Thursday, January 07, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Magie Dominic

Magie Dominic, Newfoundland writer and artist, received the Langston Hughes award for poetry and studied at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Her memoir, The Queen of Peace Room, from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002, was shortlisted for the Canadian Women's Studies Award, Book of the Year Award- Autobiography with ForeWord Magazine, and the Judy Grahn Award. Her second book, Street Angel, from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, a sequel to The Queen of Peace Room, was published in 2014 and nominated for Book of the Year Award – Autobiography, with ForeWord Magazine.

She was long listed for the Vanderbilt/Exile Short Fiction Award. Her art has been shown in Toronto and New York, including an exhibition at the United Nations.

She is the recipient of five grants, is one of the founding members of the Off-Off Broadway movement of the sixties, and a member of The League of Canadian Poets.

Books co-authored include: H. M. Koutoukas Remembered by His Friends, 2010; Eco Poetry, The League of Canadian Poets, 2009; Belles Lettres/Beautiful Letters, The League of Canadian Poets, 1994.

Her writing and art archives were entered into NYU Fales Library Permanent Collection in New York. Her theater archives, The Caffe Cino/ Magie Dominic Archives, were acquired by Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in 2011. Both collections are open to the public.

1 - How did your first book change your life?
The director of Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Brian Henderson, and the people at WLUP who read my manuscript for The Queen of Peace Room, were an unbelievable source of encouragement. Their vote of confidence in my work offered me permission, in my mind, to write what was a difficult and challenging book.

Upon publication, The Queen of Peace Room went on to be nominated for three awards.

The Queen of Peace Room addresses my own experiences with incest, violence, rape, and eventually and importantly – hope and faith. I don’t think I could have written either book, The Queen of Peace Room or the recent Street Angel, without Brian’s original encouragement. So that was of paramount importance in believing in my work.

How does your most recent work compare to your previous?
Street Angel, my most recent book, is a sequel to The Queen of Peace Room. The Queen of Peace Room is very much focused on the present time; on the story of an eight day retreat in an isolated retreat house and how my life unfolded over that eight day period. It delves into the details of that week with a group of Catholic nuns, and the unexpected occurrences. How that week unfolded is what the book, The Queen of Peace Room, portrays.

On the other hand, Street Angel begins with the voice of an eleven year old Newfoundland girl in the 1950’s. We see the world through my eyes at that time, - my mother’s hallucinations and violence, sadistic nuns, and a very important respite found in the radio, Hollywood movies, and the Newfoundland wilderness. Street Angel takes the reader from the 1940’s up to today and covers nearly three quarters of a century. I did a great deal of research for the book.

How does it feel different?
I still have the same anxieties when I write. Will it be any good? Will anyone want to read it?

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I began writing poetry when I was in school. I came from what the nuns, and by extension the Catholic Church, referred to as a “mixed home”. My father was Catholic and my mother was Presbyterian. This was like living in sin and required punishment, according to the nuns. Although they needed nothing to justify punishment. We were beaten with a leather strap. That’s referenced in Street Angel.

The “good children” – those not living in sin - got their stories displayed on the bulletin board.

I’m not certain, but I may have thought that if I wrote something short, like a poem, I had a better chance of getting my work recognized. Less space on the board. I don’t remember ever being recognized, but it could have been something that simple that resulted in my starting out as a poet. I did have a poem published in the high school newspaper during my last year in school. It was a poem about death. I’m not sure what that was all about. Once I graduated I didn’t have to think about the board anymore.

My poetry was very influenced by the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and the poets and writers of that era. This was after I moved to New York. I became involved with the anti-war movement, the Off-Off Broadway movement and writing and reading in coffee houses and churches and demonstrations, etc. Long answer to a short question.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project?
Every project is different. I am motivated by deadlines, so I try to give myself a deadline to serve as a focus point if I don’t have an actual one. There are times when I have an idea and it stays that way for a long time, just an idea lurking around in my mind. It becomes more of an image, rather than words. I’m also an artist so I have that medium to work with. Sometimes what I thought would be a poem or a story ends up being a collage.

Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?
The ideas come quickly, but I can’t seem to write as fast as I think.

Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Both. There were instances in both The Queen of Peace Room and Street Angel when entire pages unfolded in one sitting. The pages simple wrote themselves, all I had to do was hold onto the pen. That doesn’t happen often, but what a gift when it does.

