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Foreign Language Prof’s Poetry Spans 40 Creative Years

Italian and Spanish professor Tom Feeny in his office.

Lots of people try their hand at poetry when they’re in high school, perhaps under the influence of a creative-writing class or in the wake of a bad breakup. But few of those aspiring writers go on to get their poetry published, and even fewer can say they’ve published about 250 poems in about 100 different journals — as well as two books of their own poetry — over the course of four decades.

Yet that’s exactly what  language professor Tom Feeny has done, beginning with his first published poem in 1975. His latest book of poems, “Breathing in Technicolor,” was published in July 2015. Feeny teaches second-year Italian and third-year Spanish.

“When a poetry journal in New York City accepted my first poem 40 years ago, more than anything else I was surprised,” he says.

Any poet who submits work to a literary journal knows what it’s like to have a poem rejected, and Feeny is no exception.

“Rejections can be discouraging, but I thought if it’s worth doing, it’s worth keeping at it until you break through,” he says.

Feeny started teaching language and literature courses in 1959, and he’s been teaching at NC State since 1970, but he’s been writing poetry since he was a teenager. That early pastime became an avocation he’s pursued ever since, motivated by the pure satisfaction of the creative act.

“I always have some poetry going,” he says. “For me, writing poetry is like an addiction — but without the hangover.”

When Feeny talks about his experience of writing poetry, he doesn’t say much about artistic inspiration; instead, he talks about dogged devotion and hard work.

“It’s a real pleasure to sit down at my word processor — not a computer — and see if I can get something written that I can say is worthwhile,” he says. “And even if I don’t get anything good that day, I can always come back and work at it some more the next day. If I can see that a poem is coming together in an interesting way, I’m not going to let it go until I get it right.

“It may take six months and 15 drafts to get it right, even if it’s just one page of poetry, but sometimes that’s what it takes.”

When Feeny began teaching literature courses that included poetry classics among the readings, his longtime passion for poetry neatly dovetailed with his academic career. His love of foreign languages has also influenced both pursuits: Feeny has taught Spanish at NC State for many years, and some of his published poems are written in Spanish.

Feeny’s first book of poetry, Night Into Day, was published in 1992, just after his first child was born.

“I had a bunch of poems lying around that had been published in various places, and I thought that maybe they could be published as a collection,” he says. He turned out to be right; the first publisher he sent the collection to accepted it as a book right away.

So why did it take him 23 years to publish a second book?

“I had three more children,” he says, smiling. In fact, the cover art for his latest book is a drawing his oldest daughter did when she was eight years old.

Kids notwithstanding, Feeny has continued to write and teach, amassing a body of work that attests to his talent and his persistence — sometimes against unfavorable conditions.

“One time a poetry journal — I won’t say which one — published a poem of mine that had the first line, ‘On sultry nights’; except the journal editor spelled it, ‘On sultry knights.’ Very different image,” he laughs.

Even with so many publications under his belt, today Feeny is still writing poetry and submitting it to journals. Now he’s focusing his efforts on journals that are famously hard to break into.

“I’m not always successful, but I enjoy the challenge,” he says.

Note: This is a guest post by Brent Winter at NC State News.