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Creative Writing Program Director Eavan Boland dies at 75

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Eavan Boland — a distinguished poet, English professor and director of the Creative Writing Program — died after a stroke at her home in Dublin, Ireland, on Monday. She was 75.

Boland, who spent 21 years as the director of the Creative Writing Program, is credited by colleagues with expanding and enriching the program for both undergraduate students and Stegner Fellows, who spend two years at Stanford writing and attending workshops with other fellows. Under her leadership, the program increased the number of classes offered for undergraduates and initiated the Levinthal Tutorials, which allow undergraduates to work one-on-one with Stegner Fellows.

“Eavan ran the creative writing program for decades, and she built it into probably the greatest creative writing program in the world,” said English Department Chair Blakey Vermeule.

“I think it’s one of the best programs at Stanford,” Vermeule added. “It’s an incredible jewel. And she is the person who has made it as powerful and prominent as it is. It is a huge loss. I can’t even convey the scope of the loss.”

Stanford’s Creative Writing Program offers a concentration in creative writing for English majors, as well as a creative writing minor, which is among the most popular minors at Stanford according to the English department. 

Colleagues and students attribute the program’s success to Boland’s dedication to the people in the department and her commitment to supporting talented writers. 

“Part of the way she [created such a successful program] was by passionately, passionately defending her people: the lecturers, the Stegner Fellows, the Jones Lecturers, her beloved staff,” Vermeule said. “I mean, she just had this profound sense that the people who she was guiding and caring for were her responsibility at the deepest level, and she fought for them passionately. She was a warrior on behalf of her people.”

Boland would be remembered for her caring presence in the department, said English professor emeritus Tobias Wolff.  

“She had a wonderful sense of family,” Wolff said.“Whenever I saw her, and we spent a lot of time together, she would show me the latest pictures on her iPhone of her grandchildren. She was just so devoted to her husband Kevin and her daughters and her grandchildren. She extended that sense of family that she had into the writing program which she directed for so long and even the English department that we belonged to as part of the program.”

Many of Boland’s colleagues and students commented on her sharp sense of humor and lively personality.

“She was always a joy to be around,” Vermeule said. “We would have these sprawling conversations and they were always delightful and they were always the highlight of my day. I just learned so much from her. She was a force of nature.”

‘A teacher of formidable grace and power’

Even as an internationally acclaimed poet, Boland was still a passionate and dedicated teacher of undergraduates.

“She was very attentive to the undergraduates,” Wolff said. “She loved teaching, and her Women Poets class was one of the great classes at the university. She was very serious in her teaching.”

Boland taught popular English classes including ENGLISH 154E: “Twentieth-Century Irish Literature” and ENGLISH 150D: “Women Poets.”

“With humor, with truth, and with exceptional engagement, Professor Boland guided us in becoming better students, better writers, and above all, better people,” wrote Marika Tron ’20, an English major who took “Women Poets” in winter quarter. “To have had the privilege of being taught by Professor Boland is something I will be grateful for for the rest of my life.”  

Daily editor Malia Mendez ’22 said taking “Women Poets” with Boland convinced her to declare an English major. 

“After her class, I felt like I didn’t really have an option anymore,” Mendez said.

“Her passion was tangible every day,” Mendez added. “I think obviously being such a renowned female poet herself really contributed to her honesty about the pieces, and her personal connection to each of them. I loved the course. It was really odd and definitely unconventional, but she was too, and I think that’s why everybody loved her.”

Boland was not an instructor who left students unchallenged, Mendez said.

“She was totally dauntless in saying things and very unafraid to confront anyone or even argue back,” Mendez said. “I feel like a lot of professors are just like, ‘Thanks for your contribution.’ That’s fair, but if she didn’t agree with something or think something was well-argued, she had no problem saying so.”

In addition to teaching undergraduates, Boland led the Stegner Fellows workshop for poets one quarter each year.

Current and former Stegner Fellows described her as a teacher and mentor who cared deeply about their success and always pushed them to grow as poets.

