The CMU professor who wants to bring poetry back to the streets

Chances are if you have a picture of a stereotypical poet in your mind’s eye, Robert Fanning does not fit the bill.


Fanning is young and intense, but accessible. The energy that drives his passion for poetry is palpable from the moment you meet him, and it’s hard to imagine him doing the sort of quiet contemplative work that we so often think of when it comes to poetry. Perhaps that’s the point.


Poetry, Fanning says, is not just for tweed coats. It belongs in the streets, helping people connect, develop empathy, and process the world in which we live. “I would love for the average American to realize that poetry is there for them,” he says. “You can do anything with poetry now. Contemporary poets are smashing the craft wide open. 100-years ago it was all rhymed verse, but now there’s no limit to the form.”

There’s also no limit on the poet. Fanning says he’s especially thrilled to see diversity in the literary world today. “It used to all be white men,” he says, “but now there are more women poets, more LGBT poets, more poets of color… transgender poets!” That’s important because the way Fanning sees it, poetry is all about humanity. “It’s a deeply human craft,” he explains, “and it is a craft. That’s what makes a good poem. You can see the craft in it.”

Today, the craft is resulting in poems that take so many forms Fanning compares them to a garden. “You have all these different flowers and plants, there’s something for everyone,” he says. “Someone might like the really spiky, bizarre, plant-like thing over here. But someone else might only want the biggest and most beautiful roses.” The point, Fanning says, is that poetry is about connecting in a world where we aren’t.


A former member of a college rock band, Fanning was exposed to poetry from a young age. “My Dad introduced me to poetry. He loved it, and I could see it fed his soul,” says Fanning, “but my Mom was the writer of the family.” In high school, Fanning’s teacher, Don Lytle, fanned the flames of his interest even more, but it wasn’t until late college that he realized poetry could be a viable career path. Until then, the band, he says, was more important.


Eventually, Fanning earned a degree in English from the University of Michigan and later a MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. A lifelong Michigander from the Detroit area, he then returned to the mitten state where he took odd writing jobs and taught at the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. He has been a professor at Central Michigan University for eleven years now and says Mt. Pleasant is the ideal location for his work.


“When I was applying for teaching jobs I was really okay with whatever happened,” Fanning explains, “If I got one, great. If not, that was okay too. But then I interviewed at CMU and it was a perfect fit.”


Fanning says CMU was looking for someone who had a lot of passion for the Michigan literary scene and the state in general, and that he fell in love with the physical beauty of the area on his very first trip to Isabella County. The people quickly won him over thereafter. “When people talk to you here, they’re really talking to you. In a big city you can be anonymous to some extent. You can’t do that here,” he says, “I wish more students realized they can stay too.”

Fanning says the cultural enrichment brought to the area by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, the parks system in Isabella county and the energy of both CMU and downtown Mt. Pleasant keep him and his wife, along with their two kids in the area. “I see energy everywhere here,” he says, adding that sometimes he hears people talk about things they think are missing around town. “We all need to step up. If there’s something missing, make it!”


Read more articles by Diana Prichard.

Diana Prichard is a freelance journalist who has reported from seven countries on three continents, and the Managing Editor of Epicenter Mt. Pleasant.