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Frances McCue Answers Questions about the Book She’s Writing: “It’s really not a memoir. It’s something else.”

Frances McCue is almost done writing a book called Chasing Richard Hugo, a memoir about being obsessed with a dead man. It’s full of daring stuff, including imaginary encounters with the poet based on his letters or things he said or did around his friends, and parts of an essay McCue once read at Hugo House about the strange relationship she has with her father. “Hugo started to take on this lost-father image for me, because I grew up with an absent father who positioned himself near my mother and me, though he never lived with us. I never saw or met him, yet it turned out he was lingering on the edges, and so I’ve always been obsessed with reversing surveillance, with watching the watchers, and Hugo became like the father I was always missing,” McCue says.

McCue won the Barnard New Women Poets Award in 1992, founded Richard Hugo House in 1997, and was shortlisted for a Stranger Genius Award in literature in 2003. She reads from the memoir-in-progress tonight at Richard Hugo House. She’ll also be showing a film she made in Philipsburg, Montana with William Kittredge, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Annick Smith. “Kittredge stands in the old husk of a mill—all that’s left is pipes and wreckage—and reads a poem by Hugo about a beautiful mill in Montana that ‘won’t fall finally down’,” McCue says. “Kittredge is reading this in the blinding sunshine and it’s killer.”

The event info: Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, 322-7030, 7:30 pm, $10. McCue answers a couple of my questions about the book—and her father, and her search for a publisher—after the jump. (To read it, click on the “Continue reading…” link right below this.)

What's the first sentence of your book?
"When I image Richard Hugo, he's hoisting himself out of a Buick, pulling forward on the upholstered handle, squeaking up from the seat, bobbing up to the surface."

Can you explain why Richard Hugo means so much to you?
Probably not... [Laughs.]

You named Richard Hugo House. You've devoted a lot of your career to thinking about him.
Yeah, exactly. Naming the house came easily because he was one of the only writers from this region to write about people and places that were overlooked. And when I worked there I always had my mind on him, because I was always trying to filter my work through what he meant, and what his poems meant. Like, for example, he wrote this poem called "Neighbor," and it's about this guy who lived across the street from him who passed out in his yard, and the quote in the poem is that he was "bleeding from the corners in his grin." When Hugo was looking at this drunk guy in his yard, he didn't look at him with pity. He looked at him as if to say: OK, that's what I'm going to be like. It was almost with envy. I realized that the cue for Hugo House was that the down-and-outer guy should always find a place with us. Writers are the ultimate outsiders, crafting things on the fringes of the culture, and reporting in. Hugo House needed to be a place where these folks felt entitled to be a part of things. That's one example. So I started living in this fog of seeing the poems in everything I did and everywhere I went.

Your father was absent when you were growing up. Later you learned he was spying on you. You wrote an essay about this--and about confessional poetry--that you gave as a lecture at Hugo House once. Can you remind me of the facts?
I grew up without a father and my family would never answer questions or show me photos of him. I started having feelings about being watched, and when I finally met him in my 20s it turned out I was watched. This would drive anyone, particularly a young woman in her twenties, into confessional poetry--Lowell, Plath, Sexton, and even Bishop (though no one would pin her as one of that tribe). And then to find out later that all my half sisters, his daughters, live here in Seattle, even though none of them are from here--that means life is crazier than believing that poems can come to life in the landscape. Or that a dead guy can lead you on a chase.

How much of that is in this book?
Some of it. The account that I'm trying to tell is really a three-pronged orphan story. Hugo was left for his grandparents to raise him while his mother ran off and married someone else and lived separately. He was forever the outsider. Later, it turns out that Hugo is this old fat bald guy who works at Boeing, and isn't hired as a professor or any kind of job related to poetry until he is 40. He was an outsider and wrote obsessively, beautifully, about a world outside the middle class. And I grew up without a father and my grandparents raised me, until I was older and my mother eloped and married a man who took me in. And my daughter was a Romanian orphan--the three of us struggle to hold artistic voices and report in from the margins.

Do you have a publisher?
Right now it's sitting at Viking, and it's been sitting there a while and they're looking at it. The big hurdle is, I think, I'm writing about Richard Hugo and not Frank O'Hara. And as mystical and strange as the Northwest seems to New York, they wonder how to market things from here.

Comments (3)


Frances McCue Answers Questions about the Book Shes Writing: Its really not a memoir. Its something else.
Write a fucking memoir about your dad as a ghost. Fine. I might be interested. But if you're going to be coy and annoying about the form. Then, I'm a lot less interested in your book. Or is it not really a "book" it's something else."

Posted by m. Hertzmann | January 31, 2007 1:58 PM

Uh, Hertzmann -- what gives? There are lots of books that are packaged as one thing by publishers but don't really fit those commercially defined shapes. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? Moby Dick? McCue's book sounds fascinating, and all the better for not being just a memoir.

Posted by christopher frizzelle | January 31, 2007 2:56 PM

seriously hertzman...don't hate. frances is rad.

Posted by dre | January 31, 2007 6:33 PM

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