There have been three times in my life when I have had a chance to talk to Heather McHugh and in all three times, my vocabulary has shrunk to that of my nine-month-old. When Nathan babbles, “Gah gah gah,” it’s cute. (Sometimes it’s “Gan ja, gan ja,” and I have to go, “Ganja comes later, honey. Wait till you’re out of diapers.”) But I’m an adult and you should expect me to complete my sentences, not act like I order my Depends in bulk.
The first time was a couple of years ago in La Conner when Mike and I attended the Skagit River Poetry Festival. See, before baby, Mike and I would dress up fancy. There were heels and stockings, and sometimes I would wear something nice, too! That weekend in La Conner, Mike stayed in our hotel bed while I bumbled downstairs foraging for food. I had made myself a bowl of oatmeal when Heather McHugh walked in. I could only stare at that hot gray lumpy mess and say to myself, “You are breathing in the same air as Heather McHugh! The same air! Think of something brilliant to say! Something witty! You can do it, Mona!”
When I looked up, armed to ask, “What’s more difficult to achieve in a poem, complexity of image or complexity of sound,” and, “Whose voice are we hearing in your poems,” (Hello, On A Roll? It’s me, Mona, I’m on my way!) she studied my bowl and said inquisitively, “Is there any oatmeal left?”
“Um. I think I used the last of it.” That was the extent of my brilliance: a heifer breakfast.
The next time was at Mike’s MFA reunion. I managed to squeeze into a conversation she was having with another professor and when I say squeeze into, I mean, I slugged my way from the cheese and crackers table to her sanctum where I eagerly nodded like I had been there the whole time. Like crude oil on a baby seal, I was so slick! So smooth! When the other professor turned to his colleague, it was just the two of us. Four if you count the bulbous, awkward silence and my stupid Elaine-contemplating-egg-roll-theft face.
I had to say something, so I shared that I was taking a poetry class with one of her former students. I managed to blub out something like, “Whenever I read your poems and then work on my poetry, I feel like I’m just drawing stick figures. She then joked, “Well, you know, if you rub two sticks together, you start a fire.” I think I followed that up by saying her poetry is genius, like she discovered fire or something. I don’t know what’s more awkward to hear, a bad writer admitting she’s a bad writer and bringing it up a notch with a compliment that makes no sense or being recognized as having secured the advancement of man. I seemed a lot smarter when my mouth was full of cheese.
Yesterday was the third time. I was driving through a parking lot, having just taken Nathan to his nine month check-up when I saw Heather walking to her car. I had this stunning idea of pulling up behind her and blocking her in. When she appeared at my window to ask, “What the F,” which I know would inspire her to write, “An Ode to What the F,” I would respond with, “Remember me? I ate all the oatmeal that one time and then that other time I also had nothing to say? Well, let me introduce my son! The doctor measured his head and it’s off the charts! It’s full of brain! Smart, poetry-addled brain!”
I didn’t do it. I drove by and left her alone. I waited at parking lot exit, thinking of all the crazy stunts I could have pulled until I saw her car behind me and it was time to get out of the way.