The esteemed poet discusses how poetry and God helped him to overcome a traumatic past and find peace.
*A full transcription of this audio interview can be found below.
Ben Evans: I’m Ben Evans and you’re listening to Fogged Clarity. This morning it’s my great honor to be joined by the distinguished poet and scholar Afaa Michael Weaver. Lucid and sensuous, Weaver’s is a poetic voice rooted in both craft and a spiritual practice that helped him to transcend a complex, and often difficult past. He is the author of 14 collections of poetry, including 2013’s The Government of Nature which won the prestigious Kingsley Tufts award. A 2002 Fulbright Scholar, Weaver’s further honors include fellowships from both The Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Endowment for the Arts. He makes his home in Boston where he serves as a Professor of English at Simmons College. Afaa, thank you for taking the time.
Afaa Michael Weaver: My pleasure, Ben. Thanks for inviting me.
BE: In reflecting on both your life and poetic career to this point the words “patience” and “persistence” most readily come to mind. I’ve marveled, in studying your journey, at your ability to continually accept and adapt to adversity. I wonder, to set the stage for our discussion, if you’d take a moment to talk about some of the formative challenges you’ve endured in order to become the man and poet you are today?
AMW: I could go back to my early years in the factory, as a factory worker, when I dropped out of the university in 1970. I was 18 years old and began working as a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel when my father worked and several of my uncles, with the idea that I would develop and grow as a poet and a writer among the workers so to speak… I had a very naive kind of idea, as many of us did at that time, kind of a neo-Marxist idea, that the poet or the writer should develop in the context of the working class, working people, but I was not really in touch with the fact that I wasn’t entering that group (but) that I was actually a member of it. And once I began to realize just where I was the challenges became very apparent. When my first marriage collapsed we lost the first child and I suffered a rather severe breakdown, I realized that the challenges were rather immense. And at the time America’s working class base was much different than it is now, and so I left the steel mill after the first year, after serving in the military, well, basic training rather, came back home and got a job at Procter & Gamble and I found myself on packing floors trying to write at home in my spare time and develop a reading schedule, and it was an incredibly difficult time. If you’ve never worked on a packing floor then you don’t have an idea of the monotony and the kind of deadening atmosphere. Inside the plant we could apply for different job positions and so I applied for a position in the warehouse in 1975. So from ’75 until ’85, when I left, I was a warehouseman and in the space of the warehouse little by little I found job categories that allowed me more space and time and I was able to write, and I started a small press and I started working as a freelance journalist and wrote a collection of short stories. I did all of that while I was working for Procter & Gamble in Baltimore. But there was the challenge of the atmosphere of the factory itself, the challenge of being different, and then once I had had the breakdown inside the black community there’s a really complex stigma attached to you and I found myself in a space where I was not trusted, people did not believe what I said, but little by little I came to see that space as a wonderful potential freedom. But that’s a general outline of the challenges. And so when I emerged from the factory in 1985 with the NEA fellowship and a book—I had a book from the University of Virginia, Charles Rowell published a book, the man who did the anthology “Angles of Ascent”—when I emerged—I had come through a period as a journeyman, or, I’m sorry, as an apprentice, journeyman comes after apprentice—it was rugged and my challenges weren’t over when I came out of the factory. I was a rare kind of presence at Brown University. So, that was the general beginning frame of the challenges, and once I had been deemed someone who was less than competent because of the fact of having had emotional health issues then I became all the more determined. Poetry was what I had to hold onto, it’s what I had faith in, it’s what allowed me to prove to myself and the world that I wasn’t crazy that I had something that was of value.
BE: I went through a similar experience, I actually spent 6 weeks in a clinic two years ago for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and I emerged much stronger, and much more confident. I wonder if you’d agree that suffering is the great purifier; if you think it’s possible for one to attain a higher degree of consciousness without first enduring pain?
AMW: Well, I think it is the great purifier. It makes you grow. If it doesn’t kill you, you grow. And in the tradition in which I was raised I had the example of Christ enduring the suffering and then in the Buddhist tradition you have Buddha going out in the world to experience what he saw as suffering in order to transcend. I think it’s kind of difficult to get around the fact that suffering does teach you.
