Thursday, August 06, 2015

Interview with Somerville poet Afaa Michael Weaver: A poet with a strong sense of responsibility.

Afaa Michael Weaver

Interview with Somerville poet Afaa Michael Weaver: A poet with a strong sense of responsibility.

By Doug Holder

Afaa Michael Weaver does not just write pretty poetry. He pens poetry that addresses things like the recent tragedies in Baltimore, South Carolina, Ferguson and elsewhere, where African Americans were killed—victims of hate crimes, and questionable actions of the police. His poetry does not consist of rants, and hopefully his art is a potent catalyst for people to think about injustice and change.

Weaver is a recent winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize, and a Professor of English at Simmons College. I had the pleasure to talk to him on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: You have written in response to the hate crimes, etc... against African Americans across the country. Recently The Somerville Times published a poem of yours that dealt with the killing in Baltimore. Does the artist have a responsibility in a time of social crisis?

Afaa Michael Weaver: I think he or she does. It is a complicated situation—as we saw in Ferguson, Baltimore, N.Y., etc...It is not always easy to write a poem in response to these things. But I felt compelled to write one in response to the situation in Charleston, where a young white man went into an African American church, and killed folks in a prayer meeting. We have to face facts about how influential we can be with our work-- how influential our poems can be. We have to ask: “ How can we move people?”I am always of the pinon that when I write a poem, I try to write the best poem that I can. I try not to write a poem that is political and that is a very difficult thing to do. It could turn into a rant. With the poems I wrote in response to the crisis, I tried to move people emotionally.

DH: You published a chapbook of poetry “ A Hard Summation” (Central Square Press) that covers African American history from the Middle Passage to the present day. How did this project come about?

AFW: About 3 years ago I was asked by friends in Wisconsin to write poems about African Americans. At the time I was finishing up a draft of a memoir—so I decided to work on a pocket-sized collection of poems about this subject. My friends in Wisconsin are conservative Catholic, Republicans. We are part of an international group of poets for peace. They are people that want to bring together different spiritual and ethnic communities for the common good. My friends didn't know much about African American history, so I wrote a series of 13 poems with the intent of educating and inspiring my friends. I wanted them to think about race and racism. I knew they would uncover things that they never heard of. I was afraid of how they would respond to the book—especially with regard to slavery.

Not many people know very much about slavery. Certain basic facts are not well known. There were two periods to slavery. There was the Atlantic Slave Trade that went right up until the 19th century when it was outlawed. When the cotton industry boomed—the demand for labor was huge—so slave owners, involved in breeding. The African American population went from 800,000 to 4 million before and after the Civil War. Slave pens were common on the city streets. Slaves were considered to be animals. And part of the problem today is that people are tied to this perception—and it is ingrained in the language.

DH: How do you mean it is ingrained in the language?

AFW: I mean value designations that are placed on certain words—black visual coding. For instance-- Hollywood, for years, has not wanted to portray Africa Americans in romantic relationships because it was believed they didn't have a romantic life. Even African-American are guilty of decimating themselves with Gangster Rap and Rap music lyrics. These can be very destructive forces to African American—with its glorification, violence and drugs.

DH: You are working on a play titled “ Grit” right now. I know the playwright August Wilson was an influence on you—and he wrote a series of plays about Pittsburgh. You are a native son of Baltimore—is this play going to be part of a a series too?

AFW: I am not looking to write a series. But I am looking to write a lot of plays about Baltimore. I am also studying acting—to add to my skills as a playwright.

DH: What exactly is the play about?

AFW: I can only talk about the play, generally. It involves generational shifts in demographics in the city.

DH: You studied with the playwright Paula Vogel at Brown University, right?

AFW: After my first two professional play productions I basically concentrated on poetry. But I continued to write poems when I went to Brown. Paula Vogel encouraged me around playwrighting. Grit is in its second draft—it needs a third. I am going to the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis to have it looked at by accomplished playwrights who act as advisers.

DH: What is the new generation of American poets emphasis on?

AFW: The younger poets are more concerned with craft and the application of theory. But it is hard to make a general statement.

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