Imagination & Memory: An Interview with Afaa Michael Weaver
Rafael Otto | February 2013
Afaa Michael Weaver
Afaa Michael Weaver’s eleventh book of poetry, Like The Wind, is a translation of his work into Arabic by Wissal Al-Allaq of the Kalima project in the United Arab Emirates. He is considered one of the most important poets writing in America today. He has been compared to Whitman by several reviewers and hailed as “the African-American successor to Walt Whitman” in a quote by Ed Ochester to The Taipei Times. His previous book, The Plum Flower Dance, is a collection of poems from 1985 to 2005.
In 1985, Weaver left fifteen years of factory work when he received an NEA fellowship in poetry, was subsequently admitted into Brown’s graduate writing program, and had his first book, Water Song, published with Callaloo at the University of Virginia. He has been a Pew Fellow in poetry and has taught at National Taiwan University and Taipei National University of the Arts as a Fulbright Scholar. In 1995, he received tenure from Rutgers University. Currently, he is Alumnae Professor of English at Simmons College, founder and director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center, and Chairman of the Simmons International Chinese Poetry Conference.
Rafael Otto: You’ve talked about the fact that your earliest work contains all of the poetic techniques that you’ve used throughout your career. If you look at The Plum Flower Dance, a collection of poems that spans twenty years, what consistent elements do you see?
Afaa Weaver: Recently, I looked back at my very first book, Water Song, and saw every poetic technique or approach to poetry that I have used since, from associative construction to the way I work with lines. Sometimes I used the techniques in a simpler way, but they are there in one form or another. The book has two sections, and in the second section, many poems are about working class life. I was trying to deal with what felt like a contradiction, the idea of being a factory worker and a poet at the same time. I used counterpoint construction in pieces like “The Aftermath,” or “Currents.” So now with my eleventh book, a translation of my work into Arabic, I can say that I still see aspects of everything I’ve done since the first book.
Otto: Does that hold true for the construction of the Bop, the poetic form you created? Do you see that in your earliest work as well?
Weaver: The Bop, yes. There is a ballad in Water Song called “The Apparition,” which is based on an oral tale that came through the family of how one uncle felt that he was called to preach. I also drew on an earlier story about the same uncle who was sitting outside in the churchyard drinking liquor when a bolt of lightning hit the tree next to the car he was sitting in. “The Apparition” has aspects of the Bop in it, although many things have affected the evolution of the form since then. Not the least of which includes teaching sestinas to children when I was an artist in residence in the late 1980s in New Jersey.
Otto: When did you begin writing?
Weaver: I began writing poetry in 1969 when I was eighteen years old, in my second year at the University of Maryland (College Park). I dropped out in 1970 and started working at the steel mill in Baltimore and continued writing poetry from that point on.
Otto: You describe those years as a literary apprenticeship. How did you manage your schedule and find time to write?
Weaver: It was shift work, day shift, afternoon, and night. Free unsupervised time in the shifts varied so it was difficult to maintain a writing schedule. I stayed in the steel mill for a year and also, during that year, I completed basic training for the military. When I came back from basic training, I went to work for Procter & Gamble on the packing floor, and gradually began to build structured time for my writing. Working with the machines was dangerous, and you couldn’t allow yourself to be distracted. But, I would write in the time I had at home, and I would cover books in a lunch bag and sneak them in to work. Of course everybody knew it was a book in the brown paper bag, but I covered the books anyway. In 1975, I was working in the liquid packing department for a dish detergent, and for a fabric softener, Downy, and I finished a manuscript called Frenzy. I needed to leave the packing floor because the daily repetition was monstrous. I moved to the warehouse, which helped improve my writing schedule, and I slowly began to publish my work. I also worked for the Baltimore Sun paper as a freelancer and tried to extend my literary reputation in Baltimore and Washington, DC. After applying to the NEA two or three times, I received a fellowship in 1985. I also signed a contract for my first book with Callaloo, which was at the University of Kentucky at the time and then moved to the University of Virginia. At that point, everything happened very quickly. I applied to Brown University, was accepted to the graduate writing program, and then left Baltimore for two months in Europe and later to Providence to complete my Master’s degree in creative writing.
Otto: During this transition period, a time when you were simultaneously working in the factory and making connections with the educated elite, did you realize that you needed to make important decisions about your direction and your career?
