by Michelle A.L. Singer
On Nov. 2, 2015, Chard deNiord of Westminster West, became the eighth Poet Laureate of Vermont. He follows in the footsteps of Sydney Lea, Ruth Stone, Grace Paley, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Louise Gluck, Galway Kinnell and Robert Frost who was named the first Poet Laureate of Vermont in 1961. The Vermont Poet Laureate must be a resident of Vermont, have a critically acclaimed body of work, and have a long association with Vermont. Chard deNiord fits all those criteria.
Currently he teaches English and Creative Writing at Providence College, where he is Professor of English. He is the author of five books of poetry, including Interstate, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) and Night Mowing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).
DeNiord ushered in PoemCity, Montpelier’s celebration of National Poetry Month, as this year’s kick-off speaker at an event hosted by the Vermont College of Fine Arts in their Alumni Hall on April 1. Now in its seventh year, PoemCity will feature nearly 400 poems from Vermont poets, including deNiord, in over 100 downtown storefronts for the month of April. DeNiord will also be at Bear Pond Books as part of their Educators Workshop Series on Saturday, April 9, from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
DeNiord graciously met with me to answer some of the questions I had about poetry, education and culture. His book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin, Jack Gilbert, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Robert Bly titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets, was published by Marick Press in 2012. He continues to interview poets as well as write a monthly column about poetry in the Valley News. The following is an excerpt from our interview.
deNiord: I’ve just been talking to Carolyn Forché, in this long series of interviews I’ve been doing. When she wrote The Country Between Us about the horrors of the civil war in El Salvador, nobody wanted to hear it. And what is she doing anyway at the age of 26 going to El Salvador and coming back with this news that contradicts our official government policy — the Central Intelligence Agency involvement in supporting the Junta that was supporting the death squads in El Salvador? You know, nobody wanted to hear it. It’s not our news. It’s not accepted as our avenue of news, of communicating essential goings-on.
An interesting story about Carolyn, when she was teaching at San Diego State, I believe, right after she’d won the Yale Younger Poets prize and was translating a Nicaraguan poet named Claribel Alegría, Claribel’s cousin, a man name Leonel came to Carolyn in San Diego and said, ‘You have to go to El Salvador.’ And she said, ‘Why me, I’m just a young poet?’ And he said, ‘Because we need a poet to tell the news.’ It hadn’t even happened yet, it hadn’t really blown up yet, the civil war. She says, ‘Send a journalist, I’m teaching, why should I go?’ She respected this guy, and he said, ‘No, you don’t understand, you’re the poet. You have to go to El Salvador.’ So Amnesty International supported her and she ended up going. That’s why she went. Not because she wanted to. And then she came back with all that news. See, in other cultures, poetry is the news and it’s accessible. In this country I think that it’s viewed as a difficult genre by most of the population. And again, poets haven’t always helped themselves in that regard in this country. It’s not easy reading Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound and more recently Jorie Graham. And it’s almost impossible, if not impossible, reading L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry. But people just read one poem by someone like Eliot and say, ‘What’s this?’ or Ezra Pound and say, ‘I can’t teach that.’ And they often start there, without looking any further.
Singer: Right. So when people say we need poets to save the world, that’s what we’re talking about.
deNiord: Exactly. Czelaw Milosz, the great Polish poet and noble laureate, said the same thing — ‘Poetry must help save nations and people.’ If a poet doesn’t write with that ambition, of saving his or her country, then he or she lacks a necessary ambition. That sounds incredibly grandiose, but poets have to be grandiose.
If you put all these things together, that fact that teachers are afraid to teach poetry and find it too difficult, that CORE curriculum is not stressing the arts enough, that there’s an overemphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) instead of STEAM (with arts), the fact that students now have a much more practical view towards their education, viewing college almost as vocational schools instead of an enlightening, educational liberal arts experience, all of this is part of the present day zeitgeist of our education system.
Singer: Right. Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you is that I have the same interest in trying to reintegrate poetry, or round that out in whatever way we can.
deNiord: Yeah. It’s endemic. We’ve gone from 300 English majors at Providence College, and this is not unique to us. We have more English majors than Yale, but just under 100. So what’s that doing to all the upper level courses that we used to be able to teach with all our fantastic faculty? They can’t teach them anymore, or as often.
Singer: What’s going to happen?
deNiord: It’s already happening. You’re getting a culture of students who don’t have a broad based education in the humanities anymore. Who, unfortunately, can’t think as clearly and deeply or write as effectively as they need to to succeed in any field they end up going into. So what’s already happening is that an increasingly cultural illiterate class of professionals, so-called professionals, are entering and running the work force in this country. And what does that lead to? Superficial thinking. If you can’t think in nuances or understand the complexity of a political, social or personal dilemma, weigh and consider all the various possibilities, you’re going to act and think in draconian and simplistic ways. We see it happening with Trump right now. So it’s already happening.
Singer: I’ve read some interviews where you talked about the importance of poetry itself. It’s something I never want to try to articulate, but you did it really well. Can you say a little bit about why it’s so important?
deNiord: Well, as I try to teach my students, it’s essential language — in the broad sense. There are all these wonderful definitions of poetry: ‘Poetry is the best words in the best order,’ and, ‘memorable speech’ as Auden said, and ‘the maximum efficiency of language,’ but it’s also essential language. It’s the language that defines us. Whether it’s a passage from the Declaration of Independence, a biblical passage, the Gettysburg Address, which is maybe one of the best prose poems ever written, or a wonderful poem like Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living,” poetry is essential language. And if we lose that eloquence and economy in our language, then we lose our humanity, because enduring poetry expresses our most vital humanity.”
If we don’t, for instance, have passages like this from “Gilgamesh” in our minds and hearts, we’re lacking a critical definition of grief and its condition.
All that is left to one who grieves
No change of heart or spiritual
Conversion, for the heart has changed
And the soul has been converted
To a thing that sees
How much it costs to lose a friend it loved.
If we can’t say something like that in response to what happened at Brussels, then what? We’re just maybe one or two ticks up from an animal.
Singer: So how do you see your Poet Laureate role?
deNiord: I view my role in an ambassadorial way. You can’t force teachers to teach poetry and you can’t force students to love poetry. But maybe you can teach poetry or present poetry, whether it’s to a fifth grade class or to a group of senior citizens, in a way that appeals to them because they recognize something about themselves in poetry’s essential language. And so there has to be something accessible there, so much depends on the audience. As the Poet Laureate I feel I have to be especially aware of my various audiences.
Poetry is diverse and wonderful enough that I can think of any number of poems for each group that I’m addressing. And my hope is, ‘Oh! That poem speaks powerfully to me, those lines from Gilgamesh, that knock me over. Maybe there’s another poem I could go to…’ It’s really just about starting a fire, a poetry fire. I’m resigned to the fact that you can’t do that for everybody, but for maybe just a few people in each group that I address, so that’s my ambassadorial role as I see it. To write these clear, accessible articles in the paper every month, to visit as often as I can various groups around the state without exhausting myself, and listening. That’s really at the top of my list, listening. Because you can’t talk to somebody first, about poetry especially, without listening to them first.
Chard deNiord’s column for the Valley News can be found at www.vnews.com. You can also visit his website at www.charddeniord.com.