Faculty Spotlight: Chard deNiord
This article was published in the Fall 2021 issue of the New England College Magazine.
Co-Founder and Former Program Director of NEC’s
MFA in Creative Writing | 2002–2008
Did deNiord always know he wanted to be a poet? The short answer is no…and yes.
“I grew up reading, reading, reading. I was overwhelmed by the classics,” he recalls. Shakespeare, Dante, the dual influence of Robert Frost and Bob Dylan, Emily Dickinson—deNiord could not get enough. Even in high school, he was encouraged to write by an influential teacher. “Students are often discouraged from pursuing the art they love, and I was grateful to be encouraged.”
Yet, deNiord attended Yale Divinity School with the intention of becoming a minister. He stopped short of being ordained and began working at a mental health facility in New Haven, Connecticut. Five years later, he admitted what he had always known: He wanted to be a writer.
“You know, it takes a while to admit. You write secretly for a long time; you’re obsessed with it,” he says. Armed with this new awareness—but no money—he packed up his wife and two young children and headed off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most prestigious creative writing program in the country.
After Iowa, deNiord began teaching in New England and publishing his poetry. His first book, Asleep in the Fire, was published in 1990. Six other books of poetry followed—Sharp Golden Thorn in 2002, Night Mowing in 2005, Speaking in Turn with Tony Sanders in 2011, The Double Truth in 2011, Interstate in 2015, and In My Unknowing in 2020—along with two collections of interviews with distinguished American poets: Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets in 2011 and I Would Lie to You if I Could in 2018.
But it was at Iowa that deNiord fatefully met teacher Gerald (Jerry) Stern, with whom he would later co-found NEC’s MFA in Creative Writing program. “I had told Jerry that I wanted to start an MFA in poetry somewhere and that if he ever learned of an opportunity, I would love to be part of it,” deNiord recounts. Stern, as it turns out, was friends with Ellen Hurwitz, President of NEC from 1999–2004, and Hurwitz wanted to establish an MFA program. deNiord jumped at the opportunity to be part of this new program at NEC.
The team of deNiord, Stern, Hurwitz, and Jacqueline Gens (who served as the program’s first administrator) worked to get the program up and running. deNiord developed a description of the program, and then they started advertising. “We advertised without one cent of seed money because NEC at the time didn’t have the money to help,” he says. “Lo and behold, in 2001, 10 students applied.” Over the next eight years, as deNiord served as Program Director, students kept coming to the program, some from as far away as England and Japan. In 2008, deNiord left the program with 55 students enrolled.
NEC’s MFA in poetry became known for two hallmarks: first-rate faculty and intensive residencies held twice a year. Faculty included Maxine Kumin, one of the foremost American poets at the time who lived in nearby Warner, New Hampshire; Charles Simic; Alicia Ostriker; Jane Mead; Anne Waldman; Judith Hall; Thomas Lux; Lee Young Lee; and Paula McClain, who wrote the novel The Paris Wife. “We had a wide variety of poets, and by the time I left the program, NEC had the best poetry faculty in the country,” deNiord states with pride. The residencies, he adds, offered students the opportunity to participate in classes, readings, and discussions with these esteemed faculty members. “The program led to a degree, sure, but really it was an apprenticeship for students to sit at the feet of America’s preeminent poets and learn from them.”
At least a third of the students during deNiord’s time with the program went on to publish their poetry. Some of the most notable include Stephan Delbos, poet laureate of Plymouth, Massachusetts; Tara Betts, a well-known Black poet; Regie Gibson, a performance poet; Tayve Neese; Terry Lucas; Christina Lovin; and broadcaster Ira Joe Fisher.
While deNiord saw NEC’s MFA in Creative Writing find its footing and flourish, he also recognized the time to move on. “I had been teaching at Providence College simultaneously, and I couldn’t continue to work at two colleges. When Jerry left the program, it seemed like the right time for me to leave as well.”
deNiord’s departure led to the arrival of new Program Director Jennifer Militello and a new era for the program. Militello, the author of four collections of poetry herself, expanded the program to include other writing genres. deNiord commends Militello’s vision to open up the program to include fiction, non-fiction, and stage and screen writing and President Michele Perkins’ continued support of the program. “I cannot stress enough how remarkably supportive of the MFA program Dr. Perkins has been. Her leadership and belief in the program have been exemplary as it has grown from strength to strength, attracting top-notch faculty and providing generous scholarships to promising students. I could not be happier that the program has continued.”
With his writing, deNiord thrives on creating something out of nothing and seeing where it goes. “Sometimes it goes nowhere, and sometimes it takes off,” he says. His poetry has earned a Pushcart Prize and recognition by the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America, although he brushes off the awards because he believes basking in them can be dangerous. He co-founded a writing workshop in Mexico before setting his sights on NEC. Perhaps most notably, he was named poet laureate of Vermont for 2015–2019.
Careers can be like writing; sometimes they go nowhere, but sometimes they take off.
Learn more about Chard at charddeniord.com.