A Conversation With Cynthia Macdonald
THIS NEXT YEAR, Knopf will bring out Cynthia Macdonald’s Living Wills: New and Selected Poems, presenting work from her previous four books, Amputations (1972), Transplants (1976), (W)holes (1980), and Alternate Means of Transport (1986). It will indeed be an opportunity to see together the work that has brought Macdonald recognition as not only one of the most prominent poets of our time, but also one of its most distinctive voices. The recipient of three NEA grants (two for poetry and one for a libretto), a Guggenheim fellowship, and an award from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Cynthia Macdonald has also been an opera singer, the founder of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston (where she still teaches), a graduate of the Houston-Galveston Psychoanalytic Institute, and a current practitioner specializing in writer’s blocks.
To describe Cynthia Macdonald’s poetry is especially complicated because it seems she is constantly exploring what shape a poem can take. From the mosaic of voices in her early poems “The Stained Glass Woman” and “The Stained Glass Man,” via the multilayered collage of the long-poem “Burying the Babies” in (W)holes, to the ambitious title sequence of Alternate Means of Transport, Cynthia Macdonald has shown us a poetry that goes beyond an isolated lyric into a multidimensional narrative of a world that is by turns fascinating and disturbing, a world combining the front pages of our newspapers with the fairy tales of our childhood. It is indeed her ability to recapture the pre-bowdlerized intensity of our childhood myths — and to isolate the psychologically charged myths of our grown-up world — that makes her such a passionate explorer, an engaged witness, to the meanderings of text, image, person and culture.
The following conversation took place in Wooster, Ohio, on March 30, 1990.
Daniel Bourne: How has your experience in so many contexts — opera singer, psychoanalyst, mother — affected your concept of what a poem’s boundaries are?
Cynthia Macdonald: Well, I think that’s one of those difficult-to-answer questions. You make up the answer when you’re asked it; you didn’t think about it when you were doing it. For instance, I find that T.S. Eliot’s essays on his own poetry sound wonderful, but are very intimidating. It sounds as if he knew what he was doing when he was doing it — which I don’t believe. So what I’m going to say is really an after-the-creation answer.
From singing opera and lieder — art songs — I got the sense of inhabiting different dramas, being another character. I also got something about what the music does in those venues emotionally. Music is so connected to emotion, and I try to get that emotional connection into a poem, where you have only words. Here, I don’t mean music in the sense of, “Oh, how lovely and lyrically musical it is,” as when we say, “this is musical sound” in relation to Dylan Thomas or many other poets. All poets have their own music or they can’t be poets, So I don’t mean it in that sense; I’m referring to what the music does emotionally and trying to have the poem do that.
And then you asked about being a mother — oh, that’s even harder. I don’t know! That’s like asking how being yourself has affected your poetry. I mean, my children are such a — well, I hope they’re a quite separated part of me now that they’re both adults — but they are nevertheless so central to the matrix of myself That sounds pretentious-what I mean is if they are thriving I feel happy and the expensive, delicate ship of motherhood sails calmly on with no sense that either of the children’s wax wings are melting. But when one of them is in some kind of trouble it’s like having a glass splinter in your foot as you walk — hard to locate and painful. I think some of that element is in poems like “The Mother of the Sun,” “Departure,” and a poem that will be in Living Wills, currently titled “The Daughter and the Psychopath,” but I’m changing the title. The poem begins “This is a cat and this is a cataract.” I’m unhappy that my poems about Scott and Jennifer are pervaded by anxiety. I admire, for example, Sharon Olds’ poems of love and tenderness in relation to her children. I have yet to get those feelings successfully into a poem, though I have them so strongly, maybe too strongly. I’ll continue to try to write those poems.
And what was the third aspect of your question? Oh, psychoanalyst. Well, that’s really a fascinating question. I had an early analysis myself in the days when there was no such thing as therapy, where you went once a week or something. You were either there five times a week on the couch, or if you were really crazy, you were institutionalized. Though I think my first analyst wasn’t very good, I believe the process involved me in the mysteries of what we know about ourselves and what we don’t, and what suddenly emerges. To me, that’s one of the most fascinating moments, when something emerges that you just didn’t know you saw that way or felt that way about. So that that’s how I think psychoanalysis in terms of being a patient relates to my writing. In terms of being a psychoanalyst, of course, this fascination continues, as you listen to patients, but it’s also different — because it’s not you making the discovery. It’s not like inhabiting a character in opera; it’s becoming a witness to somebody else’s life. I don’t know what other professions would enable you to do that. That’s not why I went into it — it sounds voyeuristic. I don’t feel that way at all, but I do think that you become so touched by what happens in that process, so aware of how people struggle to repair the damages of the past and go on to something that would be better. I can’t say specifically how that affects my poems, but writing, singing, mothering and psychoanalyzing all have to do with making.
DB: We’ve been talking in the poetry class about how your poems seem to be sparked as much from your reading life as your life off the page. Do you feel this way?
Macdonald: Yes, I do. I mean, how much isolated experience can any one person have? Reading gives us experience that’s diverse, abundant, and proliferates in such different ways, either amplifying the ‘lived’ life or diverging from it.
DB: Do you remember, with any specific poem, there being some sort of explosion between something that you had read, and something going on in your personal life? I mean, you just thought, “Wow, this is a poem here.”
Macdonald: Well, I guess it happens a lot. I’m trying to think of a specific moment. I think you read in a lot of different ways. Sometimes your personal life is like a magnet that pulls certain things out of the reading, which aren’t necessarily what you would have as an intellectual response to the work, but which do trigger that kind of thing-that there’s a poem here. There’s an anthology called A Map — is this right? I think I’m inventing it — A Map of Misreading. That sounds like Harold Bloom and The Anxiety of Influence. But maybe it is that; maybe I’ve put two things together: I think that often you misread, as Bloom says, at such moments. That something is close and suddenly you find that you haven’t read what was there but something that relates to you.
DB: How did the sequence of Alternate Means of Transport begin?
Macdonald: It began with a dream that’s described in the first poem, of people chasing hats that were blown in the air.
