A Trendsetting Program
Founded in 1947, the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of Denver is one of the oldest in the country and unlike any other. From the start, the program has emphasized the role that intellectual curiosity plays in literary creation and has aimed to bring together creative and critical thinking to the benefit of both. Throughout six decades, these core values have remained constant, earning the program its reputation as a serious literary community, a place where writing, reading, discussion, and scholarship are treated as equally important aspects of literary creation. Of course, intellectual curiosity never stands still, and the program's emphasis on creative and critical investigation has led it to shift its focus throughout the years. When originally founded by Alan Swallow (later publisher of the University of Denver Press, the first University press to publish new fiction), the program was traditional in its tastes. The early faculty—including Swallow, National Book Award-winning novelist John Williams, and prolific writer/translator Burton Raffel—had deep roots in New Criticism and applied the intellectual tools they had acquired from such figures as Robert Penn Warren and Yvor Winters in creating a serious literary environment "on the plains." There was, at this time, a particular interest in the West and the experience of Western living, a kind of regionalism that was not "provincial" but rather saw the West as a new potential center for humanist inquiry on an international scale.
Thus internationalism was already in the air in the 1960s when the University's Arts and Humanities Division received a $5 million grant from the Ford Foundation to develop the school as an international center for the humanities, a project in which the Creative Writing program played a key part. In 1966, the program saw its first decisive shift away from its traditional Western roots, when renowned South African writer Es'kia Mphahele arrived to study, then to teach. The addition of Mphahele, along with other international scholars in the literature department, brought a new kind of attention to the University's Creative Writing program, and attracted a new kind of student. Many significant African writers—most notably alumnus Njabulo Ndebele, novelist and current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town—helped open the program to new influences from the world community, and on the scholarly side, to new cultural and intellectual approaches to literary study.
Starting a Journal
It was also in 1966 that John Williams founded the Denver Quarterly, which has continued to publish at least three issues per year ever since. Edited by faculty and doctoral students, the Quarterly is one of the nation's oldest and most respected literary journals, and has always maintained a broad, interdisciplinary perspective that reflects the interests and enthusiasms of the program itself.
Moving Toward Today
In the 1970s, changes in the interests of both faculty and students pushed the program in new directions, both scholarly and aesthetic. On the scholarly side, the program was among the first to engage with the literary and cultural theories coming from Europe and elsewhere. On the creative side, writers in the program began to show a strong interest in formally and stylistically innovative work, cultivating a sense of artistic diversity that the program had not previously known. The current era of the program began to take shape in the 1980s and continues to develop even now. The diverse faculty has included such nationally acclaimed writers as Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Beth Nugent, Brian Kiteley, Rikki Ducornet, Cole Swenson, Brian Evenson, Eleni Sikelianos, Laird Hunt, Selah Saterstrom, and Bill Zaranka, who left the program for two decades to become a dean and then Provost of the University. The University of Denver has become a place where literature is considered a site of possibility, where assumptions about writing are questioned and explored, and where different schools and styles of writing are all equally welcomed and respected as contributing to the overall diversity of literary art.
The Program Today
The program produces some of the most original and accomplished writing in the country, with an extraordinarily high percentage of students publishing books immediately upon graduation—or even before—and accepting tenure-track positions at universities throughout the world. Add to this mix a steady flow of internationally acclaimed visiting writers such as Czeslaw Milosz, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Grace Paley, Susan Howe, John Ashbery, Aleksandar Hemon, Marjorie Perloff, Robert Gluck, George Saunders, Jorie Graham, Shelley Jackson, Anne Waldman, and many others, and you have a picture of the sort of vibrant, dedicated community of writers and thinkers that DU's Creative Writing PhD program continues to cultivate and support. The doctoral program in creative writing at the University of Denver resembles a pure mathematics or philosophy PhD. Our students do a good deal of hard critical reading and research, and some of them write and publish traditional literary critical works. But we also prepare them as writers, just as a philosophy program prepares philosophers, people who think and apply their historical knowledge to contemporary problems. Our PhD is a theoretical doctorate, an experience that builds creative thinking.