Remembering Professor Forrest Robinson
A Remembrance by Professor Barbara Harroun
In the Fall of 1994, I took ENG 200: Introduction to Poetry with Professor Forrest Robinson. He wore tweed coats with patches on the elbows, dress shirts unbuttoned at the collar, and pressed khaki pants. His white hair was carefully combed. He wore glasses, a perpetual air of calm, and a spectacular smile when a student’s comments pleased him. He was organized and ordered, and he returned graded work promptly. I remember him vividly too because he was unabashed in his love for poetry, and in his recitation of his own work and the work of others, he’d often close his eyes. He was in class with us, but he was also somewhere else. I would close my eyes and try to go into the poem too. In this way I fell in love with Li Young Lee, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Carl Sandburg, to name a few poets I remember reading for class. Presenting on an author and three specific poems was part of the class, and after reading and discussing Young’s, “Persimmons,” Robinson clapped his hands together mid-way during my presentation and declared, “Delicious, Barbara.” He insisted on calling me by my full name, and it sounded better somehow coming out of the mouth of a poet.
Sometimes, he would share his own work, and this was the first class where a professor shared his own mysterious process. One poem that lives in me still was about imagining where all of the lost items from our lives go. It thrilled me, but it also gave me courage. He was the first person at WIU that I confided my dreams of becoming a writer to. I admitted I wrote poetry too, and after our conference he walked me down to John Mann’s office explaining I needed to take a poetry workshop. He referred to me as a poet, and did so with a straight face and even voice. That alone was a gift.
How much I owe to Professor Robinson. The course of my life would have been a very different, crooked path had he not introduced me to Dr. Mann, who after visiting with me gave me permission to jump into his Spring Intermediate Poetry Workshop. I wouldn’t be here, at WIU, teaching, as I owe an extraordinary debt to the creative writing faculty (John Mann, David Stevenson, and Tama Baldwin) who taught, mentored, and supported me far beyond the classroom.
Although I only had Professor Robinson for one class, he wrote me a lovely congratulatory note when I graduated from WIU, and again when he heard I had successfully completed my MFA, although I had not seen him for years. His kindness and generosity have never left me, and I mourn his passing and celebrate his rich life and work. As we enter into a truly busy time in the academic year, and as students prepare to graduate, Robinson’s exemplary example reminds me of the worth, value, and importance of the work we do in Simpkins hall, within our department, and in community with our students.