Dwelling in Possibility

Celebrating poetry and literature at Penn since 1985, Al Filreis, Kelly Family Professor of English, continues to create community at the home for writers he founded in a Locust Walk house a quarter-century ago.

Friday, December 3, 2021

By Louisa Shepard

Photography by Eric Sucar, University Communications

Whether eliciting thoughts about poetry online from thousands of participants around the globe, or from a dozen students sitting in a circle in the Kelly Writers House, Al Filreis creates community while encouraging discussion, an inclusive approach that forms the foundation of his many endeavors since coming to teach at Penn in 1985. 

Filreis is the Kelly Family Professor of English and faculty director of Kelly Writers House, which he founded in 1995 as a home for anyone interested in writing, poetry, literature, music, or simply being part of a small academic artistic community within a big university. His student-centered approach to teaching has attracted attention and accolades, including this year’s Penn Alumni Faculty Award of Merit.

“Al believed in inclusiveness and equity before we ever thought of using those words in relationship to education,” says poet Herman Beavers, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies, who joined Penn in 1989. “Al understood that for students to be involved, you had to involve them.” 

Filreis is also Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, a University entity he created in 2003 across the Kelly Writers House, the Creative Writing Program, the Critical Writing Program, and the many other special projects he has shaped. 

An innovator in the humanities, Filreis founded and still leads one of the first-ever massive open online courses through Coursera, Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, known as ModPo. Now in its 10th year, ModPo has 62,000 current subscribers worldwide, and more than 200,000 since its inception. In addition, he co-founded PennSound with Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, who says it is the world’s largest online archive of poetry recordings; produces and hosts the podcast series PoemTalk; and publishes Jacket 2, which offers commentary on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics.

“Al Filreis has straight-up enthusiasm: for learning, creating, connecting, teaching, and forming sustainable structures to deepen students’ experiences,” says Lorene Cary, C’78, G’78, a celebrated author who has taught creative writing at Penn since 1995. “He continues to innovate to bring both complexity and joy to learning. Al’s an entrepreneur as well as a scholar. It’s such a rare, and welcome, combination.” 

With his research and writing focused on 20th-century American literary history, Filreis is author of several books, the latest of which is 1960: When Art and Literature Confronted the Memory of World War II and Remade the Modern, published in October. Other publications include 2008’s Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945–60 and several works on modernist poet Wallace Stevens.

Why poetry? “Poetry is the one genre of writing that is inherently open-ended and undecided,” Filreis says. “I like poetry because you can talk about it forever. I’ve been talking about the same Emily Dickinson poems for 37 years at the University of Pennsylvania. I still hear new things when people talk about them. Any art that will require discussion is good.”

At the Kelly Writers House in 2019 (from left) Filreis, Davy Knittle Ph.D.‘21, Sophia DuRose C’21, and poet Simone White, the Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English at Penn. They participated in a recorded reading of a poem by Walt Whitman. 


The Way to Penn

Parents Sam and Lois Filreis, from immigrant families, lived in New York City before moving to suburban New Jersey, where their children went to public schools. In searching for a university in 1974, Al Filreis had little guidance. “I really thought Colgate was Colby,” he says. “So, I didn’t make a very aware choice.”

Attending a conservative college during a radical time, Filreis says he became alienated from the mainstream culture at Colgate. He found his way to modern philosophy and literature, encouraged by mentoring professors and his father, a self-taught engineer driven to learn.

“When I got into poetry, I called my dad and I said, ‘I don't know where to start, but I’ve decided to write an honors thesis on William Carlos Williams; he’s a doctor-poet from New Jersey and seems like the right character for me to write about,’” Filreis says. 

The very next Saturday his father drove to New York City to New Directions Publishing. “He didn’t know what to do, but he decided to go and buy a bunch of Williams books. And he didn’t ship them to me; he drove up to Colgate to give them to me,” says Filreis. “You asked me about my inspiration … my dad is my inspiration.” 

Filreis pursued a Ph.D. in English at University of Virginia. It wasn’t a perfect fit for “a Jewish New Yorker, a New Jersey guy in t-shirts and cutoff shorts” on a campus with a formal Southern culture, he says. “I connected with some great people, but I always felt a little alienated.”

Not realizing he could apply for fellowships, he worked several part-time jobs, which proved to be more valuable than the funding. “I became entrepreneurial in the department, running the lecture series, helping out with advising, teaching, writing, tutoring, because I had to make my own way. I took a different approach to being a member of an English department,” he says. “And I discovered how much I loved teaching.” 

