Magie Dominic is a Canadian of many talents who has lived in the United States for 52 years, having been involved in theatre from the 1960s while writing poetry and essays for various journals. She recently moderated a panel of the Feminist Caucus, League of Canadian Poets, among others. Her first memoir, The Queen of Peace Room, was published in 2002 in the Life Writing Series of Wilfrid Laurier University Press, and was shortlisted for the 2003 Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction and the Canadian Women’s Studies Association 2002 Book Award. Her second memoir, Street Angel, came out this summer. I started off by asking how a young woman from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, schooled by nuns, ended up in New York City in the exciting 1960s.
Magie Dominic: I didn’t go directly to New York from Newfoundland – I probably would have died from the shock. Right after leaving highschool in 1961, I started work at a local department store in the mail order department. I also joined a community theatre group. It was the first time I’d ever been in a play; I won a best actress award in a festival. I felt completely empowered. Then I worked at the Bank of Nova Scotia until I left Newfoundland in 1962. My goal was to save enough money so I could attend art school – interior design. With the nuns, in those days, girls had four options – teacher, nurse, typist or wife. After I worked for a year, I left for The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. John F. Kennedy was shot while I was in art class – an indelible memory.
After graduation in 1964, I moved to New York, where I soon became a member of the peace movement.
“Global war, Vietnam and Biafra. It seemed the world and everything on it, was in flames. It seemed sometimes there was nowhere to go but down, and then one day without very much warning, a man walked over the moon. There was no focal point…” (2paragraphs). That was the New York I entered in 1964, that was the world three years after the nuns.
DM: Why did you choose the United States over another part of Canada or Europe?
Dominic: I knew I wanted to study, and I knew what I wanted to study, but I didn’t know where to go, so I researched my future via The Ladies Home Journal and Redbook Magazine. Both magazines had pages of ads for all types of schools. With the Internet and endless information today, it probably seems unbelievable to a young person that in 1961, when these decisions were whirling around in my mind, we turned to magazines and radio, and television until midnight when the Queen announced sign-off. One night I saw ads in Redbook for design schools in Montreal, Florida and Pittsburgh. At that time the FLQ were blowing up phone booths and mail boxes, so Montreal wasn’t an option. Florida seemed too far. So I chose Pittsburgh. If there’d been an ad for Dublin or Ottawa I may have gone there. But it was as simple as that.
DM: How did you make a living?
Dominic: My first job in Pittsburgh was in sales – at 18, I may have been the world’s youngest Avon lady. I had one of those cases with tiny samples of lipstick. I had my own Pittsburgh route and made my rounds after school. Then I got a job in the costume department of Pittsburgh Playhouse. I began by dressing the male dancers in a musical. That was a fast road from the nuns and convents – to a dressing room filled with male dancers standing around in their underwear. I sold Avon door to door in the afternoon, worked at the theatre in the evening, and gave my best Avon customers any free passes I received for a show. I would never have guessed that thirty years later I’d be a principal dresser with the Metropolitan Opera, my day job for years.
DM: You were part of the theatre group at Caffe Cino from 1965 to its closure in 1968. Do you think doing theatre affected how you wrote your poetry and your memoirs?
Dominic: The Caffe Cino was a family as well as a theatre, and represents the most important group of people and most important years of my life. Joe Cino, the owner, became my measuring stick for the word “family” for the rest of my life. The Caffe Cino was not only theatre and creativity but also safety and friendship. When the entire world seemed to be falling apart in the mid–sixties, it was a safe place to be. “Many of us who were a part of the Caffe Cino had slight defects. A broken heart, a broken past, a broken family. It’s no coincidence that we came together in the middle of a war.” (Queen p.53)
It wasn’t just theatre that affected my writing – it was specifically theatre at the Caffe Cino. The Caffe, and Joe Cino, affected my writing, my thinking, my complete outlook on life. “Every part of my being was changed.” (Queen p.53) [Read more about her roles as actor and stage manager in The Queen of Peace Room.]
