Jun 2013
An Interview with Roger Weingarten
Posted in Conte Presents, Interviews by Tavel at 4:02 pm | 13 Comments »

Poetry editor Adam Tavel conducted this interview with poet Roger Weingarten, who contributed a brief lyric essay and poem to Conte 5.2. Their exchange was first published by the now-defunct Emprise Review in December 2010. We are pleased to reprint it here in its entirety.

Your first two books, What Are Birds Worth and Ethan Benjamin Boldt, are radically different in tone and style, but both were published in May 1975. What relationship exists between those two, if any, and what role did they play in your maturation?

When Ethan, my second book, written between ‘71-‘73 & accepted for publication in ‘74 appeared twelve days before Birds, my first, written between ‘67-‘70 & accepted for publication in ’71, I felt my career was a dog track where both efforts were neck & neck trying to nail the electric rabbit. 

Birds Worth, a Cummington Press production printed in an edition of 225; Ethan, a Knopf extravaganza, in a first printing of 5000 (No, Mom, it never went into a second, but Story Line reprinted it with an atypical Chagall on the cover & with an intro by Mark Jarman in ’87). Ethan garnering twenty five reviews even made it into a Book of the Month Club newsletter (No Pops, it wasn’t optioned by Hollywood), while Birds was blessed with one tasty review in a southwestern organ, the reviewer buzzed by the contrast between the elegant handiwork (bound in linen with a commissioned etching to kick things off) & the author’s scatological bent. It still pops up at Abebooks.com (Also, look for The Stone Wall Book of Short Fictions, the first short short fiction anthology, edited by Robert Coover & Kent Dixon. In this, my poem “To my mare harnessed to Pharaoh’s Chariot I compare you, my love” appeared as prose, & in New American Review 14, next to Coover’s “Lucky Pierre” short short, it came out of the closet as a poem.)

Back to the track, both Ethan & Birds were nominated for Lamont awards in ’75; & in ‘76—at the time the Lamonters decided their 1st book prize should become a 2nd, Cummington resubmitted, &, though neither took the brass ring, years later one of the judges confided Ethan missed by a nose, & sprung for lunch. 

Though Birds’ lyrics were spiked with narrative—then a pejorative term (the since revised Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics judged narrative a 2nd class citizen, even though Dickey had attracted notice for his narrative thrust). Ethan, a book-length poem, complete with family tree Mormons would envy, divided like a novel into named sections, where individual poems drive the story forward, sideways, or off the cliff. In both instances, delight in energetic language & serpentine syntax that makes the dramatic situation & setting felt & palpable is what drove me to the page. 

I can see by the look in your eye you’re wondering what’s changed. In Birds, I had this young Turk confidence I could do anything; in Ethan I went into a two year trance, trusting my one-man séance would make this almost three century seven-league boot journey compelling. Both explore complexities; both are marbled with the autobiographical in drag. Have I matured? Has the pope? I just knocked off a three-pager based on personal encounters with arcane maladies I think kicks ass. On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception I qualify for Medicare; last week I climbed Hunger Mountain in bathing trunks and sneakers. Writing, brewing compost tea, or running into a high mountain grove of blue bead lilies is what keeps my baby boomer fluid coursing.

Would you explain “autobiographical in drag?”

At the ‘78 AWP bar mitzvah, Leonard Michaels, fiction writer, said, “It’s all poetry.”  Over a decade later, Mike Steinberg, nonfictionalist, argued, “It’s all fiction.” In Where Have All the Leaders Gone, Lee Iacocca, former Chrysler CEO, divulges that “One of the most important lessons I learned in business was that if all you’re getting from your team is a single point of view—usually your point of view—you’ve got to worry. You can get your own point of view for free.”  In the Michaels/Steinberg/Iacocca light, and as fictive non-creator of the Republic of Autobiographia, in the following poem I purloined my brother’s hospital encounters, loaned the expediter from my dad’s lumber empire my cuckolding, stole an old friend’s Cuyahoga River yarn, & concocted the rest. Brother Jeff’s outcry wedded to my storm:


“Father Hunger and Son”

A pedestal ashtray next to the son who hadn’t seen

or spoken to his father for years of blame, and another

man wrapped in a coat, both hands pressed

into a fist between his thighs, the clean shaven

pendulum of his chin muttering under a petrified

tear that magnified the bloodshot corner. Jealous

of his thirty years side-by-side with my father

working the phones for sales, I assumed his grief

was for the tenuous life at the far end

of the corridor suspended between

a bag of blood and a monitor’s

vigilance. I touched his shoulder like a stranger

interrupting another on an empty bus. He’ll be okay.

