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Professor Al Filreis: Poetry, Modern Poetry and Rhyming Words

Jan 16, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Al Filreis: Poetry, Modern Poetry and Rhyming Words

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Al Filreis is Kelly Professor, Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House, Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, Co-Director of PennSound, and Publisher of Jacket2 – all at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his books are Secretaries of the Moon, Wallace Stevens & the Actual World, Modernism from Left to Right, and Counter- Revolution of the Word. He has taught a massive open online course, “ModPo,” to 42,000 students in 2012 and 37,000 in 2013 and 38,800 this past fall of 2014.

In this interview, he focuses on poetry, poetry in the schools and the importance of both traditional and contemporary poetry.

1) Professor Filreis, over the years, you have done an incredible amount of work in various realms. Today, however, I would like to focus on poetry and perhaps in the future we can do some additional interviews on other topics. First of all, why did you decide to put “ModPo” (Modern Poetry) on line in this massive open online course format?

I’ve been teaching an online version of that course – known here on campus as English 88 – since 1994-95. ModPo, the open online version, was made in 2012 but it is only a further evolution of many previous online instances of the course. In this way, I should point out, there’s nothing especially new about the so-called “MOOCs.”

2) The response seems to have been phenomenal. To what do you attribute such a response?

People worldwide discover that doing collaborative close readings of supposedly “difficult” poems is a very satisfying means of crossing national, generational, ideological and cultural borders. I think the response to ModPo has been so positive because we refused to lecture – to use the MOOC platform to lecture at people. Rather we called upon participants to participate in the making of an interpretive community.

3) Who specifically is the course targeted at ? (high school, college, grad students )?

It is not specifically targeted. Anyone can join and thrive.

4) Could you just mention of few of the poets that are discussed in your MOOC ? And why they were chosen?

Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorine Niedecker, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Tracie Morris, Susan Howe, William Carlos Williams, Cid Corman, Claude McKay, Amiri Baraka, Caroline Bergvall, John Cage, Joan Retallack, and many more. The course is a survey of modern and contemporary U.S. poetry, so naturally we want to study a range of poets from the late 19th century to the present, with a special focus on poets who use unusual, innovative language and experimental forms.

5) In your mind, how much exposure are contemporary students getting to poetry in the schools nowadays?

If by “in the schools” you mean grade school, middle school and high school: it’s hard to generalize but my experience suggests the poetry is being taught but (1) the poets students are asked to read are formally traditional and (2) teachers are fearful of talking mostly or exclusively about poetic form, preferring to mix poems in with other genres and thus treating poems as if they are about themes.

6) How much writing goes on in your MOOC and are contemporary students really well prepared to discuss poetry, allegory, metaphor, similie and the like?

ModPo is not a writing course, but the fourth of the four writing assignments gives participants a chance to write an experimental aleatory poem of their own. People seem to love that exercise.

7) Understanding contemporary poetry may require some understanding of traditional poetry and insight into what the writer is trying to communicate. Or am I off on this?

Well, to study a sonnet that consciously violates all or most of the rules of the sonnet it does help to know what a traditional sonnet is and does. So “some understanding” is a good phrase, but that is not the same as saying that participants in my course should have a prior course on traditional poetic forms in order to thrive in ModPo. Not so.

8) Student feedback about your “MODPo”—what has been the general reaction and response?

If one does a web search for “ModPo” one will find many, many reviews. I believe ModPo is one of the most highly rated massive open online courses out there. I take real pride in that.

9) Have you had students complain about their lack of exposure to any kind of poetry in their elementary/high school years?

Not really. It’s not “lack of exposure” that is the problem. I believe the problem is in the way poetry is taught and the fear that teachers feel when teaching it. This is perhaps why so many of the participants in ModPo are teachers. And we have built a Teacher Resource Center inside the ModPo site in order to give teachers an optional guide as they teach the ModPo poems to their students.

10) You say you don’t lecture. Why not?

At least in my field, lectures don’t make sense. Readers need to work at what they are reading in order to understand the text, and working collaboratively on such texts not only makes the effort pleasurable – it makes it more successful. So my presentation of supposedly difficult poetry is akin to the science lab. Put the poem out there, enable discussion of it, and ask everyone to work together to figure it out. Lecturing does the interpreting for others. MOOCs do not inherently mean a platform for delivering lectures. To assume so is to accept a regressive pedagogy, and this is what has given MOOCs a bad name. Rather, it’s best to see the massive open online course as a chance to present material to many people outside the academy, and to give them a chance, working together, to learn.

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