were more incremental than anything else, and at the point where I thought I had just about exhausted the material, I let go of the sequence. For a long period I did not write any poems that could fit into it. Then later I began to write the odd poem again, and I thought, now that could have gone into the sequence had it not been already in print. It really doesn't matter. If the poems are worth publishing, then they're worth it on their own and they don't have to be in that sequence, depending on their neighbors for their strength.

RT: Would you consider writing a further sequence on Tristan and Iseult, or expanding it to include more poems?

MJ: No, I don't think so. I never tinker with poems that I've written long ago, and I would feel I couldn't really do anything much with this group that would not destroy its integrity.

RT: When you look back on the sequence, are there any parts that you would like to re-write?

MJ: No. It's not that I think all the poems are wonderful and I wouldn't touch a thing. I know that some are weaker than others. But that's not the way I work. I would rather write a new poem to get closer to the truth, if I felt that it was needed. But I don't feel that way about those poems. From the point of view I had when I finished the sequence, I feel that they are truthful in a figurative sense, not literally of course. They reflect what I felt and thought about this situation, and if I think any more about it--which I certainly will as time goes on--then there will be other poems that will come from it. And I may or may not use that legend to hang them up on.

RT: The legend, in fact, just happens to be a convenient frame or clothes horse, to use your term, for a group of poems about an emotional experience which the legend happens to deal with. Does that mean that when you were writing a poem on that general topic, you might decide to adapt it to that particular frame, and at that point start to give it more direction?

MJ: That is probably how it began to hang together--this clump of poems. I didn't set out to retell the story of Tristan and Iseult, but when I started doing it I increasingly recognized the possibility of adding poems. As I said before, I didn't like the British tradition because I thought it shortchanged the characters. The French and the German versions of the story are more favorable, but the figures remain very stereotypical. They're not real people. They are puppets. Yet we all identify so much with them because their situation is very recognizable. I felt that it would be interesting to add some flesh to these people's bones, and that's what I really hoped to achieve. My experience of people is that they do reflect upon their circumstances, and they do have insights into other people's ways of thinking and feeling. I wanted to express that. I didn't want my Mark to be the nasty piece of work that he's often made out to be. It was a very conscious thing to do, I guess.

RT: As you wrote the sequence, did you find that one of the characters engaged your sympathy more than the others?

MJ: I was surprised that I responded equally to all three, and that was probably why I wrote the sequence. If Mark's situation and his reaction to it had been totally alien to me, I wouldn't have bothered writing him into the sequence. I would have just used the voices of Tristan and Iseult.

RT: Most versions of the love story emphasize the theme of the inevitability of fate, which is represented by drinking the love potion. Were you interested in this traditional theme?

MJ: The potion was essentially left out. The only time I mentioned the word "potion" is in connection with their having a drink of ordinary wine, not the magical potion of the legend. I didn't want to write a medieval romance. I wanted to relate events to modern experience, and we don't have magical potions.
   As for the inevitability of fate, I'm not quite sure what the dimension of the lovers' final doom is yet, but I have a pretty good idea. It's clearly a story of two people trying to attain the unattainable, and at the same time involving a third person unwittingly. I feel that is a very dangerous thing. Obviously it happens all around us, and it always works out for the worst for everybody concerned. I haven't gone the distance yet, although I have tried to make it clear what I suspect is going to happen. "The Wood of Morois" is a pretty gloomy poem, as is the last poem, "Iseult's lament." The relationship dies. I didn't want to imply that the characters die, rather that their relationship was such that it had to die, even though I didn't want to spell it out.
   That sense of inevitability is there and I was very much aware of it. There was no way that this could have a happy ending, but then it never does. Even Lancelot and Guinevere, who were treated more favorably by Malory, experience more suffering than joy.

RT: Do you think that you may have flinched from the tragic conclusion of the love affair, or is it just that you have different concerns?

MJ: No, I'm looking at what I can see, and I don't see how such an affair ends. You can have them commit suicide, of course. Some people find that way out. Other people make peace with the fact that they can't have what they can't have. I think I'm more inclined myself that way, and I'm inclined to let Iseult and Tristan in the end separate and let things be. After all Tristan does go to Brittany and marry the other Iseult, which implies that option.
   In the last poem, "Iseult's lament," Tristan is lying, sick to death. Iseult is coming, but the other Iseult tells him that her bright sails are black. Then essentially I propose that he hardens his heart against her, whether she comes later or not. That's one way of interpreting that ending. You can have them literally die, but that seems such an easy way out.

RT: What particular aspect of the legend of Tristan and Iseult did you feel was most important to include in your story?

MJ: One of the things that I felt important to include was the compelling sexual attraction between these two people, possibly against their own better judgement. The other aspect was that neither of them lost track of the third person in the triangle. Tristan recognized that he was King Mark's favorite nephew and that Mark felt warmly towards him before all this happened; and Iseult was married to Mark, and you're not married to someone for a long time without knowing what's going on in his mind. So it was important to me that those two things be included: the attraction that was there from the beginning, and the fact that all three of them were always aware of each other. The latter, I felt, was omitted from earlier versions.
   The potion did not need to be in because that fatal attraction came across in other ways. I didn't want to include the sword that they place between themselves either. That has been interpreted in many different ways, and I didn't know exactly what to make of it.

RT: Do you have any final comments or observations you'd like to make about the sequence?

MJ: When I first began to write this sequence and had completed maybe seven or eight of the poems, I showed them to a friend of mine who said, why not pitch Tristan and Iseult overboard and just write the poems with your own story, rather than hang it onto these legendary characters? I considered it and I said, no, I can't do that. The poems would lack cohesiveness, and especially they would lack authority because who cares what Maria Jacobs thinks about this, that, and the other? But if I can hook them into the traditional story in another way, I may be able to do it. He wasn't convinced, but I didn't care. I went ahead and when they were finished I gave him the whole sequence. He said, well, I don't often change my mind, but I must confess that you were right and I was wrong. So that was very nice.
   I'm well aware of the fact that I've used the story more than I've added to it, but I don't feel too badly about it. It seems to me that's what this legend has been all about anyway from the word go. If you read the various versions of the story, you realize people have been tinkering with it all along and re- telling it in different ways.

RT: Thank you.