Who? He answered, as he grabbed

the ashtray and pulled it to him, whispering

through something stuck in his throat

that he’d found an unmailed

letter from his wife to another man

sticking out from under

the car seat as he’s reached to turn the key

that morning in the garage. I want him to masturbate

to death, he said. You can see

your father now, the nurse told me.

After I passed my stepsister and Aunt Delilah, her eyebrows

raised into dollar signs beneath a pale

beehive, my stepmother pulled me aside and said,

Why are you here? You’re not welcome. You’ll kill him

if you step foot in that room. I pushed

my sad cuckold into a cab that dropped us

in the industrial flats under cranes looming

by the revolving bridge of my childhood

over the river that burned once. While we tried

to light it again with matchbooks and wads

of old receipts from his pockets, scraps

of smoke drifting nowhere, he wanted to know

what I thought he should say to his wife. I asked him

if my father loved me. He hunkered down

and stared at his wingtips. When your mother

left him for that other guy, something

died inside of him. I’m not saying he didn’t laugh

or give a shit about anyone. But if

your name came up—which was almost

never—you could see something

sidestep in his face, like he was dodging

a sucker punch. What do I know after thirty years

of lunches and hustle? I worked for the bastard.

He signed the checks like clockwork every week.

As I started to cry, he said, C’mere, child,

crying too and pulling me

to his sandpaper cheek. I don’t know my wife

any better than your old man. Or anyone else

for that matter. I don’t know.


Your work embodies a very distinct use of the poetic line, and often employs enjambment to great effect. To paraphrase Mark Jarman, it’s almost as if your sentences themselves have a sort of plot. What are the functions of lines and line breaks in your poems?

Jarman dug up Jack Myers’ entry on Syntax in the Longman Dictionary and Handbook of Poetry, where he uses some lines from “Night Signals” to demonstrate how “theme, scene, character, and pathos” are developed in one sentence. Jarman’s making the case my sentence structure is “narrative,” “dramatic,” & my favorite, “tragic.” Makes my syntax sound like it’s falling to its death from a great height.

I don’t think of lines or breaks when I launch—self-censorship, premature organization, who knows. If I were writing a few hundred years ago, the end of the line (pun intended) would probably be at the forefront of my process. Wasn’t the (iambic pentameter) line the basic unit of the poem? In Alan Dugan’s work, the pentameter line, like a line drive, sometimes happens over two or three lines. What drives my free verse is what I call The Elastic Sentence: like an earthworm, it can be short or long, begin or end where you least expect it, have more than one heart; it’s a relativist creature of the Einsteinian universe, while the Line reflects linear or Newtonian thinking. After I’ve wormed my way through lots of drafts, I play Musical Chairs to see what I can find that will assist the reader’s fall into enjambed possibility because of the sentence driving through it.

I guess it’s a little harder to hold on to the concept of Shape when it’s melded into the whole, but what works for me is to work—like a sculptor working shapeless clay while his models are doing a fertility dance around him—with something in hand.  Frost, blank verse master, described free verse as playing tennis without a net. Let’s roll, Selah! with that: the court’s still there, players too—still very geometric, no? Harpo’s playing the net like a harp with that daffy look. Bruce Weigl says, “Cudgel me daffy.” It’s what we want, waking to write, calling upon our gifts, whatever they are, to transport us in the trunk of our imaginations. Though no one has a clue who’s driving, we, the poem & yours truly, trust that some ripe entanglement will materialize.

I heard you remark that you view yourself as a “maker of poems” rather than as a “poet.” Is this semantics, or is there a difference in your mind between the two?

In the mirror there’s this dazed Jewish kid from the east side of Cleveland who, hunkered into a corner with a legal pad, has disappeared into the work, unlabeled & set free on the page. Too many “poets” & worse, too many readers labor—thanks to many sources, but I’ve always liked the filmed Zhivago when Omar’s trapped in his elegant pavilion with annoying bells going off—under the misconception that inspiration’s Tinkerbell goodies happen in the first blush, but don’t get the 1001 perquisites and aggravations of revision. The Puritan, and pervasive, version of editing is tightening, making the thing more economical: hunky-dory sometimes, constipated others (take a look at my Spring ‘96 “Reincarnated Forms” section of Hunger Mountain to see wild gerrymandering of the tradition). Unbranded, even feral, I seek opportunities to spin new webs, switch course, or shuffle things around. Some poems, possessive spirits, want to keep you around. Some take minutes; others—years of sleuthing dead-ends. Put that in a beret & cape over a café mocha & burning Gauloise & smoke it.

