Deathbed promise: Oak Park writer completes poetry anthology for deceased friend


Donald Evans met Robin Metz in 2008 when they were one of half a dozen writers invited to share their work at a River North bookstore.

No one showed up to listen.

“We waited 15 or 20 minutes, until it seemed okay to end the charade, and then we just went out for a drink,” Evans recalled last week.

Blame the gloomy weather, poor event planning, and a vocation that rarely leads to anything close to stardom.

But that encounter between Evans, a Chicago novelist and short story writer, and Metz, a poet who started the creative writing program at Knox College in South Galesburg, spawned a deep friendship and ultimately led to promise. of deathbed.

“We quickly became friends. I liked it immediately. He’s funny, he’s charming. He’s a great storyteller,” said Evans, a soft-spoken man whose Oak Park basement is cluttered with thousands of books and about 200 bobbleheads of Chicago sports personalities.

Robin Metz, a poet who started the creative writing program at Knox College in Galesburg, died before he could complete his Chicago poetry anthology. Donald Evans, Metz’s friend and fellow writer, completed the project.

Monday is the launch date for “Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry,” published by the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in partnership with After Hours Press and Third World Press. Metz’s name is listed after Evans’s – as co-editor.

Indeed, two months before Metz succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2018, Evans promised to take over a sprawling project that Metz had been trying to complete for a decade.

The result is a collection of 134 poems—along with 27 works of art—by living poets who obviously less illuminate Chicago. There’s Daniel McGee’s hypnotic “55”e St. Underpass” where we hear the Chicago Bucket Boys’ “regular cadence of conical trills” in a “tunnel of ramblings.” Or Jac Jemc’s “Dermestidae,” where Field Museum insects feast on flesh in a “furious watertight reservoir of starvation. … It was the insects that showed me that you were too married to be fed by me, a singular bride.

Evans and Metz shared the belief that we are in the most “glorious” period of the city’s literary life, Evans said, listing names that include Stuart Dybek, Reginald Gibbons and Angela Jackson.

“We don’t think about it that way partly because we’re on the inside,” Evans said. “We wanted to capture it while it was happening and not wait 20 years.”

In 2008, Metz’s dream for the poetry book took up much of the Galesburg home he shared with his wife, Elizabeth Carlin Metz, who chairs Knox’s theater department.

We haven’t entertained for years. There were batteries [of papers] on the credenza, stacks above the wine cellar, there were stacks under the table, stacks on the chairs,” said Metz, who describes her late husband as a “visionary.”

Robin Metz, originally from Pittsburgh, had working-class roots – the men in his family were plumbers, steelworkers and glaziers; that’s part of why the friendship blossomed with Evans, who grew up in the northwest, the son of a CTA bus driver and a mother who worked in a factory assembling the kind of trophies that accumulate dust in the windows of martial arts studios.

“There would be a bowling trophy with a chipped finger on our chimney,” Evans said. “They did not represent any achievement of the Evans family.”

Evans said Metz often mentions the poetry project, soliciting names from Evans — who was more familiar with the Chicago literary scene — to possibly include in the anthology.

It wasn’t until doctors told Metz he only had a few months to live that he asked Evans to come visit him at his second home in Wisconsin.

Metz had arrived at Princeton University on a football scholarship. He had planted the approximately 25,000 trees that surrounded his house. He had traveled the neighboring ridges and valleys.

When he came out to greet Evans, he was almost unrecognizable.

“He was very skinny, sickly looking. Her ponytail was gone,” Evans said.

“I know I won’t be around to see that happen,” Metz said. “But I would like this book to be finished and find an audience and be the book that I imagined.”

The two friends spent the next two days together, Metz lying on his sofa but still euphoric – and “hungry for his creation”.

“At one point, I look up and he’s fast asleep,” Evans said.

After two days, Metz had two plastic bins filled with poems and notes. He had promised to finish his friend’s work.

Metz died on November 27, 2018. He was 77 years old.

In many ways, the project was just getting started. Evans had to contact poets who had submitted their work 10 years earlier. Some had forgotten the project, others had their poems published elsewhere.

And Evans, who doesn’t write poetry, had to learn to love the form in a way he had never known before.

“It took me a long time to get into poetry, to be able to decipher it. I grew up in a house that read [Chicago] Sun-Times,” he said. “There was no literature around the house.”

Evans is not religious. He’s an atheist. He therefore never imagined the spirit of Metz hovering, guiding his choice of poets.

“But every time I made a decision, I thought of Robin,” Evans said. “Often I’d use a poem that I knew Robin would like, even though it wasn’t my favorite. … There was this kind of partnership in my head that I had with Robin.

The anthology is not final.

“For every poet who is here, there are 10 poets who could have been included,” Evans said.

And what would his dear friend think?

Evans said he was sure Metz would be “delighted”.

“It weighed on him,” Evans said. “He wanted it to be real and not just an idea that died.”

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