Ernest Hilbert interviewed poet, translator, and professor Afaa M. Weaver before a live audience at Fergie’s Pub in Philadelphia on the afternoon of Sunday, November 19th, 2017. We had a fine time and covered a wide array of topics. Please give it a listen or read below. Enjoy!
Ernest Hilbert: Hi, my name’s Ernest Hilbert, and it is my immense pleasure and honor this afternoon, Sunday, November 19th, 2017, to interview Afaa Weaver, who is a prize-winning poet, a distinguished professor, celebrated translator, man of letters, ambassador from the kingdom of literature, a working-class hero, which, as John Lennon said, “is something to be.” I’ve known him for many years, more years than not, and I’m really interested in hearing what he has to say about a number of topics. I have all of his books on my shelves, but this is his most recent, and this has only been out how long now? [Holds up Spirit Boxing]
Afaa M. Weaver: Since February.
Ernest Hilbert: Since February, okay. So it came out this year, Spirit Boxing. Perhaps we’ll have some time and you can maybe read a poem or two. This book encapsulates and looks back through his entire life and his many projects, his loves and passions, all the things he’s done in his life. So I wanted to ask you—you’ve been publishing poetry for quite a long time now—when did you first write poetry and when did you first come to think of yourself as a poet? Because those are two different things. Sometimes people will write poetry but not yet think of themselves as poets.
Afaa M. Weaver: I was in my first year at the University of Maryland. I was an engineering major and had taken a composition class. The professor’s name was John Woods, I believe. It was a very laissez-faire kind of classroom. He had long hair. In the fall of 1968, it was pretty chaotic there in the classroom. I was writing and he said to me about one of the papers, “You’re some kind of writer. I don’t exactly know what but you are.”
During that winter, I started writing poetry. It was pretty naive mimicry of 19th-century Romantic poetry, my juvenilia. And then when I left the university, I left with the determination to be a poet and a writer. I gave my first poetry reading in 1975 at this student gathering of the University of Maryland there in College Park. When I stood up there, I was terrified with stage fright. I read the poem, and I think it was around that time that I began to see poetry as my nexus, if I can use that word, my internal center. After a while, it became the thing that I just had to do. It made life livable.
“It was 1970 when I dropped out of the university and joined the military, the Army Reserves, out of a working class machismo. My lottery number was safe. I didn’t have to go, but I volunteered.”
Ernest Hilbert: Well, you mention the English Romantics as early models for your poetry. I imagine in different phases of your career as a writer you’ve had different influences. Could you remark on what some of those influences have been and during what periods of your career they were affecting you?
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, when I was 19, I had two anthologies, Conrad Aiken’s American Poetry from the Library of America, which wasn’t really representative. And then I had Langston Hughes’ and Arna Bontemps’ Poetry of the Negro. I read those two together and, even at that age, I was really moved by Langston Hughes’ urban poetry, his use of the urban parlance, but I also just really admired T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock.”
I was 19 years old. I had dropped out of the university and gone into factory work. I was reading and writing and one of my aunts asked me about my poetry because they all thought I was pretty kooky. So I recited the line “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” She said, “What does that mean?” I said, “Well . . .” I was 18 years old, and I planned my life. Everything was going to be perfect, of course, and it wasn’t.
It was 1970 when I dropped out of the university and joined the military, the Army Reserves, out of a working class machismo. My lottery number was safe. I didn’t have to go, but I volunteered. In the fall of 1970, I got married. I stayed in the steel mill for a year, and that included my six months of active duty for Basic Combat Training out in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. When I came back to the steel mill I got the job at Procter & Gamble or P&G, where I worked for fourteen years. In the winter of 1974-75, I assembled my first manuscript while working on P&G’s packing floors. The longest poem in that manuscript eventually became, in 1985, my first book Water Song. So my first book was 10 years in the making. It was at that time in the mid 70’s, I said, “Okay, this is what I am,” or, “This is what I do.” My spiritual growth has led me to resist saying, “This is what I am because of what I do.”
