Sunday, August 24, 2008

Poet Afaa Michael Weaver: From the Factories of Baltimore to the Literary Milieu of Boston

(Photo by Lynda Koolish)

Poet Afaa Michael Weaver: From the Factories of Baltimore to the Literary Milieu of Boston

By Doug Holder

When Poet Afaa Michael Weaver walked into the editorial offices of The Somerville News his presence seemed to require a hush. He is a large, distinguished-looking, African-American man in his late 50’s who has made considerable contributions to the contemporary poetry world. This is not a poet who went straight from a top shelf college to an MFA mill. He is from the streets of Baltimore, a working class kid who wrote for The Baltimore Sun, and started his own small press while he toiled in the less than academic settings of a tin mill, and a Procter & Gamble factory. He was a member in good standing with the International Oil and Chemical Workers Union, and his hands were callused from hard physical labor, not pampered with a pen. Things changed for Weaver when he won a NEA grant. He quit his blue-collar job (much to his father’s chagrin) and went to Brown University to study poetry and playwriting. Later he went on to publish several critically acclaimed poetry collections, (his most recent “Plum Flower Dance”), had his work anthologized, his papers archived at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, and won the 2008 Pushcart Award for his poem: “American Income.”

Weaver said he was a very odd duck at Procter&Gamble in Baltimore. Few if any workers penned poetry while working with tin, and certainly no one was writing book reviews and articles for The Baltimore Sun. His fellow workers used to joke with Weaver saying: “You’ll die here with the rest of us.” But Weaver was determined to escape the pounding anonymity of the factory floor.

Weaver was fortunate to make the literary scene in the early 80’s when Baltimore’s literary renaissance was in full flower. Weaver met the famed avant-garde poet Andrei Codrescu (founder of the magazine Exquisite Corpse) and others who proved influential in his trajectory as a writer. Weaver said a lot of great writers passed through town to lecture and or read at the John Hopkins Writing Center. Weaver started the small press magazine “Blind Alleys” with Melvin Brown around this time as well.

Weaver laughed at the memory of himself as a sometimes-brash young critic. He remembers panning a poetry collection by Alice Walker writing: “A great novelist doesn’t always make a great poet.”

One thing lead to another and Weaver penned the poetry collection “Water Song,” that lead to his NEA, and his journey to the groves of the academy at Brown University in 1985. At Brown, Weaver intended to study poetry but he wound up studying playwriting with the noted playwright and director Paula Vogel. He was befriended and studied with such poets as Keith Waldron (Burning Deck Press), and George H. Bass, the literary executor of the Langston Hughes estate.

After Brown Weaver taught at Rutgers University, and other colleges. Along the way he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and founded the Zorra Neale Hurston Literary Center and the International Chinese Poetry Conference at Simmons College in Boston, where he is a tenured professor of English.

This year’s conference will be held at Simmons Oct 4 and 5. The press release states:

“ More than two dozen well-known poets from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the U.S. as well as academic scholars and translators, will meet to explore ways to improve communications between the cultures through the exchange and translation of poetry…The gathering will also focus on women and their role in contemporary Chinese poetry.”

Talking about his Pushcart Award-winning poem “American Income” Weaver said it was birthed when he a read a survey in a newspaper about how weight loss improves income prospects for the general population except for black men. The poem explores the lineage of the African-American experience and the heavy weight it carries.

Weaver has been through a number of marriages, was close to death from congestive heart failure, suffered the black dogs of depression, but now seems to be the picture of health and is enjoying his prime. He says he sees the trend of “careerism” in poetry shifting back to the importance of the poem as art and having something to add to our ongoing conversation with the world and ourselves.

Weaver loves living in Somerville, Mass. and remembers renting his current apartment (that he refers affectionately to as the “cave”) from Norton Real Estate, which the editorial offices of The Somerville News now occupy. He regularly attends meeting of the “Bagel Bards” in Davis Square whenever he is in town. Weaver may travel the world, and break bread with the big literary wigs across the country, but he feels most comfortable with his family and grandkids in Baltimore, and perhaps walking the unpretentious streets of our city.

American Income
by Afaa Michael Weaver

The survey says all groups can make more money
if they lose weight except black of other colors
and women of all colors have more gold, but black men
are the summary of weight, a lead thick thing on the scales,
meters spinning until they ring off the end of the numbering
of accumulation, how things grow heavy, fish on the
ends of lines that become whales, then prehistoric sea life
beyond all memories, the billion days of human hands
working, doing all the labor one can imagine, hands
now the population of cactus leaves on a papyrus moon
waiting for the fire, the notes from all their singing gone
up into the salt breath of tears of children that dry, rise
up to be the crystalline canopy of promises, the infinite
gone fishing days with the apologies for not being able to love
anymore, gone down inside earth somewhere where
women make no demands, have fewer dreams of forever,
these feet that marched and ran and got cut off, these hearts
torn out of chests by nameless thieves, this thrashing
until the chaff is gone out and black men know the gold
of being the dead center of things, where pain is the gateway
to Jerusalem’s, Bodhi trees, places for meditation and howling,
keeping the weeping heads of gods in their eyes.

( from “Poetry”)

* To find out more about the Chinese Poetry Conference go to:

--- Doug Holder

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