Weaver: After a couple of years on the packing floor at Procter & Gamble, I had this terrible feeling that I had made a mistake by dropping out of school. In the spring semester of 1975, I went to Morgan State College, which is now a university, for one semester while working. It was too much for me and I couldn’t do it, but professors at Morgan, two of them especially, helped guide me through the reading list for the completion of the bachelor’s degree in English. I enrolled in a University Without Walls program in New York that was called Regents College and is now Excelsior College. I read and continued writing and met people like Andre Codrescu, Rodger Kamenetz, James Taylor, Elizabeth Spires, Clarinda Harriss, David St. John, and Daniel Mark Epstein. This group formed a kind of aggregate model for me in terms of growing and learning as a poet and writer. I wrote short fiction also. I was in Baltimore recently, and my sister found eleven stories of mine from 1984, bound and typed on a manual typewriter. I’ve decided to turn them over to the Boston University Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, which is the repository for my papers. My sister also found my baby foot prints. I know they’ll be glad to get that.
Otto: Looking back, can you talk about the creative process or creative impulse and your awareness of it, or how your awareness has changed?
Weaver: My awareness of it has changed over the years. In teaching poetry, I’ve told my students that there is a “lyric investigative light.” Writing led me to a deeper realization of myself, primarily in terms of my own childhood trauma of which I did not have full conscious awareness. My personal story is very much like the narrative from The Prince of Tides starring Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte. In the movie, criminals broke into the home, and in my situation, the perpetrator was an extended family member. But poetry led me to an awakening with my sixth book Talisman, which was published in 1998, the year of my forty-seventh birthday. As a result of the awakening, I’ve acquired a more genuine relationship with my environment and my self, which I see as an ongoing project. And so the creative process for me has been a gradual realization of the connection between imagination and memory.
Otto: Could you talk about the arrangement of The Plum Flower Dance? What is the significance of the five elements and the mathematical structure?
Weaver: I’m in my ninth year of Daoist sitting meditation, under the direction of Huang Chien Liang, who is part of a Daoist organization in Taiwan. I also practice a form of martial arts under Shiye Huang called Xingyiquan (known as mind shape boxing), which uses the five elements. The second section of the book is called “Water,” and the movement in that section is based on a movement we call “drilling,” one of the five primary movements of Xingyiquan, each of which mimics the shape of an internal organ in the body: Metal (Gold)/Lungs, Water/Kidney, Wood/Spleen, Fire/Heart, Earth/Liver. The body takes on the shape of the organ it is trying to emulate. For water, the hand movements mimic the structure of the kidneys. The kidneys function as the guardians of the internal system, and so are the cleansing units for the internal body. The emotional correspondence is weeping. So the second section of The Plum Flower Dance is about the loss of emotional connection with my mother, due to emotional dysfunction. My mother did not abuse me otherwise. The result of our emotional dysfunction has been my ongoing search in my work for a mother figure. So the book is organized according to my awareness of how trauma affects my life emotionally as represented by my knowledge of how emotions are represented in the five elements. For me, this knowledge is kinesthetic, as Xingyiquan is a system of dynamic movement. When I put the book together, I decided not to clarify the entire structure in the notes. I remember that Andrew Hudgins told me once how much he disliked books with explanatory notes in the back. I thought it might keep the book from a certain level of recognition if readers didn’t understand the structure, but I decided to leave that task to the critics. The book also has sixty-four poems, and this is the number of hexagrams in the Book of Changes, the I Ching.
Otto: Does each of the five sections use a specific number of poems?
Weaver: I chose to organize the poems according to how they fit together as opposed to the numbering, and to leave it random to more genuinely represent the apparent chaos of the I Ching.
Otto: I appreciate you sharing that information, despite what Andrew Hudgins might think.
Weaver: At least it’s not in the book.
Otto: As a poet, a teacher, and a writer, how do you see the role of the artist in American culture?
Weaver: If we consider poets, playwrights, fiction writers, musicians, and painters, I think we have to see ourselves as guardians of the American consciousness. Even if we aren’t addressing things that are clearly about social consciousness or social justice, we’re still functioning that way by pursuing our art. We’re here to maintain the sanity of humanity, as much as we can, in some ways to work against the level of materialism and estrangement that’s in our culture. I believe we are in a place as a culture where we don’t understand the effects of the things we are currently creating, but we also have to understand how much of our world is controlled by things that are much greater than we will ever be. I think artists act out of a more conscious and honest connection with the origin of creativity, which, I believe, is the same energy that created human beings. By being connected to our work, we give our society an anchor, whether or not the rest of society acknowledges it.
Otto: How do you see identity changing given the changes in the way we interact and cross borders?
