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poet and publisher Maria Jacobs

by Carolyn Dodds | April 10, 2003

The dream job of many young women who love literature is to work with writers in a publishing house. Twenty years ago, poet Maria Jacobs wanted to help her fellow poets get published. But instead of going to work for a publisher, she decided to start her own company.

In the 1950s, book publishing in Canada was dominated by the branch plant operations of British and American houses with little interest in publishing Canadian writers. But as Canadians became more aware of their own culture – especially around the time of the 1967 centennial and the Expo 67 world's fair in Montreal – new Canadian publishers sprang up. They published Canadian writers, including numerous women writers, and helped bring about a renaissance in Canadian literature in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the same time, women were rethinking their roles in society. In the 1960s, most married women didn’t work outside the home. But events such as the 1967–1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women showed that change was coming. Maria Jacobs’ move into the world beyond the home, and her efforts to foster Canadian literature, involved her in two spheres of 20th century Canadian society that were undergoing rapid change.

Maria was born Marja Schröder in 1930 in Holland. Her mother, Lucie, loved poetry and read it aloud to Maria and her brother, Wilhelm. In 1940 the Germans invaded Holland and began rounding up Jews to send them to concentration camps. Maria and her mother and brother hid four Jews in their house through the war, and were later honoured in Israel for their courage.

Team
(Mother)

The enemy brings me
shoulder to shoulder
with my youngest child.

Any night may be the one
when we can’t hide
our friends fast enough
from raiding soldiers.
Dawn is a gift.

Their survival my cause
my clear-cut task.
The grocer Shapiro
his pale wife Lena
the orphan Naomi
and Eli, my lover
inspire the venture
refuel my energy.

But outside this family
my own child Maria
independent and free
coming in, going out
my little comrade
fellow hewer and drawer
she keeps the grave secret
of our backroom as I do.

She sees what I see.
There is no option.
We're a team of two
against the dark.

© Maria Jacobs, 1983
From Precautions Against Death, Mosaic Press | 1983

After the war Maria married, and she and her husband, Peter Moens, eventually settled in Toronto, Ontario. By 1964 they had four children. Maria developed what she calls a serious case of cabin fever. "In the 1960s, it wasn't so common for women to go out to work," she says, "but many women had the desire to do something other than folding diapers and feeding babies." She was also feeling isolated. "I loved my extended family and my friends in Europe," she says, "and there I was with only my husband. I felt I had no one to talk to I could trust to understand the way I thought."

Home’s in the eye

Michaelmas daisies, goldenrod are weeds. No one would think
to plant them – they just grow in this country where they wish,
pleasing the odd transient roving eye. What is more purple,
yellower then they?

Back home where I was born we had them too, the same but different.
Gulden roede we called the golden rod, meaning the same.
But herfstasters were a washed-out lilac, and their name
– nothing to do with saints or angels – just indicated fact:
asters of autumn. The Dutch must love them, drawing them near
and hugging them close to their homes, not a yard without them.

I hated those flowers. Their nearness showed their faults. A day
or so and the gold turned dusty beige, the asters' petals curled
and greyed, then stayed that way all the drab month –
cast-iron plants with mildew-powdered leaves – symbols of summer gone.

But here in Canada, I see the roadsides blaze purpler than purple
and the yellowest yellow. Like its people, this country’s flowers:
lovelier because remote.

© Maria Jacobs, 1987
From Iseult, We Are Barren, Netherlandic Press | 1987

She started taking courses at York University. By the time she had finished her degree and had a fifth child, she knew that her heart lay in English literature. In 1975 she started a master’s degree in English and began writing poetry. “Writing poetry is ideal for people whose time is fragmented, like women looking after their children,” she says. She would start at 11 pm and go on until two or three in the morning. “I loved that sense of totally focusing on one thing for a short period of time.”

