In Mason jars we caught our lightning bugs
  who flitted summer evenings, children heights,
  building the neon globes we set on rugs
  inside for talking, nervous, yellow lights
  when the light was gone for play. I recall that death
  which we saw in the slowly suffocating things
  made our small talk serious, regulated our breath,
  and focused our circle on paired, spasmodic wings,
  raising themselves from the mass. We talked till late
  of the girl chopped up near the bridge at Germantown
  and the cursing boy whose growth God stopped at eight,
  and the adults we would be if we got grown,
  but hushed and watched when a random blink would catch,
  and a light, then life, would fade with a little twitch.

  Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 1976, All Rights Reserved



           Roy Neil Graves
  7. Personal background:


  •  Medina, Tennessee (1939-57).  Born on Groundhog’s Day, February 2, 1939—a fifth- or sixth-generation West Tennessean down most of 32 paternal and maternal lines—to caring, ethical, hard-working parents, Georgia Mae Reed Graves (b. 1910), a homemaker and bookkeeper, and Roy N. Graves, Sr. (1909-90), an auto mechanic and partner in Medina Garage. One brother, Clifton Reed Graves (b. 1940), eventually a mechanical engineer who married Joyce Stallings and had one son, Russell (an aeronautical engineer with the space program, married to Beth, a mathematics major), and one grandson, Roy. Grandparents Edgar and Minnie Boone Graves (who lived near Medina) and Emerson and Lena Brown Reed (of near Kenton) were both farming couples who had enough children (nine and six respectively) to engender lots of cousins. Played with bright, creative neighborhood kids—a brother, two cousins, and the doctor’s five remarkable offspring—in an era of unlocked doors and bikes that you could range all over the country on. Picked cotton, carried newspapers, read town water meters, did seasonal farm and pack shed work. Was active in the Baptist Church, especially its organization for boys called Royal Ambassadors. Lettered two years in basketball. Took piano lessons from first grade onward. Performed with cousin Julia Kay in annual black-face minstrels put on by the Lions Club into the mid-1950s; accompanied the Velvatones, a high school girls’ quartet that won the Mid-South Fair talent show (see “Medina Girl Group’s 1957 Recordings Re-released in London,” The Milan [TN] Mirror-Exchange, 13 May 2003, 8; see Gwenda Anthony, “Medina’s Claim to Fame,” The Jackson [TN] Sun, 21 Sept. 2003, C1f.). Won $50 in an Our Times national essay contest, arguing against the guaranteed annual wage. Published an editorial piece in The (Memphis) Commerical Appeal about how to keep Southern young people from leaving the farm. Placed second in regional typing and geometry contests. Was valedictorian of a class of 26 at Medina High School (1957)—an all-white group that several teachers praised as the “best class they’d ever taught”—in a racially segregated town and region; received the science award at graduation and was a National Merit finalist. Was admitted to Princeton University—with a deficiency in languages, which the bare-bones MHS curriculum didn’t offer—but decided not to go there.

  •   Jackson, Tennessee (1957-59). In the save-the-world-from-the-Russians context of the late 1950s, entered Union University, a Southern Baptist college near home, envisioning some kind of math-and-science emphasis with the vague career goal of doing college teaching as a Baptist missionary. Class president, freshman and sophomore years. Member of Alpha Tau Omega social fraternity, oblivious to its anti-black and anti-semitic clauses, moot in the WASPish, all-white context at Union. Made good friends. Shifted major to English sophomore year after hitting physics like a ripe tomato thrown against a wall. Had sweaty nightmares about acceleration curves. Studied piano, took a watercolor class. Did a solo piano recital and had a (duo) art exhibit (1959). Clerked in retail clothing and worked weekends as a desk clerk and night auditor at The New Southern Hotel, downtown, in the declining era of its breed. A chief academic mentor was Jack Farris, a charismatic novelist and articulate Arkansan who talked a lot about faustian quests in literature. Was a busboy at Ridgecrest (NC) Baptist Assembly (summer 1958). Down from the mountaintop, withdrew membership from the Baptist church (1959). Got best supporting actor award for a role in The Diary of Anne Frank(1959). Took French. Picked sophomore courses to parallel Princeton’s divisional requirements, and reapplied for admission there. After initial, nearly absolute discouragement from officials followed by much epistolary badgering, much beating on the Gothic doors, was accepted again into the Class of ’61.

