Interview conducted by Lazaro Aleman and Steven Robinson
By her own admission, Cynthia Macdonald came late to poetry. Originally an opera singer, Macdonald had already established herself in that profession before a particularly difficult time in her life caused her to begin writing poetry seriously. Since then, however, the New York native has more than made up for her late start. To date, she has published three books of poetry, with a fourth soon to be published, and a possible novel in germination.
Presently, Macdonald teaches at the University of Houston and helps administer the Creative Writing Program. Indeed, it is Macdonald, in conjunction with Stanley Plumly, who is most credited for the successful implementation of that program.
A robust personality with energy to spare, Macdonald exudes vitality. She is bright, witty, and vivacious, and readily put the Dialog editors at ease with her casual charm.
Dialog: Houston City Magazine, in a recent article, states that Houston has now become a literary town, and that much of this new-found status is a direct result of the Writing Program at the University of Houston. Do you agree?
Macdonald: Houston is becoming a literary town. I don’t want to say has become. After you’re dead, I guess, you say you’ve become something. I don’t know about cities. They’re never dead, we hope. They might be, but we hope not. So, Houston is becoming a literary town. It’s true that when I first came here in the early ’70s, it was a literary wasteland. I mean, you’ve got to face the fact that, except for Vassar Miller, there were no writers here of any kind of national stature. The ones who had been here left, or, like Beverly Lowry, were still fledglings. I mean, the idea was, if you happened by some misfortune to grow up in Houston and be a writer, you’d better leave, because there were no other writers! Very few writers are hermits. There are a few, but usually that’s caused by living too close to a whole art life, a whole literary life, a scene. Not out of too little. I can speak a lot out of my own experience because I began writing when I had a family and wasn’t an opera singer, and I did write in isolation for a long time. And I know that the pressure grew and grew to find other people with whom to share work. I mean, it’s not enough to share work on the page. There’s something about work in progress—work that isn’t fully made yet. It needs other eyes.
Dialog: Would you say this is true of most writers?
Macdonald: Oh absolutely! Many established writers have other people with whom they share work. And beginning writers need mentors. There have to be generations in art. There have to be grandparents and parents and adolescents and kids. That happens naturally in a place where there’s a rich artistic life, like New York. You have all of that generational structure naturally built in. But that wasn’t true here. And I do feel that the writing program is responsible for the fact that there are at least two generations of writers here now and a third coming along. Of course, the city has progressed in many ways artistically over the ten, twelve years that I’ve known it. And I don’t want to be megalomaniacal and say that it’s the writing program alone. If there weren’t a more hospitable art climate in the city as a whole, I don’t think it could have happened the way it has. It was the right time for something like that. I mean, the fact that they’ve given a part of the hotel tax to the arts. No other city does that. That’s unique. It shows a real wish to support.
Things also are much more easily possible here in the arts. If you get an idea, you have a sense here that you can probably carry it through. And that’s not as true in older cities. First of all, it’s harder to get a different idea, because a lot of things have been done. But I also think there is a sense of excitement here, and money, which makes a whole range of things possible.
Dialog: So, you would say that a writer today does not have to leave Houston in order to make it?
Macdonald: In fact, I would say that they’d be crazy to leave Houston, unless they have other reasons to leave. And also, the writing community is growing the way it should grow, which is not only by imports. I think one of the dangers of a city that’s in this stage of its artistic growth is that it sees all the things from outside as precious and to be admired, and devalues what’s in its own backyard. A few years ago, that was true here, but it isn’t true now.
Dialog: Besides teaching and administrating, you also have a great interest in psychoanalysis. In fact, we understand you are presently being trained as a psychotherapist. Can you tell us why the interest?
Macdonald: My own psychotherapy helped me to make important changes in my life. But what actually made me want to explore psychoanalysis theoretically and clinically were some observations I made while teaching. I became fascinated by the role repression and defense played in creating writing blocks. Repression meaning material that does not come out of the unconscious because it’s too painful, too difficult to deal with. And defense being the maneuvers you go through to prevent that material from becoming conscious. What I would see is something in the poem that didn’t belong or something left out. That’s no great insight, although I don’t think it’s much discussed. I think most good teachers would say, “What is this doing here?” But what I noticed, thinking about it in psychoanalytic terms, was that, when that was asked, if it was material that the person couldn’t deal with, the poem got abandoned or that whole section got put away. Or something else replaced it that didn’t quite fit. It didn’t read true. And if these threats happened too often, the person stopped writing.
Well, I became interested in knowing what you do then. What do you ask? How can you deal with this? And one of the things I came up with is that a lot of times writers will see this thing that doesn’t belong, and it’s just the same as if you came in here and there was a large, dead goat there [pointing to the floor and laughing]. You might say, “What is that?” And then you might say, “Would you like us to help you carry it out and put it in a plastic bag?” I think that rather than putting the dead goat in the plastic bag, in terms of the poem, the goat’s the most vital part of the poem. And you run a considerable risk it you tidy up too much, if all the unacceptable debris gets put in plastic bags.
Dialog: Has this insight helped you in terms of your own writing?