Maria immersed herself in the lively Toronto poetry scene. She joined a poetry workshop and helped found a poetry reading series called the Axle-Tree Coffee House. She edited a number of publications and with fellow poet Heather Cadsby took over the magazine Poetry Toronto. And she made friends. “It wasn’t until I became friends with a circle of poets that I had a feeling of being at home in Canada,” she says. Suddenly she had people she could talk to, who would take her seriously. “After all those years of keeping my thoughts to myself, I had so much to say about family ties, about love and friendship, that I couldn’t write fast enough. It all felt so exciting and so necessary to get it all out on paper.” Meanwhile, she took paid part-time work managing a scientific journal, a job she did for 18 years.

In 1984, Maria joined the League of Canadian Poets. The league had gone through a big upheaval two years earlier when a group of women members, including poets such as Erin Mouré, Bronwen Wallace, Cathy Ford and Sharon Nelson, formed a feminist caucus to highlight the discrimination against women in the literary establishment. In a 1992 speech, Sharon Nelson described the conditions that led to the formation of the caucus – the sexism in the tone, diction and content of reviews of women’s writing, the lack of writing by women in anthologies and literary magazines, and the lack of women writers in the lists of winners of grants and awards. Grant regulations and the wording of grant applications discriminated against women, and few women were appointed to executive arts bodies and funding agencies.

One of the aims of the feminist caucus was to increase participation by and recognition of women in all aspects of Canadian poetry. The caucus held a series of annual panels to discuss issues such as women and language, women and memory, and women and violence. “The feminist caucus made a difference,” says Maria. “The league began to get more female members.” By 1990, she was president of the league.

Maria’s poems had begun to appear in poetry magazines. As her daughters grew up, she remembered her own experiences as a girl during the war and wrote about them in Precautions Against Death, a book of poetry and prose published in 1983. She had two more books of poetry published, as well as a book of her translations of poetry by Dutch women.

From the beginning, she wrote under the name Maria Jacobs. “I had already changed my first name to Maria because in the 1950s Canadians couldn’t pronounce Marja,” she says (it’s pronounced MAR-ya). She chose not to publish under her married surname. “My married status had nothing to do with my writing. And I didn’t want to use my maiden name, Schröder, because it was a German name and I didn’t have too many good memories of the war. So I turned my father’s Christian name, Jacob, into a patronymic.”

Siamese twins separated
Saturday, 28 July 1984

Lin and Win Htut – names are important and should
be mentioned – sundered now, gender bestowed
or carved, your future roles assigned by experts.

Eighteen hours’ darkness, and you wake no longer one
but two imperfect humans, amputated, patched,
unchosen marriage over, and the close
familiar heartbeat gone for good.

Be well

if well can mean a little more than ease
and supervision all your lives.

God grant

the two of you some privacy where we have failed.
But may the powers reigning over you
decide to let you share a crib at least
until your wounds heal over and you’ve learned
that living is a lonely business.

© Maria Jacobs, 1987
From Iseult, We Are Barren, Netherlandic Press | 1987

Maria wanted many poets she knew, whose work she admired, to be published too. But few publishers handled poetry. She and Heather Cadsby decided the solution was to start a publishing company. They founded Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. in 1983 – Wolsak was Lucie Schröder's maiden name, and Wynn was a name from Heather’s family. “We started off planning to publish a few books of poetry by our friends,” she says. “We became more and more convinced that we were doing the right thing.”

Today Wolsak and Wynn is one of the few Canadian houses that publishes poetry exclusively. Several of its 93 publications have been nominated for and won a number of prizes, including two Governor General’s Awards for poetry. Heather Cadsby retired in 2000, and Maria has carried on with the help of assistants. The demands of running the business have consumed much of the energy she used to devote to writing poetry. She also feels that she has said what she wanted to say on domestic topics, and will find a new approach to her writing when she retires in a few years.

Twenty years after founding her company, Maria is still adamant about the importance of poetry. “Poetry is an essential part of our culture,” she says. “It’s a wonderful way of telling us what’s going on in the nation. Good poetry is so condensed that you can get far more from one page of poetry than you would out of a page of prose.”