DB: So you actually had a dream of that scene.
Macdonald: I did. I won’t say though the dream has in it everything that the poem has; in fact, when we wake I think we often rewrite our dreams, because we’re trying to make sense out of some very vivid images and we link them in ways that often the dream itself may not have done. Poets are able to pick the links in a more conscious fashion, going back and forth between the unconscious dream materials and those available consciously. In that first poem the sense of scale, that the lawn is on the head of a pin, connects to the question, “how many angels can stand on the head of a pin?” and thus to hats as halos, which will enter in subsequent poems. There was no man with a butterfly net in the dream, no butterflies, who are fallen angels in orange and black, and so on. But, of course, to imply that all the new material is consciously arrived at, is false. The interplay is impossible for me to describe accurately. Only the poems can do that. So the poem elaborates much more than the dream. But you see the question is: why did that dream trigger a poem? It was so vivid and so visual, so pleasing really. I hope the first poem gives a feeling of that pleasure.
DB: So what happened then after you wrote the first poem? How did it turn into a sequence?
Macdonald: Well, I finished it, and I thought, “Oh, this is quite nice, but what is it all about? What is it there for?” That’s one way psychoanalysis and my poetry relate. They’re both detective stories, in a way, detective professions. You’re always sent looking and saying, Oh, that’s interesting. What is it? What does that mean? Why did it come that way, why did it emerge that way from the dream or from wherever. But when you write, I think it’s hard often to know why you start any poem. It’s a combination of thoughts and feelings, but those things get-and this is instantaneous; it happens faster than what I’ve just said — those things all come together in precise words. Usually images, and, of course, when I say “images,” I don’t just mean visual images, I mean sensory material of any kind, come together in a couple of lines, which may or may not end up as the actual beginning of the poem, but which start it off, and then you say, well, where am I going?
I always have a feeling of following along. When I was a child, sometimes at birthday parties there was something called a string hunt. The mother of the birthday child would tie a little present to a ball of string and then the string would be wound all over the house, up and down, under chairs, over this, around that. Each child had a string which they followed to their present. Now, the present is the poem. That’s what it’s like. I mean, I don’t want to sound as if I’m a medium, you know, where there’s a voice coming from heaven or from after death and I’m just sitting there transcribing it, sort of à la James Merrill, the ouija board and the amazing voices. We know he doesn’t do that either. Writing isn’t a passive process, but it is often a mysterious one.
DB: And so one poem followed another.
Macdonald: Well, they didn’t follow in order. It was like bits and pieces of puzzling. You see, when I looked at the first poem and figured out one meaning of the hat was that they were halos, I thought, “What’s that about?” Obviously halos are sort of an obsolete image these days, and I think the original dream, the vision as I’ve tried to present it, where I say it’s like Brueghel on the green and like Bournonville the Danish choreographer on the green, these are images passed to us from a time of angels, when there were angels in paintings and in life, and then I tried to follow that along, and it brought up, I suppose, the division between the heavenly, the sacred, and the profane, as we call it, or the daily. For example, there’s the poem, “The Church,” about the musician with his wonderful music, but then there’s his room he goes home to, his own life where the slop basin is his hat, and I began to feel there was a world there I was uncovering, and I began to try to find it all.
In prolonged work I often feel that way, particularly in the other long poem called “Burying the Babies,” which is in (W)holes, as if this uncovering is what the really engaging-marvelous in the sense of marvels-task for me is. To uncover that world — really I want to create a whole world as well as to uncover one. I mean, it’s two ways of thinking. It’s the same as the novelist who says that the character takes over, when we know that that’s all part of the author just as the world I’m discovering is all a part of me. It’s all whatever world I can conjure. And then somehow that got me into the politics of that world, it got me beyond the various characters like the skating Jew and the organist and the woman who works in the factory and the man with his butterfly net and so forth, into the world they were inhabiting and what happened there, and that’s very much our world, the world that teeters on the brink of destruction.
DB: Were you working on other poems while you were working on this cluster of poems?
Macdonald: No, not really. I won’t say that I never started another poem, because I often start poems where they start, but I was very engaged in this. You know, those long poems give you some sense of the pleasure of being a novelist where you aren’t always starting over the way we are with our short poems — well, that’s nice but it’s time for the next one — to where you actually carry around with you all the time a world that you go back to: “Oh yes… now what?”
And I have to tell you one more thing about halos. At one stage I gave Howard Moss that poem, and he said, “Oh, this is really interesting, but the hats change all the time, what they represent changes all the time.” And I said, “That’s right.” We talked about it some more and I told him about the halos and he said, “Oh, I didn’t get that they were halos,” and I was really upset. It’s one thing if someone, who just casually picks up a poem and reads it as if it’s Time magazine, says, “I didn’t get it.” But when you have somebody who really is a good reader of poetry and they don’t get something! Then he said you need a good quote at the beginning to make that clear so he invented the quote about Panama hats and halos for me.
DB: Walter Benjamin used to keep enormous files of quotations from diverse sources. I was wondering if you ever do any specific research for a quote that might fit the poem you’re working on.
Macdonald: I both collect clippings and do research. I never have understood why it’s expected that many fiction writers will do research and that, somehow, poets shouldn’t need to. For example, in the sequence we’re talking about I use a quote from Chaos by James Gleick, which was then only an article in the New York Times Magazine, and I happened to read it at that time. That wasn’t research. I read it and had it. But as I got to thinking about the various threats to our world, I wanted something else that had to do with war and chaos, and I wandered the stacks of the Rice Library looking in various places, reading very obscure kinds of books, until I found what I wanted.
When I started to write “Burying the Babies,” I had a whole shelf of books that I had been putting aside — I didn’t know what for, I just had them — and that poem began and reached sort of its end over a relatively short time span, about six weeks. Then I spent six more months on it. But during those first six weeks, I used a lot of quotes from books I had gathered, not knowing why, which had been sitting on a shelf, mostly together, long before the poem’s inception. The Bunraku puppet theater of Japan was there, “What Every Woman of 45 Ought to Know” was there — which I almost called the book that became (W)holes, but when I asked people how they liked the title, they all said, “Oh, I love it!” But then they were disappointed when they heard what the book was to be about, because they all had their own questions about what every woman of 45 ought to know, and thought the poems were going to give them answers to those.
