Fran Quinn makes poetry and community one I remember the first time I saw Fran Quinn. I"m not sure how I knew it was him, because we had yet to meet. But Indianapolis, after all, is a small town, its cultural scene a kind of virtual neighborhood. This was especially true 14 years ago, when both Quinn and I were newcomers. It was a cold Saturday morning and I was driving through Broad Ripple. I saw a guy with a long scarf standing outside the old Fox Deli, casting his appraising eye over a steaming cup of coffee.
Quinn had come from Massachusetts to manage Butler University"s Visiting Writer"s Series. He figured he"d be here for a semester. "My biggest worry was I didn"t know a single human being," he says now. "I figured if I could bring somebody in every couple of weeks or so I"d be OK. Then I would survive the semester and go back to New England." One writer led to another Ö and another. More than a decade has passed and Quinn, along with fellow Butler faculty member and writer Susan Neville, now finds himself presiding over one of the most prestigious writer"s series in the United States. In all, over 300 writers have appeared at Butler since 1988. Seven, including Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison and, most recently, Seamus Heaney, have been Nobel Prize winners. Beginning every fall, the Visiting Writer"s Series can be counted on to bring from 15 to 20 writers to the Butler campus and, by extension, the city. "I wanted to meet some of the local writers," recalls Quinn of his first year here. "I wanted to present to them some of the big name writers. I wanted to present young writers who I knew were in the process of coming into existence." He adds, "At Butler, we"ve been able to keep the quality high and the audience is there. We"ve had very few readings where we"ve had anything but standing room. Quality will attract. But you"ve also got to take the next step, which is the hard work of getting the word out, mixing with the community and listening. Listening real carefully to what the community really wants and needs." On the other side of town from Butler, in Fountain Square, Todd Watson, the director of the Writers" Center of Indiana, attests to Quinn"s accomplishment: "One thing that people may not realize is how really difficult it is to get an audience to turn out for anything in this community. Having the vision for what types of authors to bring and how to put together a really diverse series is one thing. But Fran"s been able to turn out an audience for writers that no one else has been able to do - including the Writers" Center." "Fran"s enhanced everything he"s touched," says one of this city"s most distinguished writers, Mari Evans. "He"s used Butler as a platform. Black intellectuals are a largely untapped resource Ö When big decisions are made, we"re not at the table. So the fact that he felt there was value in the black community commensurate with whatever you could find in the larger society made him critical to the social health of the city." Quinn"s Butler colleague Neville calls Quinn "one-of-a-kind," observing that he has "a kind of real wisdom about poetry Ö he"s committed himself to it the way one would commit to a religious vocation." Poetry as heroic act Quinn was born in Easthampton, Mass. - the western part of the state, he"s quick to point out - on May 5, 1942. His parents were working class: Quinn"s father was a machine operator in a papermill and labor activist, who would eventually be elected president of his union. His dad"s activism, combined with a New England Catholic education that upheld the principle articulated by another man from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, that a citizen"s duty was to ask what he could do for his country, instilled in Quinn a belief in the inseparability of the individual and community. Added to this mix was the experience Quinn had of being read to by his mother. His was the last family in town with a television set; his mother would gather Quinn and his two sisters together for stories. "She had to be good enough to keep our attention," he recalls. "It was magical Ö and prepared me almost totally for poetry as an art." Poetry, though, did not come naturally to Quinn. "Poetry threw me for a loop because I never understood it." But in high school Quinn was taught by one Brother Reginald: "He would read poetry as if it actually meant something. At first I was embarrassed for him. And then I started to listen. I wasn"t too sure what it was that he was saying, but I understood there was something happening there and it was actually real." Quinn attended college and graduate school at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. By this time, he had started writing poems and, his freshman year, he tried presenting one to an audience. He was, in his own words, humiliated. To make matters worse, a teacher put him down. "I figured the guy was right - which was the stupidest mistake I"ve ever made in my life." But while he was at Assumption, Quinn also met the poet Michael True. True was a peace activist who introduced his students to the likes of community reformer Dorothy Day and historian Howard Zinn. At the same time, True opened Quinn"s eyes to Worcester"s rich literary tradition, which, at that time, was being embellished by influential writers like Charles Olsen, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O"Hara and Stanley Kunitz. In fact, Quinn was coming of age during an extraordinarily rich period for American poetry. "I was arriving into poetic consciousness at the same time that the most active poetry scene was going on, during the Vietnam War. We believed in poetry as a heroic act - it was meant to go out to the public." It wasn"t enough for Quinn to merely consume