Weaver: In order to move successfully across those borders, we have to learn a new set of reactions. If you return to the place you were raised, you have a set of memory-based references and reactions that don’t apply to most other places in your life. I think it’s become something that more of us have to do, and in more complicated ways. Some people can stay in their general frame of reference for longer periods than other people. As an African American, I function in a predominantly white world. I teach at a university that is predominantly white, live in the greater Boston area, which has some diversity but is predominantly white, and very often find myself the only black person in a given situation. That requires another relationship with myself. It raises questions of how you define yourself and relate to the environment around you. I think that for white Americans, it is easier to stay in a white frame of reference for a longer period of time. In other words, you have to go a distance to put yourself into the “hood,” as we call it, and be the only white person there. It’s a very deliberate action. I could stay in the “hood” if I wanted to, but there would be a shift in what I could do in the world, what jobs I could hold. When I go to China and Taiwan, I usually continue to be the only black person in the environment. When you’re part of the minority, this is more likely to happen to you. A white American going to China may have that experience for the first time, but I’ve had to live more of my life that way. So it’s important not to have knee-jerk reactions with people when they’ve never had an experience with someone who looks like you. And as we travel more and use technology and electronic media, we can position ourselves in new environments much more easily, and this affects our composite identity.
Otto: Is there a dichotomy between your identities as an African American poet versus an American poet?
Weaver: There are separate geographies in American poetry based on race and gender. These different contours have their own self-perception apart from the way they are perceived externally. In the case of Jay Wright, he is the only African American to win the Bollingen Prize, but he has consistently resisted the idea of race. So we have an ideal, but we also have a historical and political reality. I am an African-American poet, but it does not limit my work or subject matter. I write about experiences in other cultures even though it may exclude me from membership in literary geographies that define a black nationalistic perspective. For me to accept these dichotomies, I have to have a degree of openness and vulnerability that may not be readily apparent to others. People, no matter who they are, have their expectations, and some have questioned my work based on what appear to be contradictions in writing, for example, about Jewish culture in two books, Stations in a Dream and The Ten Lights of God. So I have set myself up to confuse people by accepting my personal contradictions.
Otto: Is that part of an effort to deconstruct the idea of race?
Weaver: I can’t do it by myself, but I can live by a primary tenet found in Daoism and Buddhism, which is to treat others with compassion no matter who they are. Ultimately, identity is not real. Buddhism teaches that everyone has a Buddha inside them, which I accept as very similar to the ideals of Christian charity as they were taught to me as a child; however, people in Japan or Taiwan might question the validity of your Buddhist practice in Boston. So even the practices and beliefs that should offer answers are practiced by people who might see them as specific to their own culture and thus not have what we might think is the whole vision. We encounter the same problem in western spiritual practices. Basically, I strive to be myself, not all things to all people, and to be centered with all people to have a more fluid sense of self.
Otto: Often there is a clash between theory and practice.
Weaver: Absolutely. You’ll get criticism or harsh treatment one way or another, even when you’re trying to be equally compassionate with all people. And as far as deconstructing race, if more of us could be committed to the idea of equal compassion, without trying to define it further than that, it would be a different world. But that’s idealistic of me.
Otto: Let’s compare poetry and modern science. The theory of relativity changed the way we think, how we see each other, and how artists create. Do you see trends and parallels between scientific thinking and the art we create?
Weaver: I think there are parallels, more obviously in experimental art, writing, and music. And I think that we are all affected by the current state of technology, which is continually trying to discover new things in order to give us something more in terms of what a materialist culture offers, new things to buy. Scientists work in this place of possibility, manipulating cells and creating new life, rearranging the structure of DNA—it’s almost as if the goal is to create an alternate reality.
Otto: Sometimes it feels like poetry is being threatened by technology.
Weaver: We operate in a digital, electronic age that entertains ideas such as String Theory and the Gutenberg Parentheses. There is an ironic connection between science and art, and I say that because science has found itself returning to old philosophical and spiritual systems in the world such as comparisons made between Zen and quantum mechanics. I think poetry has a chance, in all of this, to return to its origins with a more fundamental role for humanity, a place where it can function more effectively in our consciousness. In a world where we have books like Dancing Wu Li Masters and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and our poetry moves beyond the print page, we might have a chance to redefine poetry’s role in society.
Otto: What is the significance of publishing your eleventh collection of poetry, Like The Wind, into Arabic?
Weaver: The goal of the Kalima project, which is based in the United Arab Emirates, is to translate significant contemporary works into Arabic. The collection is a combination of new and older works, and is named after my granddaughter whose name means “Like The Wind.” The book is a beautiful hardback edition that I can’t read.
Otto: What is your perception of the way a reader who doesn’t read English might understand one of your poems?