DB: So here is another case of reading being misreading. They were reading something out of that possible title that really had nothing to do with what you were going to do with it.
Macdonald: Well, yes, that particular book is a sort of Victorian advice to women, some of which is very funny when quoted, and I was thinking that’s how it was going to be in the book. But I guess the title became sort of like a Rorschach test.
DB: Going back to the matter of resurrecting the halos, trying to make them live today just as they did in a past context: Benjamin already in the Twenties was talking about how the past cannot be transmitted anymore, only cited. I’m wondering if you feel like this fragmentation of experience is going on, and have you been exploring it in your poems, as in “Burying the Babies”?
Macdonald: Well, I think a fragmentation of experience is definitely going on, and that a lot of current work has dealt with it, starting more with the visual arts, before writing. The collage, the bits-and-pieces collage, is always of fragmented materials, materials that come from different places. My former colleague Donald Barthelme’s work uses the collage method a great deal. And I think I came to this sense of the collage not out of literary influence — though one can never say that; who knows what you’ve read that influences you? — but simply out of an attempt to deal with fragmentation, probably my own feelings of fragmentation and the feelings of a society that is now fragmenting even more, though I think that societies have always fragmented as they change. There’s a time of everything being together, coming together and seeming as if it’s a whole, as if it’s a pane of glass, and then the need to break that to get into the next thing. I think it’s always happened, but it happens so fast now, where we suddenly say “Oh, let’s get nostalgic… well, we did the Fifties already, what can we do? Oh! We’re going to do the Sixties.” I mean, the Sixties! That’s only twenty, thirty years ago.
Yes, we have this very fast fragmentation, but still I don’t agree with Benjamin about the fact that the past can’t be used, or transmitted. It’s a part of us. Wherever our different pasts start — and I don’t mean our past childhood, obviously we all had different childhoods — we are linked to this past, and we do transmit it. How can we not transmit the past? What do we do with, in my case, Mozart or Chaucer? Those are a part of me, they’re so much in me, that how can I help but be transmitting them just the same as I’m transmitting the Disney cartoon Snow White, which I saw as a child, and the memory of Jean Roach my best friend crying, and how proud I was that I didn’t cry, that I was grown up enough at eleven not to cry, because the witch was scaring me. All those things come together. So each of us transmits whatever makes us up and it certainly is a lot the past.
DB: From what I can tell, Benjamin is referring to a matter of degree, that no longer are we able to pass on wholes, only fragments.
Macdonald: Absolutely. That’s right. In that sense it’s totally fragmented.
DB: And for instance with the Mozart, I find it absolutely staggering that right now rather than having a vertical movement of history we’re having a horizontal movement, that so many people have heard of, for instance, Michael Jackson, that if you look at sheer numbers, it’s almost like he has more of an audience than Mozart does.
Macdonald: Oh, no doubt. It’s not “almost.” And I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it. But I don’t know that this hasn’t always been true. I think higher art has always had a limited audience. Even though, for instance, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was for a popular audience, those were much smaller societies and therefore more people knew about what was going on in Prague or in Vienna or wherever than we do now. I think that it’s very romantic to think that in the old days, everybody knew Mozart, that the peasants in the field were all humming away. I doubt it.
DB: Going back to Howard Moss’s not getting that one element of your poem makes me feel a little bit more comfortable asking this next question. Reading some passages in your poems, I feel myself having to suspend my command of what is going on. Do you want to push your work beyond interpretation at times, or have I just not spent enough time with the poem?
Macdonald: I would never say that you haven’t spent enough time with the poem. But I can also answer that I never want to push my poems beyond interpretation. What would be the point? If something’s totally inaccessible, then what is it giving to the reader? You must have a connection. I do think that there are some things that are extremely complex and can only be conveyed in very complex ways, and there are certainly writers I read where I struggle and I don’t always understand everything they’re talking about, Lacan for example, or Derrida. There are many philosophical passages that I just don’t understand. I don’t understand John Ashbery’s poem “Three Poems.” There are passages in Ashbery that I understand as part of his way of dealing with collage and popular culture and self, but I couldn’t paraphrase them, I couldn’t tell you exactly.
I think that I understand everything that’s in my own poems, but they may be hermetic in certain ways. Perhaps they are too personal. There’s one story that pleases me. Dave Smith reviewed (W)holes, and it was a very nice review. It was a favorable review, and a very conscientious review, and a caring review. In other words, this is not an attack on the review. But in the review he said something like, “Although I read ‘Burying the Babies’ fifteen times (or however many), I still don’t think I fully understand it.” And that worried me a lot, because I feel, well, you know, Dave is a more than competent reader — maybe the poem is just too difficult.
And then Joseph Jarjab in Czechoslovakia wrote asking if he could translate “Burying the Babies”, and I was thrilled, but incredulous, because it’s by far the most difficult task that I could imagine. It has so much of the use of multiple meanings of words — sometimes also referred to disparagingly as puns — and how can you ever get those into a foreign language? But that was his problem, not mine. I was very pleased and I wrote and said yes. When I went to Prague for USIS/USIA (United States Information Service/United States Information Agency), Jarjab came from outside the city to go over the translation with me, and we sat at the Cultural Attaché’s dining room table together, and when I heard the questions that he was asking me, I knew that he had understood the poem. It was totally clear. And so that made me feel very happy and made me say, well, here’s somebody who lives in another country — of course his English is fluent or he wouldn’t be translating a poem from English into Czech — but who lives in another country, another culture, who obviously did really understand what this poem means and how it works. At least one person knows.
DB: In dealing with the passages that remained difficult for me, I had a couple of possibilities in mind. One, either you were testing what you could get away with in terms of demanding that the reader follow you, follow the way your mind works. The other possibility involves whether or not you’re after a coup in terms of trust — you’re able to achieve the result that readers like Dave Smith will trust you even though they don’t understand you.
