portrait Afaa Michael Weaver

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 131 ~ April, 2008

Afaa Michael Weaver’s most recent poetry collection is The Plum Flower Dance, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. His first book of poetry, Water Song, was published in 1985 as part of the Callaloo series.

Alumnae Professor of English at Simmons College in Boston, Weaver is the author of nine previous books of poetry, including My Father’s Geography and Timber and Prayer, as well as short fiction and plays. He is Chairman of the Simmons International Chinese Poetry Conference.

Photo by Lynda Koolish

Weaver has been named a Pew Fellow in Poetry and the first Elder of Cave Canem. He was the first African American poet to hold the poet-in-residency position at the Stadler Poetry Center at Bucknell University. He has taught at National Taiwan University and Taipei National University of the Arts in Taiwan as a Fulbright Scholar.

Derek Alger: Your collection The Plum Flower Dance: Poems 1985 to 2005 was recently published. Can you elaborate a bit on exploring and rethinking questions of identity in your poetry?

Afaa Michael Weaver: Magic Shears is this barber shop in Roxbury that I have been going to for twelve years. In that time, a small spot on my head has grown to a full-fledged bald spot. It is a place where that part of me that worked in the factory those fifteen years feels comfortable, but then my barber always comes back to me being a professor in some way, asking me how that is going. I think of identity that way, as going from one place to another to see if you can feel welcome. The first “place” I visited in my work was my world of the factory in WATER SONG, my first book. I did my best to ground my poetic in what was around me, the machines, the people who were resisting being machines, and the history of that time in my life. Then I began to move from black to white, and discovering that white was more than just white, I began visiting the cultural homes, so to speak, to see if I was welcome, and to look in the mirrors in those places to see who looked back at me. I never had a need to go into blackness so much but to move from a zen place of acceptance of my circumstance in life and move from that point.

Identity is a word theorists have battered into pieces, and I could go on and on, but in my poetry, it has meant membership, which is, I suppose, cultural identity. My identity as a man, to go to that gender specific place, was caught up in this moving from culture to culture until I got deeply into the Chinese, where I was able to make sense of a larger moving force in my work, namely the child trauma. It was later in life that I understood that my child trauma was the engine in my work and my relations with other people, with the world. Reading Elizabeth Bishop as an advisor to a graduate student in Taiwan helped me as I read Bishop’s own revelations about herself when she reached her fifties, the time of integration of experience in our lives. It was Ed Hirsch who first commented on my work with identity when he wrote the commentary for MY FATHER’S GEOGRAPHY, and in organizing the THE PLUM FLOWER DANCE, I wanted to show the movement in my work according to the self-awareness and self-knowledge I have gained in the recovery program. Recovery from incest is so difficult that most people do not make it. They succumb to tragedies both large and small, and to recover, you must grasp our basic humanity as human beings. Betrayal from within the family leaves you in the hands of the family of human beings, of mankind. So getting back to identity and membership, I have come to be more accepting of the fact that parts of me belong everywhere I go, and little by little, I feel less of a need to totally belong anywhere.

DA: You were raised in Baltimore by working class parents and able to find an early gift for the love of language.

AMW: My father talked in metaphors and spoke allegories, all in the southern vernacular, which I miss now that he is gone. I have no one to talk to that way. Loving my father gave me an anchor in that southern vernacular as I heard it in Baltimore, and I suppose I am getting back to identity, inasmuch as it relates to language. Code switching, or shifting between the registers in the various levels of American English, is something I learned to do while listening as a child. My family was uneducated, so I did not grow up with intellectual discussions of language and being. I speak out of reflecting on my life in language, and the church was a huge factor. Raised as a Baptist, I came to love a good sermon, and the Bible was my access to Elizabethan era language in the absence of discussions of King Lear at home. So I have always loved listening. I was the child who sat listening to people, and many of these people were women. I was surrounded by women as a child. They have their own incredible variances in that southern vernacular and its points of convergence with the urban argot. I read, but it was mostly fiction and not the western classics. I read Walter Farley’s BLACK STALLION series and Ian Fleming, for example. I loved school, and that’s where I got more of the formal readings.

