Monthly Archives: November 2012

Coffee with My Husband, R. N. Taylor

Robert Taylor is an artist, poet, musician, husband and father, and one of the key founders of the Asatru spiritual movement. Everyone who knows Robert knows that he is a man of many words, a constant flow of consciousness. I have read the interviews that he has participated in over the past few decades, and what I find missing as a topic of discussion is poetry (though some might consider him to be first and foremost a poet). I wanted him to have the opportunity to pontificate for a literary audience as it has been my privilege to be a receptive listener over the past nine years.


(“Coffee With the Poets” interviews
are conducted by Christina.)

[My Sweet Robert takes his coffee with one spoon of sugar and just enough Half & Half to make it caramel-colored. This is an exact art of which there are consequences for deviations, and only his double-sized Barnes & Noble mug with the faces of famous authors will suffice for serving!]

Like planets,
Seldom collide,
But when they do,
A new world is born.

(R. N. Taylor, 2003)

Robert, I know that you have salient insights into so many subjects, including poetry, so here we are at the hub of our mutual respite. We speak of the magic of poetry, and you are remarkably seasoned with your testament on this subject. Share to your heart’s content.

I have for a long time tried to understand what it is about poetry that can create a sort of magic. It is not a simple thing, to be sure. The question of how and why is sort of like the long-standing question of what exactly poetry is. The final word is never in on that. So many have tried and in the end only wrote their own subjective thoughts on the subject, so here are mine added to it all.

The magic of poetry is that one’s words can affect another even in a physical sense in a remote-control way, particularly when poetry is recited as opposed to simply being read off a page. The very same can be said for music.

I recall in the autumn of 1999, I was the keynote speaker at a gathering known as the Death Equinox Convention in Denver. I was asked to give a talk on the Millennium and wanted to try something just a little different than is the usual faire, so I decided to do my talk and follow it with a poetry reading. I chose something that would tie in with the theme of the talk. After the reading, on cue, my friend Bob Ferbrache and I did a mini concert of songs to conclude the event. He had practiced a number of songs for the purpose. When we finished, the audience was cheering for us to do an encore. Unfortunately, we had not even thought of the possibility of having to do an extra song. I felt a bit cornered at that moment but sang a song a capella. When the song ended, I saw tears rolling down the cheeks of a few ladies in attendance. I had not performed in about thirty years on stage and it took me by surprise that I had touched someone deeply enough to elicit tears of emotion. That was a magic moment for me. Previous to this, I have on many occasions played a guitar and sung one of my ballads for guests at a party and have been told by people that chills ran up their spines. That established for myself how powerful music and poetry can be. The same has happened on occasion when I was rhapsodizing a poem around a campfire or parlor. I’m sure many poets and musicians have experienced similar reactions from others they were performing for.

It is not just relegated to sentimental things, either. It can rouse people to a fighting fury such as martial songs and revolutionary ballads and poems. Erotic poems can titillate. The entire palette of human emotions is subject to the magic of poetry and music. They are as such, or can be, powerful magic incantations that echo and resonate long after they are finished. Real poetry comes out of the crucible of the poet’s soul and for it to speak to another person’s subconscious mind is a magical event, a form of telepathic communication: one soul speaking and resonating with another soul.

Robert Graves, the Welsh poet, defined real poetry as having the effect of making the hairs stand up on the back of your neck (in other words, a physical reaction to words and thoughts, images and metaphor).

In fact, the earliest poetry was mystical and religious incantation. It was an integral part of ritual and rite—i.e., the hymns of the Rig Veda from India which extend far back in origin to primordial times. So also was music and drama. They probably share the same origins as poetry. I have often thought that the first poets in a sense were those who articulated language itself. The first poet would be the individual who spoke the first word.

Much of poetry’s archaic magic has been lost to repetition and the loss of techniques which developed over a very long time of oral literature. There were proscribed forms for every occasion. Lyric was one thing, lament and dirge another form, epic another and so forth. Poetry has often reached so sophisticated a level that the perfect form of expression was codified. Welsh poetry is a fine example. There are so many forms that come down from their oral tradition. This was the technics of poetry that bards and skalds and others who pursued poetry as a profession were required to learn in their studies and pursuit of poetic idioms. The Irish also had a highly formalized system of poetic training. If I recall, it took about twelve years to win your spurs as a real and accepted bard. That gives you an idea of the importance of poetry to archaic oral cultures. The poets were the historians and memory of the tribe. Without them, the tribe no longer had a known history of the past and probably no real future as a group, either.

