Just before the webcast cameras went live to bring Kelly Writers House to the world, and the world to Kelly Writers House, Penn’s Al Filreis scanned the crowd settling into the arts café, calling out name after name and where they had traveled from: Iowa and Florida, New York City and Chicago, even Spain.
The nearly 100 people gathered from near and far were there to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the open online Coursera course, Modern and Contemporary Poetry, known as ModPo, that Filreis, Kelly Writers House faculty director, created in 2012.
With six poets seated to his left at a long table and nine teaching assistants to his right on a television screen, Filreis counted down to click the cameras on and start the ModPo webcast.
“Hey, this is Al, and I’m here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.,” said Filreis, an English professor in the School of Arts & Sciences. “We are here because one way or the other everybody in this room believes in the crazy idea that poetic stuff and conversations and poems should be free and available to absolutely everybody.”
The 10-week fall course commences each September. In this 11th season of ModPo, 69,000 people are enrolled. “It’s free. It’s open to all,” said Filreis. “It’s about a learning experience.”
The daylong celebration on Sept. 21 also included the launch of an anthology that grew from the course, just published by University of Pennsylvania Press, “The Difference Is Spreading: Fifty Contemporary Poets on Fifty Poems,” edited by Filreis and Anna Strong Safford. The book features poets whose poems have been part of the ModPo syllabus, including several Penn faculty and alumni.
ModPo and community
Many people in the room have been a part of the ModPo community for years, and they spoke about what it has meant to them.
Dan Bergmann was there in person but delivered his message through a video because he has non-speaking autism. Typing into a text-to-speech computer, he said he enrolled in ModPo the first year it was offered. “ModPo put the study of poetry, and therefore the study of life itself, within my ability as a 16-year-old beset by autism,” he said.
“I could take as long as I needed to write a very short essay. And when I did, someone else would read it, someone who didn’t know me, except through that essay,” he said. “For the first time in my life I was following a curriculum that had not been adapted to my special needs.”
Bergmann was determined to complete ModPo that year, and he strived to someday be a part of the team. “Keeping up and doing all the work and earning that certificate was the hardest thing I had ever done,” he said.
During the Writers House tradition of “final words” at the end of that first year, Bergmann was asked for two words to describe the experience. His answer, “not impossible,” became a ModPo topic going forward. “I learned to my astonishment that I, who needed so much help to do anything, could be of use to other people,” he said.
Bergmann went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Harvard’s Extension School in 2021. He is a ModPo community teaching assistant and has joined two episodes of the Writers House PoemTalk podcast series.
Irene Torra Mohedano traveled to Philadelphia from Madrid where she is an associate professor at Universidad Antonio de Nebrija. She took the ModPo course in 2016 when she was living in Paris, having not studied literature before. “I fell in love with the poetry and with the community built around it,” said Torra Mohedano, now a poet, with two published books in Spanish. “It was a big, big influence on my career.”
A community teaching assistant for ModPo, Torra Mohedano met Filreis and the team during ModPo’s trips to Paris and London. This was her first time to the Writers House. “It was so emotional. I was so moved from beginning to end,” she said about the webcast. “To be here at Kelly Writers House feels very special, and it is really inspiring, both as a professor and as a poet.”
Anthony Kolasny has been participating in ModPo since 2012, meeting weekly with friend John Knight for breakfast at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. They also came to Writers House for 2012’s final session.
“Modern poetry can be so disorienting; you are kind of grappling with it. But you can say, ‘I need help,’ and that’s the magic of what ModPo is doing with bringing in community,” said Kolasny, an IT architect at Johns Hopkins University. “Suddenly there becomes a meaning and an understanding to it. And I think that’s the fun because it’s the start of the conversation, which then goes on all sorts of wonderful tangents, and then you end up back on the poem again.”
Filreis read a letter posted on the ModPo forums by Virgil Huston, who said he started to write poetry in 2012 while serving in the military in Afghanistan, crafting his first poem in a combat outpost. He found ModPo in 2013 when he returned to the United States, deciding to improve his writing, which had become therapy for his PTSD.
“What ModPo did for me goes far beyond learning about poetry or interacting with a lot of nice people from literally everywhere in the world,” said Huston. “I credit it with helping me keep my sanity.”
Filreis said he was “so moved, almost speechless” with the tributes, especially by Bergmann and Huston, who both noted that the repetition of close reading some of the same poems was important to their learning. It is valuable for everyone, Filreis said.
