Arts & Culture

Weaver MA’87: ‘Poetry has been the vehicle for me to realize myself’

Poet wins mid-career award for works on race, adversity in working-class America

By
Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2014

Afaa Michael Weaver MA’87 started a publishing company while working a day job at a factory. His versatile writing career includes 13 poetry books.

Afaa Michael Weaver MA’87 became the most recent recipient of the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award last week, a prize for mid-career poets from Claremont Graduate University. A professor of English at Simmons College, Weaver was once a factory worker and a member of the Army Reserves. He grew up in Baltimore but has spent extensive time abroad in Europe, China and Taiwan.

Weaver recently completed a collection of 13 poems entitled “Hard Summation” that will be published this summer and has 12 other books of poetry already in print. His recently published collection, “The Government of Nature,” is second in a trilogy, the third installation of which is currently being edited.

Commonly known for his success in spite of adversity, Weaver spoke with The Herald about the more diverse origins of his inspiration as well as the importance of tenacity in the face of hardship.

 

Herald: Throughout your literary career, you have written in many different media, from essays and short fictional works to news articles and, of course, poetry. Where did your writing career begin?

Weaver: Well, I was in the sixth grade and my teacher, Mrs. Lewis, asked us to write something about our lives and bring it in over the next few days. And I went home and wrote 12 pages, and I brought it to school and she said, “Oh goodness, Michael, I didn’t ask you to write that much.”

And so I think I’ve always had a love of books and writing, and also, when I was a child, I had made-up languages. I took the old Merriam-Webster dictionaries and looked at the phonological symbols in the back, and I used them to create languages.

So by the time I got to the university I was 16 years old — I entered the University of Maryland. As a matter of fact, Brown sent me an invitation to fly me up to campus, but I was scared, I didn’t want to be too far from home. So I chose to go to the University of Maryland for engineering, which is what my high school was all about. And when I was there, that first year, I started writing poetry. They were love poems to a young lady who would become my first wife. So yes, I started writing with love poems. And they were sappy, you know.

 

You mentioned that you didn’t want to go far from home — did your childhood experience and relationship with your family at all influence your poetry?

Even though I live here in Massachusetts, which is a good seven- or eight-hour drive to Baltimore, my perspective on home and my relationship to it is still important to me. And my most recent book, “The Government of Nature,” is a more critical examination of my relationship to the family and the ideal family. My sense of the world throughout all of my life radiates outward from my sense of home and my sense of community.

 

Since leaving Baltimore, you have lived in many areas of the world, including Taiwan and China. Did exposure to these cultures influence the themes of your writing or your style?

The greatest influence on my writing style per se has been my travels in Taiwan. Studying Mandarin has affected the way I use English. I was there for eight months, and I studied Mandarin at a private school there with two teachers. And that was transformational. I went over there and had the immersion experience, and when I came back, I found that my word order in my sentences of English had been affected. I found the associative method of writing in poetry — meaning you indulge your associations, you write freely from an associative strain — was taken to another level. One poem that I wrote that way, “American Income” ­— it got a ­­Pushcart Prize, it felt almost as if I was able to replicate thought with a kind of simultaneity of the happenings of thought in some of those moments, which did surprise me. Studying Chinese and practicing Tai Chi and Taoist sitting meditation for a long time — these things were just effects on my sense of continuity.

I went to France, and that had a really big effect on me. There’s a poem of mine in my book “My Father’s Geography” about Luxembourg Garden. And while I was there I just felt a sense of freedom. Freedom from identity politics, and, I mean, you’re never born quite free of race, but you can get a break from it — at least from people who support it. But going to France and being there in Paris was one of the best choices I made.

My new book, “The Government of Nature,” I tend to see as a return to “My Father’s Geography,” but an investigation of the things that I wasn’t really conscious of at the time. “The Government of Nature” concerns my traumatic childhood. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and I realize now that memories I had half of my life, what they actually were. Now, I wasn’t able to name those things until I was much older, and once I did, I started to recover.

So “The Government of Nature” is about investigating my life experience, the idea of realizing myself in the context of my experience in Chinese culture.

When I left Brown, I had a determination to try to write more personal poetry. I think the first book was more about culture. And so when writing my first narrative I lost my first job, and I will tell you, it had a huge impact on me. I had a very severe episode of PTSD and had to be hospitalized. The factory story is only one part of my story — the other big part is having to deal with trauma after trauma of life.

 

How did you find the tenacity to continue through the series of misfortunes you encountered throughout life? Did your writing at all play a role in this?