Poetry as so formalized an institution (as existed in pre-written times and for a long time afterwards) was only possible through royal patronage. We have seen the age of kings and queens pass, and this needed patronage. There has never been great profit in being a poet since then. In a sense, poets are the last vestige of the aristocracy of the human race. That they still exist is a bit of a miracle, I think. It must be some primal and innate calling or vocation in the spectrum of man, one that will always be with us in the same manner as all the other twelve archetypes: the healer, the warrior, etc..

The use of meter as such can have a hypnotizing effect and also reach into the subconscious as rhythm as well as by way of a medium of thoughts. I recall reading something from Poe aloud to my father and cousin one evening. Afterwards we went to sleep. I awoke several hours later with the verse form rolling along in my mind and just about every thought that came to me was in that meter. It obviously had reached me under the radar of thought and resonated with me subconsciously (another aspect of the magic of poetry).

And poetry has served me in certain ways throughout my life to a positive effect in almost a magical sort of way. Many of my love affairs began with poems scripted to ladies. Poetry was the arrow that found their hearts. One short couplet won me my second wife. And as for you, Christina, you know yourself the power of poetry in the realm of love. It was our mutual poems that brought us together. I have another story concerning the magic of poetry that I will save till later in this interview since I see a question that pertains to it.

So, due to some quirk in me as a person as well as subjective experiences, I have always stayed on the path of poetry. It has nearly been like a religious avocation throughout my life, the crux of who I am. Most other things have played second to it for better and for worse.

When we got together in 2003, the first thing we did was paint the receiving room red and name it “The Red Salon.” It is now our poetry library, and the concept that gave birth to our website and private micro-press. This is a prime example of your weaving poetry into all aspects of your life. Explain the value of such.

Yes, that was one of the first things we did on your first visit here as I recall. I put you to the task of helping me with it. I was doing the roller brush and you were trimming with the paint brush. Of course your being a woman and I a man, we didn’t always see eye to eye on the décor. You didn’t like the metallic geometric shapes I had displayed. Far too masculine, you said. So I made the small concession of removing them in favor of more flowery feminine accoutrements. Yes, we did weave our love of poetry into that project. But being an artist (graphic and fine) as well as a musician, I have applied art to so many facets of my life. It just goes with the territory—everything from décor to fashion, to structuring the day, to ambiance and love-making. All of daily life is thus hallowed much more greatly by the deft application of art and artfulness.

I have always had many books. I bought my first book when I was twelve years old and the process never stopped. It only got worse until I had so many books that I have never as yet had them all up on shelves (despite the fact that we have a fifteen-room Victorian house). The books always exceed the available space. But most dear and important to me are my poetry books. They always have been my foremost treasure. So it was good to get the thousand-plus poetry volumes all together on shelves in one distinct room—a sepulcher of the soul, for poems are the language of the soul. Whenever I sit in The Red Salon, I am always aware that I am surrounded by the souls of all of these poets, past and present. In this small room, life makes the metamorphosis from prose to poetry. Like when we have our Red Hour, which implies coffee, conversation on poetry and reading. In those moments, the world seems perfect to me. I am altogether contented and fulfilled by way of the conversation, the setting and of course the company of another who feels the same as I do.

Ah, thank you. You reiterate Ezra Pound’s stating that poets are the antennas of the human race. Would you care to elaborate?

That is a quote from his ABCs of Reading. It implies that poets, being the most sensitive and receptive members of the society, have a built-in or innate talent for being the first to intuitively anticipate the coming future. I would have to agree in the main with this. I suppose it would, however, vary from one poet to another. Even poets are not absolutely of one persuasion. There is a wide variance of personalities and natural predilections in that sense. Some poets are avant-garde in making things new. Others, however, are staid traditionalists who never wish to break the rules of form and style. Both are of value to poetry. One maintains the past and the other forges into the unknown and sometimes finds new pathways to pursue.