DA: The question of identity runs through much of your work.

AMW: Yes, it does, and my earlier experiences with feeling racially alienated came when I went to my first integrated school, which was junior high. My elementary school was all black, and when I got to junior high, I found I had to catch up with white kids from public schools that had better funding and facilities. That catching up was always with me in some ways. I entered the University of Maryland at College Park at the age of sixteen, an overachiever. There were 33,000 students on the campus and only about 300 were black. I was in shock, and after two years I dropped out. I had gone to an all male high school, and so dating was hard. I fell in love with a girl back home, as they say. I had success, but not the tools to handle the success. Now I see this as an American story. Also, going back to the Bible, the story of King David is about that for me, a man of low birth who rises to power with all the awkward moments along the way, including encounters with his own lust for rising up the ranks of society.

DA: That must have been a very difficult decision.

AMW: Yeah, my father especially was heart-broken. In my first year out there at the University of Maryland, he drove down and brought me a survival pack of snacks for studying. It was so sweet of him, and it is one of those moments that sticks in my mind when I think of how much he wanted me to do well at the university, of how proud he was of me. I felt so guilty when things began to fall apart. He was a sharecropper’s son and grew up in that life, and here I was in the university with his supervisor’s son. I can imagine how he felt as he drove that Chevy of his down Shirley highway to College Park. Amazing.

DA: And then, to use your own words, “You plunged ahead at the steel mill” and also joined the Army Reserves.

AMW: My family home was on one of the main drags leading to the steel mill, Federal Street. In the early seventies, you had only to hold your brown paper bag out and hail a ride to “The Point.” That’s what I did after leaving the University of Maryland. I worked in the tin mill until I left for Basic Training. I had my life all planned. My pregnant wife and I would make a home for our child, beginning with the two rooms my parents let us have upstairs in the house where I grew up. I would serve my country and come back with a little extra money every month. Along the way, I would learn the craft of being a poet and writer by being with the masses, as we used that word in the na├»ve Marxist rhetoric of the day. Drop out and tune in was one of the phrases. I had four cousins in Vietnam. I remember the day my cousin Marvin came home from Marine Corps basic. He looked so macho and proud. I wanted to be like him. He came home with horrible memories. I came home to a sick child who later died. It was the beginning of my major trials in life. Out there in Ft. Leonard Wood getting trained for war, I was not sure sometimes if I would make it out of basic. I have enough bad memories of being screamed at, and worse.

DA: You describe your days at the factory as a literary apprenticeship.

AMW: When Timber & Prayer was published in 1995, Michael Harper was my guest poet at Rutgers in Camden, where I used to teach and where I received tenure. I had invited him to give a reading, and in a conversation with him in the hotel, he said to me, “Well, you have finished your journeyman period.” Harper was referring, of course, to the old guild system. There you have three periods, apprenticeship, journeyman, and artisan, which probably has as much to do with medieval numerology as anything else. But I entered factory life thinking I would hone my skills as a poet and writer among the masses, of whom I was certainly one. The challenge, as I see it now, was to be born a poet and born poor. Be that as it was, I read everything I could and set myself out on the triple path, of reading, writing, and living that continues to this day. Is there any other way? I read Eliot and Pound alongside Brooks, Hughes, and Sterling Brown. It was tough being in the factory and holding onto my creativity. Factories are designed so that the workers function like machines, doing one rote thing after another, day after day. It is like being pounded into silence, with so little to inspire your outward bound thinking. I sneaked books into work and read them in solitary places. On the graveyard shift, I could do more of that kind of thing, hiding so as to feed my mind and keep it whole and alive. In 1975, I assembled a manuscript entitled Frenzy, which became my first book, Water Song, ten years later. There were other manuscripts I tossed aside.