BE: I finally read Into the Wild by John Krakauer and now I’m reading a book called Born to Run about this tribe in the Copper Canyons in Southern Mexico who run ultra marathons, sometimes as many as three, four hundred miles at a time, and it seems both the tribe in Mexico and the boy in Into the Wild are trying to conquer landscape in order to assert their self-reliance. I wonder if the mind’s landscape can be conquered in a similar way, and if one can make an interior conquest of the mind in order to truly live. That’s just kind of a parallel I’ve been drawing, I don’t know what you think about that.
AMW: I think as much as we know what the mind is, I think we can navigate the landscape of the mind and come to have some peace with it. I think of that in terms of having to find a strategy, which I did when I was much younger, adapting the idea in the “Tao Te Ching” of the contradictions of life. When I was working in the factory, as I would gather more publications and began to move around in the literary circles inside Baltimore and Washington, while still a factory worker, there seemed to be this basic contradiction that also had around them other contradictions in my life; and in order to persist with that then I had to accept that sometimes there were no resolutions, or that I should stop working for resolution, or that the nature of life and consciousness itself is one of contradictions. And, at this point in my life I’ve come to accept and believe in a certain continuum, a flux of things, as the Book of Changes or the Bible also suggests that there is this constant change and flux. The landscape of the mind has been, for me, the ability to travel from a period of disruption and disorder and to find a stability and order along the way as I got older in life. So I would say, yes, it is a matter of traveling that landscape. And I don’t know if we ever actually conquer it, as much as we learn to live in it and accept it.
BE: I think that’s absolutely right, so much of the Tao Te Ching is about acceptance and the peace that affords, when you don’t resist. What experience first informed your interest in Eastern philosophy and tradition; and how have you realized a harmony between your Christian upbringing and Eastern spiritual practice?
AMW: Well, my very first Tai Chi teacher, a person that I spent a considerable amount of time with, gave me a metaphor and he said—he was from Taiwan and I’d studied with him in downtown Baltimore beginning in 1978-79, that winter. My maternal grandmother died that November just as I was starting to study Tai Chi—but he said to me: “The teacher gives the student the outline of the dragon and over the course of his life the student must find the detail.” Which is a way of explaining the very important principle of self-study in Chinese pedagogy. It’s almost opposite of what we do over here, you might even say that it’s—the Chinese concept of pedagogy—historically more of a flip classroom, nowadays they talk about a flip classroom. But I embraced that. He also explained to me that I should learn how to sometimes sit down and do the Tai Chi internally, which is to sit down and see myself in my mind’s eye moving through the form. That internalization of the form itself is what I held on to and in times of great distress I was able to pull myself back together by reflecting on the movement and remembering the sequence. It was a meditation before I actually understood what meditation was. So, as an experienced person, the teacher he was, he gave me that rooting in a kinesthetic understanding of the concept of change and flux.
Could you repeat the second part of that question?
BE: Yeah, how have you realized a harmony between your Christian upbringing and Eastern spiritual practice; how have you recognized a oneness between the two?
AMW: I was in Taiwan back in 2010 I believe for a conference of poets dedicated to peace sponsored by a friend of mine in Taiwan who runs a monastery and a temple and we were up in the mountains, there are these gigantic trees in Taiwan in one of their national forests, some of which are 3,000 years old, and they’re at a very high elevation, it’s as if you’re inside a cloud itself. But we were up there and we were talking in Chinese about Taoism, and he was from mainland China, he had traveled to Taiwan there for the conference. We looked out at the landscape, which was absolutely gorgeous, as a matter of fact the photograph of that is what’s on the cover of “The Government of Nature”, and he said to me, he said “Taoism represents the natural relationship of things, it’s the truth, you know?” And when I take it as that… I take the philosophy of Taoism as the simple statement about the simple relationship of the harmony of things, how things exist in relation to one another. When I do that… I employ that in my life, I do my sitting meditation and I do my physical exercise, and none of that for me contradicts what Christ was saying. I see Christ as an embodiment of these principles of a simplistic harmony. For me, that’s how it makes sense. I don’t get caught up in matters of interpretation, you can interpret any part of the Bible anyway you like if you change the context around, and I don’t get myself involved in that. I see Christ’s teachings as being about a certain simplicity, and understanding that there is God’s grace which is the grounding of this harmonic relationship between these things we see in the world. That’s how it makes sense to me.
