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Born on August 20, 1948, to Canadian parents in San Diego, California, Heather McHugh was raised in Gloucester Point, Virginia. Her father was a marine biologist, and directed the marine biological laboratory on the York River. She entered Harvard University at the age of seventeen.
Her first collection of poems, Dangers: Poems, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977. Since then, she has published several acclaimed collections, most recently Upgraded to Serious (Copper Canyon Press, 2009); Eyeshot (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize; The Father of Predicaments (2001); Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993 (1994), a finalist for the National Book Award and named a "Notable Book of the Year" by the New York Times Book Review; Shades (1988); To the Quick (1987); and A World of Difference (Houghton Mifflin, 1981).
She is also the author of a collection of literary essays titled Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (1993), and three books of translation: Glottal Stop: Poems of Paul Celan (with Nikolai Popov, 2001), winner of the Griffin International Poetry Prize; Because the Sea is Black: Poems of Blaga Dimitrova (with Niko Boris, 1989); and D'après tout: Poems by Jean Follain (1981).
McHugh also edited the anthology New Voices: University and College Prizes (Academy of American Poets, 1999), and served as the 2007 guest editor for the Best American Poetry series.
In a 1999 interview, McHugh said, "If you're a poet smitten with English, you love it for its drive and not its drone. The rhythms of a language must be irresistible—while the humdrums of it have to be resisted. No linguistic habit is, per se, of interest—but ah! when the unsung (underlying) nun informs it—with a sensual twist or quick shape-shift! Well, that's the trick: the sudden unexpectedness inside the overknown."
Her honors include two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Award, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and, in 2006, one of the first United States Artists awards. From 1999 to 2006 she served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and in 2000 was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2009, she was awarded the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" for her work.
For over 20 years, she has served as a visiting faculty member in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and since 1984 as Milliman Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle.