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On the Trail of the Poet: Seattle Writer Frances McCue on Her Quest for Richard Hugo—and Beyond

Small towns of Washington, Oregon and especially Montana “triggered” or inspired many of the major poems of Richard Hugo.  From each place, he drew images that led to memorable works “that capture the torque between temperament and terrain that is so vital in any consideration of place,” according to Seattle writing professor and poet Frances McCue.

McCue, founding director of the Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, retraced Hugo’s odyssey and revisited the towns that moved him to poetry four decades earlier.  She recounts her journey with legendary Northwest photographer Mary Randlett in her new book The Car that Brought You Here Still Runs: Retracing the Northwest Towns of Richard Hugo (University of Washington Press). The book is an innovative blend of travel writing, history and literary musing that contains Hugo’s important northwest town poems as well as McCue’s thoughtful responses to the poems and towns, and Randlett’s stark and evocative black-and-white photographs.

A reviewer in The Oregonian wrote that The Car that Brought You Here “is a deeply felt meditation on how and where Hugo created his poetry.  McCue's book is greatly enhanced by the photography of Mary Randlett, who saw what Hugo did in the thickets of the Duwamish River and a restaurant in Cataldo, Idaho, and the weathered bleachers at a school in Dixon, Mont.”  And writer Kim Barnes called the book “a beautifully vivid and poignant meditation on the landscape of the heart and how we are shaped by the poetics of place.”

McCue is the Writer in Residence in the University of Washington’s Undergraduate Honors Program.  She has an M.F.A. from the University of Washington and a doctorate from Columbia University.  Her newest book of poetry, The Bled, will appear in the fall.  Her previous book, The Stenographer’s Breakfast, was honored with the Barnard New Women Poets Prize.

In a recent conversation at a Seattle café, McCue comments ranged from her innovative new book and the life of Hugo to the legacy if her late husband, homeless advocate and writer Gary Greaves. 

Lindley:  How did you get hooked on poet Richard Hugo?

McCue:  It was his book The Triggering Town about how to write poems and how to build community.  But really I got to Hugo through [Oregon poet] Bill Stafford.  As an undergraduate in New Hampshire, I found a William Stafford book and loved his plainspoken vernacular, his approachable, loving voice.  At a time when poetry was turning icy, Stafford felt like a warm glow.

I became obsessed with [Stafford], and I moved to the west.  I got to San Francisco, ran out of money, and decided to stay.  I met my boyfriend, who turned out to be my husband, twenty-five years ago.  I knew that I really liked him because, on our first date, he took me to a Galway Kinnell reading at Stanford.

When I arrived in the West, I saw that William Stafford was reading in San Jose.  I was so enamored that I was seeing my hero in person, and I was 22.  I wrote a little fan letter at intermission.  After he read the letter, Stafford took my hand, walked me to where he was sitting, and said, “You sit here with me, and I’ll get you some wine.”  Wow.  After the reading, he gave me a little note I still have framed over my desk:  “Dear Frances McCue, Thank you so much for telling me of your writing and your experiences at U. New Hampshire with Simic and McBride [Charles Simic and Mekeel McBride].  Keep writing and finding the good life and a good sojourn in the west to you.”

I got to Seattle and studied here, [and] over time, I read The Triggering Town and became enamored of Hugo.  Then, we needed a name for the writing center, and realized Hugo would be a great person to name it after.  Gary was the one who suggested it.  That had to do social justice and reaching people who were unlikely to become poets.  But it started with Stafford.

After Hugo House opened in 1996, I started reading Hugo more deeply.  My friend Matthew Stadler, a novelist, brought Hugo to my attention more deeply.  I also had a deliberate, wonderful mentor, Donna Gerstenberger, a former chair of the English Department at UW, who told l me to interview this person and that, and ask this, and I’d always do what Donna said.  And the physical transport back and forth to Montana was amazing, and I fell in love with all the towns.