BE: Absolutely, I’ve come to feel almost the exact same way, and something I’ve been putting in practice is to be a consciousness and be an awareness beyond my thoughts and observe the thoughts as they cross my mind and realizing that I am not my thoughts. And it’s almost as if you’re watching children playing on the floor from a vantage that feels very one with God.
In your brilliant “Plum Flower Trilogy”—made up of The Plum Flower Dance; The Government of Nature; and City of Eternal Spring respectively—I am most fascinated by the expansion that occurs between the first and second books. Whereas The Plum Flower Dance is more concerned with unearthing and chronicling your origins and personal history, the “I” in The Government of Nature seems, somehow, both more collective, and more poetically distinct. The collection seems to evidence your departure from a smaller, more conventional notion of the “self” to a more dynamic and inter-connected one. I guess, is that accurate? Did you experience a diminishment of ego in the period between those two books?
AMW: I think that is accurate and I think the period between the two books is a very long period, because “The Plum Flower Dance” covers a span of 20 years of published work, and from the very beginning when I began writing I had the kind of definite thing that you’ll see when I’m writing about something as specific as race, but then something that’s much larger when I’m trying to deal with issues of being human. And, when I was younger and I looked out, and I was working and studying as a factory worker, I looked out on the landscape of work being done by poets, African American poets, some of them in the political realm, and I didn’t see a lot of people writing about the interior lives of black people. And at an early age I decided, “well I just have to do that”, you know? I didn’t grow up in my home, in my family’s house, we didn’t grow up talking about things racially, it just never happened, we went about our lives and there wasn’t a racial construct to it, what happened inside the house. I mean we were aware of difference, but our lives weren’t, our conversations weren’t, governed by that. And then as I moved through writing I sometimes wrote in an organic way, and once in a while I did a project book, like “Stations in a Dream” is all about Marc Chagall’s paintings, but “The Government of Nature” came about in an organic way, which is to say I started writing it when I was in this monastery in Taiwan, on the Eastern coast there for a few weeks. And I had not really been writing on my regular schedule for about seven years because the truth of my childhood trauma, the incest, came out in 1998 after four years of working with an analyst in Philadelphia. And when it emerged, it terrified me and I stopped writing, because it came out of my poetry, the book of mine called “Talisman” that Tia Chucha Press published, Tia Chucha under Luis Rodriguez. That book I wrote in the summer of 1994 and inside that book I found the key to the incest itself; once the memories began to emerge, it was uncanny because the box of the new books arrived around the time the memory emerged. And I think there was something that happened in my psyche around that same time because I was beginning to write from a more intensely personal lyrical vantage point. And there’s a book of mine called “Sandy Point”, which was a handmade book that was produced when I was at Bucknell as poet in residence in The Stadler Center in the spring of ’97, and there were only 150 copies so it wasn’t available to many people, but inside that book are poems that are clearly on the way to what’s inside “The Government of Nature”. But I didn’t write very much after that, not in a regular way, and in 1990 I wrote a draft of the book of mine “The Ten Lights of God” which Bucknell University published, and those poems were inspired by the Kabbalah, the rabbinical idea of God’s body having ten lights, so little by little as I continued to write, I wrote my way into this self-discovery, this self-awareness, and was not able to recover from that from 1998 until the spring of 2005. You know, you didn’t see very much about me in big venues etcetera in those seven years, those were the seven years that some of these younger poets came through like Major Jackson and Terrence Hayes, but I went pretty quiet for about seven years. But then once I started writing “The Government of Nature” in the spring of 2005 I began with poems about nature, and didn’t really know how all of that… I just started writing. And after I did the segment on the nature poems I contacted Pittsburgh (Press) and suggested “The Government of Nature” as a book to do. And once that book was published I went back and looked at those nature poems and tried to understand where they were going and then I began writing little by little about the trauma itself. So that book came together piece by piece in a way that some of my other books came together, like the very first book, but this time when it came together piece by piece I had to deal with the issues of betrayal, having been betrayed at such a fundamental level I felt less bound to ideas of loyalty both on a personal level and on a racial level, and I began to believe that I had a right to take care of myself and to honor myself, and that had been my struggle all my life: not really being able to take care of myself as in being respectful to my own needs, and I wasn’t really able to talk in any kind of articulate way about the world of my own feelings until I began to go into recovery from childhood sexual abuse.
BE: Absolutely, self-care is so important. I can say that The Government of Nature is sublime and it has been an absolute pleasure for me revisiting it in preparation for this interview. I think it’s an incredible book, it’s incredible work.