  • Princeton, New Jersey(1959-61).  Transferred (among four or five other students that year) to Princeton, still all-male. Enrolled as a junior English major, electing an emphasis in prose fiction. Joined Wilson Lodge, a non-selective alternative to the Prospect Street clubs. Voted, like a fool, for Nixon. Struggling to adjust to new academic expectations, compiled a lackluster first-term record. Made two solid friends. Sang bass in the Princeton Glee Club. Did junior papers on Tennyson and Arnold and on Fielding, with Carlos Baker as advisor. Won the Bain-Swiggett prize for traditional poetry (1960). Worked back at Ridgecrest Assembly as summer cashier (1960) and clerked at the University Store (1960-61). Took German and painting classes senior year. Had English classes with R. P. Blackmur, D. W. Robertson, Edward Hubler, Lawrance Thompson. Did a senior thesis titled “Joseph Conrad and the Theme of Self-Deception,” Hans Aarsleff, advisor. Applied to grad schools at Yale, Michigan (in creative writing), and Duke; got turned down for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship (the ticket to Michigan) and was wait-listed at Yale. Received and accepted a three-year National Defense Education Act (N.D.E.A.) fellowship for graduate study at Duke—pragmatically signing its galling loyalty oath. Graduated from Princeton with departmental honors; won the Manners prize (1961) for writing and bought a ’59 Chevy with the stipend. Headed back south, somewhat liberalized and a lifelong yellow-dog Democrat. Spent a last summer at home in Medina.
  • Durham, North Carolina (1961-65).  Got an apartment, lived comfortably. Studied American lit. at Duke, with minors in 18th Century British lit. and Southern U.S. history. Took a leave from school (fall 1962) to work as a tech writer/editor for the Army Research Office (Durham) in Durham and Panama (1962-63) on a pre-Vietnam project called Swamp Fox II that tested vehicles in subtropical rainforests. Made money, bought new clothes and a ’60 Austin-Healey.  Got marginally involved in The Movement, housing a few drop-in friends who worked for SNCC. Picketed segregated theatres in Durham. Sang in the Duke Madrigal Singers. Published (with Norbert Artzt) a fake book review in the Duke Chronicle—creating the poet Jones Goddard Nichollsen, liberally “quoting” his work in the review. Published real poems in the Archive. Finished M.A. thesis, “Emily Dickinson and Imagism” (1964), Arlin Turner, director. Taught female students on the East campus as a graduate instructor. Willard Thorp, visiting lecturer, and Prof. Turner were chief academic mentors. Took courses with Louis Budd, Benjamin Boyce, Clarence Gohdes. Got interested in regional antiques and in rebuilding old pedal organs.  Completed Ph.D. coursework, residence, and language requirements but stopped short of taking prelims, in an era when ABDs could still get college teaching jobs. Realistic prospects included several centers—in towns north of Durham—in the University of Virginia extension program.

  • Lynchburg, Virginia (1965-69). Married Sue Lain Hunt, of Trenton, TN (1965), a graduate of Union University, a pianist, and an elementary school teacher with altruistic leanings. Moved to Lynchburg to teach English at the UVA Branch there. Regularly taught night classes and adult students. Lived one year on campus at New London Academy (1965-66), Sue Lain’s employer west of Lynchburg near Forest. Bought an 1859 house nearby but decided not to fix it up because the countryside around it was suddenly being graded away. Paid $4000 for an 1840s brick-and-stone raised cottage at 1501 Church Street, just uphill from the James River in a depressed, racially mixed neighborhood. Patched the house up and moved in. Acquired two St. Bernards. Sometimes drove Sue Lain, then a teacher at Dunbar High School (with no white students), to the picket site at the downtown newspaper office after the paper, a bastion of conservatism, stopped covering “black news.” Helped with some of her Community Action projects, summers. Shifted more or less automatically to the faculty of the new Central Virginia Community College, which took over UVA programs (1967); was first coordinator of humanities and social sciences and acting chair of English at CVCC. Wrote poems, mostly sonnets, and published in The Lyric. First of three children born in 1969, Anna Hunt Graves (later B.A. in American studies, Yale ’90, and a graduate of Simmons in Boston, a freelance author on music topics who has worked in retail music and as a librarian in New York, Maine, and California). Relocated with the growing family, dogs and cats, back to West Tennessee (1969), near two sets of grandparents who lived one county away.

