Oyster River Pages: When did you first learn that language had power? What was that experience like for you?
Heather McNaugher: I just wrote a long essay on this. At about 15 or 16 I was introduced to the novelist John Gardner. His novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts is, among other things, a ghost story. If you want a lesson on structuring a paragraph for maximum impact (and in many instances hilarity), read it. In it he uses the word crackle in ways I hadn’t read or considered before. As in, “stinging, crackling anger” or “Fear crackled through him.” I was captivated. No going back after this.
ORP: What are you doing to shape and inspire the next generation of artists?
HM: Well, I do teach creative writing and literature, so you’d think this question would flummox me less. But I find that the older I get, the more mysterious poetry in particular is—the “how it gets made” piece? I simply have fewer strong opinions about that. Which makes poetry more exciting some days, but teaching poetry more difficult. So, what I do now is, I’m really honest with them about that. Basically, I tell students what I just wrote with the intention of opening up a space and we go from there.
ORP: Does having a work published alter the way you think about it? Does it alter the way you think about yourself?
HM: I’m afraid so—or, yes, for better or worse (see advice to someone who’s never been published). This internet business, which can feel like a regrettable digital tattoo, and is often downright hostile, even violent—yeah, it’s had a chilling effect on my writing and career to be sure.
ORP: What advice would you give someone who has never been published?
HM: To keep writing anyway. Circulate your work among a trusted group of friends, host readings, workshops—you can have a rich literary community without being published in the traditional ways. And honestly? Your writing may be better—more vulnerable and honest—for it.
ORP: What is the first creative piece that made you cry?
HM: “The Boxer,” Simon & Garfunkel, fourth grade. After that, Harold and Maude (sixth grade?), then, at 23, utterly slayed by the two afternoons I spent watching Seattle’s Intiman Theatre perform Angels in America. There were others in between, but these stand out as self-altering.
Heather McNaugher is the author of System of Hideouts and two poetry chapbooks, Panic & Joy and Double Life. She teaches at Chatham University, where she is poetry editor of The Fourth River. Find her poetry here.