Art Works Blog

Art Talk: Heather McHugh on Heather McHugh

"Nothing is beneath poetic notice---that's why nothing is too big for it."---Heather McHugh

Inventive, provocative, and playful are just a few of the adjectives you might apply to Heather McHugh's poetry. The recipient of two NEA Literature Fellowships (1974 and 1982), McHugh has also garnered a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur "Genius Grant," and many other awards. She is also a noted translator, and received the Griffin International Poetry Prize for Glottal Stops: 101 Poems of Paul Celan, which she translated with her scholar-husband Nikolai Popov. If you've ever perused one of McHugh's many interviews, you'll know that her prose contains as many surprising twists and turns as her poetry. We could have sent McHugh a list of standard questions to answer, but where's the fun in that? Instead, we asked McHugh to ask herself five questions she wished interviewers  would ask. So here's Heather McHugh on Heather McHugh....

Q. When do people need poetry?

A. As far as I can tell, when they're in love or dying. In other words, all the time.

Q. You've spent 40 years in academia. What are your feelings about poets finding homes in the academy?

A. At its best, the academy is cherishable (as America is) as a place that could harbor and protect oddballs. That's what it did for me.

Who was it---maybe Eudora Welty?---who, when asked whether academia stifled creative writing, responded "Not enough of it."

And perhaps a certain pyramid scheme obtains too readily in some of the humanities: disciplines that ramify more than they clarify; or that proliferate by generating more and more vocabularies (specialties, jargons, "schools"), to be taught and argued about and then to become the premises for new hires.

A university seems to me less desirable as the home of intendings and contendings, than as the home of extendings. I, for one, am bored to death by battles between poetic "encampments." I don't want to have to sign on to a school to encounter or appreciate a new style. (Style isn't ornamental; it is instrumental. All forms of ingenuity enrich.)

As an artist I am refreshed and inspired, in my own ways, by exposure to the ways of other artists---and where there are academic settings that foster such encounters, yay.

Q. What distinguishes poetic language from other kinds?

A. I once heard Anne Carson, to the Q "what's the difference between poetry and prose," give an A as brief as it was brilliant: "I can't tell it, but I can smell it."

Poetry makes sense engage more of its sense-receptors.

Q. Isn't poetry an arcane or narrow or escapist focus, in a world where so much big work needs doing?

A. Big work is done by openness to patterns; in an electron microscope, you see the immensities of space.

Nothing is beneath poetic notice---that's why nothing is too big for it.

Q. Is poetry an area of expertise?

No. It's an approach to anywhere.

The mason who can feel, with his trowel, the grain and give and gumption of the mortar; the basketball wizard who hangs in the air longer than any onlooker thinks possible; the seamstress making spontaneous use of some peculiarity in fabric to adapt the skirt's design; the animal-lover who discerns, in the encounter between two packs, all the codes of tail-tuck and of ear-tilt; the race-car driver leaning into curves, who senses in his wheeling fingertips the far details of tread and tar and the prevailing winds; the lover who learns the art of forgetting herself, to ride the wave; the taxonomist suddenly understanding new categories of relation---animals that glow, minerals that grow---all these are friends of poetry.

Heather McHugh is one of several NEA Literature Fellows reading in the NEA Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the 2013 National Book Festival on September 21-22. Visit our News Room for details.

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