Ernest Hilbert: Sure.
Afaa M. Weaver: That’s a philosophical thing.
Ernest Hilbert: Sure, sure.
Afaa M. Weaver: We’re more than what we do. Or less than what we do, however you look at that. It’s about pruning away the nonsense of identity from who you really are. In the mid 1970’s, I developed a habit of writing two manuscripts at once. So I’ve always done that. It’s a parallel method.
Ernest Hilbert: Right.
Afaa M. Weaver: I’m not the only poet by any means who does that, but that’s what I’ve done.
Ernest Hilbert: And so how about some of the other influences that maybe emerged later as you had been already publishing books. You had Water Song, My Father’s Geography, I know Stations in a Dream was actually an ekphrastic book inspired by, I believe, Marc Chagall . . .
Afaa M. Weaver: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ernest Hilbert: Who were some other models that you worked against or with as you were composing over the years?
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, I read the Black Arts poets. Sonia, who lives here, Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti and Amiri Baraka. I read them and they were very important to me at the same time that I was reading things like John Donne. I took a course on the intro to British lit at Morgan University in the spring of ‘75 and my professor, Dr. Valerie Sedlak, spoke to me intently. “You are a metaphysical poet.” We were reading the 17th century with John Donne, et cetera, but she also said, “You’re multi-genre.” She said, “You should read John Dos Passos.” So I read his trilogy at that time, and I read The Fourteenth Chronicle.
So my influences were diverse that way and I saw my first play around that time, too, by Ron Milner. It was in Baltimore at the Morris Mechanic. The play was entitled “What the Winesellers Buy.” When I saw it, I thought, “I want to write plays.” I was 22, 23 at that time. So it was that and reading as widely as I could. In 1978 in Baltimore, I got to know some of the poets who had come through Elliot Coleman’s workshop at Johns Hopkins. James Taylor, David Beaudouin, and I established a triad of small presses. They had already established their presses and David Beaudouin gave me a copy of his articles of incorporation, so I could start to build my own small press, Seventh Son.
Ernest Hilbert: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Afaa M. Weaver: And the same time, I started subscribing to the books by old mail order that Ed Ochester and his wife managed out of Spring Church Hill, remember that? I loved spending money on that mail order list.
Ernest Hilbert: He is still your editor.
Afaa M. Weaver: Yes, he is.
Ernest Hilbert: To this day. He’s one of the most famous poetry editors in America.
Afaa M. Weaver: He became my editor with my first [commercially published] book in 1992, My Father’s Geography.
Ernest Hilbert: Right.
Afaa M. Weaver: Another influence was Callaloo Magazine. At that time, there was Callaloo Magazine and African American Review, which was at that time called Black American Literature Forum. They were the two main black academic journals for Creative Writing, and I read them as a factory worker. I had a kind of Catholic reading taste, a jack of all trades and a master of none. I was reading the Dao De Jing at that time and Alan Watts and those things and so . . . just pouring things into my little mind.
It wasn’t until the early ‘80s that I started to read Michael Harper’s work. Of course I read Gwendolyn Brooks when I was younger. I tried to imagine where my language rested in the tradition of African-American poets. So I saw Langston Hughes making a northern urban parlance and then Sterling Brown with the southern with his series of poems about Slim Greer, and his “Chant of Saints.” I saw Gwendolyn Brooks as more Midwestern. I tried to contextualize my voice that way, in the African American tradition.
“There was a kind of regularity that came out of growing up with Baptist preachers, especially parallelism and refrains.”
And when I took that intro to British lit in the spring of ‘75, Professor Sedlak introduced me to the process of scansion. So I started to scan my own poetry. I was looking for my own natural rhythm in language. I’d write a poem and then sit down and scan it and say, “What the hell am I doing?” There was a kind of regularity that came out of growing up with Baptist preachers, especially parallelism and refrains.
Ernest Hilbert: Some critics summon Walt Whitman when trying to explain what you’re doing with your lines. Has Whitman factored in consciously or are they seeing something that’s maybe just happenstance or coincidence?
