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An Indian Summer In A Very Good Year

Local patrons of the arts won’t want to miss the opportunity to see a prolific contemporary poet, Roger Weingarten, read from his new collection, Premature Elegy by Firelight, at 6 P.M. on Tuesday, March 13 in Methodist University’s Yarborough Auditorium.

Literature enthusiasts may be familiar with Weingarten’s work from any one of his nine other poetry collections, including Ghost Wrestling and Infant Bonds of Joy, his poetry anthologies, including New American Poets, and Poets of the new Century or from such reputable publications as APR, Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. Following the reading, a reception will be held at the Mallett-Rogers House, where Weingarten will be available to meet poetry lovers and to autograph copies of his work. Admission is free and open to the public. The event is taking place as part of a tour through several North Carolina cities to promote the book, which was recently published by Longleaf Press at Methodist University. Another nearby event includes a poetry reading at 7 P.M. on Friday, March 9 at McIntyre’s Fine Books in Chapel Hill.

Characterized by emotionally engaging language and vivid imagery, Premature Elegy by Firelight masterfully depicts the struggle to come to terms with complex familial relationships. In a recent telephone interview, Weingarten explained that his elegy is “premature” because at the time most of the poems were written, his father was “figuratively dead—any kind of literal, day-to-day connection didn’t, for the most part, exist.” The poet described most of these poems as “elegies to a hole in the center of my being blessed by a father who could not only care less, but worked at it. These poems reinvent the 1000 delights of that relationship and cast it in a fictive mode.” In grappling with the connection between himself and his father, Weingarten shifts between his experience as a child—“There’s one piece where one version of my father gets his day in court, and another where he’s actually kind of heroic”—and as a parent: “What, hopefully, I’ve done with most of these pieces is to marble autobiography into fiction until, historically accurate or not, they convey an emotional truth.”

As the book develops and progresses, the father’s metaphorical death merges with his literal mortality, coalescing in the poem, “Into the Mouth of the Rat,” which describes four days the poet spent watching his father “slip between semi-consciousness and unconsciousness.” According to Weingarten, the poem inhabits a “hundred-hour roller coaster ride through a Florida version of the hall of mirrors at Versailles my father had built around himself, and homes in on raw moments, like shaving my father at the end of his life.” Indeed, the poems alternate between specific and universal experiences, detailing attempts to wash away a primal sense of loss that pervades the relationship between parent and child.

The poet described his “garbage can” poetics by explaining that “most of my work starts pretty loosely—I dump everything that comes to my mind on the page, and try not to edit while launching first drafts. Premature editing is a kind of self-censorship—I’d never know what I could’ve had. On top of that, I don’t usually know what I’m carrying around with me until I daydream my way into it or something else, something between me and the poem, starts to make its way into being. Kind of like a sedentary Pecos Bill riding a cyclone with all kinds of goodies and dead ends swirling around a lap desk. Then revision is the name of the game.”

As founder of the MFA in Writing and the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College, Weingarten is not only, as fellow writer Bruce Weigl puts it, “one of our most original and enduring poets,” but also a teacher and mentor: a role that he entertained during the interview and that he will continue to fulfill during his visit by hosting poetry workshops, including one with Methodist University students from Dr. Michael Colonnese’s advanced studies in poetics class. Weingarten said, “When I’m writing poems that spring from the bitter herb of grief—love, anger, and a little black humor—I have to make it work for the reader. I take something elemental to who I am in the world, and shape it, and keep working with it until I’ve got something that communicates.” Those planning to attend Weingarten’s readings and workshops will have the privilege of hearing more of what he has to share.

Shannon Ward is a student at Methodist University.