By Al Eisele
One of America’s most prolific and widely acclaimed poets and literary essayists has been in our midst for the past three weeks, but you wouldn’t know it unless you struck up a conversation with her, as I did shortly before New Year’s Day.
Her name is Heather McHugh, and she arrived here from Seattle on Christmas Eve to be at the side of her 94-year-old mother, who had just moved from her home in Arlington to the Caring Center Hospice, where she died the next day.
Since then, the 64-year-old McHugh has been acting as executor of her mother’s estate while living at the Econo Lodge on Lee Highway, just across the Arlington-Falls Church boundary next to the Côte d’Or restaurant, where I first encountered her as she was having dinner at the bar.
When I told her my wife is a volunteer at the Caring Center Hospice, she invited us to dinner at Côte d’Or last Thursday, where I interviewed her, although my wife was sidelined by a bad cold and couldn’t join us. Earlier, I took her to dinner at the Dogwood Tavern on New Year’s Eve.
“I love Falls Church,” she exclaimed as throngs of Watch Night revelers passed by on Broad Street outside our window. “This is where I’d have preferred to have lived, no offense to Arlington. Please write that McHugh said Falls Church is a village, not a town or city.”
McHugh, who says she’s been writing poems since she was five, had her first collection of poems published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977. Since then, she’s published a half-dozen books of poetry and a collection of literary essays and co-translated three books of poetry while teaching at the University of Washington. One of her poetry books was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize and another was a finalist for the National Book Award, and in 2009, she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called “genius award.”
Although born to Canadian parents in La Jolla, California, where her father headed a marine biology laboratory, McHugh grew up in Virginia, first in Gloucester Point, and then Arlington, where she attended Williamsburg Junior High and graduated from Yorktown High School while her father worked for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. (She has two siblings, an older brother who’s a retired career Army veteran in Hampton, Va. – and briefly visited their mother before she died – and a younger sister who lives in London. But she has little contact with them.)
McHugh’s mother decided that the Gloucester Point public schools weren’t good enough for her daughter and enrolled her at a private academy run by Catholic nuns in Williamsburg. “I would love for you to put in your article that I still know from the nuns all the prepositions,” she said, adding that she briefly thought of becoming a nun.
In Arlington, she lived across the street from astronaut John Glenn, who taught her how to water ski, before she “escaped to Harvard” at 17, smoked pot and married a Jewish classmate and converted to Judaism and impressed her poetry workshop teacher Robert Lowell by getting a poem published in The New Yorker. And that was before her life really got interesting.
These are the kind of things you’ll learn if you’re a nosy journalist who asks a stranger about her life story, which McHugh does with disarming frankness. It’s nothing short of incredible, filled with many of the tragicomic overtones evident in her complex poetry, which one critic described as “jauntily fastidious, calling to mind something of the steeliness of Emily Dickinson” while suggesting “a sure sense of jazz.”
McHugh candidly admits that she had an unhappy childhood. “As a child, I had no friends,” she said. “I spent a lot of time rocking and singing to myself – the making of a poet. … I think one of the reasons I retreat to poetry is because it’s the protector of ambiguists and I don’t want to fight.”
McHugh said that while going through her mother’s papers, she discovered that “she never had any power over her own life.” But that can’t be said of McHugh, who after graduating from Harvard/Radcliffe in 1970, embarked on a decade of graduate studies, travel (“I went all over the country in a hippy van,” she said), college teaching jobs and romantic liaisons, all too numerous and complicated to list here. (You can check out her vast literary output, numerous awards and teaching positions on Wikipedia.)
Since 1984, McHugh has headed a writer-in-residence program at the University of Washington, and served as a visiting faculty member in the writers’ program at Warren-Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She returned this week to Seattle, where she lives with Bulgarian scholar and ex-husband Nikolai Popov, with whom she co-translated several prize-winning collections of Slavic and other European poetry.
“We’ve been together for 26 years,” she said of Popov, who also teaches at the University of Washington.“We got divorced but are still living together. He left a message two days ago and said ‘I love you,’ for the fourth time.”
McHugh will return to the area shortly to close out her mother’s affairs and sell her house. But she said local residents shouldn’t worry that they’ll be the subject of one of her poems with their trademark verbal dexterity and sense of loss and detachment. Asked if she plans to write about Falls Church, she replied, “No.”