Afaa M. Weaver: It came by way of the first major living influence on my work, the poet Lucille Clifton. I met Lucille in ‘74, that winter when I was assembling my first manuscript. She was probably the most important early influence as a living poet. She gave me X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry. I was 22 years old. She gave me that and John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? She said, “You read these books.” I said, “Okay, Lucille. I’ll read these books.” Through Lucille I came to understand that kind of embracing in the long line. What I’ve read of people comparing my work to Whitman seems to be not so much the construction of my line as about the significance of my body of work in relation to African American and American poetry, which is rather humbling. It was Michael Harper who first compared me to Whitman in a blurb he did for My Father’s Geography, and Ed Ochester sealed it in a quote he gave to the Taipei Times in 2007, ten years ago. It’s not only the technical aspect of the line. It is my attempt to embrace the democratic ideal in my work, to draw the American landscape as subject from an African American base. To that I return in fuller force in Spirit Boxing.
Ernest Hilbert: You’re also a poet of place. I was wondering if you could just say a few words about that. Perhaps I’m remiss in associating you principally with three cities. I know you’ve lived a lot of other places, including China. But I think of Baltimore, of course, where you were born and raised. I think of Boston, where you’ve lived in the environs of Boston, if not in Boston, for many years as a professional, as a professor. And also in Philadelphia. I associate you with this city because I remember helping you move into your writer’s dojo at one point. You were teaching at Rutgers and you lived here. I was wondering if you could just say a few words about what these cities have meant to you, good or ill, in terms of your poetry.
“I guess as a place, Philadelphia has always tried to lord it over Baltimore. I’ve alluded to it in some ways in Timber and Prayer.”
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, Baltimore is . . . I guess you could say it’s a given as a place in my work, unconsciously or subconsciously. And it’s also the place where the experience of being a factory worker is just burned into my memory, it’s branded there. So it’ll take a lot . . . I don’t think I will ever be dislodged.
Ernest Hilbert: Yeah.
Afaa M. Weaver: And then when I left and went to Europe, in My Father’s Geography I wrote about travel.
Ernest Hilbert: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Afaa M. Weaver: I guess as a place, Philadelphia has always tried to lord it over Baltimore. I’ve alluded to it in some ways in Timber and Prayer.
Ernest Hilbert: Philly has to pick on someone.
Afaa M. Weaver: Yeah, it picks on Baltimore big time.
Ernest Hilbert: D.C., New York.
Afaa M. Weaver: Yeah, yeah. And then when I did Stations in a Dream, I was trying to imagine Russian-Jewish culture. Chagall’s family was Hasidim, followers of Baal Shem Tov. So imagining that through the paintings was probably the most exciting experiment or experience with imagining a place. And my doorway for that was the bodily experience of being a Baptist with that physical emotionalism in worship. But that project was exciting and I wrote it while I was living and working in East Orange, New Jersey. And Newark. So place is a matter of . . . you can be in a place in a microsecond by just being there.
Ernest Hilbert: Sure. This is an odd question, perhaps. People say you’re not supposed to say you have a favorite child, and it’s hard to say if you have a favorite book, particularly if you only have a few books, because you always like the recent one most. You have a career-spanning library of books that you’ve published including “new and selected” volumes and others. Do you have a favorite book of your own, for whatever reason?
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, if I say it then the other books will get angry.
Ernest Hilbert: They’ll get a complex.
Afaa M. Weaver: Yeah, they’ll beat me up. I don’t know. Is it fair to say that the Plum Flower Trilogy is probably my favorite of those three books.
Ernest Hilbert: Okay.
Afaa M. Weaver: I didn’t plan that as a trilogy but after the second one, I had to do a third one.
Ernest Hilbert: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Afaa M. Weaver: Or after the first one, I had to do a second one. I know I’m hemming and hawing on this question, but in many ways I think the Plum Flower Dance is my favorite.
Ernest Hilbert: Okay.