Some poets get pretty arrogant from their side of the fence in debates of avant-garde versus traditional poetry. You say that poetry is the language of the gods, that articulation in itself is the employment of the vehicle of sound for divine communication through the flesh. This, in my opinion, supports the theory of right hemisphere brain activity (namely, inspiration and its offspring, creativity) being the most direct and potent manifestation of divine thought. The right hemisphere in the moment, “in the now” as you would say, would be the avant-garde poetry as opposed to traditional which concerns itself with timelines and metrics, with order; the avant-garde with chaos, right? So are the gods telling us to relax when we speak and let chaos make way for others to order it as they will, or to relax and then structuralize?

The earliest extant poetry is that which is considered sacred and of God or the Gods. Of course Gods did not write books but instead were believed to inspire them in the minds and souls of men. That being the case, then poetry would in fact be the language of the Gods (at least within the context of sacred texts, most of which are written in poetic form).

The right lobe of course is the creative and imaginative side of the brain. However, without the left lobe it would probably be mostly chaos. Meter itself would have to be the structuring process to inspiration, that which would give form to the content in a coherent way. So it is a combination of the two. If the structure becomes too proscribed and rigid, then I would suppose it would inhibit the visionary element of the poetry. If poetry were but the visionary side of creativity, then it would lean towards incomprehensibility. One could picture an oracle spouting off his divine message in the way Rimbaud did in his poetry. It might have style. It might also have a way of conjuring images through its symbolism, but it would certainly not be altogether coherent. Symbolism is largely a case of this. It would seem that a balancing of intelligence with inspiration would be the best manner to communicate. An endless barrage of metaphors and images without context leads to obscurity in communication, or communication on the most rudimentary level. Many poets (past and present) have done just that as a reaction to overly formalized poetry which is in some sense robbed of the élan vital of inspiration. Finding that optimum point would be a part of the poet’s craft. The power of a poem would have something to do with how well the crafting is executed.

Getting back to the beginning of your question and statement, I do not believe that all that is written either in poetic form or claiming to be poetry is the voice of higher inspiration speaking through the writer. Some poetry is simply a human contrivance. That varies from one poem to another, from one writer to the next. In all cases, poetry comes out of what seems to be nowhere. It is, therefore, the ultimate blank canvas before it exists.

I never cease to learn from you! That’s why you have the pedestal. Now, many of us see the same oceanic effect of the Internet on poetry. Do you think there is any hope of the centuries-old standard being reclaimed, or might you say that Western poetry is dead or declining? Why or why not?

Well, it is certainly not a dead art. There are so many people writing poetry these days. I am sure that the internet has induced more poetry to be written because suddenly there is this large worldwide audience to write for. With an avalanche of poetry on the Internet, one simply has to sort the wheat from the chaff. All of it is not worthy or good, but there will be sparkling examples of that which is very good and worthy of the name of poetry. The Internet is sort of like satellite television insomuch as if you do not like something, then you turn the channel to something else. On the Internet, you simply click on something else. Same process. Then again, the value of a given poem has something to do with the audience. One person’s preference may not be another’s. Same with art of any kind.

That’s why I don’t hold poetry contests. The opinion of one “judge” means next to nothing, really.

My own preference for poetry is to hear it read by someone capable of reading it well or of it being rhapsodized in a dramatic manner that brings the words to life. That is what helps to make the poetry of Shakespeare resonate so well with people. As a result, I write for the voice and ear. If it doesn’t sound right to me, then it isn’t right to me. That’s my own litmus test or criteria. I think I read well, at least my own words, and have done a lot of spoken-word recordings with music for a background. Overall, I have been satisfied with the results.

I’ll share just a few links at the bottom of this interview.

Unfortunately, not every poet is a good reader or rhapsodist. I once began to form a group of poets to be named “Wordsmiths.” It was for the purpose of bringing poetry back to the spoken word. My slogan was “That words might live.” The project did not go very far, but several years on, what became known as Poetry Slams did. Generally, it consisted of poets reading from a stage in a barroom. I did quite a number of slams when I lived in Chicago and it was a new thing. It certainly helped me in doing spoken-word poetry. It honed my abilities. I have often been amused when someone reads a poem by me in script form and it does little for them as such. Then they hear me do a dramatic reading and they are awed by it. It always is a confirmation that poetry reduced to the printed page alone is weak in effect compared to when it is dramatized and made vibrant by the human voice. After all, that is where it began, long before the advent of the quill and vellum.