She acknowledges that poetry doesn’t sell well. “Poetry was more popular in times when there was no other way to occupy your mind,” she says. “But it needs to be there. You must be able to get it in libraries.” She continues to work at widening the audience for poetry. “People are afraid of poetry because they think they won't understand it,” she says. “It’s true that you may have to read it several times to get at the kernel of truth, but when you do, the rewards are great.”

Maria helped change book publishing into an industry that today is not only staffed largely by women, but increasingly run by women. And her efforts to publish the best in Canadian poetry have contributed to the development in Canada of a rich, distinctive and internationally recognized literature.

The king of silence

O but I love my single nights
when no one claims me:
I can drink a beer
without fear
of offending

I can sit in all chairs
lie in several beds
while dishes pile up
till the last cup
is drained

With all the lights on
a candle brightens
my letter to you
with what’s new
and familiar

Never so free as those nights
when no one demands
a single thing
and I am the king
of silence

© Maria Jacobs, 1987
From Iseult, We Are Barren, Netherlandic Press | 1987

more to consider

One of the threads in Maria’s story is the importance of one’s own name to one’s sense of self and place in the world. In Western societies, our system is one of patrimony, where the norm is to bear the name of our fathers or husbands, making the names – and so often the lives – of our mother and foremothers invisible.

As a writer and publisher, Maria has chosen not to use her husband’s or her father’s family names, but to use a form of her father’s given name, and her mother’s maiden name. Many women who came of age in the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s did something similar. They chose a name from their foremothers, or they kept the name they grew up with on marriage (their “maiden” name) or they took a whole new name.

In doing so, a woman declares that she is her own person, not someone else’s property.

Do you come from a culture where family names are matriarchal, that is, coming from the female side of the family? Let us know your naming story.

The League of Canadian Poets is a different place for women today because of women like Maria Jacobs. They did not accept their exclusion from the benefits of the League. They got together and changed these institutions so that gender is not the line that inevitably separates the successful and the unsuccessful.

Much of this history is invisible. The women who did it take it as part of their day-to-day lives, not something that changed the face and voice of the country, enabling those who come after to avoid some of the closed doors, frustration and hurt. It is important that others like Maria tell their stories so that we understand and are vigilant.

The work to change the way institutions treat women is not finished, however it may appear from the mainstream media and the official party lines of institutions. For example, eight women academics from across Canada have filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act (Canada). They allege that out of the $900 million being spent by Industry Canada on the Canada Research Chairs at universities, only 15% of the Chairs are women (to rise to 18% in the next round of funding announcements). Yet women represent 26% of the full-time professoriate in Canada (this programme can make appointments from around the world). The women complainants also point out that no data is being kept for other equity groups who are protected in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

resources for this story

These books are out of print, but may be found in public libraries:

  • Precautions Against Death, Mosaic Press, ISBN: 0889622094 | 1983
    A collection of poetry and prose describing the five-year period when four Jews were hidden in Maria’s home during World War Two
  • What Feathers Are For, Mosaic Press, ISBN: 0889623066 | 1985
    Poetry collection
  • Iseult, We Are Barren, Netherlandic Press, ISBN: 0919417116 | 1987
    Poetry collection
  • With Other Words: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Dutch Poetry by Women, by MARIA JACOBS, ed., Netherlandic Press, ISBN: 0919417078 | 1985
  • Vijfenviftig sokken, De harmonie, ISBN: 9061692946 | 1983
    Dutch translation of Precautions Against Death
  • Dutch Gifts: Stories, Poems and Creative Non-Fiction on a Netherlandic Theme, by MARIA JACOBS, ed., Netherlandic Press, ISBN: 091941723X | 1991
  • The League of Canadian Poets Living Archives Series documents the presentation of the panels sponsored yearly by the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets, and includes various texts, correspondence, and other works significant to its history and the discussion of women and language in poetry. The Living Archives Series is a celebration of a multiplicity of voices, perceptions, and literary styles, all in the political context of feminist analysis and commitment to action. The website Poetry Spoken Here offers the available titles for sale.

This feature was first published on section15.ca's predecessor site CoolWomen.

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