Macdonald: Well, both possibilities are similar, because you have to earn the right to be difficult, or nobody will bother. It’s interesting when people ask, “Why do you want your books to be sold? Of course you want people to read your work, but isn’t it just as good if they read it from the library?” Yes, in many ways it is just as good, but one of the things that you want is to be able to keep on publishing, which in this country does really relate now to how many books you sell and how well known you are. If somebody would give me — I know I’m not answering your question — but if somebody would give me a contract, a publisher, and say we’re going to publish all the rest of your books, the way they used to for people when they got to a certain point, I would probably heave a sigh of relief and pay less attention to what was happening in the commercial arena of art.
But the other thing — a much more central issue, and one which goes back to your question — is that as you are known, and as you are recognized, you do have the freedom to say, I can be difficult if I need to be. And I’m not sure I’ve reached that point. I think lots of people may throw up their hands and just skip those poems. I’m leaving “Burying the Babies” out of Living Wills because the book already contains the long “hat” sequence and a new one called “At the Round Earth’s Imagin’d Corners,” and my former editor at Knopf, Alice Quinn, and my current one, Harry Ford, both of whom I respect as skilled and accomplished, said, “if the book’s too long” (and it was for a selected poems), leave out ‘Burying the Babies.’ It’s so difficult.”
DB: Then why have you been willing to talk about it at such length?
Macdonald: Because it’s the most unique work I’ve created. And, in the end, I believe it will hold up and find readers.
DB: Back in Alberta Turner’s 50 Contemporary Poets, you mentioned five close friends who comprise your audience — poet, painter, folk singer, political scientist, doctor. We’ve been talking about how difficult you are. How can you please such a diverse audience?
Macdonald: First of all, although I still know all of those people, many of them no longer see the poems. Jane Cooper and I still read each other’s poems when we get together, however. The “group of five” literally saw the poems. They were also the audience in my head.
DB: Because of what you thought they might say when they saw this or that new poem?
Macdonald: Well, yes, in a way, but I don’t know. It’s very complicated because it isn’t just, oh, so-and-so won’t like that. It’s more. They know what you’re doing, and therefore it’s like a dialogue, like talking to an old friend where you don’t have to start over and say, well, you see, I was divorced in this year and then this happened. It’s like they are in the world of your poetry. And that makes them more of an audience, an imaginary audience, an internalized audience, than it makes them really good critics of your work ultimately, because they get to know too much. They become more like you. They can bring so much information to a poem, that sometimes when it’s obscure, not for the right reasons but for the wrong reasons, they miss it just the way the poet misses it. I mean, obscurity for the wrong reason is what you and I certainly often see with beginning poets, because they think poetry should be obscure. You don’t notice it’s obscure, because you have information in your head that you haven’t put in the poem. Obscurity for the right reason is that there’s a lot of complicated stuff in this world which would be falsified by certain kinds of clarity.
DB: You mentioned that you show your work less to others now. Do you ever show your work to your colleagues at Houston, Ed Hirsch for instance?
Macdonald: Yes, I sometimes show work to Ed. In fact he was very helpful to me in this project involving the “selected” part of the new book. I wanted to put the selected poems in an order that wasn’t book by book, not chronologically, and he supported that idea and had some ideas for how to move poems around within sections There were also a few poems that he wanted included that I hadn’t put in. Also, I occasionally show poems to Richard Howard, who is at Houston one semester a year and was really my original mentor, because when I came back from Japan with poems that no one had seen, I went back to my alma mater Bennington for a summer, and Richard was there, and so he sort of, well, he liked my work and was very encouraging and from then on I showed him poems, even when I was at Sarah Lawrence. He was the one who seized my Sarah Lawrence master’s thesis and said, “Well, I’m beginning a poetry series for Braziller, how would you like to be the third book?” So he’s very much a longtime person whom I’ve shown things to. He sometimes still sees work. But in general I don’t show people poems regularly now, partly because, I think, of geography, because these people aren’t always where I now live, and because we all hate to impose on each other when we know that we’re all reading so much work.
DB: On to something else now. Many of your poems, especially in (W)holes and Alternate Means of Transport, seem to rely on our experiencing your work visually — how it looks on the page. Do you have a sense that some poetry is somewhat confined to the page, while other poems center more on the ear?
Macdonald: I’m wondering what poems you’re thinking of visually. I can think of some poems in earlier books where that was true. I remember I had a poem that begins, “Dear Doctor Franzblau, I have a problem…” She was an advice columnist for the New York Post. Each stanza comes to points in the right and left margin, and a critic wrote, “her relentless argyles moving down the page.” So I would think that was quite visual, but I’m trying to think in these last two books…
DB: I guess I sort of look at it as the mise-en-scène of your poems, that they really have a certain look on the page. For instance you have citations in “Burying the Babies” on the left-hand side. In Alternate Means you have the epigraphs, the scripted letters in the penmanship poem. Also, there’s the stained-glass man poem and the three visually very different parts to that. There really is a very strong visual richness to much of your poetry. They don’t physically look like “regular” poems.
Macdonald: Oh, I see what you mean, in that sense, yes. Well, I think that’s part of the collage, and collage is certainly visual as well as auditory. Although, say within the body of the stanza itself, all those different print types really relate to the auditory as well, because they’re an attempt to tell you who’s speaking, to differentiate voices. So I don’t know that I would separate the visual and auditory so definitively.
DB: Definitely. It’s not so much separation so much as accent. With “Burying the Babies,” what I’m reminded of are the earlier books in the world of print, the incunabula, where you have the text in the middle and then all this gloss around it, every page just swarming with stuff going on all over the place. It really was a collage, rather than now, for instance with the convention of having the text and then all the footnotes at the end. I guess I see certain of your poems as being as much a return to the older way of doing things as much as some sort of experiment.