Afaa M. Weaver: When I did that book, I contacted Ed because I’d been away from Pittsburgh for a few years. I said, “Ed, would you consider doing another ‘new and selected’?” Because Multitudes was one that Sarabande did. He said, “Well, you’ve already done that. Why don’t you do an essential?”
Ernest Hilbert: Yeah.
Afaa M. Weaver: And so that book is the essential me.
Ernest Hilbert: Right, okay. The essence.
Afaa M. Weaver: At that time, anyway. And I come back to it and I said, “Well, it’s all there.”
Ernest Hilbert: Yeah.
Afaa M. Weaver: Everything I’ll ever do from this point on, everything I did before, it’s in there.
Ernest Hilbert: Right. In addition to your work as a poet, you’ve done a few other things. I was wondering if you could say a few words about at least two other aspects. One is as a translator from the Chinese, and also as a playwright.
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, when I went to Brown I studied playwriting mostly. I was with Keith Waldrop in poetry, and the late George Houston Bass, who became my mentor, and Paula Vogel said to me, “Come to playwriting.” So I went to Keith and I said, “Keith, can I do playwriting? Can I switch?” And he was really upset. He said, “You’ll have to do both this semester.” So in the first semester at Brown, I did two graduate workshops plus my other courses. And he said, “At the end of the semester, I’ll make a decision.” I said, “Okay, Keith.” So I did both and I said, “Well, Keith, what do you think?” He said, “You can go.”
So he let me into playwriting and that’s where I spent the bulk of my time. So I had two plays done, one here in Philly, Rosa, and then the other in Chicago, Elvira and the Lost Prince. I promised myself I’d never name another play like that. It sounds like a fairytale or something.
Ernest Hilbert: It’s a good title.
Afaa M. Weaver: I wrote a play every summer for about 10 years. I have 20 plays or so scattered around and they’re all in the Alexander Street online archives. They have ten of my plays. There was one that we’d never got past the stage reading, it’s called Berea. And I have one now entitled Grip in a second draft. I love theater, but in 1993, the year of those productions in Philly and Chicago, I was too immature artistically.
Ernest Hilbert: Right.
Afaa M. Weaver: I wasn’t as sure of myself as I am now. Now if an actor says something to me about what the play should be, I can say, “No.”
Ernest Hilbert: So the demands and pleasures are distinct from poetry but perhaps somewhat similar, would you say?
“‘Your natural adversaries are the actors, not the director.'”
Afaa M. Weaver: A script is a very utilitarian thing. You can take your book of poetry and put it down so carefully on the table. Take a play and go into a room with a bunch of actors and director and the actor would say, “Okay, that’s good. Then they might toss it on the floor. You take all your time with the stage directions. The director would say, “Great. I want to do this play.” And he’ll get a black marker and black out all your stage directions. “No, we don’t need that.” I don’t care if your name is Eugene O’Neill.
Ernest Hilbert: Competing egos.
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, it’s a community you got there. And George Bass told me in graduate school, he said, “Your natural adversaries are the actors, not the director.”
Ernest Hilbert: I love that.
Afaa M. Weaver: And he goes, “Actors want to write plays. But a playwright should know something about acting.” And so in 2013, I started studying acting formally with Dossy Peabody. I love it. She wanted me to play Troy Maxson in Fences. I spent six months studying that role with her. She wanted me to audition for it at a dinner theater, I said, “I don’t know.” But when you study acting, it opens up so many things to you as a playwright but also just in communication and subtlety. You have to create something out of yourself in a way unlike any kind of writing. I had that transformative moment of bringing Troy Maxson into the room and seeing him there, knowing it wasn’t me. It’s humbling. It’s a lot of hard work, too. I love theater but I’m also at a point in my life where if I get one more play done, it’ll be good. I’m taking it easy.
Ernest Hilbert: I know from working as an opera librettist that directors prefer creators who are no longer among the living because they can’t put up a hue and cry when your vision differs from their own, so I understand. And the other part of that question was about your work as a translator and how your work as a poet feeds into that and works with that.