“She really, really cared about the program,” said Stegner Fellow Monica Sok. “She always wanted to have our needs met as writers, and she always wanted us to have time and space and support to pursue our writing at the fullest capacity. I don’t know many other people who are that committed to writers and helping writers. She helped generations of incredible writers, and so she has made a huge contribution to American letters [despite being] an Irish poet.”

Richie Hofmann, a Jones Lecturer and former Stegner Fellow, described Boland as “a poet and a teacher of formidable grace and power.”

“Her classes were electrifying and provocative; the discussions were challenging and serious,” Hofmann wrote in an email to The Daily. “One of the great privileges of the Stegner Fellowship was getting to study with Eavan, to get a glimpse at the craft questions she was wrestling within her own work. I think I will always hear her voice in my head as I write, encouraging me to dig deeper, to push myself further, to avoid bad habits and intellectual laziness.”

Despite being a world-renowned poet, those who knew her describe Boland as humble and down-to-earth. She was very open to new talent in the field and supportive of writers she thought had potential.

“There was never a sense that she was more interested in famous people or famous writers or famous poets than she was in just anybody she could see had talent,” Vermeule said. “She had just this incredible capacity to encourage people, to bring them along, to make them feel valued and cared for and supported. It was a pretty remarkable thing to see.”

‘The most beautiful poet’

A celebrated poet, Boland was one of the most prominent female voices in Irish literature. 

“I loved her poetry,” Vermeule said. “She had a way of telling the truth that was direct and no-nonsense and apparently kind of simple, but when you looked at the poems themselves they were very complex and layered and always just so perfectly wrought.”

Boland was born in Dublin in 1944, the daughter of a diplomat and a noted painter. As a child, her family moved to London when her father was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom. She later lived in New York while her father worked at the United Nations. Boland attended Trinity College, Dublin and then went on to be a writer in residence at Trinity College and University College Dublin and poet in residence at the National Maternity Hospital, before joining Stanford’s English department in 1996.

At 18, still a student at Trinity College, Boland published a pamphlet of poetry, “23 Poems,” and would go on to write more than 10 volumes of poetry, including “A Woman Without a Country,” “New Collected Poems” and “Domestic Violence.” She also wrote two volumes of prose, “Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time” and “A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.”

Boland was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards, a PEN award, the Corrington Medal for Literary Excellence, the Bucknell Medal of Distinction and many others, as well as several honorary doctorates from American and Irish universities.

She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Irish Academy of Letters and was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy.

“She was just the most beautiful poet,” Wolff said. “Her poetry had a domestic focus that I really, really liked. You could read out from that tight domestic focus, but she wrote very emotionally complex poetry.”

‘She loved poetry, and she loved people’

Boland is remembered by her colleagues as someone who was not only brilliant but always willing to use her talents to help a colleague or friend with a problem.

“She was also a wizard of tech. She really was,” Wolff said. “She was kind of the unofficial tech person in the department, which is unusual for a poet or for any writer, actually, that I know.”

Wolff remembers one occasion when a Stanford IT specialist was trying to get his computer to work. They had been working for about an hour when Boland came in.

“I could tell she was really interested because she loved problems like that,” Wolff said. “She stood in the doorway for a little bit and watched the person who was trying to help me and said ‘Can I take a look at that?’ Eavan sat down in front of the computer, and, honestly, it was like 90 seconds later she had it fixed. She was really brilliant at that kind of thing, so I always went to her with any questions of that kind that I had.”

“In addition to being this brilliant poet, she had this other side that one doesn’t usually expect. She was very impressive. I just admired her in every way,” he added.

As a poet, friend, mentor and teacher, Boland’s colleagues and students praised her ability to inspire those around her.

The main thing to say is that she loved poetry and she loved people and she loved them both equally and there was never a sense that the status of the poet she was introducing or talking about was more important than the person she was talking about,” Vermeule said. “She was profoundly egalitarian. She was committed to justice in every possible way.”

“She would ask kind of impossible questions like, ‘Why do you write poetry?’” Sok said. “Eavan was so interested in how we would answer these impossible questions. I just remember telling her: ‘I would probably die if I didn’t write poetry,’ and she responded and said we would die anyways, but why write poetry? Regardless of our mortality, why choose to write poetry? I really wish I could ask that question back to her.”

Contact Sophie Regan at sregan20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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