Al Filreis at a poetry event at Kelly Writers House
Al Filreis, the BTS Interview
BTS: Where did you first become exposed to poetry? When did you fall in love with it? How did you end up teaching poetry?
Al Filreis: My first significant engagement with poetry was at college. As a sophomore I fell under the big sway of Whitman. It was a juvenile attachment but turned me on. Later, as a senior writing an honors thesis, I worked closely with the language of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. It struck me as remarkable that poetry—that which I had thought when in high school was about aerie-thin things and moods and flowers and fields—could be in form as gritty and particular as the streets and people of Paterson, New Jersey, a cluttered working-class diverse city I knew.
The first thing I noticed, besides the fact that I could not comprehend anything anyone was saying, when I first watched a close reading of a poem (Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in possibility”), was that you weren’t teaching, then, almost as soon as I realized that, I realized you were teaching in the most masterful way I had ever seen, but you did not use the lecture format. About twenty years ago you wrote that the lecture technique of teaching was ending. Sadly, I note that most of America, especially in the public elementary, middle and high schools have not gotten the message.
By letting those of us who are stumbling into the mind blowing experience of realizing the Emily didn’t just write pretty nonsensical lines, or even the more mind exploding words of Gertrude Stein, bring ideas and questions instead having us in a furious scribble while the all-knowing Al explained it to us.
BTS: Where did this concept come from?
Al Filreis: I discovered this mode for myself in the first few years as a teacher. I found myself quickly bored by my own ideas, repeated each term. I very soon sought a way to find out what other people thought. Then experimental poetry: it was natural and logical that that kind of literary writing would best support my goal of finding out what other people thought, since, it could be said, no one really knows definitively what the poem means. Thus let’s all, individually, take a shot at it.
BTS: And how did you have the courage to try it?
Al Filreis: I don’t know if it took courage. But I know it was odd and marginal as a classroom activity. My students were afraid of it at first—all that responsibility. But soon they thrived. All people thrive when they sense they are expect to have a point of view.
BTS: How did you realize the lecture was “dead”?
Al Filreis: Not long after the first time I heard one!
BTS: How did you resist the temptation to tell us what the all-knowing Al knows?
Al Filreis: It is very very very difficult to keep myself from blurting out what I think. Very difficult. Once, years ago, I was so tempted in class to speak and keep speaking that I literally stuffed my mouth with a towel to keep from making a sound. It was dramatic but my students got the point and were excited by my commitment to letting them speak.