Your work can be quite comedic. Do you think humor is a liability given the climate of irony prevalent among younger poets these days?

Welcome to Weingarten, our voice mail menu has changed. If you know your party’s extension, hang up and dial again. After my Fall 1970 debut reading at Western Michigan, last out of the auditorium, I had my eye on the backs of two colleagues rounding the corner into the little boys’ room as one said to the other, “brilliant, but what a waste.” The other, doubting humor belonged in poetry, agreed.

Humor as Banquo says to Macbeth, “win(s) us with honest trifles.” Robin Williams’ rabbi with a huge frog on his head walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “Where did you get that?” The frog answers, “Brooklyn. They’ve got hundreds of them.” Like guy wires holding up our invisible circus tents, isn’t it part & parcel of what makes poems readable? Humor’s sly trickster guises—between forest fire smoke drifting down from Quebec & shit city in the Gulf—give us purchase. Norman O’Brown said, “Tragedy relieves sorrow.” I say humor won’t get you out of cleaning the toilet, but if you get Netflix, check out the Bob Saget Roast. Irony, or as Barry Goldensohn calls it, “sustained ambiguity,” is what Goethe called “the spice that makes the dish palatable.” Doesn’t humor, like a graveyard, have many rooms?  A pal asked Edmund Gwen, character actor, on his deathbed, what it was like. He answered, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Believe it’s even harder in poetry, where some of your snoot-cocked audience say it doesn’t belong at all. Worked into the fabric, knock on wood it won’t collapse on you, Dear Reader, but trust me, even if it’s re-readable a thousand times, those boys in the hall still won’t twig to it. Without it, ask your ironic climatologists, where’s the rubber chicken?

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13 Responses:

bruce weigl said:

I love the interview with Roger that fortunately brought out aspects of Roger’s real talent as a poet. “Father Hunger and Son” is a wonderful illustration of the chilling edge of irony that Roger’s poems embody. Bravo to Conte.


Diana Pinckney said:

Pure R. Weingarten. Love this interview and glad to read it now, republished. The “Father Hunger and Son” poem I read years ago and happily read again. “I don’t know.” line that ends the poem goes to the heart.
Roger and his riff on line breaks and his answer on humor in poetry is worth the read.
Thanks, Roger. Thanks, Conte

Mira Kate Fetherston said:

“I don’t know.”: Of all poems, prose, & philosophical treatises combined, Roger Weingarten’s line at the end of “Father Hunger and Son” is my leaky raft on this life’s uneasy and beautiful sea.

The only thing left to say is that it’s been raining in this Eden for 3 months. Weingarten, please do send me the rubber chicken COD. There’s a climatologist needs flogging.

Conte Online » Blog Archive » The Four Gentlemen and their Footman by Roger Weingarten said:

[...] Roger Weingarten, author of ten collections of poetry & co-editor of seven poetry anthologies, has lectured, taught & read at writers’ conferences, poetry festivals, & universities nationally & internationally. Founder & Senior Professor in the MFA in Writing & the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College from 1980-2008, his awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Louisville Review Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, & an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in Literature. His poems, stories, & essays have appeared in The New Yorker, APR, Poetry East, The Stonewall Book of Short Fictions, The Paris Review, & Poetry, among many other journals & anthologies. Ghost Wrestling, a collection, published by David R. Godine, 1997; Ghost Writing: Haunted Tales by Contemporary Writers, Invisible Cities Press, 2000; Poets of the New Century, David R. Godine, 2001; Manthology: Poems on the Male Experience, 2006; Premature Elegy by Firelight, a collection, Longleaf Press, 2007; Open Book: Essays from the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, with Kate Fetherston, Cambridge Scholars’ Press, 2007, & Stranger at Home: American Poetry with an Accent with Andrey Gritsman, Interpoezia, 2008. You can find his brief lyric essay and poem in Conte 5.2 and his interview with us here. [...]

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