I wonder if recognizing your own mind’s capability for repression with regard to the sexual abuse you experienced in childhood taught you anything about the nature and function of memory in poetry?
AMW: It did. I think that there’s a place in the mind that is a kind of… Well there’s a meeting place in the mind and a consciousness where God sort of lets us go on our own, our own minds and consciousness or what we call our mind is connected to God, it’s the root of our spirituality. In that rabbinical tradition of the Kabbalah there is one saying that wisdom begins above thoughts, or when thought ceases wisdom begins, which can be taken as a Buddhistic idea too, and there’s a good chance those thinkers were influenced by intersections of Buddhism… but I think that when horrible things happen to us the mind has, we have this way of protecting ourselves through dissociation because we cannot endure the actual act itself, we can be fully present there, and repression is related to that, or repression is a function of dissociation. And I think that poetry, due to the fact that the creative state of consciousness is so much similar to the dream state as research as indicated, as we know ourselves, as Coleridge wrote about dreams, and I think poets have always known about dreams, you know Shakespeare said: “To sleep perchance to dream”, but in that opening up of the mind that’s a prerequisite to writing poetry, there’s also an opening up to the areas where things are kept, and I think that a lot of what may appear to us in the form of poetry comes out of these canisters where these things are locked. I think some poets are astute enough about their own consciousness to know what they’re filtering through, but others of us are not, which is not to say it doesn’t happen, but I’m just trying to configure two ways of looking at repression and memory and creativity. Some of us directly work with it, and the more you directly work with such a thing the more you are informed by it, which is to say you can’t open those canisters and just close them at will. Once you open them then you have to be courageous enough to work with what they will continue to give you. There really is no scientific definition of the mind, and philosophers go back and forth about whether or not the mind is a function of the physical organ, the brain itself, or whether it’s a combination of that and the activating and governing force from outside the body. I believe that our brains are activated and governed by the spiritual force, by the divine, that’s my belief, and to say that the mind is purely a function of the brain is kind of an egotistical materialism that leads to things like Marxism.
BE: I agree, that’s fascinating to me, fascinating. I guess, in that vein, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this next question: What do you believe is the appropriate relationship between thinking and living? Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching—a text you reference often—suggests that thought, action, and by extension I suppose poetry, should all arise organically in order to be authentic and in accord with the Tao. As a scholar and deeply thoughtful human being, how do you reconcile, how can we reconcile, the human need to think, to solve, to name, and explain with that Eastern imperative of pure Being, of purely Being?
AMW: Well, I have an image sometimes of a kind of, of a very, how should I say this, efficient way of existing harmonically and working etcetera. As a poet if I could have a job where I would have physical work to do that allowed me to think and be creative while I’m moving along, that’s a privilege to be able to do that I think, and to be able to do that with some freedom. Thinking and doing have to be done in conjunction. When you meditate you go into a certain state of consciousness, and when you finish, or when I finish, I might feel great or I might feel like I spent a lot of time with something that’s troubling, but I can never engage myself purely on the basis of myself, it’s not until I leave the house, or leave the cave as I call my apartment, and go, for example across the street to the store and get something, or to say “hi” to a neighbor, or drive some place to an activity with people, or if I go to teach, then I can come to understand how I really am in relation to other people. And I think, the idea of, say for example, cleaning up a yard and thinking and working, being creative in that process, is a kind of microcosm of being with yourself and your environment, but in a larger way even that state has to come into play with other human beings. So I think that thinking and living have to be done with some kind of simultaneity, so when I’m sitting and meditating I’m not just thinking about thinking, I’m both aware of what’s going on around me–whether it’s the noise this old house makes or the traffic as it starts to rise up early in the morning because the house is right on the street, or whatever it is–know that those things are there but then also focus on whatever it is I’m focusing on so I’m not disrupted or stopped by them. And it’s the same thing going into my job, I still call teaching, as I did when I was in the factory, “going to work”, and dealing with all there is to deal with there, which is natural in a place of employment, but going into that and maintaining what I have gotten from spending time with myself. It’s easy to walk around by yourself in the woods and declare yourself an enlightened being but it might be a total fantasy because you’re out there by yourself, your not engaged with other human beings. It’s much more difficult to deploy that consciousness in contact with other people.