In relation to oral poetry, we also have the listener. The listener is another side to the equation. Unfortunately, people today overall have little capacity to listen acutely. To fully appreciate and to extract the meaning from a poem requires that the listener have focus. Thirty-second spot commercials on television and all the other non-interactive things out there that provide lazy entertainment do not prepare people for this ability to focus.

I have often thought that the riddle (which must go back as far as poetry) was a device for teaching youngsters how to focus and to listen while at the same time providing some entertainment insomuch as using imaginations and analytical abilities.

The riddle demands by its very nature that the listener concentrate and center with their mind, taking note of every word and its relative weight within each phrase transmitted, for each phrase is a part of a verbal puzzle which helps to compositively provide the key to the solution. As a result, it prompts the listener to concentrate in the same way or degree as is required of the listener in understanding and appreciating poetry. It forces the mind to creatively imagine how the fragments fit and form a composite picture. In this sense, it may well have been consciously employed as a vehicle by the listening and learning within a tradition based upon oral transmission and memorization. The riddle would have the effect of inducing the young to acquire these skills while at the same time having fun, something that the young most always have a genius for. It would additionally enable them to develop their problem-solving/analytical facilities. The solving of a riddle or any problem that demands mental labor on our own behalf become the lessons and knowledge that we remember best.

As for poetry being dead as an art form, I would have to point out that it has taken refuge within the lyrics of songs and in the thirty-second commercial and jingle (the latter being the worst fate of poetry and word craft—worst insomuch as its goal being to sell some material thing and also because it fulfills whatever need people have for poetry in their lives in a bastardized form). Even the larger amount of top forty music is little more than repetitious extended commercial jingles.

Interesting. On that corrupted note, let’s get into academic poetry.

It seems to be a sort of poetry mafia in a sense. There is this “inner circle” that sets the standards and keeps all within the academic community. They usually get grants to publish thick journals. Poetry as taught in schools becomes somewhat all the same in approach. When I read some of these thick journals, after a while I get the feeling that they were all written by one individual. Of course maybe many of these poets would not even be writing poetry save for what they have learned in school. This is not, however, to say that all of it is bland or less than great. There are gems at times. I have nothing against academia per se’. It often turns into mutual admiration societies of people giving awards back and forth. As for government-sponsored endowments to the arts, I am against that altogether. I don’t think people who work and pay taxes should support art that they may never even experience or see, let alone like. It also creates more bureaucrats to administer these grants and so forth. I’d think if you want to be an artist, swim or sink on the merits of your work.

I agree, and what comes to mind is an anthology titled Best New Poets (2008 series) edited by no less than Mark Strand. The editing of course is flawless and the work is well executed but primarily crude in subject, seemingly emphasizing the degeneration of society and allowing this crudeness to define modern poetry. Anyway, back to you: describe your own poetic style, your approach to poetry.

I began writing prose poetry. Then I was living with a friend who was a lyricist for a band, and eventually I tried lyric writing for music. Music seemed like one of the few places that poetry could have a context or much of an audience today. Not that all lyrics are poetry; much of music lyrics are little more than repetitious jingles as I said before.

One of the problems from a poet’s side is that people today have short-term attention or focus—no patience. Everything is brief and simplified for them so they seldom develop the focus necessary to really listen to poetry or even read it. My own father seemed very concerned when I announced that I wanted to be a poet. He immediately told me that no one can make a living at it and that I would spend my life starving as a result. Later when my poetry was set to music, it suddenly became accessible to him and he was one of my greatest fans afterwards. For music, the basic English ballad form is best. End rhyme. It is not sophisticated in any way, but it works. If I innovated in any manner, it was with my long ballad poems like “Legends” and “The Ballad of Robert de Bruce” which attempted to capture epic poetry in miniature. Also, some of my poems that were never intended for music ended up as music and worked out well. My music collaborator, Nicholas Tesluk, has a real talent for that. Outside of being a guitar virtuoso, he is for me the perfect collaborator. I have chiefly been the lyricist and he the composer of the music, but not absolutely. We have both done music as well as lyrics for our musical duo, Changes.