DM: How did spending 52 years outside of Canada affect your work?
Dominic: I didn’t write very much during those first years, when I was at school and worked to support myself. From the years 1965 onward, the Caffe Cino, the peace movement, experimental theatre, and working in the design world, all profoundly affected my work in different ways. I was greatly influenced by the new writers, poets and artists around me in New York – people I saw daily or weekly. People breaking new ground without even realising they were breaking new ground – they were simply creating. Both the first eighteen years of my life in Newfoundland with its then archaic Catholic restrictions, and life in the U.S. thereafter, will always be a part of my work: Newfoundland, for instilling a very deep love for all parts of nature, followed by the explosive creativity of the 1960s in New York. Being in New York at the specific time that I was, the 1960s, and the specific place that I was – right in the middle of the off-off Broadway movement and the peace movement, exposed me to a culture and creativity that would have been unavailable anywhere else. That creativity was without boundaries and that freedom affected not only my work, it affected my life. It still does.
Dominic: That’s a really challenging question. I’ve tried to write fiction but I’ve discovered that I’m no good at lying. In fact I’m a complete failure at lying, and that’s the truth! I tell my students in life-writing class, “Write what you know about.” So I follow my own advice. Memoir (memory) is what I know about. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, anyone who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last a lifetime (original in Mystery and Manners). As my non-fiction gets longer and evolves into complete books, my poetry seems to get shorter, almost haiku without the restriction. I can write 3,000 words about something, or 20 words, and be satisfied with both. The poem “notes from the cover” (Arc 32 Spring1994: 27-29) is an example of that; this long autobiographical poem was the precursor to both The Queen of Peace Room and Street Angel. In the poem I wrote about the 12 years of abuse with the nuns in 11 words: “…was beaten by nuns wearing Jesus/ and sung to by others.” In The Queen of Peace Room I reference that period, but not in great detail. In Street Angel I write extensively, delving into that time period – the 1950s, the various nuns involved, examples. So, for me, I guess form and content are directly related.
DM: Does the artwork in your memoir illustrate the text or complement the text?
Dominic: The illustrations in my first memoir, The Queen of Peace Room, the images of sky, trees and stars, represent the location where it was written, where the actual Queen of Peace room itself was located – the grounds of an isolated retreat house, surrounded by mountains and fields and forest.
Street Angel does not have illustrations but the cover art depicts a very young child – in this case myself – in a school uniform. A very young student. The child on the cover is one of the voices we hear throughout the book. I wanted to provide, through the cover art, an exact picture of who owned the voice we hear in Street Angel and what that voice looked like.
DM: You mention in your OpenBookOntario interview that you were “completely naive” when you left your education with the nuns to go to art school in Pittsburg. Yet the content of your first memoir, The Queen of Peace Room, suggests you were already a survivor, an independent and experienced young woman. Street Angel also hints at your capability: “I watch because that’s what I’m accustomed to doing–watching to see if someone is watching me make a mistake. Someone waiting in ambush” (p.15). In what way do you feel you were naive?
Dominic: By naive, I mean without any reference points, without much worldly experience, if any, without knowing there was another way of being in this world besides the world I’d grown up in. I’d spent my entire life – up to that point, age 18, in an educational environment where, almost daily, education included very harsh beatings on our hands with thick leather straps. In highschool there was limited dialogue between student and nun, but for most of our school years it was forbidden and we learned in silence. We didn’t know that other schools were infinitely, exceedingly different. That was a form of naïveté. I spent my entire childhood with a mother who suffered from severe, untreated Nyctophobia. Those realities consumed me. I was always “on guard”. But children do whatever they have to do; they adapt quickly, because unlike adults, they’re without reference points.
I imagined, and read, and made collages, and walked by myself. Listened to radio. Hollywood movies. I was probably very strong. And brave. At 16 I knew I wanted to study art and design and see a world outside the one in which I was living. I took a giant leap of faith, a suitcase, and entered the world like an astronaut. I was 18 when I left Newfoundland. I knew very little except art and Latin and prayer. I just had incredible determination.
