A deathbed promise from one writer to another
Donald Evans, who lives in Oak Park, promised his friend and fellow writer, Robin Metz, that he’d finish Metz’s Chicago poetry anthology. The book release is Monday.
Donald Evans met Robin Metz in 2008 when they were among a half-dozen writers invited to share their work at a River North bookstore reading.
No one showed up to listen.
“We waited 15 or 20 minutes, until it seemed OK to end the charade, and then we just went out for a drink,” Evans recalled last week.
Blame dismal weather, poor event planning and a vocation that rarely leads to anything close to stardom.
But that meeting between Evans, a Chicago novelist and short story writer, and Metz, a poet who started the creative writing program at Knox College in downstate Galesburg, spawned a deep friendship and, eventually, led to a deathbed promise.
“We became fast friends. I loved him 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 200 or so bobbleheads of Chicago sports figures.
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’ — as co-editor.
That’s because two months before Metz succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2018, Evans promised to take over a sprawling project that Metz had been trying to wrangle for a decade.
The result is a collection of 134 poems — as well as 27 artworks — from living poets that in ways obvious and less so illuminate Chicago. There’s Daniel McGee’s hypnotic “55th St. Underpass” where we hear “the steady cadence of tapered trills” from the Chicago Bucket Boys in a “tunnel of ramblings.” Or Jac Jemc’s “Dermestidae,” where Field Museum bugs feast on flesh in a “tight tank furious with famine. … It was the insects who showed me you were too many grooms to be fed by me, a singular bride.”
Evans and Metz shared a belief that we are in the most “glorious” period in the city’s literary life, Evans said, listing names that include Stuart Dybek, Reginald Gibbons and Angela Jackson.
“We don’t think of it that way partly because we are inside of it,” Evans said. “We wanted to capture it while it was happening and not wait 20 years.”
Back in 2008, Metz’s dream for the poetry book took up a good part of the Galesburg home he shared with his wife, Elizabeth Carlin Metz, who chairs Knox’s theater department.
“We did not entertain for years. There were stacks [of papers] on the credenza, stacks on top of the wine cabinet, 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 blue-collar roots — the men in his family were plumbers, steelworkers and glaziers; that’s part of why the friendship blossomed with Evans, who grew up on the Northwest Side, son of a CTA bus driver and a mother who worked in a factory assembling the kind of trophies that gather dust in the windows of martial arts studios.
“There would be a bowling trophy with a chipped finger on our mantelpiece,” Evans said. “They did not represent any accomplishments in the Evans family.”
Evans said Metz often mentioned the poetry project, soliciting names from Evans — who knew the Chicago literary scene better — to possibly include in the anthology.
It wasn’t until doctors told Metz he had just 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’d planted the 25,000 or so trees that surrounded his home. He’d hiked the nearby ridges and valleys.
When he came out to greet Evans, he was almost unrecognizable.
“He was very thin, sickly looking. His ponytail was gone,” Evans said.
“I know I’m not going to be around to see this happen,” Metz said. “But I would love for this book to get finished and to find an audience and to be the book I’ve imagined.”
The two friends spent the next two days together, Metz lying on his couch but still exhilarated — and “hungry for his creation.”
“At one point, I look over and he’s sound asleep,” Evans said.
At the end of two days, Evans had two plastic bins filled with poems and notes. He’d promised to finish his friend’s work.
Metz died on Nov. 27, 2018. He was 77.
In many ways, the project was only just beginning. Evans had to reach out to poets who’d submitted their work 10 years before. Some had forgotten about the project, others had had their poems published elsewhere.
And Evans, who doesn’t write poetry, had to learn to love the form in a way he hadn’t before.
“It took me a long time to get inside poetry, to be able to decipher it. I grew up in a house that read the [Chicago] Sun-Times,” he said. “There wasn’t literature around the house.”
Evans isn’t religious. He’s an atheist. So he never imagined Metz’s spirit hovering, guiding his choices for poets.
“But every time I would make a decision, I would think about Robin,” Evans said. “Often I would use a poem that I knew Robin would love, even though it wasn’t my favorite. … There was this kind of partnership in my head I had with Robin.”
The anthology isn’t definitive.
“For every poet that’s in here, there are 10 poets who could have been included,” Evans said.
And what would his dear friend think?
Evans said he’s sure Metz would be “delighted.”
“It weighed on him,” Evans said. “He wanted this to be real and not just an idea that died.”