Lindley:  Your book captures the unique human and natural challenges in those little towns.

McCue:  It was great to have this opening to write about the environmental and economic hardships these places face.  Hugo wasn’t a screaming ecology freak.  He flirted with nostalgia.  He was upset that the Pike Place Market might be torn down, that the freeway was displacing the residential south in Seattle, and that the Duwamish River had been re-routed.  The disruption of disintegrating things that he found beautiful was his interest.  Mine was looking at that as a synecdoche for a bigger loss, and I wanted to pull back the curtain on the vast environmental devastation.

It was fun to go to the headwaters of the poems and look at the places.  It’s something about an art form that’s so abstract and then finding the actual place from which it came.  I like the feeling of reading and landscape meeting.

Lindley:  You write of Hugo’s rough childhood in White Center.  His mother left him with her parents?

McCue:  His [biological] father was named Franklin Hogan.  His mother gave birth to Hugo when she was seventeen.  She left him with her parents and married a Navy man named Herbert Hugo, apparently a lovely man.  Hugo changed his name from Hogan to Hugo.  For Hugo, [Herbert] was this man dressed in white, and they would take him out every now and then, but they didn’t take custody of him.  Hugo accepted Herbert as his father, but Herbert didn’t fit that role fully, and Franklin was probably a high school kid who disappeared.

Lindley:  You detail Hugo’s harsh upbringing by his grandparents.

McCue:  They were German immigrants who moved from the Midwest in search of work.  They were uneducated and dogmatic.  The poem “White Center” is brutal about Hugo’s grandmother, and he was happy when she was buried.          

Lindley:  And from such an unpromising start he became a great artist. 

McCue:  He had no mentors:  no one to show him how to treat women, and no one to show him how to be a man.  Luckily, he did find people who showed him how to be an artist.  And his Uncle Warren did show him how to fish.

Lindley:  Do you see Hugo as a political writer?

McCue:  No.  He grew up in a neighborhood [White Center] where, if you were lucky to get out, you worked at Boeing building war craft.  It’s not likely he started from a liberal place, but [his] sense of humanity and understanding of the power structure make him a broader progressive thinker.

Lindley:  He worked at Boeing?

McCue:  He worked there while in school at UW.  He wrote procurement documents to convince the government to invest in Boeing, like grant writing today.  He also worked in the slag pile until a friend said you should work inside.

Lindley:  How close was he with his mentor Theodore Roethke?

McCue:  It was a student-teacher relationship.  Roethke was moving in some high circles with Seattle’s art elite.  Hugo had a lot on his hands with an early marriage and working at Boeing [so] he and Roethke didn’t overlap, but they certainly respected each other.

Lindley:  He showed great compassion for regular people, for underdogs. 

McCue:  Yes.  All the people who weren’t influential. 

Lindley:  In a poem for Denise Levertov from Butte, he said it was a place “where children get hurt early.”  He also called the nation is “an amorphous collection of failed dreams.”

McCue:  That’s in a letter poem to [Prof. Arthur] Oberg from Pony [Montana].  With his letter poems, he was communicating with sadness and anger, before his redemption of marrying Ripley in 1974.  He was married to her for the last years of his life.

Lindley:  You included some of your poetry in response to Hugo’s work.

McCue:  Only in the Pony chapter.  I wanted something more lyric and fragile and graceful.  I chose prose poems because of [their] magic realism quality and Baudelairean wonder at the small parts of things.  I wanted glimpses of Pony rather than a narrative response.  In Silver Star, a town smaller than Pony, I [wrote] a short story with character and dialogue rather than a historical inquiry.  Philipsburg became a stage to talk about misogyny and gender and Hugo’s friends there.  I had to face up to some of the gender issues in Hugo’s work.

Lindley:  And your book includes the moving photographs of acclaimed Northwest photographer Mary Randlett.

