English professor Robert Fanning rejects stasis

Assistant Professor of English Dr. Robert Fanning speaks to students about writing. (Kyle Wilson | GCmag)

He placed the screen of his laptop on the visualizer and showed the class eight drafts of one poem and six of another.  Dr. Robert Fanning reassures his creative writing class that it’s okay to write a shitty first or tenth draft.

“Words have power,” he said. “We can uplift people with them, shake their bones, as well as hurt them.”

Now an Assistant Professor of English at Central Michigan University, Fanning graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in English and received his master’s in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. He was advised and mentored by poets Maria Howe and Thomas Lux.

However, his love with poetry started long before his education. Fanning claims that his love affair with poetry started in infancy.

“My mother’s heart beat while at rest was a unique blend of trochaic trimeter with substitution spondees on every fourth line,” he said. “If she was excited, or laughing, she’d switch to iambic pentameter with a blend of gorgeous lilting anapests. Beyond that, I fell in love with poetry as a child in the form of nursery rhymes and songs, and poems written for children.”

No doubt stemming from the nursery rhymes and songs of his childhood, Fanning still maintains that poetry and music are interconnected.

“When I give you my poem, I am giving you sheet music,” he explained.  “You want to honor that.”

Just as poems must be voiced, Fanning is unable to contain his excitement about the subject he teaches. His enthusiasm has spilled into his work outside the classroom as he created the Wellspring Literary Series. The series brings in poets from around the state to read at Art Reach in downtown Mount Pleasant. He uses these readings as a means to connect the town with the campus and bring poetry to the streets, he said.

Fanning has three published books of his own, “Old Bright Wheel,” “The Seed Thieves” and “American Prophet.” During a reading on April 4, Fanning shared a poem from his autobiographical manuscript that honored the memory of his later brother Tom. He also currently has two completed manuscripts.

“One is a collection of lyric narrative poems, largely autobiographical, entitled ‘Our Sudden Museum,’” he explained. “The other, entitled ‘Severance,’ is harder to classify but might almost be considered speculative poetry- involving the escape of a marionette from the stage.”

For the time being, Fanning is satisfied. According to the professor, his greatest goals have been accomplished including the opportunities to publish his works and teaching at a college level. He also celebrates his family (wife Denise and children Gabriel and Magdalena) as one of his greatest achievements.

“I cherish time with my family, especially as the busier I get it’s harder to find,” he said. “So I like goofing off with my kids more than anything. I enjoy being a complete and utter imbecile, and unlike the rest of the world, they never judge me for it. At least for a few more years.”

Fanning has also obtained respected accomplishments at CMU including an Excellence in Teaching Award in 2011 as well as tenure and a promotion. But his real passion lies in working with students and engaging the community with poetry.

“I love CMU students to the point where I don’t know if I could teach anywhere else,” the professor said. “I love their blend of intelligence and humility, their confidence and openness, their willingness to think about new ideas and to push themselves. I love that they allow me to be silly in the classroom, that they can laugh along with me as we bump over the waves on our unique writing forays, often with no map in hand.”

He also attributes the English Department to his love for teaching at CMU. Fanning said that apart from students, he learns from his colleagues a great deal.

Fanning leads readings on campus throughout the year including a reading of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and a reading at which students and others can share their own poems or read from a selection of books he’s brought.

As Fanning continues to teach at CMU, he intends to continue to bring the community and campus together to celebrate poetry as well as the little things. Even though he has had a successful career as a poet, Fanning is no stranger to the hardships that accompany the struggle of publishing.

“For me, the harder and much less enjoyable part of being a poet is the challenge of publishing—and the constant struggle with self-confidence that rejection poses,” he said. “It’s easy for me to tell students to ‘just shake it off,’ but I’m being hypocritical. Rejection sucks.”

However, despite his number of published works and his comfort as a family man, Fanning refuses to lose momentum toward progression.

“So, now I need to come up with a whole new bunch of goals,” Fanning said. “Stasis in life is death.”