Macdonald: I think, like trying to be your own psychotherapist, trying to do this to yourself is very difficult. First of all, you usually can’t see it. That’s the whole point.
Dialog: Like the eye trying to look at itself?
Macdonald: Right! The writing process is a lot of fishing things out and only later stepping back and saying, “How does this work? Is this right? Is this good? How should it be changed?” If you look at the catch with a critical eye too early, you’re at risk of not being able anymore to do the fishing-out.
Dialog: Richard Howard, in his introduction to your first book of poems, Amputations, states that you got a late start as a poet. Can you elaborate?
Macdonald: A very late start. I’m a very elderly young poet. See, I won poetry prizes in school and stuff, but I really didn’t have a need to write. Talent’s fine, but if you don’t have a need to do it, writing is too hard. You have to really be impelled to keep going somehow.
I wanted to be a singer originally. And I was. An opera singer. I even won the San Francisco opera audition and sang with them. That was pretty good. But the satisfaction of singing is very different. One is a creative art; one is an interpretive art. An interpretive artist gets to do the best! Mozart, Schubert. But you’re not creating, you’re only re-creating. Anyway, one of the moves when I had very small children was to Vancouver, British Columbia, which I, in many ways, love, but I also was very isolated. It was the first time where I’d been without friends and family and so-forth, really far away, and I think that was a kind of pressure cooker for me emotionally. I suspect that that’s what makes most people start writing. It usually happens earlier, you know, first love, and then sometimes, they stop right away. Anyway, I began to write, and I really wrote quite seriously while I was singing, but with time problems. I really worked very hard as a singer, and in between was writing poems. And so, after we left Japan, I realized I had to make a choice.
Dialog: What influence has your opera training had on your writing?
Macdonald: Discipline and form, I think. A sense of form, a sense of inhabiting other people. There are a lot of different characters in my poems. There are other poets, certainly, who do that. But it’s more a fiction writer’s thing usually, to write not out of the “I” as yourself. Well, I find the “I” of myself just very limited. In spite of the fact that I think I have had a fairly interesting life. I want to go beyond that, and maybe that’s why some of the inhabiting of other lives.
Dialog: Going back to Howard, in his introduction he also states that you draw your poetry “from the grotesque.” Is this an accurate description of your poetry?
Macdonald: Well, I think in fact he points out that grotesque comes from the grotto, and that the grotto is, if you want, the hidden part of everybody. And yes, of course, all writing comes from the grotto, whether it comes out as overtly odd or very conventional. So I would agree with that definition. I would say I am interested in strange things that happen, because they seem like a sharpened metaphor of what happens all the time.
Recently, I’ve been wondering why I’m so interested in performance. Not so much, I think, because I was a performer, but because performance is the moment where you have to do that thing or there’s not another chance. I mean, imagine if you’re a ballet dancer, and you fall. The audience can not see that ballet the same way. Perhaps, they, too, are thrown off balance. I love being a writer partly because you get a chance to do it over and over again until you think you’ve gotten it right. Nobody is watching you while you do your versions. But as I said, I am interested in performance. Not just performing artists, but everyone’s performance. What about the time when you say the wrong thing? Just like falling. It’s never erased from the other person’s mind, and you know it. I’m interested in those moments.
Dialog: Do you mean to say that you’re interested in that moment when the performance fails?
Macdonald: I’m interested in the fact that you go through life trying to avoid that, and that provides a kind of tension. I have a poem about a tightrope walker, and I really do see both writing poems and living life as a tightrope walk. Unless the rope has just the right pull on it, it’s going to be slack, and it’ll wobble, and you’ll fall off. And unless you know how to do it, you’re always sort of hanging by one hand, holding your parasol in the other. [laughing] I think life is very exciting and dangerous, I suppose.
But when you say, “Are you interested in the moment where the performance fails?” I think, well, no, I’m equally interested in the moment where it succeeds, where the performance goes perfectly; where, instead of saying the wrong thing, it all works, and we can believe for a moment that life will go on happily ever after. Even though we know it won’t.
Dialog: In your poem, “The Platform Builder,” you say, “like owners who correct/In every house they build the faults of the last one; the flaws are not/The same, but there are flaws.” Do you feel this way about your poetry?
Macdonald: [laughing] Annnd how! That’s a very early poem, but I think, yes, indeed, I do feel that way! I really do.
Dialog: You’re never satisfied with your poems?
Macdonald: Sometimes I’m pretty satisfied, for a moment. But it changes. Some poems seem to be very wonderful, and then they don’t seem so wonderful. And others you like at different periods. But, over time, certain of my poems do hold up for me. And I guess I think they’re pretty fully realized. But then there are still things that might not be just right. It’s not the individual poem so much where there are flaws, though there certainly are those. It’s about what you see, a kind of vision of what you want to do, the marvel that you wish you could make, that you never quite manage.
Dialog: The ideal, in other words?
Macdonald: Yes, and I can’t even say what it is, if you’re asking, well, what is it? It’s a whole range of different levels. I think sometimes of poetry as being panes of glass, or, did you ever see those multilevel tic-tac-toe games you can play, not only flat but you can play this way and this way? [demonstrating] Well, I see that and I would like to have all those layers of transparency so it’s so clear that everyone understands it. And yet, so complicated that it can never be understood completely. Well, I mean, come on! [laughing] That’s beyond my doing. Will always be beyond my doing, but I’m always trying to do it.
