In the front row of Kane Hall last Thursday, a pregnant woman, two men in Superman T-shirts and bowler hats, and a group of graying old ladies exchanged awed looks as Heather McHugh wooed the shit out of the packed room. McHugh was celebrating the 49th Theodore Roethke Poetry Reading, an annual commemoration of the late, great poet. It was unclear at moments whether McHugh was reading poetry or speaking freely because the constant wordplay of her everyday language is so delightfully over the top, like an exquisite costume. Her words seemed to be simultaneously spontaneous and carefully chosen.
The auditorium was filled with graduate students and at least one large pack of what appeared to be a weekday bingo group dressed in churchy attire. Everyone laughed and chortled and giggled. A continuous titter buzzed through the room once McHugh started her PowerPoint presentation, which contained ridiculous images (sometimes side-by-side) of elaborate handmade meals, shaggy dogs, and lactase pills.
McHugh, in her giant necklace and red scarf, was endearingly flustered. Toward the end of the evening, she spent several minutes flipping through papers, overturning piles in search of a misplaced poem. As she scrounged around at the podium, she described the piece in detail and when she finally wrestled the lost paper free from the pile, McHugh shrugged and said, "I don't want to read this anymore." Then she proceeded to name all the prepositions in alphabetical order, courtesy of the nuns at a Sisters of Mercy school who first taught her about language. McHugh remembers all the words in order because she transformed the prepositions into a slightly suggestive story (purportedly by the fictitious author "Down During") about pursuing a sexual encounter under, upon, and within intimate places of someone else's body.
The way McHugh talks to crowds, it's like she's having a conversation with you personally, as if she's both telling you a story and roping you into an inside joke she just discovered. She grins, waggles her eyebrows, uses elaborate hand gestures, swears, and guffaws. Even when reading any particular piece, she stops after different words or phrases to explain further ("You see? Because we were in Europe here") and then goes right back into the poem. Everything McHugh says is one beautifully crafted flowing conversational art piece.
Throughout the night, McHugh jumped from the somber to the humorous and back again. She dedicated a poem called "Practice, Practice, Practice" to three former University of Washington staff who have since passed away. "Those guys died," McHugh said bluntly. "More and more it happens. And it will happen to you." The crowd adored her.
When new Richard Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson introduced McHugh early in the evening, she was right to say that McHugh "inhabits a world of words unlike the one most of us live in." After the event, McHugh embraced the very old and the very young, slapping people on the back, joking and goofing around with those same hand gestures. Her wordplay continued offstage, and someone nearby asked a companion, "Do you think she might just be drunk?"