Filreis got a couple chapters of his doctoral dissertation on poet Wallace Stevens published, which helped as he hit the job market in 1984. He got a lot of interviews, he says, and offers. His finalists: Penn and Princeton.

Poetry is the one genre of writing that is inherently open-ended and undecided ... I’ve been talking about the same Emily Dickinson poems for 37 years.

The interview with faculty at Princeton went well, as did a restaurant lunch in the charming small town. He then got on the train to Philadelphia, walking from 30th Street Station to 34th and Walnut streets. “Bennett Hall was a fixer-upper, a shambles, both outside and in—just unbelievable,” he says about the since-renovated and renamed Fisher-Bennett Hall, home to the English department. Searching through chaotic crowds in the hallway, he found the main office, where he met David DeLaura, department chair, who took him and two hastily assembled professors to the Faculty Club for a mediocre steam-table lunch. 

As they walked back, Filreis says he looked around—cars sped down Walnut Street, ambulances down 34th Street, and people down the busy sidewalks. “And I said to myself: this is the place for me. I really did. I thought ‘this looks like the kind of place where someone with some positive energy can do stuff,’” he says. “I discovered very quickly that at Penn, because of our decentralization, one can do almost anything. And there was a kind of just-do-it, can-do attitude that was maybe the opposite side of the coin of this-is-a-fixer-upper.”


Students at the Center

Focused on teaching, research, and writing two books, Filreis hunkered down until he got tenure in 1990. “That was the day I started doing stuff,” he says. “I felt like what we needed to do is figure out whether there were other ways of educating. And I began to experiment.” 

He created several extracurricular projects, including a tutoring program, regularly driving English majors and graduate students to Thomas Alva Edison public high school in North Philadelphia. “This was outreach, but it wasn’t just supporting the high school students; it was also about making it possible for me as a teacher to be a gateway to other experiences for my students,” he says. “I created all kinds of ways that the conversations in class could continue outside of the class.”

An early adopter of new technologies, Filreis realized the potential for expanding conversations through just-emerging electronic mail, creating listservs. He used his position as undergraduate chair to set up students with their first Penn email addresses, and formed an undergraduate advisory board. “They were activists, students who felt that learners should be leading the conversation, or at least part of it,” he says. “So, we all began to talk day and night and weekends by email.”

Deborah Greenberg, C’94, was one of those students: “Our mission was a natural continuation of Al’s classroom questions: How could we innovate the English major experience? How could we make it more progressive, more interdisciplinary, less performative, more meaningful?”

The impact of Filreis’s then-radical approach in the classroom was “extraordinary,” and “thoroughly transformed how the department thought about teaching literature” at a time when professors would lecture for most of a 50-minute class, Beavers says. “Al has put the students at the center and then made their concerns relevant to what they’re reading.” 

Filreis asked students to choose a position on the reading and explain why they agreed or disagreed, sitting on one side of the room or the other. They were able to switch if they changed their minds, but they’d have to explain why. 

“He never lectured,” says Greenberg, who became a high school English teacher. “Classes were purely discussion-based; they were intense, fast-paced, and personal. Al created a culture in which one must participate and he fostered total engagement … No matter the content of the class, Al wanted us to interrogate why it mattered and how it mattered.”

At the Writers House Fellow reading by poet Susan Howe (from left), Filreis, Rivka Fogel C’11, Kelly Writers House staff member Michelle Taransky, and Sarah Arkebauer C’11

Every two years, Filreis teaches his course Representations of the Holocaust, for which there is always a waiting list. Four of the 38 students in the course this fall semester are children of his former students, including Josh Sherman, C’25, whose parents, Rachel and Mark Sherman, both C’95, met in that class their senior year. 

“It’s incredibly special to us that Josh is able to have Al as a professor,” says Rachel Sherman. “Al had a teaching style unlike any other teacher or professor I ever had; it was so inspiring and thought-provoking.” 

“Al teaches you to listen and take a position—skills that have been valuable to my career as an attorney,” says Mark Sherman. “He’s energetic, he’s warm, he’s inspiring. He pulls emotion and conviction out of your soul that you never knew were there.”

Filreis engages in “a student-centered teaching, but it’s not easy teaching,” says David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor of English. “His energy is always, always positive. I mean just an extraordinary, encouraging presence when he’s in charge of anything.”


