Afterwords, Commentary

Afterwords // City Arts Fest, An Evening with Heather McHugh


By Alex O. Bleecker, Contributing Writer

Since joining the University of Washington faculty in 1983, Heather McHugh has had deep and lasting effects on not just the poetry of her MFA mentees, but the ways they look at life with openness, wonder, and warmth.

Each of the former students that McHugh shared the Town Hall stage with on October 20th for “The Ecstasy of Influence: An Evening featuring Heather McHugh” commented on her giving nature. Kate Lebo recalled an anecdote in the first class she took with McHugh wherein teacher noticed student distracted, slapped student, then kissed her on the cheek as a Zen master would—demonstrating love in its vigilance. And affection. Lebo began with her poem Every Beginning Wants a Good Place to Start, which will be featured in next year’s Best New Poets. Erika Wilder, the second reader, affectionately referring to McHugh as “H-Mc-H,” also mentioned being kissed on their very first encounter. Kary Wayson talked about the inevitability of artistic influence from (and on) those with whom poets work closely, unashamedly admitted to stealing from McHugh, who, she noted, may very well be “the smartest woman alive.” McHugh’s influence in the work they read was evidenced in the ways they playfully deconstruct language (always with an ear for the aesthetics of musicality) and how wide the eyes are open.

While McHugh’s poetic influence was clearly in the spotlight, poetry itself was not the only thing happening. Between readers, bluegrass trio The Half Brothers (aptly named, as, by design, they were the only males on stage all evening) played musical adaptations of several of McHugh’s poems, opening with Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun. Their twangy strings and harmonized vocals struck remarkable juxtapositions with McHugh’s verses, such as the opening of For a Sad God which reads, “Spinoza says pity’s a low emotion.”

Upstage of the poets, the artists of Chrom-A-Matic, a four woman painting collective, were collaboratively producing four large scale paintings featuring various members of the animal kingdom: a polar bear, bee, whale, and what appeared to be a mythical Jim Morrison-headed coral reef creature. At McHugh’s request, these were auctioned off at the close of the performances, and all proceeds from their sales went to the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Having spent the majority of the evening backstage, it was Heather’s turn to address the crowd. Joking how funny it would be were the event titled The Influence of Ecstasy, McHugh was buoyant, pointed, and utterly engaging. Following what felt like a loose script with room to digress, she emphasized the profound value “artistic conversations and exchange” have had on her work and life, and how she will never allow herself to cease being humbly amazed. “We never know enough to claim to be knowers…but we know enough to be feelers.”

Rather than read, McHugh had a prepared recording entitled Grey Matters: A Two Micks Remix that she collaborated with music producer and fellow British Columbian Kirk McNally to create. She cued it up and swiftly disappeared backstage. Including samples of found nature sounds, snippets of conversation, and a hip-hop beat that drove the piece, it wove through shifting tones as if paralleling McHugh’s own prodigiously varied career. While some of her reading on the record was discernible, much of her voice was distorted, so audience members were given a packet upon entrance that explained the project and contained the text of the poems—from her books Eyeshot, Hinge & Sign, and most recent publication Upgraded to Serious. Following the recording, McHugh returned to the stage in a flamboyant, black and orange feathered masquerade mask, and spoke about animal rights, a cause close to her heart. She lamented the demise of the small farm, “where we know the animals we eat lead decent lives.” She commented on the soullessness of factory farming and cited conditions of cruelty, including those to which hens are subjected—penned in cages barely large enough to contain them, debeaked, and artificially inseminated. She celebrated the four paintings that were by then finished, and encouraged audience members to bid and donate to the WSPA. Even at an event meant to pay homage to her life, work, and contribution to the greater artistic community, Heather McHugh found a way to give. Fitting that her giving nature was the thing itself being celebrated.