BE: That’s so true. That’s something I’ve been struggling with lately, this impulse to be alone and to do the self-work necessary for me to go out in the world and accept other people and some of the contradictions that may exist in their interaction. I was talking to my friend Shoshanna and she said that once her and I could be around our parents for extended periods of time in a state of pure peace we might whisper off into smoke and vanish because we have reached true enlightenment (laughs). So that’s the aim I suppose (laughs).
It’s incredible to me and it’s as I expected, just the sense of peace in your voice, and that you seem to emanate. I wonder if Afaa has completely departed when he is in the real work of creating poetry and exists as just a vessel for the words and the ideas that emerge?
AMW: That’s an interesting question, I took the name “Afaa” in the Spring of ’97 while I was out there at Bucknell, and I was working on those poems in that collection “Sandy Point”, that handmade book, it was made by a couple who had a press in the back of their house there on the Bucknell campus. And I took the name to bring some closure to the process of grieving the loss of the first child, because we named him a Junior, and I dropped my middle name and took “Afaa” as a first name, because we used to call him by my middle name, Schan, and my new book “City of Eternal Spring” is dedicated to him, and I never dedicated a book to him. So the Afaa is, and it means “oracle” in the Ibo, it’s not a fortuneteller as in telling the future, it’s more (laughs) like a therapist, a person who has that name should be able to clarify your present context for you if you don’t understand what’s going on in your life, so I think it is a vessel, or better still I might say it’s a portal. Sometimes in meditation, things may appear but if you persist with your focus they will dissipate and you will go into something else. It’s the Buddhist idea, I do Taoist mediation, but there’s the Buddhist idea, of dispersing thoughts as they arise. So I think that the “Afaa” is a way of getting through things, opening things up. In that spring, when I took the name, looking back now on how things evolved for me in terms of my consciousness and recovery, I was just one year away from the emergence of those memories, the fundamental memories of my uncle, and now that I look back on how I felt and things that happened at that time I realize just when I took that name I was beginning to step into a whole new awareness of myself and my life.
BE: Did you find you were working with some of the concepts and developing metaphors to address the ghosts that had kind of accrued over the years and then that name (Afaa), or perhaps Buddhism, unlocked the final door to a consciousness that allowed you to come to terms with these things? Because it is amazing when we look at the machinations of the Universe how they do seem to be pushing us in the direction of growth and once we recognize that it’s so empowering. And, you know, you emerged and you grew in the exact manner that you were intended to and everything led you to here, and me to here, and this discussion, and I find that really fascinating.
AMW: It is fascinating. There is this image of, I’ve forgotten the name for it, when things begin to light up inside your being and you come to understand things and they light up in concert, there’s a name for that I can’t recall at the moment. But that’s what happens when you look back and you come to understand as the Bible says, and many, many places, that you were being taken care of, and that things do make sense, they cohere. And when Christ came and he was accused by the Pharisees and Sadducees and so on of disputing the scriptures, he says, “no, I’m here to bring them to fruition so that you will understand that everything that came before me makes sense”. To me that’s an enlightening statement. But yes, it’s that, things do come and they are empowering. In the book, “Talisman”, that came in 1998 when I uncovered the memory of my uncle, there’s a poem in there called “Little Girls” which is about my third marriage, in that book the first half is given to my mother and the second half is given to my three wives and a lady friend who appeared in the midst of, or near the end of the third marriage, and I wrote that book after… I was working in theater actively—when I went to Brown I spent just a little bit of time in poetry, 85% of my time at Brown was in playwriting and theater, and as a playwright you have to know yourself, and I was writing plays prior to the time that the memory emerged, and I’m writing plays, I’m working on a play now, that to say that I had two plays produced professionally in 1993, the second one was done in Chicago at a theater on the Southside called ETA and the producer and founder Abena Joan Brown, she’s in her 80’s now, she was a clinical social worker before she opened the theater, and she was a very investigative kind of person, and she said to me once: “You’re such an angry person, this exterior being nice, you’re so angry”. And when she said that to me I got angry (laughs). She was constantly reading me, as we used to use the phrase “reading someone” in the black American vernacular, but she was constantly reading me, and she said “You’re hiding something, I don’t know what it is, you’re hiding something.” Of course, she wasn’t talking about consciously hiding something, but there was something in me that was buried. And so the following summer in 1994 I bought my first computer and I said to myself “I’ll fix her I’ll write this confessional book and I’ll show her I’m not hiding anything.” And when I just let loose like that it was a boomerang, I didn’t know it was a boomerang, but when I threw that gesture out and that book came to being it came back and hit me square in the head, or the heart I should say. Because in that poem called “Little Girls” it’s the only poem in the book where the word “talisman” is used, and in that poem, when I read that poem when it came to the house in