Macdonald: Yes, I think that’s true. I have very ambivalent feelings about footnotes myself, that is I hate the way they interrupt the page; but I also hate having to go back and look at the back of the book to find “chapter this or that.” I think with both the quotes in “Burying the Babies” and the quotes in Alternate Means, they link forward and back to the stanza before and after them, and therefore they must be where they are. They are always related to something that’s going on in the body of the stanza, and there would be no way to remove them. The titles of the works quoted, those are in the margin too, and I don’t know if they could be somewhere else either. Sometimes it’s very important that you know the titles. I can’t remember the name of it, but there’s a child’s reader that’s used, and I want you to know that it’s from a child’s reader right then. I’m very much interested in the collisions of different kinds of voices and speech.
That’s why I think that the collage is also auditory. For example in “The Stained Glass Man” there’s that letter from Mary Lee Ware, and the speech used is both obsolete and terrifically class-connected. She has a very patronizing attitude towards Rudolf Blaschka, who’s the maker of those glass fruits and flowers. Also, I want her saying “he turned on his electric light.” We would never say that anymore, would we? We wouldn’t say, he turned on his electric light. What other kind of light have we got? But that was a time of gas light still. So I’m very interested in all those things that make up different eras and different kinds of speech, different classes of speech, different rhythms of speech.
DB: You brought up the matter of sound, and I wanted to talk to you about the matter of the line in poetry. For instance, in a lot of your poems you engage in an extremely long line, but I was wondering how you deal with the line in general, both as a writer and a reader? Does it tell you to do something, for instance? Like to pause or whatever?
Macdonald: Well, first of all, from when I was in seventh grade until I graduated from high school I went to a girls’ school in New York City called the Brearley School, and in that era there we learned a lot of formal poems, a lot of rhymed metrical poems. So I have that as very much a part of my tradition of poetry. And although I only occasionally write in actual forms, I think that I agree with Jonathan Holden’s idea that the measure of what a long or short line is in English is the iambic pentameter line even for people who would say, “I don’t even know what an iambic pentameter line is,” as some of our younger poets who come totally from the free verse tradition might say. But of course they’re being influenced by people who are influenced by the iambic line. I also think that if you write narrative poems-and my poems, even if they are fragmented and collage — like, usually do have a narrative — a longer line gives you the space to get the information in. A shorter line has to be a much more active line. You can afford fewer words that don’t carry any kind of weight, such as articles, conjunctions and so forth. There’s not anything very interesting about “a,” “the,” “if”, etc. If you have a short line that goes, “If it was going to be,” that’s a very boring line. But if you construct a much longer line and we find out more within the line, you can do a phrase like that. For a narrative you will need those phrases. Otherwise you sound as if you’re writing pidgin English, you know, leaving out too many articles and verbs to get that more compressed and vital kind of language.
DB: Do you find yourself ever using enjambment to liven up a passage?
Macdonald: Well, first I try not to have a boring passage I have to liven up. But, of course, we all have moments when, I suppose, we do have boring passages. But, in general, I’m very conscious of using enjambment. And I’m conscious of the question, am I always enjambing? Have I got many lines in a row where you never really pause at the end, or have I got a whole bunch of lines where I am pausing at the end of every line, the natural pause, and what is that doing emotionally in terms of the content of the poem? I wish I could say that I have lines in my head, and that the poem is totally memorized so that I go around with a sense of the line, as the absolute line, because it’s composed that way. But I don’t. I mean, I think it sounds wonderful. It’s a Galway Kinnell kind of statement, and it makes me feel that whoever says this is the real poet, the poet who walks the dirt path with those lines in his head. But I don’t have this, and so I work a lot to see what the line should be, changing it, and trying also to arrive at something regular. I’m very aware of pattern. I think poetry in its formal sense is pattern in many ways, and so if I have a seven-line stanza, and then an eight-line stanza and then a ten-line stanza and then a seven-line stanza, I will work to make those even in many cases. So that would do something else in relation to the line.
DB: In an earlier interview, you were talking about the danger of MTV, not because it wasn’t creative itself, but because it deadened the creativity of its watchers. What can poetry do to insure that it has “great readers”? Or are we doomed to whatever shift in the relationship between media and audience, to the shift in attention span, that the world around us is making?
Macdonald: I don’t think we can do anything. My grandmother and your grandmother and everybody’s grandmother or great-grandmother or grandfather, could all recite poems. They sat around the parlor — maybe not everybody did this-but really many sat around and recited poems. I had a student, Lynn Doyle (whose very fine book Living Gloves you may know). She taped her great aunt in a rest home, and the ninety minute tape ran out while the great aunt was still reciting. Thus, I think in time of disaster, I mean, if maybe we had to do without a great deal, we would become again more self-entertainers, but I don’t really want to experience the disaster just so that we could find that out-although I suspect in the end we will. I really believe in Yeats’ feeling about it. I think “The Second Coming” is an accurate poem, not in a religious sense, but in the sense of how cycles occur.
DB: Do you have some feeling then that poetry does pay its own way?
Macdonald: Well, I think poetry does help keep the language alive. Even if it’s not read by everybody, the sense of language in its highest form makes other language different. And as that’s how we communicate everything I think it’s incredibly important. That’s how we are able to share what we understand about our world and who we are and what we want to tell other people. The quality of our language is very important. That’s the most boring statement I’ve ever made. It should be said wonderfully. It’s true, but it should be said in a better way.
DB: I remember your appearance at a high school poetry festival at Western Illinois University. It seemed to matter to you that you connected with those students. You made poetry alive, full of energy. And it seems you were concerned with reaching them, although perhaps it’s not a concern you go around scratching your head about.
Macdonald: Yes, of course. I want very much to connect with the person I’m speaking to. But, see, I don’t think language has to be debased to connect. I think that you can say things wonderfully and people respond to them. I’m not terribly good at saying things wonderfully as I speak, but I think there are people who speak richly, and who touch other people, not necessarily the intelligentsia, but other people, period. I wish we had more such speakers. I think of Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches as compared to the political speeches we have now, compared to “a thousand points of light” — and actually, that wasn’t so bad except that we know that the speaker of the words didn’t have anything to do with them. When we hear George Bush speak, we’re not listening to him but to his speechwriters. In any case, I don’t think we have the feeling we’re hearing language that is going to move us into being the best we can be.
