After earning her B.A. in English at Bennington College, Macdonald studied voice at Mannes College of Music. She pursued a career as an opera singer from 1953 to 1966.


Cynthia Macdonald

Cynthia Lee Macdonald was born in New York City in 1928 to Leonard Lee and Dorothy Kiam Lee. Significantly, her younger sister Virginia, to whom Cynthia was very close in age, died of scarlet fever at 5 or 6 years old. Macdonald's parents divorced in 1940 and both eventually remarried. Leonard, a Hollywood scriptwriter for movies and television, lived in Los Angeles, while Dorothy returned to New York; Macdonald spent time on both coasts throughout her childhood and teen years.

Macdonald earned her Bachelor’s degree from Bennington College in Vermont in 1950. She married E.C. Macdonald in 1954 and had two children, Jennifer and Scott. Her budding career as an opera singer gave way to her poetry writing, prompting her enrollment at Sarah Lawrence College in New York to earn her Master's degree in writing in 1970.

A career as a writing teacher soon followed. After teaching first at Sarah Lawrence College, then at Johns Hopkins University, she co-founded with Stanley Plumly the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston in 1979. She taught at UH until her retirement in the mid-2000s, receiving the Esther Farfel Award for faculty excellence along the way.

Macdonald became a widely published and award-winning poet. Her first of seven books of poetry, Amputations, was published in 1972, and she had individual poems published in dozens and dozens of esteemed magazines and journals such at The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Yale Review. Among the many honors and awards that Macdonald received for her writing were a Guggenheim Fellowship and the O.B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize.

Macdonald was also a practicing psychoanalyst for many years, and a faculty member of the Houston-Galveston Psychoanalytic Institute.

Though born in New York, Cynthia Macdonald comes from old Houston stock: Her mother Dorothy was born in Houston in 1906 to Edward Kiam and Fanny Tim Kiam. The Kiam family had been in the city as far back as the mid-to-late 1800s. In 1893, Edward Kiam opened a clothing store in downtown Houston in a five-story brick building that still stands and is still known as "The Kiam Building" at 320 Main Street.

"Departure" draft, [approximately 1972].

This poem about a mother's reluctance to see her son go off into the world was originally called "Amputation," and may have supplied Macdonald with the title for her first book.

Amputations. Braziller: New York, 1972.

In a 1990 interview in the journal Artful Dodge, Macdonald described how her first collection of poetry came to be published in the Braziller Series of Poetry:

"Richard Howard... was really my original mentor... 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?'"

Amputations demonstrated her comic voice and affinity for the grotesque in poems like "A Family of Dolls' House Dolls" and "Aspects of Unicorns."

(W)holes. Knopf: New York, 1980.

Macdonald's third collection, published by Knopf, featured circus performers and freaks, described with the poet's characteristic wit and wordplay. It closed with the long poem "Burying the Babies."

Alternate Means of Transport. Knopf: New York, 1985.

Published in 1985, Alternate Means of Transport revealed a poet who used inventive language and imagery in the service of poems that were more humane and less sensationalistic than those found in her previous books.

Reception at Brazos Bookstore for Alternate Means of Transport, Houston, October 2, 1985.

The Brazos Bookstore was opened by Karl Kilian in 1974 to support the growth of Houston's literary community. The store frequently held readings by distinguished local and visiting writers.

I Can't Remember. Knopf: New York, 1997.

Macdonald's final collection of poems included several explorations of artists, including the lovely "Mary Cassat's Twelve Hours in the Pleasure Quarter."

"Chicken Tribute" draft and news clipping, 1997.

I Can't Remember included a series of poems related to chickens, this one inspired by a newspaper story about a tractor-trailer of chickens that overturned on the Long Island Expressway.

"A Working Group to Resolve Writing Blocks," fax to Aruffo Cambor, [Houston?], September 20, 1993.

Together with Dr. Arthur Farley of the Houston-Galveston Psychoanalytic Institute, Macdonald ran groups for people who wished to address "the inability to write when there is a need or desire to do so."

"Circumstance" by George Manner with note from Cynthia Macdonald, November 1981.

"Perfect. But don't settle for this kind of perfection. Keep working for the other"
-- Cynthia Macdonald

In this note Macdonald encouraged a graduate student in the creative writing program to continue to dig deep in his work.

AWP Conference Program 2015 website

At the panel discussion "Witty, Wry, (W)holes: The Legacy of Cynthia Macdonald," University of Houston creative writing program alumni Elline Lipkin, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Martha Serpas, Patty Seyburn, and Mira Rosenthal discussed Macdonald's legacy as a poet and teacher.

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