Then there are times when I’ll rewrite something a dozen times, over and over, and finally surrender and leave it for another time, or never.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

For me, writing is easier if it’s broken into small pieces. I write fragments at first, often a long list of phrases that are relevant to the poem or story. I don’t worry about the order. I just write the phrases as they come to me, then organize or delete. Free writing is the easiest way to get words on paper.

I wrote a long autobiographical poem in the mid 1990’s titled notes from the cover. It was first published in ARC quarterly in Ottawa. John Barton, the editor of Arc at the time, was instrumental in encouraging me to eventually transform the poem into a story. He said that I had to write the story of the poem.

notes from the cover was the most difficult piece I’d ever written. It represented more than a half century of struggles and conflicts and violence. Some were unpleasant, but a few were horrific. The poem was created from a long list of phrases. Like a list of things to do. In this case, moments to verbalize.

notes from the cover was the unexpected precursor to both The Queen of Peace Room and Street Angel. I had to write the poem before I could ever write the books. I don’t think it would ever have been the other way around. notes from the cover was the frame around both The Queen of Peace Room and Street Angel. The poem resulted from the long list of phrases. The books resulted from the poem.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy speaking in public and doing readings, but I still get a little bit nervous.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

We each carry a lifetime of memories around with us. We don’t leave the memories behind when we enter a room or walk outdoors. Memories are a part of our being, like skin and bones. That’s what Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room are about. The memories.

By telling our own stories we inspire others to do likewise. And conversely when we read or hear the stories of others we may understand ourselves a little more.

I advise writers who are tackling difficult stories to write small pieces at first, and then read excerpts to a few supportive people. The sound of your own voice reading your own words is a powerful tool.

Allen Ginsberg told me that I had to read more. He said you can’t hear the poem on paper. If you want to understand it you have to read it out loud. I try to remember that.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Well, there is the writer, and there is the writer who is also the teacher of writing and both have an important role to play. Personally I love both - the role of being a writer, and the role of being a writing teacher. I love writing workshops and the energy that can be found there.

Example – I gave a writing workshop in Toronto at a shelter for at-risk youth. There was one First Nation teen who refused to write. He wasn’t disruptive, he simply refused to participate. At the end of the session, I gave each of the teens a pen and a notebook so they could continue their writing. When I offered the pen and notebook to the boy he refused it. He said his people didn’t write stories. They spoke their stories. And he said it defiantly. I told him that I understood that, but I also knew that his people understood the importance of symbols. I told him that the pen and the paper were a gift from me, but he didn’t have to use them. They were just symbols of stories and traditions. The ice melted and he began talking to the group about his very early years, his childhood experiences and his fears. He told his story in his own way, without pen and paper. That young boy had such an impact on me, I remember it in detail. I think I had an impact on him as well. Sometimes a person just needs a symbol.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A little of both. It’s extremely important, but also frustrating when you’re trying to justify a comma or hyphen.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Three of equal importance:

Ginsberg telling me that I had to read out loud in order to fully understand my work.

Margaret Atwood in a statement she made in a 1995 lecture; “If you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography -- but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off.” That gave me the green light to write Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room and not worry about anyone’s judgement reguarding my own life as lived.

Joe Cino, one of the most creative and magical people I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and I write about him in both books, told me one time – “Don’t talk about what you’re going to do. Do it!” That’s a motivator.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?
Writing poetry and writing memoir involve two different states of mind, for me. Very often a line in a poem, or the poem itself, will transform into as essay or part of a book. The poem notes from the cover, is a perfect example of that. The poem was the unexpected foundation for both Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room.

Poetry, at times, can be freer. A poem is the story of one exquisite cloud at sunset; the memoir is the entire sky - something like that.

I like writing in both forms, but they’re very different experiences.

And to add to that I’m also a visual artist. I illustrated The Queen of Peace Room. And I did the cover art for both Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room. I do a lot of collage work and in a way collage is exactly like writing. You assemble a collection of objects, paper and bark and felt and shiny objects for example, and then assemble the pieces into an image. A few pieces won’t work so you put them aside - much the same way one would create sentences, or edit a story. All the forms are related.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Generally my day begins the night before. Before going to sleep I make a list of what I have to do the next day - work, chores, appointments, travelling from point A to point B, etc. Then I figure out how many hours that will encompass and that tells me if I’ll have anything left for writing. I try to write every day, even for an hour.

