The retirement of Rick Robbins

In charting the growth and success of creative writing at Minnesota State Mankato, the open-mic series known as Writers Bloc is hardly the first thing that comes to mind. But to explain the ethos of the person who has guided that growth and success, it isn’t a bad place to start.  

Over the years, Writers Bloc has been held in basements, bars and backrooms, and has been run by a succession of graduate students whose approach can be summed up this way: come one, come all. Anyone and everyone can read their poetry or prose at Writers Bloc. All they have to do is sign up for a slot. 

Rick Robbins put Mankato on the literary map, ushering in a creative writing master’s program and national author series. This year, he’s turning a page. 

Professor Richard Robbins, who has taught at the University since 1984 and was the founding director of its Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, proved to be a Writers Bloc regular. Over time, other stalwarts took note that he showed up not to seize attention on the stage but to support his students, colleagues and friends—to hear their work and applaud their successes.  

“He always read last, which I thought was gracious and which taught me something about wanting to be involved and finding ways to be involved without making it about you,” said Tyler Barton, a former Writers Bloc organizer who completed the MFA program in 2018. “That’s just one of the ways he did that, and he did it really well.” 

Robbins will retire from the University in May 2021, and his impending departure has current and former colleagues and students taking stock of how his approach—a mix of ambition, modesty and persistence—helped define Mankato’s literary scene and shape the writers who studied at the University.  

“There was a community there,” said poet Jenny Yang Cropp, a 2008 graduate of the MFA program and now an assistant professor at Southeast Missouri State University. “The thing I learned from that program and from Rick was the importance of having that community—of being a part of it and also giving to it.” 

Two years after his arrival at Minnesota State Mankato, Robbins was handed the reins of the Good Thunder Reading Series, which had been created by English faculty in the early 1980s. It was a shoestring operation in those days, with no dedicated budget, but Robbins set about lining up funding sources while booking an impressive array of writers to deliver readings and lectures on craft, and to meet with students, sometimes for one-on-one manuscript conferences.  

Good Thunder became an important fixture in the region and attracted readers from the community to hear authors of regional, national and international renown. This list of literary stars Robbins brought to campus is eye-popping: Jane Smiley, Tim O’Brien, Jesmyn Ward, Carolyn Forché, Richard Ford, Li-Young Lee, Marlon James, Ted Kooser, Sharon Olds, Edwidge Danticat, George Saunders and on and on. Nothing else quite like the series exists in Minnesota, and few things like it exist outside of major cities nationwide.  

Robbins credits English faculty members who preceded him, including Ronald Gower, Eddice Barber, and Robert Wright, saying they “hatched a really good idea.” He also recalls his own days as an undergraduate and the importance of attending on-campus readings by well-known authors.  

“I remember as a young writer how hearing writers in person perform their work could blow your mind—just seeing that they were real people and how they produced this work that you first came across in print and how sometimes writers stumble towards quality in the revising process,” he said. 

In nearly two decades of running the series, he usually scheduled eight Good Thunder events each year, sometimes with two or three readers sharing the stage. That way, the series could expand its appeal and draw a broader audience. 

“Ideally, there’s enough going on so that there’s somebody there for everybody. There are multiple genres represented—with young writers, old writers, near writers, far writers,” he said. “People who would go to all eight readings in a certain year wouldn’t necessarily connect with all the writers in the same way, but they’d learn a lot from the variety and at least one or two people they’d really get excited about.” 

While running the reading series, Robbins played a lead role in formulating the MFA program, which the English Department launched an MFA program in 1994. (MFA students complete a three-year program to earn a terminal degree, making them eligible for tenure-track teaching positions in higher education.) At its inception, Minnesota State Mankato’s program was one of about 65 nationwide. Today that number is more than 220, although only four are in Minnesota.  

Terry Flaherty, professor emeritus and former chair of the English Department, considered the creation of an MFA program an important step forward for Minnesota State Mankato.  

“It really bolstered the prestige of the University,” he said. “It also served a legitimate need, not just for our service area but for the whole state, and indeed I’d say it was a regional program. We got a lot of people from around the country.” 

After roughly 25 years, the Minnesota State Mankato’s program has produced dozens of prose writers and poets with an ever-growing stack of books to their credit. Many of its graduates teach at colleges and universities around the country, while others work in publishing, marketing, and various related fields.  

Through the years, Robbins, who has six books of poems to his credit, continued to write and give readings of his work around the country, and of course, he taught thousands of Minnesota State Mankato grad students and undergrads. He and his wife, Candace Black, a poet and essayist as well as a professor in the English Department, have contributed to the University’s literary scene in many ways large and small. Black will also retire from the University this spring.  

“Rick and Candace were very generous with younger faculty, teaching assistants and graduate students. That was always appreciated,” Flaherty said. “Also, they hosted pretty good parties at their place after the Good Thunder readings.”