the box of new books, the poem makes reference to a room where I slept when I was in junior high school and I had out of body experiences, and I never talked to anyone about those out of body experiences, none of the therapists I had when I was in my twenties when I broke down, but it was not until my forties when I was working with that analyst that I actually started to talk, and of course we know now that that’s extreme dissociation and a symptom of abuse, and then the floodgates started to open. So the talisman, from that book “Talisman” is kind of a central metaphor for me, in looking back over my life. You know, life is funny. The odyssey of the poet, people talk about a career as a poet, I don’t even know if we have careers, I don’t know if the word “career” actually applies, if you really are a poet, but in 1995 I got tenure at Rutgers and my book “Timber and Prayer” was published, and then that June I had congestive heart failure and was on death’s door. And my book “Timber and Prayer” did very well in the circle of national prizes, and I won’t say which one, but someone inside the process confided to me that I almost got one of the biggies. And that was “Timber and Prayer”, I was 43 years old, and I look back on it now, if that had happened I probably would not have gotten to any of the rest of this work. And I look back on that and I think “well God intervened, and said, “no not this time, he’s not where he has to go, he doesn’t understand it now, but he’s not where he has to go.””
BE: The Universe works.
AMW: It does, it does. You know, I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of rewards come to poets in their forties and it puts a cap on the progression and development of their work. It’s very difficult, near impossible, to get beyond a certain place because you’re rewarded so hugely at that point in your life that for most poets I see get that, that’s as far as they get, in terms of the growth of their work. They write etcetera, but they don’t get to other dimensions. So if I had gotten that at that time then, you know, I got tenure with distinction, I was one of their gold star candidates at Rutgers, and you know to win a huge national prize and then have congestive heart failure, I might not have survived all that.
BE: You have to be cautious not to plateau, and I think the poets that we most revere, and the ones who will last, did continually change and grow. Because, you’re absolutely right, if a certain formula is rewarded, you know, a large part in one is compelled to continue to follow that formula. But that’s inauthentic because you’re not recognizing or responding to the growth in yourself that occurs from one book to the next. I find it fascinating that you said, writing that collection, I think it was Sandy Point (It was Talisman), opened a door. It was a process of recognition in writing itself, and that may have occurred, you know, unconsciously, and I think that’s really the magic of creation. But I suppose that’s neither here nor there…
Speaking of contemporary poetry, I’ve been really conscious of late, and became even more conscious after revisiting your work, of the distinction between intellect and wisdom in American poetry. The former is common, the latter far less so. I wonder if you’d agree; and if you’d speak to the ways in which this observed dichotomy might be indicative of a larger cultural trend and direction in this country in particular?
AMW: Well, I think, Ben that if you look at the generation of poets who were say born around the early years of the Depression, some of whom went to World War 2 and came back, you know poets like Michael Harper, Harper is younger than Anthony Hecht, Anthony Hecht was older I do believe, but there was a connection with life, or between life and writing that has become more a matter of writing, and I think the whole discussion for example of craft over experience is another indicator that poets I think sometimes are embracing the idea of writing and the idea of being astute at too early a point in their lives. It’s not happening to everyone that way, but I see it happening often enough. You know, you don’t want to say to someone “Oh, you should wait for this or that”, but I do want to say that you should think maybe more about living and writing. You know, we talk about the MFA programs and their proliferation, but it is entirely possible to come through an MFA program and even get a teaching job and not be as well read as that older generation that I’m talking about. And once you get caught up in Academia with all that goes on there, there’s going to be this really difficult conflict between reading for the nourishment of your own writing and then reading in order to teach, you know? And very few of us actually teach out of the same pool of reading that we use for our own work, so your life just gets split and split and split. And you have to try to have more of your life cohere around the idea of nurturing your work and living and writing. There are some very smart poets out there, but wisdom takes time and wisdom requires a certain amount of time and endurance. You can go through horrific things, as I did when I was in my twenties, and in my early thirties I might have thought I had a certain widsom, but from this point where I stand now, thirty years later, it was not nearly what I thought it was, you know? In a very ironic way I think that spoken word has the same problem because that audience contact and that audience affirmation is a certain intellectual enterprise, you know? Spoken word is performance and performance requires a certain intelligence and intellectualism that may not be all about reading per se, but I think the same thing does happen all to often, you sell yourself short by what you get in terms of audience affirmation in that world, and what some poets may get in terms of literary awards in the quote unquote page world. Same thing happens in two different ways and it’s driven by technology, I think both of those things are driven by technology to some extent.
