Poet's Wordplay Leads To MacArthur 'Genius' Award MacArthur Fellow Heather McHugh mines words for contradictions and double meanings, offering the reader an expansive, fresh perspective on themes like love and mortality.
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Poet's Wordplay Leads To MacArthur 'Genius' Award

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Poet's Wordplay Leads To MacArthur 'Genius' Award


Congratulations on the MacArthur Grant.

M: Thank you.

SIEGEL: What are you going to with this grant? How will it change your work life?

M: I've been teaching for 33 years and to learn to teach is to learn to pay attention to the work of others, and I've been doing that pretty ardently these many years, taking now and then a leave of absence. I will take a bigger leave of absence if I can. I need to get back to my own work. I don't have many more moons to do it.

SIEGEL: Well, by my count, you're only 61, by my counts you have a few more moons left.

M: How many moons?

SIEGEL: Are there ambitions for writing, that you have things that you would want to have the time to write in particular that this might permit you to write?

M: My sister, in our bedrooms, in Virginia used to speak very slowly till the grains of the voice were like gravel. And I love the thought of really slowing down speech or speeding it up and just studying verbal matter that way.

SIEGEL: Well, I wonder if you could read a poem for us, and I believe one that you selected was "Domestique."

M: Surfaces to scrape or wipe, a screwdriver to be applied to slime-encrusted soles, the spattered hallways, wadded bedding and, in quantities astounding - in the corners, under furniture, behind the curtains - fluff and dander spread by curs, the breeder called non-shedding. It's a dog's life I myself must lead, day in, day out - with never a Sunday edition - while they lie around on their couches like poets, and study the human condition. Such is the domestic life.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I was wondering if the grant will permit you to hire more cleaning help at home.


M: How I yearn. Perhaps. It's hard for me to prepare for people to come to clean. I mean I have to clean before they come. So...


M: So, it's a kind of - a sort of worriedness. I mean I was worried when I heard about this prize. I was also astounded and dumbfounded and flummoxed and flabbergasted, thunderstruck and stupefied, especially stupefied, the brains went right out of my head. But I was worried instantly because that's partly my way of taking care of things and partly because as General Stilwell said, the higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of his behind. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The quote is attributed to Gen. Joe Stilwell (1883-1946), but it was first written by St. Bonaventure (ca. 1221-1274) in his book "Conferences On the Gospel of John."]


SIEGEL: You're concerned about the possible exposure from this, you're saying?

M: Exactly. That's the noun exactly.

SIEGEL: Heather McHugh, once again, congratulations on the MacArthur Grant and thanks for talking with us.

M: Thank you. Kindly take care.

SIEGEL: Heather McHugh is one of two dozen MacArthur Foundation Fellows for 2009. They'll each receive a no-strings-attached grant of half a million dollars and you can find a complete list of all the winners at npr.org.



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