DB: To keep us warm in times of trouble. Getting back to this matter of possibly debasing language, William Carlos Williams brought up his desire to write like normal Americans talked, and it’s really ironic that at this same time “normal” Americans grew even more estranged from poetry. What should we do then? Should we continue to — I don’t want this to sound too negative — to “talk down” as a lot of I guess street poets seem to have in mind? What is the way to go about it?
Macdonald: Well, I wish I knew. After all, that statement of Williams’ grew out of the time at the end of the Victorian Era, out of a very elaborate kind of rhetorical poetry, and before this the Romantics with their very excessive and particular vision. So I don’t think Williams was talking about using plain speech in response to Eliot, for example, who certainly would be considered somebody who did use everyday speech in his collages. I mean, “The Waste Land” is a collage. But I am talking about that earlier poetry that certainly was the poetry of Williams’ growing-up time, Longfellow and Tennyson and Kipling. (By the way, I’ve had in the last three weeks two men who were sort of attacking me-they knew I was a poet — and at the same time they were trying to connect with me by saying, “Well, the only good poet is Kipling.” I mean, this is now, today. And then each of them, one was in Tulsa and one in Houston, added, “Oh, and Robert Service.”) So coming out of that tradition, the wish to have everyday speech was very powerful in, as you say, Williams.
What to do about it? Well, I don’t know. Interestingly, I think advertising has debased poetry — the best advertising, the advertising that really makes people remember something. Ad slogans are widely known, but poems aren’t. I don’t know. I really don’t know. We have to imagine a different society to imagine that. But in the meantime nothing is going to happen. I wish I were more optimistic — and I think I am actually an optimistic person in certain ways — but in the long run, I wish that I felt that we could change ourselves, because we need to without their having to be a disaster. But that’s never happened, this way of sweeping away all the old stuff, and getting on to a vision of a different and better way of being. And, when it has happened — I don’t think I should get into all that. I was going to get into Communism as a sweeping away movement with so much hope and so much idealism, and look at the bad art it produced. There’s no way to get to what you hoped you would get.
DB: Getting back to your comment about advertising and debased poetry, in this class I teach I use a Nationwide Insurance advertisement, right after we look at a few poems by James Wright, to sort of show how the strategies in the ad really go back to poetry. I’m almost positive that the people who composed that ad had a lot of exposure to American poetry.
Macdonald: Well, you don’t think that most ad writers are the people who plan to go into corporate life, do you? They are people who had terrific educations, who are very well — versed. And we know that some of them became poets like James Dickey, who was a very good poet before he was ruined, not by advertising, but by Deliverance.
DB: Robert Phillips.
Macdonald: Robert Phillips, who is still in advertising, and writing far from debased fiction and poetry.
DB: Let’s switch subjects here a bit, though there is still some connection with writing and the surrounding culture. In the interval since you founded the creative writing program at Houston, how would you say that poetry in the workshop, the university, has changed?
Macdonald: Well, first I would say that there’s much more willingness to allow formal elements to be experimented with and used. Now, I do not mean what has been dubbed the “New Formalism,” simply because that’s a term which has so recently been used pejoratively by Ira Sadoff in APR and others to talk about some poets whose work they don’t like, so they can say it has no social content and so forth. What I mean is that when I first started teaching forms classes to graduate students at Johns Hopkins, which was in about 1975, these students had to take these classes and were really reluctant. They didn’t want to at all, and now students come eagerly to forms classes, if apprehensively. The ones who haven’t tried form yet really are quite apprehensive, but usually most of them like it a lot — and who knows? Some of them will never write many formal poems, but then again, you can’t throw away what you never had. So now they have something that informs their free verse in a different way. That’s a really big change, I think.
Also, the standard lyric was much more prevalent when I began teaching and now there’s much more willingness to do more narrative kinds of things. I think poetry’s actually at a very interesting time right now. This myth that’s promulgated that the poems that come out of writing programs are all alike is just that — it’s bullshit. I mean, in our writing program at Houston, for example, we have Adam Zagajewski, Richard Howard, Ed Hirsch, and me, as our regular quartet. I don’t think that you could say we’re very much alike as poets, and I don’t think that our students write at all alike. They’re very diverse. So if there’s a lot of floundering around now, it’s because poetry really is reflecting the society. It doesn’t know what it is, it doesn’t know where it’s going. And I think it means this is an interesting time. It’s part of that same cycle of perfecting and breaking apart. I think that when I began teaching there was very much a sense that we were in a very perfected time, that James Wright would be an example of poetry that people knew how to write. And now they’re…
DB: Scratching their heads.
Macdonald: Yeah, they’re really scratching their heads. They’re trying lots of different things, and out of that will come whatever we’re next going to recognize as perfection.
DB: Recently I encountered in a book review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the old charge about writers at the university being detached. The article was written by their book editor, and she complained that there are no corporate women in fiction. Everyone instead is writing about someone who works at a 7-Eleven or something, that there are no positive role models. But I happened to look at some figures the other day that show the median income for a single woman in this society is ten thousand dollars.
Macdonald: A woman is more likely working in a 7-Eleven than in a corporate sphere.
DB: But, then again, writers at the university still get all these charges with the fact that we’re detached, when actually we’re not following the popular vision, the comforting vision. How do you personally handle that sort of attack?
Macdonald: I don’t think writers in universities are detached. Where do we live? Maybe at the Institute for Advanced Studies you’re detached, I really don’t know, but most of us live the lives that everybody else lives, in terms of our ordinary pursuits of how we should raise our children or “Shall we stay married” or is there somebody we can love or somebody who loves us or where are we going to do our shopping now that Safeway has become Apple Tree and we don’t like it anymore or what car are we going to buy. I don’t think academe protects us from that. We are not like Oxford dons living at a place where we all go eat our meals with port afterwards. We represent, I think, a very lived life. Of course it’s not everybody’s life, but neither is the life of the person who works in the 7-Eleven or Malcolm Forbes’ life.
DB: Well, this book editor also made the comment in this same article that it takes about a year to write a novel and about a half a year to get it published, so why can’t writers get with it and be less old-fashioned and show these women at the top of the corporate ladder like in the movies.
