The Creative Writing program can boast being the academic home of four “geniuses.” Heather McHugh, Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, was named a 2009 MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for her poetry. As a new Fellow, she is in good company in the Department: Richard Kenney (poetry) was awarded the grant in 1987, and Charles Johnson (fiction) and Linda Bierds (poetry) were awarded grants in 1998. The UW Creative Writing Program is now the only writing program in the country to have four MacArthur Fellows on the faculty at one time.
McHugh sees her award as a testament to the strength of the writing program. “It is an amazing M.F.A. program in which I have had the good fortune to teach for the past quarter century,” she says. “I suspect we’re among the very few M.F.A. programs anywhere that nourishes such robust goodwill among its writers. I think we’re different enough to be able to admire one another—and like enough to not want to sire our clones—and the combination makes for healthy M.F.A. DNA.”
Pimone Triplett, Director of Creative Writing, adds: “These honors certainly reflect the strength of a program which already enjoys a stellar national reputation. My genius colleagues are also in good company with the program’s past, since over the years we’ve tried to build on the brilliant foundation of prize-winning poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Theodore Roethke, both of whom taught here during the program’s early days. What’s more (with the current exception of Charles Johnson, who is newly retired), students have always been given full access to our MacArthur Fellows, all of whom teach normally at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. That’s unusual in a program with so many bright lights.”
The prestigious MacArthur Fellowship recognizes artists, scientists, scholars, and humanitarians for their extraordinary creative contributions to their fields and the promise of their talents. “The validations of an artist or scholar’s work by a MacArthur (which some people have called a ‘mini-Nobel’) is far more important than the money, which is not intended to make anyone rich,” explains Johnson. “What the majority of MacArthur Fellows have in common is the fact they have enriched their field through an original and important contribution, often going against easy, popular trends in their discipline in order to break new ground.”
“The grant not only rewards people for their accomplishments or potential, but also creates conditions in which interesting things happen,” says Kenney. He feels that the grant changed the trajectory of his work, and his life, in ways that no other award has. His experiences meeting other MacArthur Fellows led him to investigate the relationship between poetry and the natural world in innovative ways. It was his collaboration with Professor Mott Greene, a science historian at the University of Puget Sound and 1983 MacArthur Fellow, that led to the development of the Creative Writing Program at the UW’s Marine Station at Friday Harbor. “The people I’ve met thanks to the Fellows Program—friends and acquaintances across many disciplines, over many years—these associations have proven the most precious and enduring aspect of the whole experience.”