Robin Metz, Professor of English, passed away last Tuesday at his tree farm in Ferryville, Wisconsin. Metz was the founder of the Creative Writing program at Knox, and the longest-serving member of the Knox faculty. This was his fifty-first year at the college.
Metz was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January of 2016. He continued to teach during his illness, both workshops and portfolio, the capstone for creative writing majors.
His wife, Professor of Theatre Liz Carlin-Metz, told TKS in a phone interview that she loved his creativity, the way he fostered creativity in others, and his “insatiable intellectual curiosity.”
“I loved his contradictions, he was a complex person. I loved that complexity. At the core of that complexity was steadfast loyalty and an unshakable and profound sense of justice,” she said. “He was an utterly honorable man.”
Metz was an accomplished writer, with several awards, including the Maria Rilke International Poetry Prize, Dylan Thomas Poetry Prize, Marshall Frankel American Fiction Prize, and Caterpillar Faculty Achievement Award. He was also a winner of Knox’s Philip Green Wright prize for distinguished teaching. His poetry collection “Unbidden Angel” was published in 1999.
Metz never wanted to retire from teaching, nor did he. He was on sabbatical during this Fall Term, during which he was constantly writing. He wrote, submitted poetry to various publications, and worked with his co-editor on a compilation of Chicago-based poetry, according to Liz Carlin-Metz. He also selected poems for Carlin-Metz to submit to publications after his passing.
Metz arrived at Knox in 1967, shortly after receiving an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He taught creative writing and English courses alongside Sam Moon. What the two eventually created was an unprecedented undergraduate writers’ program, consisting of workshops in all genres.
“He built a program around such pedagogies and his certainty that, crucial to the liberal arts, to the study and practice of being a human, was a commitment to creative process, to close reading, to literary tradition and to innovation,” Professor of English Monica Berlin ‘95 said at the faculty meeting on Nov. 5. “To the past and future, yes, but also to the very real present where we all live and live together.”
Upon Moon’s retirement in 1985, Metz became the director of a program that has since seen wide success.
Metz felt that Creative Writing represented the epitome of a Liberal Arts education in an interview with TKS for the Creative Writing program’s 50th Anniversary. He said that much of its uniqueness comes from its requiring writing students to also take courses in world literature as well as the allied arts. Metz’s emphasis on the process of creation has produced not only students who are capable of writing a good story or poem, but also students whose ability to engage in the creative process can help them in any career field they pursue.
“We’re persuaded that the underlying dynamic is not just teaching people to be storytellers and poets, but to learn about and create and to nurture the dynamics of the creative process,” Metz said.
Metz has taught nearly every course in the English department and every iteration of the First-Year Preceptorial. Even last year Metz developed and taught new courses such as Poetry for the Clouds and Environmental Literature, Film and Art.
“Robin’s teaching has long been legendary, and the fact that it continued to be so throughout all five decades in itself is a remarkable feat,” she said.
Metz also created a variety of off-campus and international experiences for students, including the London Arts Alive program, which he co-ran with his wife. The program consists of a fall term class and a winter break trip to London, where students see a variety of plays all over the city.
Carlin-Metz said that she came downstairs one morning to find Metz in the kitchen, seemingly having already been up for quite some time.
“As I turned the corner into the kitchen, blurrily looking for tea, he says, ‘Let’s go to London.’ We were only engaged at the time. He says, ‘Let’s get married in London.’”
And sure enough, they did, during the first London Arts Alive trip in 1995. Only a few hours after the Knox students were back on a coach to the airport for their returning flights home, Liz and Robin were married at a registry with about ten of their friends.
Two years later, the two founded Vitalist Theater in Chicago. Although Metz had no formal training in the theatre, he worked as the executive producer, collaborating with Carlin-Metz on which plays they would produce, working with the actors, and writing plays of his own.
Carlin-Metz remembers the visual installations he would create in the entryway to the theater, different for each of the plays. For example, for his own play “Anung’s First American Christmas,” he created a scene with birch trees, creatures in the branches, and music playing. For “The Night Season,” which takes place on the Irish seaside, he created an installation with a window and pearl necklace.
“It just took you into a raw seascape, where cliffs met the pounding surf,” she said. “There was a sense of mystery and loss and romance all at the same time in that installation …and the sense of the abstract was fantastic, it was all metaphors.”
Not only was Metz a writer, but he was a visual artist as well. While not a sculptor in the traditional sense, he created installations at his tree farm in Wisconsin, also taking care of the landscaping of all 440 acres. He paid meticulous attention to which kind of trees would be placed together, how they would work in space. Over time, he planted over 25,000 trees.
“He was intensely visual,” Carlin-Metz said.
More than a fellow colleague, Berlin considers Metz to be her longest friend. Berlin first met Metz as a Knox student during her freshman year.
“When I met Robin in 1991 he had been in Galesburg for nearly as long as I’ve now been in Galesburg,” she said. “But how I came to know my dear colleague and longest time friend really begins in 1993, almost exactly 25 years ago. And our knowing has grown from that time to encompass one of the richest most essential relationships of my life.”