Weaver: That’s a good question. I plan to organize a reading with the Arab Student Association that presents my work in both English and Arabic. I hope such a presentation would allow me to interact with the audience to help explore their understanding and reaction to the poems.
Otto: Given your fluency with Chinese, what is your impression of how translation occurs between English and Chinese?
Weaver: I’m working on a translation project with a friend, Mindy Zhang, who lives in Los Angeles and is from Wuhan. She asked me about a poem of mine called “My Heart.” In it, I discuss the prospect of having a heart transplant, but she thought I actually had the transplant. When she said that she would have to make some changes to the translation, I told her not to change too much. Translators have to work with their feel of the text and because of that, a lot happens in the flux created when moving between languages. Mindy and I are currently working on a project translating poets from Beijing, moving from Chinese into English. In translation, you have to be aware of characters that have both literal and implied meaning, such as the character for “heart” which also occurs in the phrase “be careful.” In a precarious situation, someone might say, “be careful” in Chinese, which could have a literal translation such as “small heart.” There are so many things to consider when working between any two languages, but Chinese and English have special challenges. For example, the Chinese concept of time is vertical where the past is above and the future is below. Western concepts of time tend to be horizontal, and this difference may be relevant when translating text. Cultural immersion is important because the goal is to move beyond the point of thinking or speaking with word-for-word translations.
Otto: Let’s return to the city you grew up in, Baltimore, and your connection to the show The Wire. As a playwright and writer, what’s your perception of the show and the way Baltimore is presented?
Weaver: There is a prequel in The Wire that takes place in 1985. The character, Omar, is thirteen years old, and he and his friends have decided to rob an older man sitting on a bus stop. This man happens to be West Indian, and that’s a change from the Baltimore where I grew up. My neighborhood was predominantly black, but we didn’t have many blacks from the Diaspora until later. The neighborhood depicted in The Wire includes the 2400 block of Federal Street near Milton Avenue, which is the area I lived in, where my first wife’s family lived, and where my son and younger brother and sister went to kindergarten. Milton Avenue now looks like a war zone. When illegal drugs hit an area like that, people stopped investing in property, and so when things fell down they fell hard. After the 1960s, I saw the level of urban violence spiral out of control. This had a significant impact on the city and its people. I saw the establishment of the drug culture, and the difficult stories of family and friends caught up in that world. Only one of the narratives in The Wire is about street life, but that’s the story that many people focus on. It’s truly a story about a city—education, politics, the newspaper industry, the industrial job sector—a city in decline. And so what happened in Baltimore happened in many other places around the United States. In order to understand that process, we have to understand the effects of economic decisions made in the 1970s that exported jobs and shifted America from an industrial economy to a financial one. We are still trying to understand what that means for our society. My friend Rafael Alvarez, a writer for The Wire, suggested I write a memoir about my experiences in Baltimore, because I witnessed those major transitions as well as the disappearance of the industrial world.
Otto: Could you talk about those experiences and the impact on your work as poet?
Weaver: I’d like to go back to the frame of reference in my first book and continue to write about that industrial world and about working class life, not just in Baltimore, but throughout America as well. I’d like to explore America from a center located in the world of work.
Otto: Work is important to the American identity.
Otto: Comparing the differences across generations, what kinds of changes in perspective do you see in writing and poetry?
Weaver: Jay Wright was telling me how a literary generation consists of seventeen years. If you consider that Langston Hughes was born in 1902, and Gwendolyn Brooks was born in 1917, you start to see a pattern. There is that moment in her autobiography, Report from Part One, where she relates the moment she met Langston Hughes at a reading of his when she was about sixteen, as far as I remember. It is a dazzling moment in black literary history, as he encouraged her to write. It was as if she was receiving the baton. Also, every writer is influenced by the period into which he or she is born. I was born in 1951 during the Korean War. But World War II is very real for me because I was raised by people who lived it and had it in their consciousness as a lived reality. Poets currently in their late thirties to early forties came of age in the 1990s, a time of swindles on Wall Street where people earned artificial money and people like Bernie Madoff got started. There was a robber baron consciousness in the ’90s.
Otto: What about for the youngest poets?
Weaver: I think many poets born between 1985 and 1990 have had many things pulled out from under them. They’ve grown up in a national culture that is obsessed with war, in a way that has never happened before. War has become an ongoing event, and for many young writers it has always been with them. At the same time, they are alienated from the reality of war. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, our soldiers have operated in an environment of distrust. The enemy is less clearly defined and at the same time, our ability to kill from great distances keeps improving. This kind of thinking is affecting young writers, and we don’t know where it will take us. We are caught in a world with a technology that is intimidating, one that we do not understand in necessary, fundamental ways.