In addition to this, I have also done spoken-word poetry in collaboration with a number of other bands as well as solo projects. Though my musical collaborations are what I am best known for and have the widest following, I do continue to write poems not intended for music. I am very satisfied with that which I have done in collaboration with bands and individuals like Allerseelen in Austria, Der Blutharsch, another Austrian band, as well as Werkraum in Berlin with Axel Frank. In fact, Changes’ album Lament may possibly be the first music album to have spoken poetry between the songs. Axel Frank, a talented musician, provided the musical scores that accompanied my readings. In that album we took poetry off the printed page, so to speak, and made it an integral part of our presentation. I presently have about six collaborations for readings on various forthcoming albums by other bands as well: metal, industrial and folk. In doing these, I feel that I am helping to move poetry out to a larger audience and possibility. Nevertheless, I continue to release chapbook collections in printed format as well.

I enjoy making these for you, but I miss the old charm of your early editions. A few lucky readers will know what I am talking about (string binding, jackets, layered bands, thick fonts, etc.).

Another approach I have used sporadically has been the pattern poem of calligramme. These are poems in which the typography forms a pattern or picture in some way reinforcing the message of the poem. This came about where I would see a pattern in my mind at the same time I was writing some thought or poem. These are essentially typographical devices. I have always had an interest in typography. Generally, the poems I have done in this manner are brief thoughts.

I will provide a link to your typographical devices at the bottom of this interview.

I have also written haiku. Haiku has helped me to tighten my other poetry and make it more compact. I always strive to be succinct. In written poetry, I favor a mix of rhyme and non-rhyme, often in a staggered pattern. I feel that this keeps it from getting trite or too predictable. Where my poetry will go from here is a case of following my Muse. I may continue to loop around in the same manner or find new ways to expression—only time will tell. I do feel that I have developed my own idiom and signature to my work, which is always one of the goals of modern poetry and writing in general.

My working method often is to take a group of poems and to work them over. Usually I find that the best time to do so is after waking up when I still have a clear mind and am in an alpha wave state. I have done some every day for a month and generally I find something to change: a word, the sequence of lines and so forth. Other times I write something with minor corrections on the spot and leave it as such, but it is those poems which I consciously craft that I like best.

And where does your Muse fit into all of this?

For most, the term Muse is a metaphor for inspiration. I can understand that and accept that metaphor. However, I think somewhat beyond that definition due to experiences I have had in relation to it. Well you have heard this story many times. I will try to spare you of the longer version and keep the embellishments to a minimum. But you did ask for it. LOL.

I like what story I know is coming, and that’s why I ask.

This experience occurred in the late sixties or early seventies. It was a time of a truly dark night of the soul for me. I had recently divorced and was out of work and facing the inevitable bills and rent. I had no idea where I would get these monies. So with these problems and marital disappointment I was as close to suicide as I have ever been in my life. It was my habit at the time to be up usually at least till dawn and sometimes later working on oil paintings and writing poetry. These occupations were my harbor in the storm at the time.

Usually while I painted I would have music, the radio or even TV on in the background. I used to watch the first UHF station in Chicago which went off the air at midnight. The final program was called “Heart of the News” and featured a beautiful lady who re-capped the news and weather of the day while dressed in a negligee as she reclined on a heart-shaped satin bed. At the very end of her show, she would read a poem (usually by Byron or Keats or someone of that type). One evening, she solicited poems from her viewers, so I sent her about twenty of my poems. She seemed delighted with them and said she would spread them out over the month so as to give me maximum exposure for my work.

