Issue 84 |
Spring 2001

About Heather McHugh: A Profile

Heather McHugh is wired. She is also wireless (see laptop, below), wry, and webbed ( She speaks in passionate flurries, seriocomic riffs that only begin to reflect her speed of thought. She annotates as she speaks, offering first and second answers, embellishing and revising and punning. Words are her sparks and her flame.

"As the world's shyest child," she has written, "I was the one who never spoke in school but who registered, with uncalled-for intensity, every twist of tone and talk; who, at home, went directly to her room to write, because writing proposed a fellow listener, though things seemed quite unspeakable."

Listening to McHugh, one has the sense that she must constantly slow herself down for the sake of others, or, more often, leave her words behind for readers and audiences to unpack. Asked about her earliest ambitions and expectations, she replies: "Ambitions and expectations are different creatures entirely. I expected to be a writer for five years; then, starting at age five, I
was a writer. Ambition comes, if I'm not losing my etymological marbles, from going around. I never went around. I went straight, even when stoned."

Looking back, I look

too straight: I can't locate

my old self, I mean young self,

you know who. My one-and-only,

be-all-end-all, my intended and my ex, the one I was

most smitten with.

                                  -- from "Round Time"

Born to Canadian parents in San Diego in 1948, McHugh was raised in "rural saltwater Virginia." The writing produced at age five was poetry, which the author bound with ribbon and cardboard covers. Soon after, she attended a four-room primary school (complete with outhouse), then a parochial school. One imagines a young McHugh in the back of the room, intellectual motor revving, barely contained by anything so conventional as a classroom, but she claims otherwise: "Suffice it to say it sometimes seems I am the only writer in America who loved the nuns." She confesses that one of her early influential teachers was "Sister Cletus, who, in her innocence and love of grammar, and despite all snickerers, persisted in her use of the term 'suspended period.' We preferred to think of suspended periods as resembling those asterisks in Victorian literature that were followed -- nine months later -- by babies." From there, McHugh went to a suburban high school that did, in fact, fail to contain her. When a ninth-grade
geography teacher advised her against anything so presumptuous as applying to Radcliffe, she determined to get in, ASAP. With near-perfect SATs, she entered the college at age sixteen and graduated
cum laude.

At about the same time,
The New Yorker's Howard Moss "saw something to like" in a poem she had written. She says, "My bet is this: to that early acceptance I owe the whole trail of professional fortuities that followed. The grad-school admissions people [at the University of Denver] loved
The New Yorker acceptance and put me in a classroom. I learned as I taught. Galassi at Houghton Mifflin liked the inference of forms in my perversities, and didn't mind
The New Yorker credential, either. I was lucky. Sending something over the transom is like entering a lottery." Soon after graduation from Denver in 1972, she was awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship and the first of three NEA fellowship grants, which allowed her to complete the book Jonathan Galassi published in 1977.

Dangers featured on its cover a photo of the twenty-nine-year-old poet, who with her high cheekbones and dark coat might have stepped out of a European thriller, standing at the edge of a manhole, and was dedicated "For my lovers." The epigraph, from Browning, is "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things . . . ," and that focus on the dangerous, the threatening, the unspoken and nearly unspeakable, continues. Although McHugh spends many of her days standing in the front of a classroom, she sometimes sounds like the wicked wit of the back row, the bad girl you'd dare yourself to sit beside:

. . . After my lunch of Ivory I said

vagina for a day or two, but knew

from that day forth which word

struck home like sex itself. I knew

when I was big I'd sing

a song in praise of cunt -- I'd want

to keep my word, the one with teeth in it.

                           -- from "I Knew I'd Sing"

Just four years after her first collection came her second,
A World of Difference (Houghton, 1981). One sign of difference was in the acknowledgments: McHugh recognized her mother and her aunts, the source of her "strong will and sense of independence," and her father, a marine biologist, for passing down "his passion for work." Not yet thirty-five, she was publishing regularly in
The New Yorker, APR, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and a host of literary journals, including
Ploughshares; she was also being anthologized. James Tate called her "a wickedly astute critic of our times," while Richard Howard noted that her poems contained "a compassion that is more nearly perfect for it has nothing to do with pity." What keeps McHugh's work from being merely brilliant in its linguistic dexterity and wit is that she marries criticism with compassion and self-reproach; she is no cynic, no simply clever quipper. In the poem "Unspeakable," she moves from observing the death of a close friend to the potentially exotic distraction of a circus, in which an elephant defecates voluminously:

. . . half the audience, by turns,

is treated to the sight

of how the stuff emerges,

where it lands. The snickers

are the language of

the animal the animal offends,

the one that thinks

it's different. We can't

contain ourselves: the laughs

burst out in spatters from the stands . . .