“A work of literary writing does not change. A poem does not change. We change,” Filreis said. “It’s this beautiful dance between what I know about myself, what I know about the work, and how it just keeps generating and giving more.”
The foundation for ModPo is English 88, a course Filreis has been teaching since he joined the Penn English faculty in 1985. In 1999 when video streaming became possible, Filreis created an online version of English 88 through what is now Liberal & Professional Studies. “We did it right here, our very first webcast, of Modern American Poetry,” Filreis said, an experiment that “completely transformed” Writers House by adding permanently installed cameras and other recording technology.
When Coursera was first looking to encourage faculty to create free massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, he immediately thought “we could do English 88; we could do our poetry course this way.” He brought together eight current and recent students at Writers House as teaching assistants, created a list of favorite poets and poems, and ModPo was born.
More than 45,000 people around the world signed up that year, overwhelming the online platform. “It was crazy,” Filreis said.
It was, and continues to be, all about connecting people to the poetry and also to each other. “I was not interested in giving a lecture, not interested in recording the perfect 50-minute lecture on Robert Frost,” Filreis said. “I was interested in hearing other voices, multiple voices.”
Filreis leads the teaching assistants through a close reading for each poem while at the same time inviting anyone and everyone to comment, in the room, on the landline phone, or in Coursera’s discussion forums. Now with social media, participants can weigh in on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Running the tech show from the beginning has been Chris Martin, senior IT support specialist, who helped create the livestreamed Coursera course. The sessions are recorded, and some videos have been viewed more than 100,000 times.
Also working on ModPo are Penn alum Zach Carduner, the Writers House Wexler Studio coordinator, and Penn creative writing lecturer Laynie Brown, ModPo’s coordinator. The ModPo team also goes on the road, holding reading events, recording podcasts, and meeting with poets and participants in cities around the world. The next trip is to Chicago on Oct. 13-15.
“ModPo advocates the idea that you, too, can read a poem, that you do not need to be in the friendly confines of a university, that you do not need to be getting credit, that you do not need to be paying tuition,” Filreis said.
“All you need to do is read a poem, and watch other people modeling what it’s like to talk about a poem in detail, and then be willing to share with other strangers around the world what you think of it, and then move on to the next poem.”
ModPo and Penn
Modern and Contemporary U.S. Poetry is also a Penn undergraduate English course that Filreis teaches, and the students attend the weekly 90-minute ModPo sessions in addition to meeting in class.
“We are learning alongside this global community of people, and we are encouraged to respond to their posts. It feels like a really cool, collective project, with all of us bringing our own perspectives and making meaning out of this poetry,” said Emma Wennberg, a third-year philosophy major in the College of Arts and Sciences from Los Angeles. She’s taken several of Filreis’s courses, including the Writers House Fellows Seminar and Representations of the Holocaust.
“It’s not just Penn sharing its resources, it’s also people sharing their resources with Penn,” said William Stewart, a second-year music major from Ridgewood, New Jersey.
“It all comes out of the notion that everybody gets to sit at the table,” said Herman Beavers, professor of English and Africana studies, a regular on ModPo. “What Al has achieved with this global community that is open to all, irrespective of what their station is, is proof that, in those moments when I think that the human spirit has been extinguished, that I realize the human spirit is actually just beginning to come into its own.”
Beavers was one of the six poets who joined Filreis at the front table during the ModPo webcast. Each also contributed to the book “The Difference is Spreading” and presented at the launch: Beavers on Gwendolyn Brooks, Penn Creative Writing Program Director Julia Bloch on William Carlos Williams, Mónica de la Torre on Erica Baum, Tracie Morris on Jayne Cortez, Penn lecturer Ron Silliman on Gertrude Stein, and Elizabeth Willis on Rae Armantrout.
To create the book, Safford and Filreis paired 50 poets each with a poem and asked them to write a 1,000-word essay about the other poet. Filreis said they “had a lot of fun” deciding the pairings. “It was kind of an insane proposition when you think about it, but no one said no,” said Safford, former ModPo coordinator, now a teacher at Episcopal Academy. “Not a single person said no.”
A video of the ModPo 10th anniversary webcast is available on the ModPo YouTube channel and photos on the ModPo website. A video of the book launch discussion and reading for “The Difference is Spreading: Fifty Contemporary Poets on Fifty Poems” is available on the Kelly Writers House YouTube channel.