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.
McHugh’s first collection of poems, Dangers: Poems, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977. Since then, she has published numerous 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 (Wesleyan University Press, 1999); Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968–1993 (Wesleyan University Press, 1994), a finalist for the National Book Award and named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review; Shades (Wesleyan University Press, 1988); To the Quick (Wesleyan University Press, 1987); and A World of Difference (Houghton Mifflin, 1981).
McHugh is also the author of a collection of literary essays titled Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Wesleyan University Press, 1993), and three books of translation: Glottal Stop: Poems of Paul Celan, co-translated with Nikolai Popov (Wesleyan University Press, 2000), winner of the Griffin International Poetry Prize; Because the Sea is Black: Poems of Blaga Dimitrova, co-translated with Niko Boris (Wesleyan University Press, 1989); and D’après tout: Poems by Jean Follain (Princeton University Press, 1981).
With Ellen Bryant Voigt, McHugh coedited the anthology Hammer and Blaze: A Gathering of Contemporary American Poets (University of Georgia Press, 2002). 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 over-known.
McHugh’s 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, McHugh 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’s "Genius Grant" for her work.
For more than twenty years, McHugh has served as a visiting faculty member in the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College and, since 1984, as the Milliman Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington.