Coffee with Robert Bates Graber

10 Nov

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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