Macdonald: Well, I think that this book editor is not somebody that we should continue to honor by quoting since she doesn’t know much about writers or writing. But that’s always been a charge, that we live in the Ivory Tower. And it’s true to some extent. Probably if I were an airplane pilot the plane would crash. I am too absentminded. You could say that different professions call for different skills.
DB: What about your own poetry in regards to writing programs? Do you feel coming later to writing and to these programs — the fact that you formulated a lot of your aesthetic beforehand — has changed your verse in any significant way?
Macdonald: Oh, it’s of course hard to know. It’s the road not taken. But I think that most people who go straight through, who finish high school, and then college, and then straight into a graduate program, whatever their field, have missed certain parts of life. Maybe that’s where the Ivory Tower really comes from. I’m not talking so much about the ones who then end up being doctors and lawyers and engineers or something in that outside world, but those who then continue their profession into academia directly and who have never been outside it.
But even there it’s hard to generalize. I think I’ve had a very interestingly chaotic life in many ways, which has not only to do with the fact that I came to writing poetry quite late, but also with working seriously in several fields while having a family, and while moving all the time, which I did both as a child and as an adult. I think that that provides one specific kind of life, and yes, I do think it’s different, although I was desperate to find other writers in the first years I was writing. When I began writing, in Vancouver, British Columbia, I was also continuing to sing, and the writing took awhile. I went to graduate school to find other people to share writing with. And that’s probably why I’m a passionate supporter of writing programs, because I know that they give us the equivalent of the Paris sidewalk cafe. If you can find it outside of a writing program, that’s also fine. People who are at certain kinds of schools find that support without having any need for it to be formally imposed.
DB: So you above all see the need to have some sort of community of writers.
Macdonald: Absolutely. Which includes both mentors and peers. Oh, one more thing before we go on. The other thing I could talk about in regards to “the real world,” but don’t know how exactly, concerns being a woman in the “poetry business.” There are certainly real dilemmas for women in poetry, although we do now see women published a lot-and they no longer need to be those very specialized kinds of women, the spinsters, the lesbians, the isolates, the modeled eccentrics. But I think that from having served on various panels — on the NEA, for example, (you’re never supposed to talk about the panel, but as I’m not naming anybody, I guess I can say something) — I think that although there are equal numbers of women and men, or maybe one less woman, what I have become conscious of is that men know how to wield power in a different way, and they do it by joining, or sometimes by fighting, and women remain individuals and therefore not as powerful.
For instance, on the NEA panel, we had to write our comments on cards. So we knew, by looking at the others’ cards, what they thought. One woman abandoned her cards all the time to vote with the men, and at certain times the men abandoned their cards to vote with each other. I don’t mean every single time, but this happened often enough so that you could tell it was happening. And the women, the other women, more or less voted their own cards. Therefore they didn’t bond together, they didn’t trade, they didn’t say, “Oh, I respect you so much that I’ll vote with you even though I don’t agree with you.”
DB: That sort of goes against the common stereotype that women are willing to negotiate and to reconcile differences and so on.
Macdonald: Well, I think they are over a longer period of time, but on the NEA panel there was no real chance for prolonged negotiation. This happened on the spot, very pressured, under very constricted circumstances. Huge numbers of manuscripts, twelve hundred or so manuscripts. And the instantaneous wheeling and dealing of the men was like it was — I don’t want to use the word “instinctive,” that’s probably the wrong word — but it happened with nobody doing anything. It was all unconscious stuff. I don’t think any of the men sat and thought, “Aha, if I and so-and-so, if this and that.” No. They just did it. And the women didn’t do it. I agree women are better reconcilers, and I think they are good negotiators in a long-term kind of situation. But I don’t think they’re used to this team stuff in the same way. And God, you’re talking about a group of male poets who are not exactly the team players of all time.
DB: Completely different subject. When assembling your New and Selected Poems, were you tempted to revise any of the older ones?
Macdonald: Oh, it’s interesting. Several people have asked me that. Not really. It’s not that I feel the poems are all perfect or that I wouldn’t write them differently now. But I think Marianne Moore is the caution against revising long, long after early publication. It’s like being the editor of your own work. You’re very distant from that experience, and yes, I’m sure you can find certain awkwardness or certain omissions you can repair, but I don’t think that you can get back into that experience at the time of the poem. I think each poem has its own life during which it allows revision. Some have relatively short periods during which revision is possible and then you really can’t get into them anymore. You either throw them away, put them in the drawer, or you say, “Well, yes, I see this as a flaw.” For example, I have a poem about a man who wears a frying pan around his neck, and it ends with the worst pun, I mean one of those real ugh groaner puns. He says, “I’m sure that it will all pan out in the end.” Well, I’m not putting that poem in the upcoming selected poems because I think that the pun is just too bad. Now, I could go back and change it, I suppose. I tried to change it at the time and I couldn’t. I knew it was an outrageous pun. I guess I feel I’ll stand with what I have. The revision always goes on in the next poems anyway. You’re always revising the old poems as you try to write the new ones.
DB: Do you feel that this new assemblage of your work in Living Wills will change the reading of it?
Macdonald: Oh, I don’t know. Those are the questions that are so hard to answer, because of course, there’s a wish that people seeing the work all together will say, “how amazing!” and will…will love it passionately. But those are what I think of as Nobel Prize dreams, which I don’t have, but which many people have. I remember when Robert Penn Warren came to read at Johns Hopkins and to do a lot of things — this is maybe fifteen years ago, twelve years ago, I don’t know — and he was going so many places, and I said to a colleague, “Goodness! He’s quite old and he’s quite deaf! I wonder why he’s doing all this now?” “Oh, because he wants to win the Nobel Prize.”
I don’t have those dreams. All those dreams are destructive to work. I think they should be pushed aside as much as possible. So the wish to be loved perfectly — that’s fine — until you’re six months old and you discover you never will be loved in that manner.
DB: Could you a talk a little more about how you’re rearranging the poems, how you’re breaking down the usual grouping?