I’ve never liked the word “survivor”. To me, it indicates someone who’s escaped death. Escaped a gunshot or knife, escaped war. I believe a person can experience horrific ordeals and still be a naïf. By that I mean someone without worldly knowledge. If a person experiences incest or rape in a small town and it’s never acknowledged for all of that person’s life, and the person never leaves that small town, that violation doesn’t make the person independent or knowledgeable. It just leaves them with a terrible scar, and alive. I’m not sure we ever survive incest or rape or any despicable bodily violation in the way society uses the word “survive”. We survive dying from the event but I’m not sure we ever forget. We move on with our lives and forgive if we can, and do what we have to do.
DM: In the New York Times write–up about the items on Cafe Cino that you deposited at the library, your meticulous organization of the material is noted. Street Angel begins with a kind of time catalogue: “It’s 1956. ‘Tennessee Waltz’ on the radio in the kitchen. Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe. The Russians are sending dogs into space and the dogs have spacesuits and helmets. Ed Sullivan and the show of shows. The Honeymooners on Saturday night. Pat Boone and Nat King Cole. Food rationing has ended in England. Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan. Elvis Presley appears on TV but we’re not allowed to look at his legs. Polio shots in the school auditorium.” Only once this stage is set do you proceed to the eleven year old girl in her father’s car on her way to babysit her cousins. Even then there are lists, of what’s in the glove compartment, names of paint chips, what’s in the trunk. Is documenting the past through such details a way of controlling your past?
I’ve always counted. When I was a child in a car I counted the numbers on the licence plate of the car in front of us, right down to the final digit. If the plate was 87309 that added up to 27, which added equals 9. So the plate equaled 9. I have no idea what that was all about. I don’t think it was control, maybe a diversion or a distraction. When we were in grade two or grade three the Bishop made regular classroom visits. He taught us a math trick. If we were given three successive numbers to add, the answer was always the middle number times three. So as soon as the Bishop said, for example, 7, I knew the answer would be 24 and shouted it out. The other kids thought I was some kind of genius. But it had as much to do with logic as it had to do with math. I counted crows and all the mathematical possibilities of that rhyme – one for sorrow, two for joy, etc. During my childhood I seemed to be either praying or counting. And each, in its own way, is probably some form of diversion.
There are two types of counting according to the Magie Dominic theory of counting; there’s the mathematical practice of counting as in numbers on a licence plate; then there’s the “order of things” practice of counting which I do often in Street Angel. “How did I get to this moment “– the moment of whatever I’m referring to in the book. I traced things back to their source. I still do. I think it’s a way to understand. I can’t control or change the sequence of events but I can explain how things happened, both to the reader and to myself. While I was writing Street Angel – because the book spans seven decades – counting was a useful tool. It helped tell the story of what was happening in the world around me. It all shaped who I became. We were all shaped by WWII and Elvis. By the Beatles and Vietnam. Maybe we’re shaped by music and war. We count the beats in a measure of music. Counting may be another way of looking at life.
DM: Where do you live now? Of the various places you have lived, which was your favourite?
I’m very glad I was born in Newfoundland and lived there for 18 years; and I’m very glad that I lived in Woodstock, New York, for 12 years. Both places are extremely special to me – for different reasons. I live in New York City now, right in the heart – about 20 blocks from Times Square. And no, I haven’t counted the blocks. It’s a far cry from Corner Brook, but it’s just how things turned out. New York City is a world unto itself. Maybe whatever transpires in our life, in a given location, determines whether the place is a favourite. There are a few places I wouldn’t choose to repeat. It’s not always the climate – sometimes it’s the events that occurred there.
I love weather and storms and seasons. Being a Newfoundlander gave me a respect and appreciation for nature. I love the Irish Loop area of Newfoundland, the “down the shore” places, Gros Morne, but I’ve never lived in either. If I had, that would be a definite favourite.
DM: Do you return to Newfoundland?