DA: Langston Hughes was a strong influence on you as a poet?

AMW: In 1975, I also spent a semester studying at Morgan State University, where Dr. Valerie Sedlak was my professor in the first half of the survey of British literature. She is the one who told me to read Langston Hughes carefully.

DA: That’s an interesting observation that the black poetic tradition is defined, to a large extent, by black women.

AMW: Major accomplishments have been made by women, and I think not a little of that is part and parcel of the gender constructions within ideas of race and racism in America. Black men have met another kind of resistance, and they have their own fears of sensitivity. Black men’s ideas of masculinity have often excluded lyrical expression of feeling. These things in combination have been major factors in their slower climb to accomplishment. However, it is getting better for black male poets, I think. The question of who is writing the better poetry, black women or black men, is not a tenable question. The larger question is how African American poets have grown and developed over the centuries in the context of several factors, not the least of which is class. There is not much discussion of class among black poets. I hope that will soon change.

DA: Six months after the publication of your first poetry collection, you found yourself in the graduate writing program at Brown University. Quite a culture shift.

AMW: It was an earthquake super tsunami kind of shift in my life. Three hundred foot waves and tremors that could level cities the size of Atlantis hit me. I had never had migraine headaches, but suffered terribly with them in the first year. I felt so outclassed. In Baltimore I was a star, but at Brown I was just another graduate student. Wealthy folks were all around me, but I had my Datsun 510 and my High Sierra bicycle, both of which were paid for in full. The overwhelming question was how to be, how to maneuver in a center of privilege. Feeling as if I did not belong was a very bad feeling alongside the feeling that I had done everything plus some in order to get there. It is so easy to confuse that kind of setting with actually producing a solid body of work in the course of your life or with enjoying your life. I mean the students who could afford to fly to Paris on the Concorde were having a good time, or at least I hope so. But so much of my energy went to dealing with feeling like an outsider, and if I were more socially outgoing that might have helped. I might have ended up marrying one of the wealthy daughters who were giving me quite a bit of attention. From there, who knows what it would have been like for me. Ending up on the patio of some villa in Italy wondering how to belong to my in-laws would have been a trillion times worse than trying to graduate from Brown. That sorta happened anyway, but it was in an American city without villas. I think belonging is a lost concept.

DA: You developed a special relationship with the Nigerian playwright Tess Onwueme.

AMW: PDI is the answer to that question. PDI stands for Playwrights Discovery/Development Initiative, a grand plan for a think tank for the future of black theater that was conceived by Abena Joan Brown, founder and producer of ETA theater in Chicago’s South Side. It was a wonderful ten or so years of being in this group of black theater artists, mostly from the sixties, people who were stars at that time, such as Ron Milner and Woodie King. My play Elvira and the Lost Prince was one of the plays that won the first round of PDI Awards, which meant a full production and time to develop the play. So in the fall of 1993, I was commuting to Chicago from Philadelphia to work on my play at ETA. It was a heady time for me, as I had two professional theater productions in one year. The first was in Philadelphia in the spring of that year, a play called Rosa, that was my thesis at Brown. So it was in Chicago that I met Tess and we became friends over the years. She and her family live in Wisconsin.

DA: You touched on some central themes in the anthology you edited, These Hands I Know: African-American Writers on Family.