Macdonald: I’ve done it in several different ways, and the way I’m grouping is partly by emotion and intuition, so that somebody might not immediately say, “Oh yes, I see exactly why these poems are together.” The simplest way to describe it is that I’ve written a lot of poems on performers and freaks. They thread through all the books, and so it seemed that it would be interesting to put them all together. Now when I say “freaks,” I consider we all have that freak part of us, and so some of the poems aren’t going to announce themselves immediately as being about freaks or circus people or whatever, but they do link up that way.
Also, I’m not putting new poems in with all the others, although I was tempted to. Some of them would really fit well in an earlier place. But that seemed to set up a kind of hunt. Anyone who was interested in what the new work was like would have to go and find it all over the place. The “New” is actually one section that’s about the same length as each of the other five sections, and the other sections are all from the previous four or five books, if you include the chapbook, though only one poem is going to be included from that.
DB: Is this too broad a question? How has your work been changing over the years?
Macdonald: Ugh! That’s really broad. I don’t know; I suppose there are obvious changes, stages of life. Like in the studies Levinson at Yale has done with men. I mean, these medical news things are always done about men. We find out why men die of heart attacks but not why women do, and we find out what the stages of men’s lives are. Virtually all the studies that are major ones deal with men, which I think says something very important about men and women in our society, not that we didn’t know it anyway. But, anyway, Levinson has documented very interestingly the different stages of life, like Erik Erikson, and what’s interested me that I’ve only known in the last twenty years — known by my own experience — is that you can’t stop them. You may say, “But I don’t want to go into that. I don’t want that. I don’t want to leave one stage. I haven’t had enough of that one!” But you can’t help it. You go to the next one. It’s like you’re forced to.
And so I think those stages do influence content, what your concerns are. I had a lot of early deaths in my family, and I wrote about death, but when I was forty I don’t think I thought much about my death. And I don’t think much about it now, but it’s still much more of a presence in my life. And maybe even more than death, I think about dying, the process of how you get to death. Once you’re dead doesn’t seem quite the same concern. I know that’s a very simple answer. I think there are much more complicated answers having to do with what you master as you go along. You start without having used any of your material up. Everything you write is new and fresh, and you lose some of that. But what you add is that you know more about how you do it-craft, really. You know “poetry” means “maker,” and therefore, you learn how to make, just as you do in any other field, a woodcarver.
But I do think my poetry used to be much funnier. I think it’s gotten progressively less funny, witty, ironic. Also it uses personae less, although I still write persona poems. And I think I went backwards in the sense that at the time I was creating the earlier poems so many others were writing-not confessional poems, I wouldn’t say that so much-but the personal lyric. And I wasn’t writing in that way. I still don’t write the personal lyric necessarily, as I’ve already said, but I do think that I am allowing more personal poems undisguised into my work. I don’t know if that’s good or bad; it’s very hard to know that now. We’ve sort of had it with the personal lyric, haven’t we? One more poem about a grandfather? Much earlier, of course, nobody wrote such poems at all. Did Keats write about his grandfather? And then for awhile everybody did it. And now I don’t think we can get away with it, because it’s exhausted. So I may be doing a sort of personal catching up in a way that is now outmoded. But that doesn’t really matter. The situation will always go on to be something else. And I think I’ve needed to do what I’m doing.
Other than that, no, I don’t know how my work has changed. I think that’s really for someone else to say. I think that’s one of those “let somebody stand back and look at all of this—”
DB: And tell you.
Macdonald: Yeah, tell me. That’s always interesting.
DB: Just one more question. How has your contact with writers from other countries and poems from other literatures expanded your notion of the poem?
Macdonald: Well, I’ve had very little consistent contact with writers from other countries in a way — I mean, I’m talking about personal contact — in a way that influences my work. Earlier I mentioned Adam Zagajewski, whom I now have had regular contact with. But we’re so different — not because he’s Polish and a man, and I’m American and a woman — but because of where our passions are and how we approach life. Even though, since we are poets, we’re more similar than many other people in this world. But I don’t think we speak to each other quite in that way, though we do speak about poems and writing and all those things. It’s all important. I love hearing what he has to say. I do think, in terms of reading, that both Latin American poets and Eastern European poets are very important to me. Again, how they directly influence is hard for me to trace, but for example— Well, Hugh Kenner, when he called his book A Homemade World, he wasn’t thinking of this at all, but when I think of Neruda’s odes, his elemental odes, to me that is a homemade world in the most wonderful and loving way, and I would wish to have some of that in my poems, that kind of warm affection and love. And the surrealistic connections that are made by South American poets are very important to me in terms of those collage placings where different things juxtapose. It’s not true surrealism, but you get some of the same feeling.
And Eastern Europe. When I first read Charlie Simic’s work, I was amazed by it. I thought the way objects are invested is totally different from the Neruda, where you might have the same thing, Neruda’s use of socks or Simic’s use of a fork, but in the end it’s done totally differently, the way with Simic objects seem to take on direct human life, yet without being personified in a way that I would find uncomfortable. I mean, talking forks for me is Disney. I could see a chorus line of them or something. And then when I went to Yugoslavia — well, not when I went, but long before I went — when I started reading Vasko Popa in translation I realized where Simic came from, that there were many, many connections between these works, that Popa, who was much older, was Simic’s ancestor in a way, and that I would like to have the mysteriousness and clarity of that work, and also the energy and jubilation.
These are words that are too summary. It sounds as if the poems are all these great cheery things, that the Yugoslavs are all dancing around in their boots or something. No, I don’t mean it that way. I don’t think what I’ve said is well-enough defined. I’m going perhaps too quickly to give a fuller description. The poetry of Latin America and of Eastern Europe deals at times with the kind of enclosed and repressive society that we don’t have. Whatever our repressions in this society are, they are not in most of our lives in a primary way. Most of us are not afraid we’ll be jailed for speaking out or that family and friends may inform on us. “The enemy” is much more plural and amorphous. We don’t have that tightly enclosed world, which gives a kind of intensity in relation to the human spirit that I think is very hard to get in our own society. But do we want that? I mean, shall we all go to prison to get it? But yet we do want it. We want to have it without paying the price for it.
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