It’s easy to forget the caliber of the people you are rubbing elbows with every day. So let me take a moment to blow their collective horn – especially since they’re so humble. Many of you may have seen the recent New Yorker article about high-tech Stanford’s close relationship with Silicon Valley. Fewer people, alas, know that it also has one of the top-rated faculties in English and Creative Writing anywhere.
This year has been a banner year. Stanford and its alums have bagged a Pulitzer, a Ruth Lilly Prize, a National Book Award, a Guggenheim, a presidential awards. Everything short of a Nobel. Are you listening, Stockholm?
From a piece I wrote recently:
Turning 40 is a landmark for many, and poet Tracy Smith was no exception. She planned to celebrate in style with champagne. But what she didn’t expect was the biggest present ever: her husband told her The New York Timeswebsite had just announced that she’d won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry.The new Pulitzer for Smith, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, is one of several awards that have put a spotlight on Stanford’s top-ranked English Department and its renowned Creative Writing Program– a sometimes overlooked triumph on a campus that more often prides itself on its technological savvy.
Poet W.S. Di Piero got the news that he had won the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize on April 1. “They called me on April Fools Day. So I had to ask twice if they were serious. They said it was on the up and up.”
“In the land of poetry it’s a big prize,” said the emeritus professor of English. His new collection of poetry, Nitro Nights, was published in December, but the $100,000 award honors lifetime accomplishments.
According to Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, “He wakes up the language, and in doing so wakes up his readers, whose lives are suddenly sharper and larger than they were before. He’s a great poet whose work is just beginning to get the wide audience it deserves.”
Poets weren’t the only ones to get prizes: English Prof. Denise Gigante got a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship, topping a year that had already brought stunning accolades: The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review.
The Guggenheim will give her time to work on her new book, The Book Madness: Charles Lamb’s Midnight Darlings in New York, a study of 19th century bibliomania, the formation of important libraries and literary culture in America, and the half-forgotten English essayist Charles Lamb.
“Americans were fascinated with the figures of British poets,” said Gigante. “Culture was imported from Britain – that’s not true today. And library-makers were the cultural brokers of the time.” Her book will be “an experiment in literary critical form,” she said.
Gavin Jones, English Department chair, said, “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”
The list of awards continues: President Obama awarded Prof. Ramón Saldívar a National Humanities medal in February. (Arnold Rampersad, emeritus professor of English, received the same award a year before.)
The English Department has consistently been at the top of U.S. News and World Report rankings of graduate programs. The creative writing program, which does not confer an MFA, is considered by many to be the best in the country. Its Stegner fellows form a tight-knit, ongoing society.
Pulitzer prizewinner Smith, at Stanford from 1997 to 1999, said her years at Stanford “pushed me to move towards a mature sense of what I was doing. To be honest, I didn’t know how to do that.”
The program’s focus on moving from manuscript to book “frees you from the person you were as a student and into what you will be as a poet.”
Smith, now an assistant professor at Princeton, was awarded for her collection Life on Mars. The New York Times called her “a poet of extraordinary range and ambition” whose book “first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”
Although many may have seen The Descendants, a critically praised film with George Clooney that won two Golden Globe awards (for best picture and best actor in drama), few know it was born in the English Department. Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Stegner Fellow from 2002-2004, was working on the novel while at Stanford.
Jesmyn Ward became the out-of-nowhere winner of the prestigious National Book Award for 2011 with Salvage the Bones, a novel about a working-class family confronting the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.
Novelist Tobias Wolff said, “One of the great pleasures of teaching in the Stegner program is seeing the manuscripts we discuss in our workshops turn into books, distinguished, remarkable books, and recognized as such by the larger world.”
“Jesmyn Ward’s recent success is but one of too many examples to list here,” said the professor of English.
Eavan Boland, one of Ireland’s leading poets and director of the Creative Writing Program, called it “a stellar year” for the English department – but cautioned that “our entire focus has to be on the writing and not the recognition. The writing life is an end in itself – that’s what the program stands for.”
“We have many outstanding Stegners who don’t win awards and go on to be significant writers through their commitment to that life and its outcomes.”
For the award-winners, however, the recognition certainly doesn’t hurt: “I’ve done a lot of the research, but the writing needs the fellowship,” said Gigante. “I needed to have this award. The timing seems perfect.”
For Smith, now working on a memoir, the birthday bash was even bigger than she had planned. “A lot of champagne was involved,” said Smith. “It was put to good use, very quickly.”
What will Di Piero do with all the money? “Of course the first thing that came to mind a really hot, fast car. I don’t own one, so if I’m going to buy one, I should get serious.”
“But in order to buy a car, I need a parking space, and to have a parking space, I should buy a house. And even the Lilly prize doesn’t go far enough to buy a house in San Francisco.”