So if I want to get any writing accomplished I have to get the chores done first, which means I may have to get up early. And that doesn’t always translate into going to sleep earlier. But it’s a choice, so you can’t complain. I write something every day, even it’s a list of things to write, or a letter, or reworking a difficult paragraph.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Windows. (Not to jump). I go to a window and hopefully I’ll be able to see a patch of sky and vegetation. I find great inspiration in the sky, in the activity there. In New York City a view of the sky isn’t always a given. In fact it’s not a given at all. But that’s the first thing I turn to. If I could step outdoors and walk on a quite shoreline every day – that would be paradise. I’m trying to get back to Newfoundland once a year. I was there in August. Some of the most beautiful landscapes and shorelines in the world exist there. I can retain that energy for months.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The forest in general, and coniferous trees in particular – pine and spruce. They remind me of when I used to walk in the woods alone as a child. That’s part of the story in Street Angel – the years of walking in the woods alone and the solace I found there. At one point, because of circumstances, we lived in an unheated cabin in the woods, without running water or electricity. I had an unusual childhood.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Definitely yes, all of it to some extent. But definitely nature, every aspect. I once went on a summer retreat for two weeks. It was a retreat house on a large section of land - several acres. There’d been a terrible storm during the winter. So there were dozens of shattered trees with broken limbs and ravaged trunks. Destruction was all over the place. Some people were walking around taking pictures of flowers, but I was taking pictures of shattered trees. I saw a portrait of humanity there I guess. Everything is inspiration. Science and music. For me, it’s definitely nature, and visual art.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I like a variety of writers – Margaret Atwood, Ondaatje, Frank McCourt, Ann Marie MacDonald, and Mary Oliver. And I like reading haiku – and how a story can be contained within three lines.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn to swim. Have my own one-room cabin somewhere on a shoreline.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I came to the United States to study Interior Design. I worked in that field for a few years, then discovered theater and worked in that field for decades. I would enjoy some aspects of interior design, but I can’t see myself getting utterly stressed out to the point of illness over a throw pillow. But regardless of what I ended up doing, I’m sure I’d be writing. I began to write when I was a child. Writing is part of me. I carry it with me.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
If you mean doing something else in the arts, it may have been because writing was easy to carry around, literally, as opposed to a piano or easel. I could put paper and pens in my pocket. As far as other forms of work go, I’ve worked at other things all my life. I worked as a dresser to opera singers at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera and I worked as a dresser on Broadway and television. That job supported me for twenty five years. So in a way, I’ve done both all my life.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve just read Angela’s Ashes for the fourth or fifth time. It’s like a magnificent painting that I want to view again and again. And Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar, the story of 33 coal miners who were trapped in a Chilean mine for 69 days, and all were rescued. It’s an incredible book, and an incredible story.

I saw two great films in 2014- The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking, and the Edward Snowden documentary - Citizenfour. I actually saw Citizenfour three times. There’s a point in the documentary where things move exceedingly fast and I wanted to understand how the events unraveled.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a manuscript that covers a window of time between 1960 and 1969. It will be a sequel to both Street Angel and The Queen of Peace Room. I touch on that ten year period in both books but I want to expand on the people I saw and the stories - the violence and creativity, the enormous joys and unbelievable tragedies. The amazing people I worked with and read with, and experienced - stage managing Bette Midler and working with Bernadette Peters. Poetry readings with Peter Orlovsky and Moondog and Allen Ginsberg. Encountering Andy Warhol. Working with Tom Eyen, Sam Shepherd, Lanford Wilson, Joe Cino and an endless list of people at a small caffe theater called The Caffe Cino. The Cino shaped who I am.

Those years for me were combined with the antiwar movement, with readings and peace demonstrations, civilrights marches, and political poetry. I was an impostor for the television show, To Tell the Truth. I received the Langston Hughes Award for poetry, and I saw people die on the street from heroin overdoses. Somewhere in there I worked for Air Canada and for an interior design showroom. I also worked at the Lighthouse for the Blind and worked with blind children.

It seems like complete science-fiction – except I have documentation. Anything was possible. A man walked on the moon! I’m writing about that decade and the people I knew, what I saw, and how I lived it. That’s what I’m working on.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Magie Dominic said...

Thank you for this interview rob! It is one of my very favorites ever. Magie