McHugh is one of our most honored writers, a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writing Award, the PEN/Voelcker Award, and the Folger Library's O. B. Hardison Prize for a poet excelling in teaching. She has received
The Boston Book Review's Bingham Poetry Prize and the Pollack-
Harvard Review Prize and has been a finalist for the National Book Award. She has done service as board member of AWP, panelist selecting the New York State poet, and judge for prizes and awards from the National Poetry Series and Laughlin Prize to, this year, the first Electronic Literature Organization Poetry Prize.

She is also one of our most prolific writers. In addition to her six books of poems, a collection of essays (and another completed), a collaboration with collage artist Tom Phillips, and four volumes of translation -- including last year's
Glottal Stop:
Poems of Paul Celan, co-translated with her husband, Nikolai Popov, and this year's Euripides'
Cyclops, co-translated with David Konstan -- she is one of the great literary correspondents. Her faxes look like ransom notes, with capitalizations and boldface, exuberant arrows and illustrations, and her e-mails are legendary. "I'll send her a message," one of her many correspondents recently said, "and I have an answer two minutes later. One day we must have exchanged twenty messages." McHugh claims, "I'm a hermit. I'd rather send an e-mail than myself, but poetry readings pay me more than e-mail does." She is a poet of the twenty-first century, more likely to give a reading from her laptop than from the printed page, but she is also an old-fashioned woman of letters, deeply interested in the world around her, quick to discuss McDonald's (where she often writes) and etymology, orgasms and Epictetus.

When she needs seclusion, she retreats to an island oasis in Maine. Otherwise, she is very much in the world. In addition to her ongoing appointment as Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle, she is a core faculty member of the low-residency M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and a visitor to other writing programs around the country. Last summer, she wowed the crowds at the Dodge Poetry Festival. She is a frequent crowd-wower (and received the International Poetry Forum's Charity Randall citation for excellence at public reading), thanks to her verbal agility and wit, her passionate delivery, and her generosity. While she might easily pay the bills lecturing and giving readings, she truly teaches, reading and responding to hundreds of student poems each year, with kindness and modesty born, perhaps, of wariness. Asked about the pros and cons of teaching, she says, "No pro at all. That's not to tout the con. I don't mind fessing. It's
prefixing I hate. One of the Waughs, if I remember rightly, is said to have said that the natural enemy of any subject is the professor thereof."

Her new and selected poems,
Hinge & Sign (Wesleyan, 1994), demonstrates depth well beyond the early virtuosity, as well as humility, evidence of a writer who is still listening, still learning, still, as McHugh says, "finding life strange (this is the extent, and intent, of spirituality in me)." The first of that book's new poems tells of traveling as a Famous Poet in Italy, speaking glibly, and being sobered by the story of Giordano Bruno, "famous / for his eloquence," burned in an iron mask so that he could not speak.

Forced muteness, and the loss of speech and thought that comes with death, is chronicled even more chillingly in the extraordinary first poem of McHugh's most recent collection,
The Father of the Predicaments (Wesleyan, 1999). "Not a Prayer" tells the story of the death of cellist Raya Garbousova, whom McHugh has called her "soul's mother." Here, the unspeakable takes on new meaning, as Raya loses the ability to communicate, and her family and closest friends lose the ability to understand her.

    . . . I can't

begin to tell you (cannot call

to mind again, I fear, for

study, or for love, or for the life of me)

what people always want to know-

what did she mean? All I can call upon

is words -- unsatisfactory to say

the least. . . .

The struggle against the inevitable muting of the individual voice inspires McHugh's stress-testing of our language; and the limitations of words lead her, increasingly, to examinations of the spirit. The keys to both are intelligence, honesty, and precise expression.

"There's a nice story I heard somewhere about Samuel Beckett attending a performance of one of his pieces," McHugh says. "The stage manager was nervously trying to be precise about all the details, desperate to please the famously exacting author. In view of one particular stage direction about a door (that it should be 'imperceptibly ajar'), he was fussing with the aperture, moving the door a half-inch this way, a half-inch that, when he felt the shadow of the master fall across his shoulder. It was Beckett who had walked up behind him and was watching his exertions. Said Beckett, 'The door should be shut.'

"The stage manager stammered, 'But the stage direction says "ajar." '

" 'Yes,' replied Beckett, 'but it also says "imperceptibly." '

"This exquisite moment amounts, paradoxically, rather to a confidence in, than a correction of, the hapless manager. For as an act of language within the script of a play, an act in which the adverb effectively erases the adjective, that stage direction was a secret gift to be delivered only to readers (stage managers themselves, among others): it will never be heard aloud in the theatrical performance, nor is it manifest in the object-life of the stage, except as a double negative (the absence of an aperture!).

"That's the kind of language-love I want to be in as long as I can work, a love in which passion and precision conspire, and in which a quiet thrill is communicated from one witting reader to another."

Peter Turchi is the author of three books. With Charles Baxter, he co-edited Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life,
which is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. He directs the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.