The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Heather McHugh about her new collection Muddy Matterhorn (Copper Canyon Press, June 2020), anagrams, how to digest a decade, Mugwumps, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Thea Matthews, Benjamin Garcia, Sumita Chakraborty, Vijay Seshadri, Molly Spencer, Kimberly Grey, torrin a. greathouse, Erin Belieu, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I’d like to start with a question about your poem “As Authors Can’t Perfect One Agent.” Where did that poem come from? I ask because I’ve often used famous poems as a jumping off point when I’ve felt stuck in my writing, whether I’m using a form or doing a parody, and I’m always curious when I see other writers doing similar things
Heather McHugh: I got hooked by K. Silem Mohammad’s sonnograms. You should look them up if you haven’t seen them; some are just astonishing. I had always loved devising anagrams myself—before we had computers (my life has prehistoric periods I might have to reference here), I spent weeks doing hand-calculated anagrams of the name WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS—it took half a ream of paper because my rules for the enterprise require me to arrange the words and then the “phrases” in a putatively intelligible poem—without adding or subtracting a single letter—and permitted me only re-punctuations as needed or wanted.
In “As Authors Can’t Perfect One Agent,” I did the anagram calculations line by line instead of the trying to deal with the poem as a whole—partly because I used an online anagram generator to help sort the mass ( morass) of raw material, and it limited the letter count. In some ways the mechanism (whether in one’s mind/hand or in a computer) is like other forms of form—a restriction you impose on composition in order to jolt yourself into a freedom you couldn’t have calculated (or stumbled on) otherwise.
Brian S: Back when I taught poetry to undergrads (as opposed to the tech writing I teach now), I used to give them that as a prompt, only I used Twitter hashtags, mostly because I’d seen one where, when Margaret Thatcher died, the hashtag was “nowthatcherisdead and a whole bunch of people freaked out because they thought Cher had died.
Heather McHugh: That’s a hilarious mishap.
And they must have expected that your sentence wasn’t finished… surely when Cher was gone the world would change.
Now, of course, the world really is changing. Qualitatively. It seems to do its changes the way geology does—long stretches of apparent inertia then a seismic shift.
Brian S: My assignment gave the students a new way to look at form, that sense of freedom. Also, I think it allowed them to get away from the idea that poems had to be about their feelings.
Heather McHugh: Yeah, well, sometimes your senses have to be batted about a bit, till what you think your feelings are itself changes.
Brian S: My youngest kids are of the age where they’re just going to recognize the current world as the normal one. It’ll probably be similar to the way I never really understood what my parents went through in the mid to late 60s.
Heather McHugh: Or maybe not. Maybe this generation marks a seismic leap. They had to digest a sort of polysemantics. I didn’t understand what I went through in the 1960s though other people seem to be able to make them portable. People claim to understand things once they have nailed them with a category—a time apparently gets synopsizable once we call it a decade.
Brian S: I don’t really understand what happened in the 2000s either. And it wasn’t all that long ago.
Heather McHugh: As for “the current”—yikes, which currency? Re-electrifications abound. And just to keep us busier, the 2000s are not only a decade but (gulp) a millennium.
Brian S: I mean, my parents saw everything through the lenses of it being the End Times. I heard more than once growing up that they never expected my sister or me to even start school, that Armageddon would have come before then. So for them, I guess, most everything was a sign.
Heather McHugh: 2020 has its own jolts of electrifying sight and maybe insight.
As for signs: English department theories like to call everything we name a sign. For activists, everything we can indicate is a signifier.
2020: what’s in a name, no more myopia? As if humanity suddenly got visionary. The part of me that’s skeptical remembers the root of skepticism is “Watch out.” Borges says “Blindness is a confinement, but it is also a liberation, a solitude propitious to invention, a key and an algebra.” So maybe there is hope.
Brian S: I look around and wonder if we’re headed into greater dystopia or if this is the moment humans manage to get our shit together and a big part of me wonders how much of that is just middle-aged cynicism.
Or, to use a different metaphor, basketball isn’t as much fun if the hoop is four feet off the ground and twice as wide? There has to be a constraint to appreciate the freedom?
Heather McHugh: The part where we think shit can be gotten together or the part where we think shit falls apart… there are so many kinds of cynicism. Skepticism has its uses, now and then. Cynicism is too rueful a form of humor for me to endure long.
And there have to be rim shots to appreciate swish.
Wait, rim shots miss right? Or not always… hmmmm.
Comma after “miss,” there…
(Coma after Mrs.)
Brian S: Lol
Heather McHugh: I was too many Mrs.
Brian S: And that deserves the comic rimshot
Heather McHugh: Missuses. I quickly stopped taking their names. Except in vain.
Brian S: Or msssssss, which is like a whole bunch of manuscripts.
Heather McHugh: Omg, mssssssss. All misses. One is never satisfied.
Brian S: Now I’m going to have that song from Hamilton in my head for the rest of the night
Heather McHugh: I think the upheaval in the heart and street (not to mention the toe I all but broke a few days ago) affect my brain.
Brian S: Oh no! A broken toe is not good. How bad is it?
Heather McHugh: Well, that it feels broken for so long is bad enough for me. How you tape it matters so much. The body is utterly transparent until part of it breaks, and can’t be gotten out of mind. It is like language.
Brian S: I’ve actually been a little hopeful about the upheaval in the streets this past week, since it seems the police have decided that the best response to protests about abusive behavior is to be abusive, on camera, all the time. I’d never have imagined that cutting police funding would be a popular position.