One night, I worked on an oil painting straight through from drawing to completed painting, about a thirty-six or so-hour stint. I was exhausted and very depressed about life. I laid down and at some point I had a vision. The most beautiful Goddess-like woman came to me and caressed my brow and told me that everything would be alright. She admonished me to always be true to myself, and I have been. I suppose this vision came in what is termed a hypnogogic state, that twilight between sleep and wakefulness. Her beauty transcended all words of description: her eyes as blue as the sky; her hair, golden yellow; and all around, her aura of rainbow colors. A few hours later the phone awakened me. It was the lady from the TV show who told me how much she liked my poems and that a friend who did some advertising for the station had read some of my poems and said that they were very concise. She said he wanted to offer me a job as a copywriter for print and television commercials, and that even if I wasn’t interested in the position, he would still like to meet the person who had written the poems. A few days later, I was hired at a very large salary and all of my economic problems instantly were solved.

“Fate favors the bold,” as you say!

Poets often have a talent for script and commercial writing. Another area poets tend to be good at is cryptography. I guess both of these professions utilize the same neuro-tracks in the mind.

Later I was to read descriptions of the Muse by other poets—namely, Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess. Both his and the other poets he quotes described precisely the lady in the vision I had. So I do believe in the Triple Muse as she is often referred to as something much more than a metaphor.

And thirdly, you, Christina, are my muse in this sensate reality.

Now, having fully answered your many questions here, I think I deserve a warm-up of my coffee, and don’t forget the sugar. I think I earned it.

Yes, you did. We love your sagacious breadth of understanding, and I love you. My pleasure; my privilege.

[Christina pours the coffee and raises her matching mug from across the little round table.]

Here are a few links to some of R. N. Taylor’s words set to music, and when words inspire music, how beautifully they marry!

But a Spark in the Night (Allerseelen)
La Fee Verte (Werkraum)
Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Regret (Der Blutharsch)

Here is a link to some of Robert’s poetry as typographical devices.

Robert’s chapbooks can be purchased by contacting us through The Red Salon.


Posted by on November 18, 2012 in Coffee with the Poets


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Coffee with Robert Bates Graber

Robert Bates Graber, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology in residence at Truman State University, continues to write anthropology but recently has begun publishing poetry as well. His anthropological corpus includes the very readable books Plunging to Leviathan? (Paradigm Publishers, 2006) and Valuing Useless Knowledge (Truman State U Press, 1995, 2012). With a longstanding love of English literature, he has been influenced as a poet especially by Shakespeare, Tennyson, Robert Frost, and Richard Wilbur. When a friend innocently asked, following Pluto’s provocative demotion in 2006, “Is plutonium an element?” Graber was inspired to write Plutonic Sonnets, a 165-poem sonnet cycle around and about the discovery and naming of planets and elements. The sonnets, mostly of the incomparable “Shakespearean” form (evidently created by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey), are full of history, myth, science, and romance.

Graber lives with his wife, Rose, in Kirksville, Missouri where he enjoys bicycle racing, backyard astronomy, and classical guitar.


(“Coffee With the Poets” interviews
are conducted by Christina.)

[Highly intelligent, sophisticated and multi-talented, I couldn’t pass up Coffee with Robert Bates Graber: a man whose time is of value, a man of literary merit.]

Hi, Rob! And how do you take your coffee?

Hi, Christina! Thanks for having me, and for the nice intro. Since Real Men like their coffee black, I am sorry to admit that I prefer mine with cream, or a hazelnut-flavored cream substitute. (Even the Coffee-mate powder variety suits me fine—which is what I use at home.)

Sounds perfectly delish. Between anthropology, bicycling, classic guitar, of course literary pursuits, when do you find the time to muse, and what kindles your creative flame?

My interests seem mostly not to compete on a day-to-day basis. Rather, something happens to give one or the other precedence for a period of days, weeks, months, or even years. To take a recent and painful example: two weeks ago I scraped myself up pretty good in a bicycle spill, and that is keeping me off the road for the time being. My stargazing interests wax and wane, depending partly on the weather and the air—how good the “seeing” is, as we say. Playing classical guitar, and especially writing anthropology, are my most abiding interests. The only thing that has ever seriously displaced anthropology from the top spot, I think, in my adult life was the writing of Plutonic Sonnets. And since its completion, my writing of poetry has quickly diminished to occasional folk-wisdom type aphorisms I attribute to an alter-ego, “Uncle Ikey.” For some months I have been engrossed in research and writing about the statistical analysis of culture, in chimpanzees as well as in humans. What seems to kindle my creative flame? Oh, I don’t know. Who can explain the motions of the Muse?

