Posts Tagged ‘Robin Metz’

Remembering a Mentor

This weekend, I drove from Mississippi to western Illinois for the memorial gathering of one of my main college mentors, Robin Metz. The many hours by myself in the car on the the way there and back gave me lots of time to reflect, and seeing so many people come out for the memorial was gratifying. Robin taught for over 50 years and was still on the faculty of Knox when he died. Only in his final semester did he take medical leave and not teach a class. Until then, despite treatments for pancreatic cancer, he continued teaching until the end.

Many of us made it back, and many more sent their condolences and greetings. Former colleagues of his were there, as well as family and people from the community. I went to school with both of his daughters, so I was glad I could make it and have a chance to reconnect with them. I’d seen Robin and his wife, Liz, several times in recent years, but hadn’t seen Lisa and Ronnah in quite awhile.

Friends who gathered after the memorial to talk, eat, and yes, even dance to the one eighties song we could get the DJ to play (Prince), have gone on to do many things. Some of us are educators, some work in different fields. Most of us are writers, but we talked about the many English majors we knew who ended up in different fields. When we take a class or when those of us who are educators teach a class, we never know where the people around us will travel in their life’s journey. What made Robin Metz such a great mentor for so many people is that you always had the feeling that he cared. He was detailed in his comments on every story he ever critiqued for fiction workshop, but he also cared about you as a person, about your life and about the bigger questions in life. Robin never let you off the hook, and though sometimes we probably wished he would, it was also the part of him that made the most lasting impression.

I first met Robin when I hitch-hiked from St. Olaf College to Galesburg in what turned out to be a snowstorm. I had had come to check out the school I would transfer to. Meeting him, learning about the program he had started, meeting students, and seeing their active writing community sealed the deal. He was a huge presence in my remaining three years of college, and then when I moved to Chicago, he taught in the Urban Studies program, so we kept up our relationship for another semester. He was always there when I went back to visit, and he encouraged me to apply for a fellowship for grad school, which helped me to continue my work with translation. Then he asked me to come work at Knox for a couple of terms as his teaching assistant before I went to grad school. Over the years, he invited me back to Knox other times, and whenever I could, I would stop by and visit. I didn’t make that happen often enough.

For Robin, a class was never just about the class. It was an opportunity for meaningful discussion and was part of a conversation that had been ongoing all of his life and that you were invited into not just for the time you were in his class, but for the rest of his life and beyond. That is why so many of us made the journey back for his memorial celebration, and it is why all of us could share so many stories of the impact he made and is still making on our lives.

In Memoriam: Robin Metz

I first met Robin Metz when I hitch-hiked to Knox College in the midst of a November blizzard. In typical Robin fashion, he took it all in stride, found me a place to stay on campus, and proceeded to sell me on transferring. It would have been hard to do anything else after being exposed to Robin’s charisma and the incredibly vital environment for writing that he and Sam Moon had created. They will remain two of the most influential educators and writers in my life.

I have many fond memories of long discussions in fiction workshops with Robin that went long beyond the official end of class, especially on the nights (at least once per term) when Robin would have us all come out to his house on Broad Street. A five-hour class was not uncommon—the fact that we were allowed to drink and smoke in these night classes (maybe not the wisest policy and one that he would change in later years) may have contributed, but so did his wide-ranging discussions. Critiquing a story was never just about ‘fixing’ issues of form or style; for Robin it was always an opportunity to discuss the deeper meanings of life.

No one I knew worked harder or gave more of himself to his students than he. We joked that he sometimes didn’t pay his bills, not because he didn’t have the money but because he couldn’t find the time to write out the check. But he always had time for coffee in the Gizmo and the conference that would often last at least twice as long as scheduled. And his friendship and devotion lasted long after we graduated.

I got to spend time with Robin in Chicago when he was leading the ACM Urban Studies program. He invited to help with a workshop and then invited me back to Knox a couple years later to help with the Alumni Catch and be his assistant for two terms when I was between a job and grad school. He welcomed me into his home until I found a place to stay in an apartment across the street. And he invited me back twice mores to read on campus when I had a new book out. I also saw him many times at AWP or when I passed through Galesburg, which wasn’t as often as I wish now. But every time I saw him, it was like no time had passed.

And of course, we had our differences, and even a run-in or two, but we also had an enormous amount of mutual respect. I don’t know of anyone more curious about life and more dedicated to his craft and to his students, who he alwasy treated as fellow writers. I learned more from working with him than I have from any of my other mentors.