McCue:  I’m absolutely in awe of Mary.  She’s working full time as an artist at 86.   And she’s still working in film, and has to be in her darkroom for full days producing these prints.  She’s a great combination of mischievous and humble, and very down to earth.

She had never photographed Montana, and these big, open landscapes were a treasure to her.  Her photographs in the book are beautiful in composition, simple, a bit stark and desolate, and a little melancholy, often empty of people.  It’s a nice juxtaposition to the poems because they become states onto which you can project anything [and] imagine more.  Hugo’s poems are more populated than Mary’s photographs. 

I like the way Mary’s photos and Hugo’s poems give off a similar ache.  My prose is a third dimension artistically.

Lindley:  You’ve conducted many interviews with Hugo’s friends and family.

McCue:  Because I started this writer’s house in honor of their friend, it was important for me to get it right.  They own Hugo’s memory, and they’re protective of it.  I did formal video interviews [with] incredible footage of Madeleine DeFrees.  Ripley, Bill Kittredge, Jim and Lois Welch, Donna Gerstenberger, and Annick Smith [who] did a PBS documentary called Kicking the Loose Gravel Home.  I have a robust collection on Hugo to deliver to the archives at the UW.

The research on the towns was more difficult because you’re relying on tourist brochures, or conflicting information, or newspaper reports that may not always be right.

Lindley:  You mentioned a resurgence of interest in Hugo.

McCue:  Over the past five years, I hear more reports of Hugo being read by graduate students and people writing about him.  Charles D’Ambrosio, a writer in Portland, wrote a terrific, groundbreaking essay on “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.”  And Hugo House adds in making Hugo’s legacy visible, particularly in this region. 

Lindley:  You founded Hugo House, and now it’s a venerable Seattle cultural treasure.

McCue:  With Hugo House, I was interested in bringing people from all different backgrounds together to write [rather than] an incubator for people with MFAs.  I wanted to bring in people with less of a chance in the world, and that was inspired by Hugo.  Hugo started without much of a chance and went on to write beautiful poems.   We wanted a space where people could have a voice even if they weren’t credentialed or formally educated.  At the beginning, homeless youth would end up in Hugo House writing.             

Lindley:  Your book on Hugo concludes with your trip to Taholah on the Washington coast with your husband.  Is he a writer too?

McCue:  He was.  He died last year.

Lindley:  I’m so sorry.  I didn’t know that.

McCue:  It’s a big tragedy for my daughter and me.  We were living in Morocco.  I was on a Fulbright scholarship there.  He fell playing basketball and hit his head, and died.   We’re still reeling from it. 

My husband, Gary Greaves, was one of the brave, quiet homeless advocates.  He worked for the First Avenue Service Center and started a meal program in the (Central District).  When we moved into Hugo House, he went to Central Lutheran Church to work at their meal program and hooked up with Jon Nelson, the minister there—an incredible man.  With Jon, he started taking writers from Hugo House to the prison at Monroe, and he did that until we went to Morocco.  

There were amazing stories.  Gary coached a guy named John Knapp, and then Gary hooked him up with a job, and John is thriving now.  That’s Gary’s quiet legacy.  He worked behind the scenes.  He also volunteered and did a lot of work collecting oral histories of Seattle elders.  And, through Hugo House, he had a deep connection to people who were in transition.  And he was a writer with a book of poetry, an unpublished novel, a collection of oral histories and an unfinished memoir.

The last lines of the book:  “For Gary and me, there’s no place to stay overnight.  Taholah is for the people who live there, not for us.  It was enough to visit, to be enamored of the setting.  We head off, my head leaning on Gary’s arm, driving toward Moclips.  We are hoping there will be a place for us there, though no poem awaits, no way to know the town ahead of time.”

The next thing that happens to us is that Gary dies.  The book is hopeful and adventurous, and then we go to Morocco, and tragedy happens.  It’s a road trip book, and the road trip leads to Morocco and he dies.  The trail out of this book leads to him dying.