Well, you are practically famous for your lively epic sonnet sequence, Plutonic Sonnets. Would you describe it for us?

Now there is an easier question! It is a sprawling sequence of sonnets, mostly Shakespearean, inspired when a friend “innocently” asked, back in 2006 when Pluto was reduced to dwarf-planet status, “Is plutonium an element?” I was amused, then intrigued, then inspired. Suddenly a vast and lofty subject opened up before me: the discovery and naming of the planets and the elements, and especially their interrelatedness.

What attracted you to sonnets, and how long did it take you to complete Plutonic Sonnets?

Hmmm. I’m going to have to think a minute or two about what first attracted me to sonnets. When I studied English literature (among other things) in college, I remember preferring prose rather than poetry. I did find Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella impressive, but hard to understand. I must have liked sonnets even then, because I wrote a few for my wife-to-be!

Ah, the power of poetry to enchant minds and soften hearts!

I believe I first experienced the power of a narrative sonnet cycle when, not many years ago, I was astonished to discover Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Epitaph for the Race of Man. In eighteen sonnets she condenses the whole history of our kind, from beginning to end. Maybe the fact that she uses the constellations to tie things together was significant; my overwhelming impression, though, was wonder that a tale of such grandeur could be told in an earthy and humorous way. I mean, she describes dinosaurs in the acts of defecation and copulation! As for the Shakespearean sonnet form (not especially favored, I believe, by Millay), I think I was drawn to it perhaps especially by how richly Keats used it; an exemplar is “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” The way in which this sonnet form (invented not by the Bard but by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, decades earlier) avoids adjacent rhyme until the final couplet came to have enormous appeal. I also came to appreciate the way the fourteen lines seem to provide just enough space to develop a point, to “make an argument,” if you like. I also enjoyed how the Elizabethan sonneteers would pose bogus little problems, on which they would then demonstrate their wit by “solving” them; and dress up this self-glorification as ridiculous exaggeration of their ladies’ virtues.

Yes, poetry is both virtue and vice to vanity; Millay and countless others attempted the art of self-selling through poetry, for better or for worse!

I inserted a few of my own efforts of this kind for “punctuation” in Plutonic Sonnets. I tried for an astronomical connection even here, to keep within my theme. As you know, Christina, two of these serve as the prologue and epilogue of Pluto & Proserpina, on which Middle Island Press has done such a beautiful job.

Thanks, Rob, for nudging me into block lettering and Gothic fonts and all manner of decorous presentation that your words deserve.

But what I wanted to point out was how these exemplify the absurd exaggeration of the courtly love sonnet. “I’d think the Sun would be ashamed to shine,” begins sonnet 94. Same for the Moon; same for the stars. The only real merit of these heavenly bodies is to have brought his lover’s eyes to mind. Come on! Yet the game is fun, and Shakespeare gets entirely too much credit for “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sun.” Yes, it cleverly turns the tables on the game as usually played; but it is profoundly unromantic. Telling your beloved all the ways she is unattractive, because brutal honesty is the most romantic thing of all? Give me a break! So my sonnet 94 is saying, “Dammit Shakespeare, I am not just saying my lover’s eyes are something like the Sun; I am saying they are about a billion times BETTER!”

Hyperbole is one of the most impressive poetic qualities and you exercise it to your advantage, to be sure. I don’t see much of it in modern poetry, so you deserve some credit there.

It took me something like a year and half to write Plutonic Sonnets—I believe it was from autumn of 2006 through spring of 2008; so a sonnet took, on average, three days. It took quite a lot of research, much of which I did online; without Wikipedia, I’d probably still be working on the damn thing!

The world loves Wikipedia! Now we know that Plutonic Sonnets gave birth to your recent chapbook, Pluto & Proserpina. Can you tell us a bit more about it? (Please don’t be bashful about underlining its significance!)

