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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Homage to Heather McHugh

Let's just say I got lucky. For a quarter of a year, my 30th year, I had an independent study with Heather McHugh. What this meant was I would knock on her office door at 10:30 am, she'd let me in, and we'd talk (for an hour or so) about my poems, about poetry-making, about poets (lots of Dickinson, Williams, Creeley, Rilke, Celan, and Oppen, but also many others) ,  about life, about life with The Bulgarian. This went on for something like ten weeks. I remember bits and pieces of what was said, but when I think of the Heather Sessions, what comes to mind first is her handwriting; more specifically, her messy comments scrawled all over my mostly-awful rough drafts with a bright red Sharpie. Once she wrote at the bottom of a very pathetic and worthless poem: This is so sad. God, did that comment ever make it obvious I'd written a poem not worth fixing!  Another time she placed a big X through the last six lines of a poem. Next to it she'd scrawled You can stop now -- enough already! I adored Heather's work, and now I was learning about the woman behind the poems, this teacher who could be warm and encouraging, and also tell me to shut up without making me cry or feel stupid or prevent me from writing the next poem. She exuded warmth, seemed to have complete confidence in my abilities, and yet she had no trouble giving me the proverbial slap upside the head. Also, something else I love about Heather: to refer to her as down to earth, as real, as unpretentious, is not even the dram of it. She is utterly her own wacky self, and the more awards and accolades bestowed her, or so it seems, the more she feels privileged and allowed to bestow us with her quirky brilliance. Of course this continues to make me appreciate and idolize her even more.

When I saw Heather read the other night as the 49th reader in the Annual Theodore Roethke Memorial reading at the University of Washington here in Seattle, it was like returning to a familiar place you don't visit often enough. As I walked into Kane Hall I could hear Heather's laugh booming  off the walls. She'd been told to arrive early to run through her Powerpoint, but the techie had stood her up. She laughed some more, then gave a few of her former students, including me, a warm hug.

One never does know exactly what will happen at a McHugh reading. I've heard a rumor she memorizes her readings, right down to the smallest bits of banter, then performs as if it's all ad-libbed. She always has very cool quotations to share from folks like Hippocrates, Dickinson, and Beckett. She quotes stuff in other languages too, which I always appreciate, especially when it's someone like Valery because her French pronunciation is quite beautiful.

True to form we once again were surprised when Heather began her Powerpoint about ... her husband's fall (earlier that week) into  a 60 (or was it 30?)-foot crevasse. I did not take notes because the silly slides, reminders not to do stupid things like climb a snow-covered mountain, had me in stitches--the room became a dull roar as the slide of the giant red rescue helicopter onto which she'd typed Deux a Machina popped up on the screen. We were all laughing, and then we were suddenly sobered by the photos of her husband's face in the snow--buried in the snow--reminded that he did nearly die, and because, as she said, Everest is best with with a My before it. My Ever-est, as in my sweet love, my dear.

Who but Heather McHugh would hear/see Everest as Ever-est? Who but Heather would later blurt English! What kind of a language is that? It can't even Engl. It's Engl-ish! 

And between and around all this, she read her gorgeous, powerful, language-intoxicated poems. I was smitten with every poem she read, but one, "Practice, Practice, Practice," especially struck me because in it we are reminded that rehearse can also be read as re-hearse, as in "quick, bring those limos back around."

Near the end of her reading she seemed to have forgotten to follow her script as she shared a story about Beckett insisting, each time someone asked him if he was English, au contraire! au contraire!

From this she segued into the most resonant comment she made all night:

"To au contraire language is pretty much what it means to be an artist." To question and challenge the language; to make it new; to say NO to rules. Yep, yep: to au contraire. A new verb, ladies and gentlemen, once again brought to you by none other than Ms. McHugh.

Tree Swenson, in her lovely introduction, referred to Heather's "verbal archeology." Heather is an archeologist = she digs down to the bedrock of the English language, handing us the roots and the shards ... what the words meant then, what they mean now, and what they might mean to others in the distant future.

If that's not the coolest profession, I don't know what is.

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Jan Priddy, Oregon said...

Again I thank you for sharing your observations and experiences, for your lovely words, for all this and more.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks, Jan. It's great to have you as a faithful reader out there.