February Artist of the Month Heather Hughes, interviewed by Andrea Read
How long have you lived in Somerville? What drew you initially, and what continues to draw you, to the city?
I’ve lived in Somerville for 13 years. When I was first moving to the city, it was popularly known as the place with the second-highest concentration of poets in the US (outside of Brooklyn). In fact, I returned to Somerville after a spell on the other side of the river because a poet I knew was moving away and I could take up their lease.
There’s a great deal of creative energy in Somerville, it’s one of the city’s greatest strengths. I walk the city often when the weather allows.
Writing is often such a solitary creative process. How would you characterize the writing life in Somerville? How might the city help foster opportunities for writers to gather, collaborate, and inspire one another? What about opportunities to engage the community at large in the literary arts and the writing that happens here?
This is a difficult question to answer in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. I’ve certainly felt more disconnected from the city and from the local writing community over the last two years, and I’m not alone in that. I think it’s temporary, but it’s still very much the case for me right now.
I would love to see Somerville sponsor and facilitate collaborations between writers and artists from other disciplines. I’ve known writers and visual artists, musicians, printmakers, and others who have worked together to create some stunning and engaging work. One possibility might be to sponsor a series of day-long residencies at the Armory that allow writers and other artists to meet and collaborate, with an exhibition, for which the artists receive a small stipend, several months later as a culmination.
There are also, I think, many opportunities for writers to collaborate with locally owned businesses. I’ve had wonderful collaborations with Tiny Turns Paperie at Bow Market, including online poetry writing workshops during the pandemic.
Preserving and expanding arts spaces in all corners of the city is really, to me, the key to fostering opportunities and collaboration. Community and access feed art.
What most inspires your poetry these days? What are you reading, watching, listening to, doing?
I’m all over the map… I’m pursuing some graduate studies in emergency management (which I affectionately call disaster school). It sounds far afield, but it does feed into my poetry, and visa-versa. I am still thinking this through, but for me there’s a connection between poetry and disaster in the need to connect with others and to communicate profound, intense, and difficult-to-express experiences.
I’m sequencing a chapbook right now, so I’m listening to albums that inspire me to dig into how one piece flows into the next and where the echoes are: Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet.
I’m currently reading fellow Somerville poet Natalie Shapero’s Popular Longing, a collection of Greg Tate’s essays, and Daniel Heath Justice’s Why Indigenous Literatures Matter.
I remember you were working on long poems... can you tell us more about that project?
I have two poetry projects in process that might be what you’re thinking of!
The one that’s nearly done is a series of longer collage-style speculative poems collectively titled “The Ferals Pack for the Moon.” An online journal I especially admire, Sidereal Magazine, published “Gravitational Seduction.” The poems do flow into one another like a booklength poem, and I’m hoping to see them all come together in print before much longer.
The other is still in earlier stages of research and drafting, and I do envision it as a single book-length poem in the end. It’s a post-disaster, sci-fi poem that engages with eugenics. (I’m fun at parties.)
You are a poet who takes literary citizenship seriously. Tell us about your involvement with poetry in the schools and the "Poetry Out Loud" project.
As much as writing is solitary, poetry is very communal for me. I’ve done poetry workshops with 826Boston and with Mass Poetry’s Student Day of Poetry program, and I’m returning to judge for Poetry Out Loud next month. Student poets are brilliant and inspiring; I can’t recommend working with these organizations highly enough.
You do beautiful letterpress work. How did you begin doing letterpress? What have been some of your favorite and/or challenging projects? What are you currently working on?
Thank you! February is my ‘printversary’ month – I first learned letterpress in 2014 and have been the studio manager for Bow & Arrow Press at Harvard University since 2018. I love the meditative quality of setting metal type by hand, one character at a time, the ways it challenges me to think spatially, and encourages me to accept happy accidents and imperfections as part of the artistic process. One highlight of my printing adventures was collaborating with Massachusetts poet Hannah Larrabee on her James Webb Space Telescope poems for an exhibition at NASA’s Goddard Space Center.
I have two ongoing projects that I’m deeply invested in that bring poetry and printwork together: one is a poetry postcard series and the other is a Lesley MFA poetry broadside series. I like taking a slice of poetry and making it into an everyday object, like a postcard, and it’s nice to have smaller-scale projects. Broadsides are a serious time investment because I typeset by hand and often also design and carve a block to accompany the poem.
I’m just getting back into the print studio now after our pandemic dormancy. I’m continuing to work on these two series and also conceptualizing new prints that revolve around the ecology of Miami and the Everglades as well as climate crisis and disasters. I’m from Miami and the landscapes of South Florida are always peeking out of my writing and printing in some way.
What are some of your favorite Somerville haunts -- restaurants, bars, coffeeshops, venues, out-of-the-way or unusual places?
I’ll try not to go overboard here, because there are so many places in Somerville I love. I have to start with my yoga studio, O2 Yoga, which just closed their physical home of 20+ years but remains online. A great community-oriented place. Bow Market and Nave Gallery and ONCE. I hope Somerville will prioritize bringing more music venues back to the city – gone but not forgotten Johnny D’s, Bull McCabe’s, Thunder Road/Radio Bar, the Skybar.
Some restaurants, coffee shops, & bars: House of Tibet Kitchen (are they coming back?!), Sarma, Daddy Jones, Remnant brewery, Guru, Manoa, Tenoch, Buenas, Tanam, Hen Chicken Rice, the Burren, 3 Little Figs, Diesel, Pikliz, Fasika, Machu Picchu
Where do you most like to do your writing?
I write mostly at home these days, but I’ve been known to do a lot of writing at coffee shops. I’ve also organized weekend writing retreats with friends in some seaside MA towns, and I am looking forward to reviving those.