A Home for Writers

In the fall of 1995, Filreis got a call from Robert Lucid, a former chair of the Department of English, about a new initiative by then-Penn President Judith Rodin to create “hubs” to foster student engagement. Lucid invited Filreis to take a walk down Locust Walk, stopping just past the 38th Street bridge in front of a structure hidden by overgrown bushes and trees. “Bob said, ‘See that house there? What would you do if we gave it to you?’ Filreis says. “And I said, ‘We’d create a writers’ house.’” 

The first thing you think about when you come into [Kelly Writers House] is, oh, it’s like home. There’s just people who walk in generation after generation because they just feel like, wow, that seems like the house for me.

On a Saturday in October, Filreis opened the door and entered the house for the first time, along with a small group of students, faculty, and friends. “We sat in the living room and we talked from about 10 in the morning till after six at night,” he says, noting the lack of electricity. “It was dark. We lit candles, continued to talk, and drew up plans.”

The planning committee named itself The Hub, the same name it has today. They met once a week and decided the purpose of every one of the 14 rooms, including a full working kitchen, a generous dining room, lounges with comfy sofas, classrooms and offices, and at the center an “Arts Café,” filled with mismatched wooden chairs donated by friends. 

Filreis supported Lucid’s theory that the “architectural idea of learning at a university was more akin to the concept of the loft than it was to a room with fastened-down tablet chairs ... This became our loft space. It was students’ ideas that would take the forefront. That was the idealistic goal,” he says.

What started a quarter-century ago continues today. “The idea that everyone could and should have a voice in creating the space and creating the content and creating the ethos, that came from Al,” says Jessica Lowenthal, GR’07, a graduate student and teaching assistant with Filreis before becoming Director of Kelly Writers House in 2005. 

The aim is to be welcoming. “The first thing you think about when you come into the house is, oh, it’s like home,” Filreis says. “There’s just people who walk in generation after generation because they just feel like, wow, that seems like the house for me.” 

Al Filreis, Kelly Family Professor of English, facilitates conversations with Writers House Fellows and other guests during public events at the Kelly Writers House. From left to right: Author and literary critic Samuel Delany (left) was a Writers House Fellow in 2016. / Poet Eileen Myles (left) was a Writers House Fellow in 2016. Screenwriter, director, and producer Matthew Weiner (right) was a Writers House Fellow in 2016.

Brooke Sietinsons

Filreis has been the main fundraiser for that house, cultivating many donors, who give an average of $100. Some gifts, however, are transformative. The late Paul Kelly funded a major renovation in 1997, and an anonymous gift from a former student supported another project in 2019, enlarging the Arts Café and upgrading the audio-visual capabilities while retaining the distinctive character. 

Programming expanded as well. It was Kelly who asked Filreis if he could support recognizable names as guests along with the newcomers. What emerged was a course taught by Filreis that invites eminent authors, poets, and journalists as visiting artists, starting with Gay Talese in 1999. Since then, three Kelly Writers House Fellows have each come for several days in the spring semester, meeting and eating with the students and appearing at two public events. 

The list of 67 fellows during the past 22 years is impressive, and Filreis and the students immerse themselves in their works to prepare. “Every spring I go into the semester barely ahead of the students, because in some cases I’ve read this writer forever, but not closely enough to teach it,” he says. “Which is to say we’re going to do it together. I just love teaching that course.”

Filreis is teaching his course Representations of the Holocaust in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House this fall semester


Future Focus

Filreis lives just a few blocks from campus, in a house in West Philadelphia. He is married, to Jane Treuhaft, and has two grown children, Ben Filreis and Hannah Filreis Albertine.

Ask anyone about Filreis and inevitably they will remark upon the mystery of how he does everything he does at such a high level of attention, energy, and enthusiasm. “Not a lot of sleep,” he says. “And I’m very efficient with email and texting.” 

But most importantly, he says, are the key people he has put in place to help lead the projects, especially since he plans to retire on June 30, 2026. Meanwhile, he is working toward his goal to add $10 million to the existing Kelly Writers House endowment so his successor will have secure funding. 

“One of Al’s great strengths is really nurturing the talents and ideas of individual people and giving them room to grow into their work,” says Lowenthal. “I think one of the strengths of Writers House is that it continually renews with the new ideas of the people who are entering the space and making it their own. That was Al’s idea from the beginning, that the Writers House is made by the people who are part of it.”