great poems by Stevens, Eliot and Frost in the privacy of his college room. Almost immediately, he wanted to return to the working class town where he"d grown up to share these treasures with his pals. "I was getting my head blown off by this stuff," he remembers. "There was a mystery inside these poems but there was also a message I thought everybody should have. But when I tried to read a poem to my old gang, their eyes would glaze over." Quinn believed his audience was turned off by preconceived notions about poetry. "If I could say it to them in such a way they wouldn"t even know it was a poem, then I"d have a much better chance to get through." He became a man on a mission for the muse, memorizing poems and venturing into bars where he drew strangers into conversations. His aim was to see if he could recite a poem as part of the dialogue without his partner realizing it. "As soon as you buy a guy a beer you know he"s going to talk with you," says Quinn of his attempts to commit poetry. "I"d try to wheel the conversation over to whatever the subject of the poem was. I remember one time I was sitting next to this guy and he was disastered out by his girlfriend and I said, "You know, like," - and I"m heading toward this poem now - "you"ve got to understand that love is like Ö a swimmer."" And Quinn launches into a movingly plain-spoken rendition of a poem by fellow New Englander Robert Francis. "I had to make it as clear as possible to anybody - and it had to work inside another person"s life. And I was seeing it work." Quinn became a master of this kind of guerilla poetry performance. He began setting increasingly ambitious goals for himself: to talk to two or three people at once and then, the ultimate, to see if he could captivate an entire crowd to the point where they would shout, "Turn the TV off!" A feat, Quinn says with justifiable pride, he managed on no less than four occasions. "I was making," he says, "poetry an absolute, central part of my life in that process." Campus and community After receiving his degrees, Quinn stayed in Worcester, becoming a key figure in its poetry scene by coordinating an annual poetry festival involving the town"s 10 universities. In the meantime, he worked in a variety of occupations - among them a janitor, police dispatcher, bookmobile driver and anesthesiologist at a pet hospital - in order to make ends meet. In the meantime, he studied poets and poetry, and resumed writing poems himself. In effect, he created a community for himself based on the word. "What writers need," Quinn says, "is not only an awareness of their own writing, but a community that honors and values writing. If 1,800 people show up at Clowes Hall for Seamus Heaney, it says something to any student about the poetry Ö If I"m going to get these kids really interested in writing, then they need a community to walk out into that says this is an honorable task - and will honor them for doing it. And they need to come into contact with some of the best minds that are out there." For Quinn, setting up a program like the Butler Writer"s Series isn"t just a matter of bringing in a few poets for a sequence of one-night stands. The series itself is a creative act that must dovetail with Quinn"s philosophy about how writers and, in particular, poets are trained as well as how they might go on to play an active role in the community. "What the writer coming to Butler feels," Quinn says, "is that we"re paying attention. We"re not just giving them a reading. It"s not enough to give them a reading. Not when you"re going to create other writers. If you"re going to create a culture that"s going to allow writers to be in existence, you"ve got to work a whole other way. It"s not just a career. It"s a life." A life that places the university not apart from the larger community, but in a kind of symbiosis with it. "The community has got to include the university and the university has got to include the community," Quinn insists. "The Butler series was not devised as an English Department series. It was devised as a university series. So the object is to hear as many voices as possible and to interrelate the writers you bring to as many departments as you can. You"ve got a limited amount of money and you can"t please everybody every single year. But if you want the community to show up, you can"t just be thinking in terms of the courses on campus. You"ve got to have an understanding about what is necessary for the community and that means you have to have somebody roaming around, listening to what the community"s thinking and needing." Quinn, according to the Writers" Center"s Tod Watson, has tried to play that role. "He"s really expanded Butler University"s impact on the community Ö The perception in a lot of parts of the community is that all of our universities, and maybe Butler in particular, have pretty high walls. They"re sort of isolated. Fran"s function has been to connect Butler to the arts and literary community Ö The Writer"s Series is a program that obviously has a vision behind it." Quinn remembers that when he first came to Indianapolis, the Borders bookstore in Castleton had a small poetry section. In the early years, at the end of each Writer"s Series season, he"d call Sue Wilson, Borders" assistant manager, to see if the store"s sales had been affected by what had been presented on campus. The answer was always yes. Today the poetry section at Borders is three times what it was 14 years ago. For Quinn, it"s a practical sign that the word is nourishing both campus and community. "I"m a Euclidean," he says with a smile. "I believe that there is a straight line between any two points. There is a straight line from me to you. There is a straight line from poetry to wherever we"re going."