  1.     Martin, Tennessee (1969-present), with an interlude in Oxford, Mississippi (1976-77). Soon moved into a rambling, modestly refurbished T-shaped turn-of-the-century farmhouse near UT-Martin on a small farm with two ponds and (over time, bought in several stages) 18 acres of fields and trees. Two more children: One, Benjamin Lain Graves, born 1971 (later B.A., Wesleyan [CT] ’93, and M.A., Washington State, ’96, a successful professional musician whose master's thesis is on Pat Metheny and who has appeared at The Grand Ole Opry and on The Tongith Show; in November 2001 he married Katherine Cruver, a New York state native, and in 2003 they moved from San Francisco to Nashville). The other, Molly Brett Graves, born 1973 (later B.A. in anthropology, Princeton ’98, winner of the department thesis prize for a study of museums, a world traveler adept at languages, employed 1998-99 with Princeton-in-Asia in Kazakhstan, marathon runner in the 4:20 range, M.A. ’01 from UC Santa Cruz, journalist with St. Petersburg [Russia] Times 2000-01, living in 2010 in Nashville, where she is a teacher and fabric aerialist). On leave from UTM and in residence with the family at Oxford, MS, completed a generalist’s doctorate in English at Ole Miss (1976-77), taking some courses in art, theatre, and education. Did Out of Tennessee: A Book of Poems, the first creative doctoral thesis that Ole Miss allowed, Evans Harrington, director and chief academic mentor. Studied with John Pilkington. In a seminar directed by T.J. Ray, found the first of the lost Runes in a medieval ms. (1977), paradigms that by 1979 led to the astounding subtextual findings in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, an on-going academic calling thereafter. Received a modest NEA-funded purchase award, Oxford-Lafayette County Library, for an original watercolor sketch (1977). Moved through the ranks back at UTM, enjoyed teaching, stayed busy. Divorced 1982. Kept the farmhouse and land. Shared joint custody of three children (then ages 8-13) who lived mostly with their mother in Martin until they left for college in turn. After 1977, member, Martin Area Choral Society, and frequent background pianist at campus and local events. Music director and keyboardist for Vanguard Theatre’s Marat/Sade (1974). Other small roles in Vanguard productions (1971, 1972) and Opera Theatre. Member, Martin Public Library Board (1981-83). Rebuilt a log cabin in the back yard (early 1980s). Had interesting housemates, one of whom named my country place the Ponderosa, a pun on its two ponds. Traveled (England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, the States). In the 1990s, advocated gay rights causes at UTM, became a hobbist retailer in antiques, and took up running, doing eight marathons including NYC and Chicago (best time 3:36:43 at the Rocket City, Huntsville) and local 5Ks and 10Ks. Shared an interest in family history and genealogy with my dad, Roy Graves, Sr., a frequenter of deserted houses and lost graveyards until his death in 1990, a warm and generous man who loved to tell stories and who helped build Medina Garage, the family business that he and his brother started in 1929. Supported the UT Third Century Club, the Skyhawk Club, and Channel 11, PBS (1990s and past 2000). A lifelong member of the Georgia Mae Graves fan club—its namesake having lived an independent and active life until age 92, finally succumbing to frailty and age in April 2010, two months before her 100th birthday. Moved and rebuilt two other room-sized log cabins, summers 2002 and 2004, at the Ponderosa. Started another web site 2003 on the Shakespeare project. In this rural setting that a December 1970 article in Esquire called one of America’s “Nine Happy Places,” I have now cultivated my own garden for more thanfour decades, privileged with wonderful colleagues, a relatively stress-free life, and daily work that often achieves Robert Frost’s ideal, combining vocation with avocation, serious scholarship with playful coterie games and ad hoc writing projects that challenge the mind and animate the heart.


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