Heather McHugh is an American poet
Poet, translator, and educator, was born in San Diego, California, to Canadian parents, John Laurence, a marine biologist, and Eileen Francesca (Smallwood). They raised McHugh in Gloucester Point, Virginia. There, her father directed the marine biological laboratory on the York River. She began writing poetry at age five and claims to have become an expert “eavesdropper” by the age of twelve. At the age of seventeen, she entered Harvard University. Her most notable work was Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993, which won the Bingham Poetry Prize of the Boston Book Review and the Pollack-Harvard Review Prize. The New York Times Book Review named this work the Notable Book of the Year.
McHugh was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1999. She teaches at the University of Washington and in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.
In 2009, she was awarded the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" for her work.
McHugh has published seven books of poetry, one collection of critical essays, and four books of translation. She has received numerous awards and critical recognition in all of these areas, including several Pushcart Prizes. Her poems resist contemporary identity politics. She also rejects categorization as a confessional poet, although she studied with Robert Lowell during the time when that described his work.
Her primary education included parochial school, where she credits Sister Cletus’s emphasis on grammar as an early influence. As a student at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, a teacher advised McHugh against applying to Radcliffe, making her determined to get in. She entered the college at age 16 and graduated with honors, receiving her B.A. from Harvard in 1970. She entered graduate school at the University of Denver in 1970, having already published a poem in The New Yorker. She began teaching in graduate school, was a Fellow at Cummington Community for the Arts in 1970, and received the Academy of American Poets prize in 1972. After earning her M.A. in 1972, McHugh received MacDowell Colony fellowships in 1973, 1974, and 1976. In 1974, she also received her first of three National Endowment for the Arts grants in poetry. McHugh was the poet-in-residence at Stephens College in Missouri between 1974 and 1976; she worked as an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton between 1976 and 1982.
At 29, she completed a manuscript of poems titled Dangers (1976), that was a winner of Houghton Mifflin Co.'s New Poetry Series Competition. McHugh’s first book of poems was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977. After a second National Endowment for the Arts grants in poetry in 1981 and a Yaddo Colony fellowship in 1980, her second book, titled "A World of Difference: Poems" (1981), was published by Houghton Mifflin. McHugh was 35. During this time, she was a visiting professor at Warren Wilson College in the M.F.A. Program for Writers in North Carolina between 1980 and 1985; at Columbia University in New York between 1980 and 1981; and at the University of California in Irvine in 1982. During 1987, she was the Holloway Lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley. While the top journals published her poetry, some poems were also anthologized in prestigious collections, and top critics called her observations astute and noteworthy as well as courageous.
That same year World of Difference came out, her first book of translations was published. Her poetry translation of Jean Follain’s French work is titled D'après tout: Poems by Jean Follain (1981) for Lockhart Poetry in Translation. In 1984, she became the Milliman Writer-In-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. The residency was initiated that same year, and McHugh has filled the position since then. During the 1980s, McHugh worked a great deal on translation, partly due to her alliance with her co-translator and husband, who teaches at the University of Washington. Her translation work includes well-known international poets like Valéry and Rilke, as well as poets like Romanian Jewish poet of the Holocaust Paul Antschel, who wrote under the pseudonym Paul Celan.
Her skill in translating literature by Slavic writers became even more evident with the publication of Because the Sea Is Black: Poems of Blaga Dimitrova (1989) featuring the work of a Bulgarian poet and novelist. Dimitrova, one of the best-loved writers in her homeland, became the first democratically elected vice-president of her country after the fall of communism. McHugh translated Dimitrova’s poems for Wesleyan Poetry in Translation (published by the Wesleyan University Press) with her husband, Nikolai Popov, a scholar whom she married in 1987. (Her first marriage in 1967 ended in divorce.) McHugh sometimes uses the name Niko Boris Popov McHugh when writing about her husband. Popov, an expert in Bulgarian and knowledgeable in the German and French languages, also helped to translate Celan’s poetry, which was always written in German.
In 1986, McHugh received a Bellagio grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. She published two more books of poetry during the 1980s: To the Quick (1987) and Shades (1988). In the late '80s, she also participated in an art project with Tom Phillips, resulting in a collectible book WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: The Class of Forty-Seven (1990). It consists of thirty images by Phillips which are interpreted in poems by McHugh and then further modified by Phillips. One of Phillips’s images, "A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel,” from the collaboration is appropriately used on the cover of McHugh’s essay collection Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (1993).
In 1994, Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993, a collection of 24 new poems and selected poems from her five earlier books, was published by the Wesleyan University Press. The book won both the Harvard Review/Daniel Pollock Prize in 1995 and Boston Book Review's Bingham Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The New York Times Book Review chose this poetry collection as its "Notable Book of the Year." In 1996, after the book’s publication, she received a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writing Award.
In 1998 McHugh received the Folger Library’s O.B. Hardison Prize for a poet who excels in teaching. In 1999 she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and received the PEN/Voelker Award. During this year, her poetry was anthologized in The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. McHugh also began to serve as a judge for numerous poetry competitions, including the National Poetry Series and the Laughlin Prize. She was a member of the Board of Directors for the Associated Writing Programs between 1981 and 1983. She served on the Literature Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts during 1983 and 1986. In 1991, she was the Coal-Royalty Chair at the University of Alabama. In 1992, McHugh was the Elliston Poet at the University of Cincinnati. In 1991, she was the visiting professor at the University of Iowa and, in 1994, at the University of California at Los Angeles.
She takes editing collections of younger poets seriously, and helped to select poems for Hammer and Blaze: a Gathering of Contemporary American Poets (2001), published by the University of Georgia Press, which she co-edited. About her job guest editing Ploughshares in Spring 2001, McHugh writes, “The sheer syntactical elegance of many of these new poems suggests an instrumental refinement for which I’m grateful: I’m an old Richard Wilbur /Anthony Hecht fan, and have had reason now and then to regret, during my quarter century of teaching in M.F.A. programs, the relative unfashionability of rhetorical flourish.”
At the end of 2001, McHugh’s sixth collection of poetry, The Father of the Predicaments, was published by the Wesleyan University Press. That same year, McHugh, with Nikolai Popov, received the first International Griffin Poetry Prize in translation for Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan. Her next poetry collection, Eyeshot, was published in (2003), and her latest collection, Upgraded to Serious, was released in 2009.
McHugh is a judge for the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize.
Awards and honors
Two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts
Griffin Poetry Prize
Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation
Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, University of Washington
Finalist for the National Book Award
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
Witter Bynner Fellowship
PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry
O. B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize
We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
Too volatile, am I?too voluble?too much a word-person?
I blame the soup:I'm a primordially
The literate are ill-prepared for this
snap in the line of life:
the day turns a trick
of twisted tongues and is
There, a little right
of Ursus Major, is
the Milky Way:
a man can point it out,