Among the times she shared with Metz, she recalls house sitting for Metz’s, having little interaction with him for the year she did so. She remembers regarding the house first as a museum of Metz’s life, and later an indispensable piece of his narrative.
“That house is not, was not, a museum, but an essential part of Robin’s life, of his story,” she said. “And learning that was also part of teaching me how complicated all our stories are. To treat something to respect, to honor it, to live in rooms built by other people, we honor those other people by recognizing the origins of those rooms, by learning the stories held there, by living well, by taking care.”
Montana Standish ‘10 said that Metz engaged with her, among his many other students, in a way that went beyond what she has previously experienced.
“He validated my voice, while also challenging me to find a more precise and elegant way with the language. He was fair, but kind. Supportive where others would have been dismissive. It was in those conversations with him and also those classrooms, sitting next to my peers, all of us enthralled by his passion and dedication to craft, that I began to think of myself as a writer,” her email said.
Like Standish, BJ Hollars ‘07 found validation in Metz when he could not in anyone else. As a prospective student in 2002, Hollars met with Metz in the Gizmo. Metz hadn’t seen any of Hollars’ writing, but assured him that he had what it takes to be a writer.
“At 18, what I needed to hear most [was] that a writer of Robin’s caliber thought that I might have a chance,” Hollars said in an email. “He planted the seed of possibility when no one else did. What a kindness for one stranger to give to another: a glimpse of a future that once seemed impossible.”
Hollars continued to appreciate Metz’s presence in courses he took as an English Literature major. He said that his favorite memory of Metz is not a particular moment but is instead the feeling of warmth in Metz’s presence. Hollars learned of Metz’s passing on Wednesday, and hours later chose to read the last poem in Metz’ “Flushing Grouse” to his own creative writing class.
“It was the best way I knew to honor him,” his email said. “That night, the students walked back to their dorms with Robin’s words in their hearts. And I was reminded of the many classes I’d shared with Robin, when I, too, walked back to the dorms with his words, too. And how those words always made that walk seem a little less lonely.”
Andrew Marr ‘16 remembers fondly a moment from Fall Term of 2016 during which he and a classmate were outside filming for a project they had been working on. He remembers Metz approaching a newly set up metal bench near the Gizmo and getting Marr’s attention. Metz began using the bench as a musical instrument, hitting the different slots with a stick to produce different notes, as if it were a xylophone.
“It was just very goofy and very characteristically Robin, just a good example of his creative mind through and through which, the world can be endlessly transfigured for some creative project,” Marr said. “There’s something really amazing about that, and he really lived that idea.”
Marr said that Metz denied any concrete difference between disciplines, instead that they all contain an element of creation that shows the relationship between nature and the arts.
“In order to write a good poem or a good story… you should at some level know the neuroscience of what’s happening in the story – the philosophical system that is motivating the character or the ways in which peoples’ unique psychological constitution can affect their motivations,” he said.
Marr also remembers fondly the design of the courses which were highly conducive to improvisation, and noted that Metz once likened to jazz.
“We’d be focusing on a story for workshop… and he’d go on a ten-minute discussion about tree taxonomy and then return back to the student’s story,” he said.
Karli Shields ‘16 remembers Metz similarly: finding meaning in students’ writing that they may have never seen themselves. She recalled a time where she attended a one-on-one meeting with him in the Gizmo regarding a short story she had recently turned in, which was about a fifth-grade gambling ring. She wasn’t confident in the story, but he explained to her that he saw an indictment of capitalism within it.
“Overall, he made me a better reader of other people’s works, and also my own work. I never would have gotten that out of the piece,” Shields said. “He always had the ability to find more in your stuff, and it always made you feel like you could be more. I always appreciated that about him. I always felt he was proud of me, and that’s honestly something I cling to, being in my twenties and out in the world.”
Senior Sosy Fleming had a similar experience in Metz’s classes, specifically a fiction workshop they took during their sophomore year at Knox.
“He listened to each writer speak about their own work, the writers talk about each others’ work,” Fleming said. “We could always get him off on a tangent, but it always came back around to writing. But even in those tangents, there was something valuable.”
Not only did Metz offer his students advice on their writing, but also comfort. Fleming remembers his smile.
“It was a really nice smile, in a visual sense … but he had it on so often,” they said. “And what was behind the smile was amazing.”
Shields remembers a time she ran into Metz in the Lincoln Room prior to her honors defense. Metz could tell she was nervous.
“So he gave me just a huge knowing smile and a big hug and said, ‘You’re going to do great,’” Shields said. “And when Robin says that you can’t help but believe him.”
Liz and Robin founded The Robin Metz Fund for the Creative Arts during this past summer. The fund will help bring artists and writers to the Knox campus. You can donate to the fund here.
TKS is working on a special section to be published in our first print issue of 2019 in memory of Robin Metz and his legacy at Knox. If you would like to contribute, with photos, a written word, or an interview, please email Erika Riley at firstname.lastname@example.org.