Otto: In the past, you’ve talked about the idea of working for the culture, that creating poetry can be “an embellishment for the culture.” Do you see that continuing with the younger generation?
Weaver: I think it’s ongoing. Most of my students are twenty or twenty-one years old, and many of my graduate students are still under age thirty. Many of them are very concerned about the world and about creating something that means something to the world. I do think that the idea of embellishing the culture is a very real idea, and that we are also seeing women gradually take that role in American culture. We’re seeing a gradual shift away from our patriarchal heritage, and this is true in our artistic culture, our education, and our politics. It is a good thing.
Rafael Otto is a writer, poet, musician, and a Contributing Editor at Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. He writes the blog at infiniteculture.wordpress.com, and is producing a theatrical and musical performance with the Portland Chamber Orchestra called “The Story of Rhythm.”
from The Wisconsin Project
a tapestry of poems depicting the history of Maafa, the African Holocaust, and the culture of African Americans commissioned by the Kenosha Congress of Poets for Peace, Kenosha, Wisconsin
In Charleston, the Slave Market
A mother speaks to a dream that speaks to her
on an Igbo bed, tell me where my children are,
she asks of the air that makes itself a door
beyond the door over the last touch, the last
smell of her children’s hair full of sun, speckled
with dirt from playing, how do they eat now?
she asks of the dream, but the dream is too kind
to tell the truth, the markets where they stand naked,
white women poking at them, looking over places
only mothers should touch, shopping for black pets
for white children, for girls who can grow and make
more black children, as if they are gardens, and what
gardens they are to a mother on her Igbo bed who asks
her husband, old man who cannot make children,
what do we do? shall we stop speaking? The dream
dries itself up, pulls away so grief can become death
and kindness to hearts too full to sleep, and they
sleep the sleep of wind over wild grass, the moon
over impotent prayers, the wild sounds of angels and
hyenas, they sleep until sleep is all there is, the grace
of the end of wondering, while in Charleston one child
is sold here, one child there, one swimming leagues
down under in the dark tongue of the ocean where
thunderheads in Charleston harbor cannot send the rain.
mama’s little baby got some something
mama’s little baby got a sweet potato pie
mama’s little baby got some something
mama’s little baby got a hot butter biscuit
gonna bring it to you mama, right now
A cruel silence in the night, the children’s songs
pulled under a rustle of leaves, mothers turning away
for a second to pick up toys dropped in shadows,
as hands cover children’s mouths, their heels
struggling in soft dirt, swallowed by forests,
birth turned to death, the yard empty, neighbors
hushed by wailing from houses where ache lives,
a cruel silence in the night, the children’s songs
gone, mama pulled into the broad arms of papa,
dry womb of old sinew and bone, eyes glazed,
sons and daughters, hope against old age, swept up
by strangers to lie down in the music of deep water.
Night Song for Missy
My bones tied up with his bones at night,
him falling asleep in my arm after wrasslin me,
calling it love in some kind of low whisper
no dog would believe. I know his every smell,
every way the littlest corner of him be stinkin
underneath me, on top of me, while our children
snore in the corner, then he creep out the way
he creep in, before the cock crow at the sun.
In daylight he act like we strangers, on the edge
of the field, his little tan children of mine turning
brown, playing more than working cause they his
children, Missy look over at me while I look
over at her, both of us got some kind of papers
on this same man that say he own both of us,
the man who owes us even when he die cause
the Bible say you gotta look after the widow.
But when he die it will be cause Missy and me
locked eyes many days and hated him like one
wronged woman made out of two, him standing
up there on the porch studyin everything—
his eyes lit up like he the Lord of all creation.
hush now, night wind on my skin, hush now
bird lost in trees, hush now, hungry moon
The Pearl and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
If the wind had been stronger, if the ship had sailed,
we would have been slave no longer and freedom prevailed.
Had the word been kept more silent and lips tightly bound, night could have been longer and landed us on freer ground.
In the drop of the anchor into the bay, the ripplin waves,
a hundred flowers blooming fell, canaries choked in caves.
Mothers lost their children’s crosses, Jesus found a grave,
a place where preacher songs and prayers made us slaves.
They brought us back to Washington, captain, crew, and guests,
to wait in jails for auctioneers to see which punishment was best.
In a single day we failed, the ship sailed no farther away than
lines the sea makes under the sun on Chesapeake Bay.
Poems from The Wisconsin Project by Afaa Michael Weaver.
© Afaa Michael Weaver. Printed with permission from the author.