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'PoemTalk' Celebrates 200th Episode

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The 200th episode of the Kelly Writers House poetry podcast is recorded 16 years after the first. 

Livestreamed on video while being recorded in front of a live audience, a special anniversary episode of the podcast “PoemTalk” was kicked off by its creator and host, English Professor Al Filreis, founder and faculty director of Kelly Writers House

“I’m Al Filreis, and this is ‘PoemTalk’ at the Writers House, where I have the pleasure of convening friends in the world of poetry to collaborate on a close, but not too close, reading of some poems.” 

Nearly 16 years to the day after the first episode was released, the 200th episode of “PoemTalk” was recorded last week. Filreis was at the mic, as he has been for all but one of those episodes. 

The 200th’s featured poet is the award-winning poet and literary scholar Evie Shockley, the Zora Neale Hurston Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University. The poems discussed were “studies in antebellum literature (or, topsy-turvy)” from her latest book of poetry “suddenly we,” and “my last modernist poem #4 (or, re-re-birth of a nation)” from her book “the new black.” 

Seated between Shockley and Filreis were poets William J. (Billy Joe) Harris, Aldon Lynn Nielsen, and Tyrone Williams, experts in African American poetry and poetics, and annual podcast guests. “We’re like the four Musketeers,” Filreis said about the friends and “PoemTalk” collaborators. 

“It’s such an honor. I have been a listener to ‘PoemTalk’ from the early days right up to the present. So I came into the room feeling the weight and the buoyancy of that history,” Shockley said in an interview after the recording.

“I have used ‘PoemTalk’ episodes in teaching. I have really found my way into poets I didn’t read as much through the opening up of the particular poem,” Shockley said. “It’s one of the places I go for rejuvenation of my feeling about what is possible in poetry.”

New possibilities

As Filreis said in Episode #1, featuring the William Carlos Williams poem “between walls,” “PoemTalk” is meant to be a conversation, not a lecture. “Our idea here isn’t so much to exhaust ourselves or our listeners or the poem itself as to open up the verse to a few new possibilities and perhaps gain for a favorite poem some new readers and listeners,” Filreis said in that first episode.

He noted that he used the word “listeners” because he considers poems for the podcast only if they are available in recordings made by the poets themselves in PennSound, one of the world’s largest audio archives of poetry. Very few poets have been featured on “PoemTalk” more than once, Filreis said in an interview: “The idea is to introduce a new poet with each episode.” 

Evie Shockley, professor of English at Rutgers University, read from her books of poetry, including “suddenly we” published this year. (Image: Bella Bekanich)

In the evening on the day the 200th episode was recorded, Shockley read her poetry to an audience that filled Writers House, part of the Sussman Poetry Program. Also featured was poet Simone White, the Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English at Penn, who read excerpts from her newest poems, as yet unpublished. A podcast guest on several episodes, White said “PoemTalk” is an important for her as a professor as well as a poet. 

“‘PoemTalk’ is one of the best resources we have for helping students to understand what it means to not be weighed down by the experience of reading a poem with both seriousness and uncertainty. It’s this really beautiful experience of taking it one step at a time every single time,” White said in an interview after the reading. “Everybody just sits around the table and works together and it just normalizes reading poetry.” 

Pioneering poetry 

The Writers House, founded in 1995, has been a pioneer in recording and sharing poetry with the public. “Typical of the Writers House, we were ready to go when podcasting got to be a thing,” said Filreis, who is the Kelly Family Professor of English and director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as the faculty director of Kelly Writers House at Penn. 

But his discussion-based approach did not fit the typical podcasting format of one person talking or doing an interview; however, he thought it fit his way of teaching. “You get voices in your head with a podcast, and it has an amazing audio intimacy,” Filreis said. “Podcasting is putting a conversation in one’s ear.”

He said his plan was to have three people plus himself, four voices, but the podcast experts at the time, in 2007, said it wouldn’t work. “But little did they know, I was already really good at moderating, hosting, convening,” Filreis said. “I can move questions in and around people, use names to make it clear who is talking.”

Al Filreis (left)—the founder, creator, and producer of PoemTalk—has hosted all but one of the 200 episodes. (Image: Zach Carduner)

He also planned to replicate how he teaches poetry in the classroom, a collaborative close reading of one poem. Sometimes two poems, as with Shockley in the 200th episode, but usually just one. 

“And the plan was not to take anything in order, not to go line-by-line, and to have no notes,” 

Filreis said. “The idea is if you convene the right people—incredibly smart and interesting people—they will learn from each other. They will improvise. They will spontaneously create a collaborative close reading.”

But not a “too close” a reading. “We're not going to cover every word or every phrase or every line. We're just going to wander around,” Filreis said. “That model has succeeded and persisted.”

And, except for during the pandemic, the discussion of 45 to 50 minutes is in person. “I think face-to-face conversation creates more intimacy. It creates the right voice. And, also, as a moderator, I can see in their faces that someone has a question or a comment,” Filreis said. 

The episodes are recorded and edited, then released one a month, archived as an audio file on the “PoemTalk” website, along with a written summary, photos, and sometimes video. (The 200th episode will be released in July.) Only two editors have worked on “PoemTalk.” The current editor is Zach Carduner, Writers House digital projects manager.  

Filreis said he doesn’t know how many “PoemTalk” listeners there are exactly on various podcast platforms, including Spotify. “We have quite a following,” he said. “I think listeners really appreciate the incredible informality and comradery.”

‘Quite a following’ 

Usually the recording is done at a round table in the Writers House recording studio. Often the participants include Penn professors; in recent episodes are English faculty Simone White #186, J.C. Cloutier #189, Brooke O’Harra #184, and Whitney Trettien and Dagmawi Woubshet #182. But mostly they are people from throughout the poetry world recruited to campus by Filreis. 

Simone White, an assistant professor of English at Penn, read excerpts from her new, unpublished poems during the Kelly Writers House evening event. (Image: Bella Bekanich)

But the team also has gone on the road several times, usually in conjunction with ModPo, Modern and Contemporary Poetry, which Filreis founded at the Writers House in 2012 as a massive online open course, free to the public. Similarly discussion-based, Mod-Po this fall has 78,500 enrolled worldwide. “PoemTalk” and ModPo and PennSound are intertwined, each one supporting the other. 

“PoemTalk” episodes have been recorded in London, Montreal, Vancouver, and Edinburgh and in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., sometimes at colleges and universities and sometimes in homes, sitting at a poet’s dining table. 

A favorite for Filreis is Episode #141 in the home of poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop in Providence, Rhode Island, focused on her poem “Memory Tree,” which recalls the trauma of coming of age in Germany as Hitler raged war on Europe. “We had the most extraordinary time talking with Rosmarie about her memories,” Filreis said, including about her husband, poet and translator Keith Waldrop; they met in the 1950s when he was a U.S. Army soldier stationed in Germany. “It was one of those moments in literature where everything comes together.”

Filreis said he tries to schedule the recording sessions for the podcast toward the end of the day. “I’ll often bring a bottle of something into the studio, and we'll have a little toast, and then we'll go out afterwards. It’s all sociality,” he said. “Everything, everything the Writers House does is based on this idea that if you bring people together and you create trust, that it’s going to be good.”