Heather McHugh: Certainly reallocating responsibilities is, and should be. Way too many omnipotendencies.
Brian S: That’s a great word, omnipotendencies
Heather McHugh: In authoritizings like policing, I mean. And those you find in poetry, too, I suppose. At least my kind of poetry gets done in a room by itself.
Omnipotendencies: where you think yourself potent in way too many directions.
Brian S: And where you have a tendency to think you’re a god.
Heather McHugh: When it comes down to life, somebody else can hurl the lightning. I make mud. Missing a middle name.
Brian S: Do those portmanteaus just sort of come to you or do you consciously look for ways to combine words like that?
Heather McHugh: Like omnipotendencies? In the throes of trying to be accurate, I caught myself mid-word: I didn’t want to call them actually omnipotent… then superintendency came to mind and… well, the rest is prehistory.
It’s a disorder. Poetry was all I could do with it. Other people have ideas.
And while I am warping the subject, have you ever noticed how many disease names sound plural? Measles, mumps, herpes, rabies, scabies. It makes you think there could be one measle or mump.
Brian S: A mump sounds like an animal in a Dr. Seuss book. The seven-hump mump and the eleven-hump mump…
Heather McHugh: You know, until Trump happened, I had forgotten about Mugwumps.
Brian S: That name triggers an echo of high school history but I don’t remember anything about them.
Heather McHugh: The humpless mump.
I think they swang elections when they deserted parties.
Brian S: Though Trump definitely reminds me of the Know-Nothing party
Heather McHugh: Pre-sump.
Brian S: Someone is going to make a button that says Thump Trump, and I might have to wear one.
Heather McHugh: You could retire on Thump Trump bumper-sticker stock.
Some words, some word-strings, are just viscerally walloping. (“Swang” was, I noticed. Funny how something can become visceral the moment it passes your lips. Either direction.)
I probably started doing poems because I didn’t get enough sex when I was young.
Uh-oh. TMI, as my students say.
Brian S: “Doing poems” has a little double entendre going on there, too.
Heather McHugh: Will they close down Rumpus if we keep on like this?
Ooooo, ooooo, do the villanelle. Do the sestina.
Brian S: Oh, The Rumpus launched with a series called Recession Sex Workers, so we’re on pretty solid footing here.
I do like a sestina.
Heather McHugh: I love a footing. Recessions come and go but sex workers, well… it’s not to go.
We have to stop. There is a compulsion to resort to crazed laughter in the middle of times of death and holiness…
Brian S: What are you reading lately? Anything you’d recommend?
Heather McHugh: I think I stumble on stuff a lot more slowly than other people. I’m in the sticks; there was a bookstore when I lived in cities. Now I grow potatoes on my porch.
We’re growing potatoes on our patio right now. First time trying it. Funny what the pandemic brings out in you. Corn, too, because we’re in Iowa and it’s the law.
Heather McHugh: Annie Glidden! No, wait, that was DeKalb, Illinois. Barbed wire was invented by the Gliddens in DeKalb where the flying corncob hat was king. Where the flying corncob is king. I get my Midwests mixed up.
Even putting aside my manic associative word-quirks, I am not sure this Slack-conversation-medium can keep up with our trail of interspersonal outbursts.
I’m interested to see how all the social categories are changing fast and furious. But I choose my readings according to other needs—a mesh of music and graphics and cryptic connections. Someone’s “opinions,” however passionate, are not what move me most.
Brian S: Absolutely. I feel like there’s been a resurgence of formal poetry in the last decade or so, but that it’s been overlooked because a bunch of people are looking at identity and not seeing the craft in the poems. Like, Jericho Brown invented a whole new form, and Danez Smith writes exquisite sonnets.
Heather McHugh: Yes! There are times when social context can map interestingly onto craft… I suspect that to have lived as other people’s miscategorization may give you a fuel-pack for reinvention if you’re already equipped with the feel for a craft.
How to be answerable where I’m able, that’s what I find myself working on now. But I’m congenitally (though not genetically) given to unholiness. There were churchmen in my history but somewhere along the way I lost allegiance to their manners.
Brian S: I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness but I left that behind half a lifetime ago. My uncle said I’d left the witness protection program.
Heather McHugh: The parts I haven’t left behind are all gospel music. And not that pale, polite kind, either. Transistor radio in the night, in Virginia. The waves traveled far and deep.
Your uncle had jumped ship before you?
Brian S: Yeah, he ran off to play bass with Willie Nelson when he was eighteen. My dad was the only one on that side of the family to stick with it.
Heather McHugh: Oh, your poor dad, trying to be tried and true… And then there was you.
I am working on a lot of undisappearable sorrow about white people right now. I have a new poem I couldn’t help blurting out a few days ago, in the voice of an unwittingly self-indicting white woman. Hard to write answerably from the perspective of unwitting guilt. (Shame gets in the way.)
Brian S: We love our cousins even when they’re fuckups. We can’t excuse the fuckupery, but we can still love them. Except for Sonny. Fuck Sonny. (Sonny is my sister’s first husband.)
Heather McHugh: Sometimes we are our worst cousins. I don’t even want to ask about this Sonny character…. Oops, just now as I was typing, you gave me some clues to Sonny. Some kind of sinner or scoundrel… I have this compulsively associative mind, hard to follow, harder to lead. I am pretty sure you need some z’s by now. But still, fie on Sonny! He should have done right.
Brian S: Good night, and thanks for your time this evening!
Photograph of Heather McHugh by Rich Hladky.