Yes. Plutonic Sonnets naturally has major subcycles centering on Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. I decided to introduce these subcycles with mythological sonnets devoted to the gods for whom the planets are named. Now I must admit I had never cared for mythology at all; but after pulling down and dusting off my nearly-unused Bulfinch volume, I found myself really getting into it. The oedipal obscenity of sonnet 41 (introducing the Saturn section), and the extravagant imagery of 78 (introducing the Neptune section), reflect my growing enthusiasm for the subject. By the time I was ready to introduce the Pluto section, I decided Pluto’s place in the whole cycle merited introduction by more than a single sonnet; instead, I would compose as many sonnets as it took to tell the famous myth of Pluto and Proserpina in my own way. The number required turned out to be eighteen. From a dramatic standpoint, they clearly compose the climax of the work as a whole. It is a major “sub-subcycle” you might say. While I found sonnets challenging to compose, it also was great fun—and nowhere more than with these eighteen. They are full of jokes and allusions, of which I like to think all readers will pick up on some, but no reader will pick up on all. The story can be read, I would say, on at least three different levels. I realized at the time that this subcycle could stand on its own artistically, and as such might one day make a very nice little chapbook. Thanks to Middle Island Press, that dream has not only been realized, but realized beautifully!

Thanks! I must say I am beyond pleased with it as both a publisher and a reader. Now, temporarily switching subjects to you, personally: Like many poets and creative types in general, you admittedly tend toward eccentricity. Feel free to share something odd or humorous that would make you stand out in a crowd.

Well, in the poetic crowd, so to speak, I perhaps stand out for being a usually cheerful rather than a deeply intense, tragic, or depressive person. And this comes out in my poetry. Somebody said “I prefer to be an optimist; things are bad enough already.” I like that very much! Now, something I like that seems unusual is pipe-smoking. Nobody smokes a pipe anymore. Not in public anyway. I also enjoy pipe collecting. I have grown especially fond of a jaunty shape known as the bent Dublin. My e-mail correspondence is individualized by an emoticon of my own design:


See me smilingly puffing away on one of my several bent Dublins?

Yes, and what wonderful tobacco is scenting the air?

That wonderful scent probably would be Blender’s Gold Rich Vanilla, procured at very reasonable cost (as tobacco goes) from my local Walgreen’s; that is what I smoke in public. (Outdoors only of course, and even then not in a crowd. What nostalgia I feel for my undergraduate years at Indiana back in the early seventies, when I would pass a 50-minute class period filling the room with my aromatic Amphora fumes!). At home alone in my study, I prefer less aromatic tobaccos, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain Black, and now and then some more exotic Dutch blends.

Love it! Did I mention that you’re practically famous? That considered (she smiled), if you could leave a thought for the people of the world 100 years from 2012, what would it be?

I always find myself pleased, but moreso puzzled, when people say I am famous—or even “practically famous”!—because that is so far from my own impression. Anyway, as a thought for the future, let me defer to Uncle Ikey, who, moved partly by the current political discussion and debate, would like to say:

so here we all are
stuck to a little ball
sailin around a star
in the boondocks of the milky way

whatever people say
jist as sure as theres weather
we are all in this together

(More from Uncle Ikey #18)

Great! I look forward to reading more words of Uncle Ikey. I suspect he’s as bright and witty as Robert Bates Graber. I will also look forward to the completion of A Fancy of Formalities which will feature your “Joplin Sonnets.” In penning those following the tornado of 2011, you were speaking on behalf of the people, which is an important role of poets. All in all, you, Rob, have spoken from both heart and mind with equally significant force, and you are a force in the poetic realm worthy of respect as far as I am concerned. It’s been a pleasure!


Pluto & Proserpina can be ordered at the Middle Island Press website as well as where other titles by Robert Bates Graber can also be purchased.

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Posted by on November 10, 2012 in Coffee with the Poets


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MIP Release: The Road We’ve Traveled

Our latest Middle Island Press release is The Road We’ve Traveled (ISBN 978-1-4675-4894-6) by poet Seth Nation of Lawrence, Kansas. It is 51 pages that are, in essence, “…a personal journey of the human condition, twenty-six individual pieces, evoking the passion of love, the grief of death, and the sweet beauty that resides with remembrance in our dreams.” For more information about this heart-rending poetic testimony of love and loss, visit the Middle Island Press website or check out his book page on

As always, Support Living Poets!

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Posted by on November 8, 2012 in Literary News


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