Dominic: Yes, but not nearly enough. I used to go every few years, but now the spaces in between are too great. I was home in 2012 and am planning to visit in 2015 and spend a few days down-the-shore, by the ocean.
DM: You tell some moving and difficult stories in your memoirs. Do you have an amusing anecdote from your New York days to share with us?
Dominic: The Caffe Cino. Summer of 1967 – an unbelievable night. If a show ever cancelled at the Caffe – in its ten year history I think it happened four times – we did an elaborate, instantaneous improvisation with a Classics Comic Book. In August of 1967, the dancer, Charles Stanley, came flying through the Caffe door as I walked up Cornelia Street towards the Caffe, said that night’s production had cancelled and that we were doing the comic book Snow White instead, and I was in it. I asked him what part he wanted me to play as we ran towards the Caffe. “Snow White” he said, as we took long strides. This was like “Live From The Met,” except it was Live from the Cino.
“I found her,” he said, as we ran, still holding hands, through a packed Caffe. The audience was already in place. In the tiny dressing room the Greek playwright H. M. (Harry) Koutoukas was in full costume and make-up as the evil queen and stepmother of Snow White. The artist, Ken Burgess, as the forest creatures, was a walking collage of fur pieces, feathers, sequins and photos from National Geographic. The playwright Robert Patrick was ready as Doc, and later as the entire haunted forest with large plastic ferns. Actors were Grumpy, Sneezy, Dopey and all the rest. The Prince, the Caffe waiter, was handsome. The Royal Huntsman had just returned from Fire Island, was suffering a heavy tan, and could only wear the top half of his costume. Charles Stanley was the Magic Mirror and did lights, sound and direction. All this had been put into place in a matter of hours. Minutes. Everyone was clutching a Snow White comic book, and frantically studying pages. I was wearing a polka dot dress when I entered the Caffe and that’s what I wore as Snow White. In the fleeing through the forest scene, on the tiny bare stage, Robert Patrick hid behind a white curtain and frantically waved large plastic ferns in my face, as if he himself were being chased by demons. Charles created a lightning storm that fell over the audience, accompanied by a blaring aria; and I raced from one end of the eight foot stage to the other, back and forth and back and forth, until I collapsed, exhausted, to the floor. And Kenny, the forest creatures, knelt beside me as I moved silently and slowly, with my right hand, imaginary branches, so we could see the imaginary house in the imaginary clearing.
We did that comic book improvisation for the next two weeks to replace the show that had cancelled. Every performance the dwarfs were different and the number kept changing. Snow White’s wedding dress was a priest’s white chasuble. In the death to the evil stepmother scene, the dwarfs grabbed Italian pastries from the tray in the kitchen and threw them at Harry Koutoukas – grabbing and firing cannolis, rum fluffs and napoleons as if they were grenades. Harry’s evil stepmother swooned under a mountain of whipped cream and pastry.
[See also Queen of Peace Room pages 58-59 for a more detailed account.]
That was one hour from the 1960s. The next day I probably marched in the street with Allen Ginsberg. That’s what I want to write about – the sixties, new theatre, the peace movement and the people I knew. The sixties were a political and cultural surge. A tsunami. We had no way of knowing, but we were the very eye of that storm. That’s what I’d like to write next – being in the eye of that storm.
“The Caffe Cino outweighed every transgression I’ve ever encountered. Friendship, creativity, a safe place to be. Underground, over ground, beyond description, and without restrictions. Twinkle lights, candles, cappuccinos, and trust. A pool of white light and a tiny stage opens up like a chakra. World of the Caffe Cino.” (Street Angel p.122)
- Catalogue of Magie Dominic’s Caffe Cino archives at New York Public Library’s Performing Arts Research Collections
- Caffe Cino (caffecino.wordpress.com)
- The Story of Caffe Cino on YouTube
- The Living Archives Series collects papers given at the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets
- Magie Dominic blog site
- see also Snow White photo on Wikipedia
- Recommendation of her books on Bread ‘n Molasses