Robin Metz died today, after teaching at Knox for 51 years. I am in the middle of my 25th year of teaching at Mississippi University for Women. To imagine doubling that is nearly unthinkable, yet Robin never stopped. Despite pancreatic cancer, he always wanted to be teaching and inspiring new students and colleagues. He built a creative writing program at Knox that is unrivaled by any udergraduate college, and he inspired an army of writers who have all gone on to do great things, whether as writers, as educators, or in other creative fields. He was fortunate to be able to celebrate the program’s 50th year by traveling around the country visiting alumns (though for part of that year he was undergoing treatments).

I don’t know that I will try to match him in longevity, but I do know that he inspires me every day to create a legacy. For Robin, it never seemed to be about his own ego, but always was about helping others to achieve their potential. Yes, he had books and awards to his name, but I believe he was most proud when someone he taught had their successes. And whenever we meet up at AWP or in any other context, I know the talk will always turn to Robin Metx and how much we will all miss him.

In Memoriam, David Hernandez, Chi-Town Poet

Yesterday, I learned that David Hernandez had passed away of a heart attack at the age of 66. He died in his beloved city, Chicago, on Feb. 25, 2013. (By the way, there is another David Hernandez, a poet from California, who is very much alive.)

Reading this news two months after the fact brought back vivid memories of another stage of my life, when I was fortunate enough to know David and be influenced by this fabulous poet and teacher. As I read articles about his life that included lines from his poems, his distinctive voice came back to me as well. David read his poetry with a musical lilt, even when he wasn’t performing with his band Street Sounds. When he was with the band, then the full sense of the Latin rhythms came through, but even without the band, you could hear the echoes of the music in his lines. Poetry Poetry has audio clips of several of his poems available online, including one of my all-time favorites “Why I Want to be a Real Poet.” But it’s hard to pick a favorite David Hernandez poem: every poem is a hardened gem.

Hernandez has been described as a street poet, as Chicago’s unnofficial poet-laureate (he wrote innaugural poems for Mayor Harold Washington), and Chicago’s first Latino poet (he began publishing in 1971). But I didn’t know any of those things when I met David in 1986. He was well into his second decade as a published poet, but apart from his fabulous poems, you’d never guess it to look at him or to interact with him.

I was just a kid, fresh out of college, trying to make a living in my first job at Chicago Review Press, and my good friend and college professor, Robin Metz, was running Knox Colleges’ Urban Studies program in Chicago for a semester. He enlisted me to help out with their poetry workshop. David was the real poet, I manned the coffee pot and  sat in on the informal discussions. I was probably full of myself and gave too much ‘advice.’ David was always encouraging, gently prodding or exploring a poem, but mostly encouraging the other poets to explore their creativity. You see, he never treated us like students; he always treated us like artists. He could be demanding about art, but you never felt judged or looked down upon. He led by example, and his example was absolute honesty. There was no room for pretentiousness in the little church basement where we met each Saturday. He never had to lay down the law or tell us to be humble: you just knew. In part because, though he never claimed to be a great poet and even wrote ironic poems about wanting to be a ‘real poet,’ we could sense we were in the presence of a real poet.

I learned more about life and about poetry in those Saturday mornings with David than I would in many other classrooms, so I was sad when the Knox students packed up their bags and went back to campus. But I didn’t need to be. David was still around, and I’d bump into him at the Green Mill Lounge, where I’d started going to the Poetry Slams. And David never forgot who you were and never acted like he didn’t know you because he didn’t have to know you anymore. Each time you saw David, it was like no time had passed. We remained friends throughout the time I lived in Chicago, and he remains one of my absolute favorite poet friends from those days.

Tribute to Jean C. Lee

Jean Lee was an amazing artist, writer, editor, and human being. I first met her when I was a student at Knox College and she was the technical advisor for Catch, the student literary magazine. She taught me most everything I know about editing and design. Later, after I had worked in Chicago for a couple of years and was returning to reality after an extended European trip one summer and fall, Jean and Robin Metz took me in. Jean offered me a job typesetting the mammoth Siwasher/Catch Alumni Edition and helping with typesetting and layout of Farmer’s Market, a regional literary magazine that had developed quite a reputation after she took it over. That is when I became acquainted with Jean’s graphic arts work on the covers. The series was to extend through the alphabet, though unfortunately I never collected more than the ones I’ve posted here as a tribute to her life and creative genius. I would love to see more of those covers, if anyone has them. I’m not positive whether she was able to complete the series of linoleum block prints before circumstances caused her to give up the magazine and leave Galesburg. I regret that I didn’t maintain contact with Jean in recent years. She was a wonderful person and a gifted artist. Our world is poorer for her passing.