AMW: I wanted to give a view of a cross section of black family life, and I wanted to put experienced and high profile writers along with younger writers so as to give the younger writers a chance. I think it is a lovely collection, and it is very unique in that it is by creative writers and not sociologists, as many such books are. When I think of sociologists who aspire to be writers, I think of W.E.B. DuBois, whose prose was quite good as we all know. But he was not a poet or a novelist. One day, I hope These Hands I Know will be recognized for what it is, an excellent primary source for people such as sociologists. The book gives a view to the effects of racism on black family life and the effects of child abuse. It also shows celebrations of life across a wide span of time. For example, the essay by Warren Harper, Michael Harper’s father, is a lovely look at life in the early decades of the twentieth century from someone in a middle class family. Tara Betts looks at life from the perspective of someone with a black parent and a white parent. Della Scott looks at life from the perspective of a daughter of a career military man. There are boxes of the book in my storage locker. They need readers, or I should say readers need them. Although we all know racism has been a central challenge, I wanted the book to look at more of the larger experience of black families, and I think the book is successful that way. Skip Gates’ excerpt from his memoir is very real and so very funny in its honesty.

DA: You also discovered you had a deep commitment to Chinese poetry.

AMW: I discovered what I hope other people will discover, which is that Chinese poets are living and working in contemporary life. They are not living in the Tang dynasty anymore. Dr. Perng Ching-hsi, a Shakespearean scholar and a translator, gave me a Chinese name, and he helped introduce me to poets in Taiwan. In 2003, I went to a conference in Taipei convened by my friend Dr. Yu Hsi, a poet, novelist, playwright, and the teaching monk at He Nan temple in Hualien, Taiwan. At the conference, I met Yu Kwang-Chung and Zheng Chouyu, two of the grand old men of poetry in Taiwan, and I built my network of associations with poets in Mainland and in Taiwan. While doing this, I studied Chinese as a faculty audit at Simmons for two years, which was really an introduction, so when I convened the first Simmons International Chinese poetry conference, my Chinese was not so good. It was my sabbatical year, and so three weeks after the conference, I moved to Taiwan to study Chinese intensely for eight months. That is where I secured a firm foundation in the language and completed the first level of intermediate study at the Taipei Language School, one of the best private schools in the country. Then I began to work slowly on translations, and I am still working slowly. I have to use my dictionaries. Dictionaries are a whole other enterprise when working in Chinese, as it is in any other language with a different writing system. So I discovered contemporary poets while studying the language, and I keep my copy of Fairbanks’s history of China as a reference. Finally, as a Daoist practitioner, which is to say I practice Daoist cultivation, I read the Dao de Jing and the Yinjing, according to my teacher’s recommendations.

DA: You have previously hosted the Simmons International Chinese Poetry Conference.

AMW: The idea for the conference came from a Fulbright program called the Alumnae Initiative, which was short-lived but which served to sustain my inspiration, although they refused to fund my project. My goal was to bring together Chinese poets from the Diaspora so that they might interact with each other and an audience in a public forum, and it turned out that this had never been done. I found that I enjoyed the diplomatic aspect of this work, and my hope is that the conference can give poets a chance to function between the two largest cultures in the world as the antennae that we are, a diplomatic bridge built of the most enduring material we know, poetry, the most enduring and sometimes the most delicate, if that makes sense. I know some of this must sound grandiose, but it is my dream, and my dream has materialized more and more as I have pursued it.

DA: And these days, you teach English at Simmons, and write when you can.

AMW: Yes, we get good poets coming through Simmons, and teaching women has been one extremely important force in my recovery. I have learned more about myself and the ongoing project of valuing and honoring myself according to recovery principles. So I teach and write when I can, when I have the time. At Rutgers, we had a master’s degree with a writing option, and so it was my time as a teacher at Cave Canem when I was first faculty along with Elizabeth Alexander that I had what was closest to an experience in an M.F.A.

I would like to close by saying I treasure my relationship with Cave Canem and am so happy to see it is such a revitalizing energy in American poetry and American culture. It has the potential for showing America that the greatest realization of its democratic principles comes when its marginalized cultures are allowed to cultivate within the context of their own experiences and through writing out of this interior life bring to the democratic energies a group of poets and artists who can participate and live with the rest of us as integrated beings, and when we are blessed further with generosity and compassion, this country will have the best chance that it can possibly have. Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady did a great thing in establishing Cave Canem.