Poet Alan Feldman: On Volunteer Teaching

Our guest blogger is Alan Feldman, whose newest poetry collection, The Golden Coin, is published today.

My mother died at 61, my father at 93. Since I didn’t know whose genes I got, I retired early. After thirty-seven years of teaching creative writing, I thought maybe I would give out eye drops in third-world countries. I expected to write poems about this, of course.

What happened, instead, was that I began teaching a free weekly drop-in workshop at the Framingham public library where I live in Massachusetts and, in the summer, at the Wellfleet library on Cape Cod. I started teaching with fellow poet Tony Hoagland, who wanted to give something back to the Cape community where he lived. But then I couldn’t seem to stop.

Volunteering weekly generally increases happiness at a rate that economists have calculated at between 176 to 256 dollars an hour. Indeed, for me, the payoff of teaching for free has been profound. No grades. No curriculum. I teach whatever I’ve been working on. I tell students whatever they need to hear, without worrying, as I used to, about their morale. And, most important, every week I think up an in-class writing exercise. I write it first to be sure it can work, and then we all try it out in class.

Indeed, for me, the payoff of teaching for free has been profound.

I’ve always had good luck in writing poems on the spot. Perhaps I get this way of working from a long study I did of Frank O’Hara. He wrote his poems quickly and (unlike me) rarely revised. We can document that he wrote “Sleeping on the Wing” in twenty minutes. I tell my students not to be afraid to make fools of themselves (though, of course, I never force anyone to read aloud).

As Allen Ginsberg put it, “the parts that embarrass you the most are usually the most interesting poetically, the most naked of all, the rawest, the goofiest, the strangest and most eccentric and, at the same time, most representative, most universal.” But, on the other hand, the presence of other people in the room works on people’s minds as well. As Pablo Neruda tells us, “a poet’s gifts spring from brotherhood, and the poet offers his art in recognition of that debt.”

My in-class assignments are generally suggestions (with examples from all cultures and periods) about how to construct a poem: Write a poem in which you mention very small objects and very large ones; write a poem where you describe a process in great detail; write a poem that’s one long sentence; write a poem that lists all the things you loved about a really painful experience, and so on.

Since I started offering my workshop I’ve completed two books: The Golden Coin (2018) and Immortality, which received the 2016 Massachusetts Book Award. In both books about a third of the poems come from assignments I gave to my workshop, and some of these were written in class, including “In November,” which appeared in Best American Poetry 2011, and “Love Poem” which was selected by Ted Kooser for his nationally syndicated newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.” As well, I received a certificate (in Gothic calligraphy!) from my state legislature. My students have been rewarded too. Rosalind Pace, for example, won a coveted Massachusetts Artist Fellowships at age 77. And Judith Askew’s book, On the Loose, won the first poetry competition of the Cultural Council of Cape Cod.

I feel richly rewarded. But, as Stanley Kunitz wrote in old age, “I am not done with my changes.” I might still give out eye drops.

Alan Feldman is a poet whose many books and chapbooks include A Sail to Great Island and Immortality, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New YorkerPoetry, and Best American Poetry. He is professor emeritus of English at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace, Series Editor



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