Saturday, November 19, 2005

Poet Afaa Michael Weaver Visits Littleton’s “Wilderness House Literary Retreat.”

November arrived at “The Wilderness House Literary Retreat” and brought brightly colored foliage to its scenic surroundings, as well as poet and playwright Afaa Michael Weaver for an informal lunch and conversation for retreat members.

Afaa Michael Weaver is a tenured professor of English at Simmons College in Boston, and is a former NEA fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, a PEW Fellow, and the founder of the “Simmons International Chinese Poetry Conference.” He has penned 9 Collections of poetry, including: “Multitudes,” and a full length play: “Rosa,” which was produced at the Venture Theatre in Philadelphia.

Weaver, 54, hails from a working-class section of Baltimore, and worked in factories for much of his early adult years. But even during this time, he was a freelance writer for “The Baltimore Sun,” and started a small literary press: “Seven Sun Press,” that published a broadside of his, as well as work by such poets as: Lucille Clifton, Frank Marshal Davis (A Harlem Renaissance writer) and the surrealist Andre Codrescu. While at “The Baltimore Sun,” he wrote reviews of books by: James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg’s (first poetry collection), and Alice Walker, whose book he panned.

In 1985, a lot happened for the budding poet. He released his first poetry collection “Water Song,” he got a NEA grant as a result of the book, and got accepted in Brown University’s MFA program. Leaving Baltimore and a good factory job, he was thrown into the elite world of Brown University.

Still, amidst a student body with all these privileged “children,” Weaver, a grown man in his mid-30’s, thrived. He studied with the noted playwright Paula Vogel, and actually graduated with an advanced degree in Playwriting.

Weaver, told the group at the retreat that he once met the late, celebrated Afro-American playwright August Wilson on a train to New Haven. Wilson, who wrote “Gem of the Ocean,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and other works, was a role-model for Weaver. Like Weaver, Wilson started out as a poet. On that fateful train ride, Wilson asked Weaver if he could sit with him, after Weaver casually complimented him on his work. As Weaver described it they immediately hit it off and talked and laughed all the way from Newark to New Haven. He gave Wilson “Water Song,” and Wilson confided to him that he really had wanted to be a poet, if the truth be known.

Weaver has known his share of hardship. He has survived three marriages, the death of a young son, and a near fatal heart condition. After being a nomad adjunct professor in NYC, and later on the faculty of Rutgers University, he took the advice of poet Michael Brown of “Cantab Lounge Slam Poetry” fame, and approached Simmons College about a job. He secured a teaching position, and now is a tenured professor. He founded the “Simmons International Poetry Conference,” which is the largest such gathering outside of mainland China. Weaver, has had a long love affair with the Chinese language and poetry ever since he was given a book: “Dao De Jing,” translated by Laozi from a friend in the factory he worked in. Weaver, a low-key presence, finds the Chinese sensibility compatible with his own modest approach to life.

Weaver told the audience that a Harvard scholar of some note came to his Chinese conference and told him “Harvard should have done this!” But you have to move fast to keep up with Weaver. Throughout his life, this accomplished artist has worked outside the box, and decidedly ahead of the pack.

Doug Holder

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