BE: After finishing a project of the breadth and emotional intensity of “The Plum Flower Trilogy” did it take some time to regroup and re-center in order to pursue other projects? What are you working on now; and what does a day in the writing life of Afaa Michael Weaver look like?
AMW: Well, the writing life gets cut down to bits and pieces especially this time in the spring semester of the teaching year, but 2 years ago, in 2013, I went for the first time to a writer’s retreat. I had never gone to a writer’s retreat and I went to one called Renaissance House out on Martha’s Vineyard at the suggestion of someone. And I was really glad I did it because when I was out there I was able to complete the trilogy, I finished up the book “City of Eternal Spring” out there. And then last summer, 2014, I went out there with the determination to go into those 15 years of factory work and write about them and I managed to generate about 45 pages of manuscript. And I sat out there and I… You know the wonderful thing about working with computers is that I can go to the old neighborhood where I worked with Google Maps and just sort of walk down the street in the old neighborhood you know, and I looked for photographs of Procter & Gamble and the steel mill and I just started writing. There’s a whole other level of my working class being that I have yet to write about, and not too long ago a Facebook friend, you know you say a Facebook friend, they’re people you don’t really know (laughs), but he whom I did not really know put me in contact with this young scholar and she’s writing about the working class and she wrote to me an email and said “Well, I wanted to contact you because I’m looking for working class writers and poets”, and I said “well, there’s me.” And she said “Oh no, you have 12 books of poetry you can’t be working class”, which infuriated me and so I sort of distanced myself from her, but you know she’s a young scholar, she’s just trying to establish her terrain etcetera. But there is that question of what is working class, you know. Phil Levine was very good to me, he wrote for me for tenure when I had only corresponded with him back in 1995, and he did other things for me. I called him one day to ask if he would write a letter for this grant I was trying to get, or fellowship, and I said “Phil, it’s me Mike, the guy who worked in the factory.” And he said “Oh yeah you made 15 years, I only made 7…” or 6 1/2 or whatever it was. I said, “Well Phil I was actually trying to get out” (laughs). And I was sad to hear that he had passed away, I was just sort of not prepared for that. I ordered a copy of his selected poems because I couldn’t find my old copy, and sat down and started reading his poems. You know, I think I’m at a place now to sort of pick up where Phil left off, having been there longer than he was. And up to this point I think what I’ve been trying to do is to show what people like me, what working class people are capable of doing. Whereas Phil I think, and I’m glad he did it, but he wrote about people like me if that makes any sense. In sitting there reading his book, his poetry over the last couple weeks I’ve been deeply moved, it’s almost as if he kept the light burning, you know? So now I feel that I can go in and do those things, because, when I emerged from the factory I just didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, you know? I didn’t want to be that stereotypical poet that that young scholar was looking for because what she does not realize is just how enormously difficult it is to be creative in that environment. I mean, I managed to do it, but its taken all of this time for me to get to a point of maturity where I can write about that world with some real authenticity. And I think authenticity is sort of the key word there. Having lived in that world, and being born into it, I still find myself… That sensibility never leaves, you know?
BE: Well, it’s a ruggedness and it’s a toughness that serves one in any endeavor. And I was never given the opportunity, outside of playing college football, to develop the strength that can afford, an atmosphere like that. I think when you reflect on it you have to realize the strength that it gave you to endure some of the things that you had to later in life.
AMW: Yeah, I think so, Ben, I think so. That’s exactly it. There’s a ruggedness and a strength you have to have.
BE: I just want to say how much I’ve enjoyed speaking with you this morning, and what an inspiration your life and your work have been to me. Afaa, thank you so much for taking the time.
AMW: Oh, you’re quite welcome, Ben, I enjoyed it. And this is a very singular interview, I don’t think any of the interviews I’ve done to date have gone into places that we’ve gone into.