My parents grew up during the Depression. My dad was raised as a sharecropper and his parents and his grandparents were sharecroppers, and it was a very harsh life. And my mother — her father owned his own farm, but he was not a rich man at all.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, in my parents I had models of perseverance.

And the way that generational influence works is that you are affected even when you don’t know it, because you know you grow up in this household, and that’s just the way it is. And my mother always told me, “Don’t get involved in a whole lot of debt,” and my father worked in a steel mill in Baltimore for 36 years. I think that he might have missed five days of work in those years.

So it was the model of my parents — my mother always told me, “No matter what job you choose, always do it well.” And I think that I’ve done it despite the struggles because of this strong optimistic urge inside of me. But also the poetry, the writing, the joy continues to give me fulfillment. My faith in my writing, my faith in my art — I’m a man of faith, and the force of God drives our lives. And so I keep on going. I’ve enjoyed working, I’ve always liked to work, and I got that from my parents.

 

When did you decide you would be a writer?

Well, when I was working in the factory in 1978, I started to publish a small magazine in the Baltimore-D.C. area. But also one in New York that is still around today. I was also writing short stories when I had time to. And I set up an office upstairs where I was living at the time and I said to myself, “Okay, this is what I am going to do.”

And then in 1980 when Ronald Reagan won his first term, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Baltimore Sun. And so for the last five years that I worked in the factory I was also a freelance journalist. And at this time I also started a small publishing company. So I was a literary worker, at least as much as I could be.

Also in that time in Baltimore in the early 1980s, we had a huge literary renaissance, and Baltimore had a huge poetry community, but I was the one poet who was working in a factory. It was an amazing time in Baltimore. So I had established for myself then that no matter what else I did I would primarily be a poet and a writer.

 

Why has poetry become your focus out of all the other disciplines you have explored? What does it offer that the others do not?

Poetry seems like it’s the thing I do best in. And not only that, but when I write other things, I can see the poetry working into them. When I was doing playwriting for Paula Vogel, (former head of playwriting at the University), she said to me, “You know, you have some trouble with plot, because you write poetry, and in poetry, everything is circular.” So poetry is the center of my writing. It fulfills me and gives me a satisfaction. When I write an essay, I feel like I’m just explaining poetry.

And so my poetry is a little about expressing myself and a little about teaching. It’s a little of both, and the ratio changes. When I write about myself, I try to write in a way that is art. It is not therapy. When I write to teach, I try not to be presumptuous. You never really know how your poetry will affect someone. It’s almost always a surprise to me. And so I think the thing I don’t try to do is write to predict or assume an impact on the reader.

For me, poetry is the center of the fire. And the next thing from there is playwriting. And then essays are just all about explaining things — that’s too utilitarian for me.

 

From our conversation, it seems that your poems explore many diverse subjects, from the politics of the family to the politics of the nation. Do you find inspiration to write poems of different subject matters in the same forces?

Oh, I could get inspiration from something I hear, very often from a poem that I read. When I go to a poetry reading, I hear someone else read and I am very often moved by the flow of language. But it could be also something whimsical, like sitting here watching “Dr. Who.”

And as I have gotten older, I have been able to see things more in their context. For example, I was sitting in a poetry reading listening to Gerald Stern and it was really a lovely poem, but sitting there a whole section of my life just sort of became clear in its context.

Those moments of inspiration allow me to have a whole vision. I can look back and say, “Oh, okay now I can put together that part of my life or a particular event.” That’s how it works for me.

The Kingsley Award you just received is given to poets who are in the mid-career to help them reach the “pinnacle of their craft.” You already have such breadth and depth in your literary career — what will you do to reach your “pinnacle”?

Well, I want to write my big book of poetry. Other poets have written a big book, and I want to write something about America from the working-class perspective. A book that is a book of national cultures. That’s what I want to do. A book that will radiate outward from a black man’s experience of living in the city and working in the factory to talk about the country — that’s my big project.

But I think of myself as just finishing up my mid-career.

 

As you’ve described, there was never a period of your life in which you were not writing. How would you describe the influence of the poem in your life?

I mean, it’s what I do. And if it weren’t there I would find something else to do, but I would feel awful if I didn’t have my poetry. I think also that my poetry has been the vehicle for me to realize myself in conjunction with everything else that I do.

You know, people have compared me to Walt Whitman. But Walt Whitman was different because he began with a sense of himself. He put forth the ideal from day one, from the very beginning of his work.

For me it’s sort of the reverse. I’ve worked my way to this ideal of myself. So if anything, I’m backwards — like a reverse Whitman.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.