Dialog: A great many of your poems, especially in your latest book, (W)holes, deal with dwarfs, hunchbacks, and so on. Why this fascination with abnormality?
Macdonald: I guess you’re asking the question, why do writers write what they write? Why do you choose the things you choose? I’ll speculate, but it is speculation. I don’t know the answer to that, and, as I said, I don’t think most writers know the answer. Perhaps it’s because I’m not interested in writing about the subjects that are easily encompassed. What we can see and notice everyday; maybe that’s not what we need to write about. It’s the things that we turn away from, the complications, the confusions, the ambivalences, that I most want to explore. I mean, one reason freaks have interested me is that I think we’re fascinated with them. And at the same time, we also feel afraid, repelled, worried, concerned. All kinds of things. Our own fascination and our own fear of what’s freakish in us.
There’s a line in one of my poems that says “the freak wears on the outside what we conceal.” And to me, that idea is very compelling, though the line itself is only interesting in that poem. And when you say, oh, look how beautiful! It’s so green outside the window! I love that. I could write a poem about that. But somehow, it wouldn’t be enough. Should I try and define for you again how beautiful it is when you already know, and you’re happy to look at it, and I’m happy to look at it? Though I really do believe that there are poems of joyfulness and affirmation, and sometimes I write one. But usually it fails. [smiling ruefully] I’m very lucky. I not only love both my children, but I also like them a lot. I’ve tried over and over to write poems that would be an affirmation of that. I’ve never had a good one; they’re terrible! Well, some people can. There are wonderful poems that people have managed to write without being soppy, sentimental, all the things that mine always are. That is a failure, apropos of building platforms and wonderful visions that don’t get built.
Dialog: Transplants, your second book, overall seems a lighter book than both Amputations and (W)holes. Colors and glass seem to permeate the book.
Macdonald: I don’t know if I would say it’s lighter. I think things are kept less at arms length. Therefore, more color comes through. In my poem, “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary,” a woman juggler has been buried in a tank of snow up to her neck: “Using only / Her forearms and hands, she circled silver bells / To the arched sky She felt them changing. / Color flowed through her fingers like blood / Returning after freezing.” In this poem, a return of feeling and color are directly allied.
Another way of putting it would be to say I believe the more you can experience the full range of your feelings without cutting off any part of them, the more you’re apt to have a magnificent panoply of stuff to choose from when you want to transform those feelings into work.
Dialog: Moving away from your own work for a moment, what do you see happening in American poetry today?
Macdonald: It’s an interesting time in poetry because we’ve reached a point where a great many people are accomplished poets. They are able to write very good poems, poems I like, poems I admire, but poems I forget. It’s like seeing a beautiful white water lily and enjoying it’s perfection. You won’t remember it unless there’s something more, a context that makes you remember.
Perhaps the lily floated in a glass bowl that was inherited from your grandmother whose skin was as pale and translucent as the lily’s. Perhaps grandmother’s bowl with the lily is in the middle of the table at which two lovers sit fighting or blissfully planning to go to visit Monet’s garden at Giverney together. And perhaps as they plan, the Ku Klux Klan has arranged to burn the synagogue where the parents of one of the lovers were married. And perhaps it isn’t a real lily at all but is one made of ivory. And a string quartet is playing Lili Marlene as the lovers fox-trot.
I guess it’s all a reverse version of “For want of the nail, the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost. . . .” And I’m most interested by the longer, more encompassing poems than I am by the ones that are about the lily alone, or even the lily and the grandmother. We can enjoy the golden perfection we get at a time when so many can do something so well. But then it all becomes too gleaming, too rigid, and, like Midas, we have to go to the river and wash and, once again, suffer a time when we’re not sure how to do what we want to do. That’s where we poets are now—about to undo what we’ve learned to do too well and, after we’ve washed in the river, to set off into a dark wood.
Dialog: Coming back to your own writing, one final question. What influence, if any, has Houston, or Texas, has on your work?
Macdonald: I don’t think I know the answer to that. I think in ten years I can probably answer the question. I have had Houston as a part of the landscape in my poems for quite a while, because of that time I lived here in ’72, ’73. But they are referenced to Houston. I mean, the fact that there’s a poem set in the Meyerland barbershop; it could be another barbershop. That isn’t crucial. Then, there are poems like “Two Brothers in a Field of Absence,” which I know are set in Texas but where a reader probably wouldn’t know that. Of course, some poems, like “The Kilgore Rangerette Whose Life Was Ruined,” is obviously a poem about Texas, in which place is crucial.
I might add that one of my great prides is that I think I have been banned from Kilgore Junior College. I’ve never tried to go there, but somebody called up and tried to get a photograph of the rangerettes to put with the poem in a newspaper and they refused. They said, “What’s it for?” and when the paper said, “A poem,” they said, “Oh, we know about her! And we will not send you a photograph!” I thought that was a modest accolade, for a poet to be banned in Kilgore.
This interview originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.