Afaa M. Weaver: I started engaging Chinese culture when I was 21, and in my late 20’s with tai chi, et cetera. I went to Taiwan on a Fulbright in 2002 because a classmate in the tai chi school where I was studying in Boston at the time said, “Why don’t you apply for a Fulbright?” He used to go there and teach English independently. He said, “You can get it. Go over there for a semester.” I said, “Okay.” And it came through and I landed there. I had taken weekend Chinese classes in Baltimore in 1984 but just pronunciation.
Ernest Hilbert: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Afaa M. Weaver: So I got there to Taiwan and realized my Chinese was minuscule. I would ask the taxi driver to take me to the university, I tried to say that. But the university in Chinese is dàxué, but I had the wrong tones. I would say, “Dǎ xuè”, which means “hit the blood.” That’s a long way from university. So I came back to Simmons, and I took the faculty audit for two years. I did Chinese with the undergrads for two years with two of my colleagues as my professors. The first colleague said, “We’re going to do this the grandfather way.” And so we had dictionary drills with these really hard books from Beijing.
And then my sabbatical came up in 2004. I convened that first conference. I brought the poets from China and Taiwan and Hong Kong to Simmons in 2004, which had never been done in any other academic institution here in the country and I understand why, too, after I did it. There’s so many things to deal with in terms of diplomacy, et cetera. But I brought them here and some of them had never seen each other before.
I moved to Taiwan to study in a private school for eight months. And so when I got there, my teacher said to me, “You have your information but it’s all mixed up in your head.” He said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to fix your brain.” So these two ladies went to work on me. I had one one hour, one the next hour, for eight months. And they straightened me out and gave me my foundation. And so at the end, I had an exam. I got an A minus on the reading and speaking, the oral part, and then for the writing I got a B plus. So I said, “It’s not bad for someone my age.” I was 51, 52 at the time.
But the translation. So the second conference that I held in 2008 was to use translation as cultural communication. I brought poets back over on this skeleton budget, and set up this model of a Chinese poet from abroad, an American poet, and a translator in the middle, to work on one poem and talk about the process and record the process. It was an ambitious project. I wish I could do it again because translation is so important for communication.
Then I started to translate some poems on my own. I’ve published a few. Translation Review did a special issue devoted to the founder of the American Literary Translation, ALTA, and they asked me to do an article. I did an article on translation in relationship to performance theory. So that’s been published.
Translation takes a long time. You’re doing service to the art. Insofar as that question of whether a poet is the best translator or not, I would say a humble poet but not a poet who wants to put his or her voice or, to use your other pronoun, their voice for a translation, on the poem. I can’t do that. Where is the poet?
“Translators have gifts like anybody else, and a gifted translator can have a minimal knowledge of the language and bring a really beautiful rendering.”
Ernest Hilbert: Right.
Afaa M. Weaver: Or you’ll become the poet.
Ernest Hilbert: Right.
Afaa M. Weaver: So that’s, for me, the challenge. On the other hand, a very good translator has the gift. Translators have gifts like anybody else, and a gifted translator can have a minimal knowledge of the language and bring a really beautiful rendering. That can happen, too.
Ernest Hilbert: Okay.
Afaa M. Weaver: I just don’t like to disrespect translators because they get disrespected so much.
“I always loved horses, and I grew up with Westerns.”
Ernest Hilbert: I was wondering if you can say a few words about what equestrian culture and horses have meant to you, because it’s something that comes back again and again in your poetry.
Afaa M. Weaver: An Appaloosa was given to me when I was 14 by my uncle who, in the history of my personal evolution and spiritual growth, gave me a lot of challenges when I was a very small child. He didn’t understand boundaries. And I think maybe out of his guilt or whatever he gave me an Appaloosa. She had an eating disorder and so he sold her. But I always loved horses, and I grew up with Westerns. My partner Kristen and I sometimes go for horseback riding lessons. She loves to ride, too. She rides English, I ride Western. I can’t do the English thing. I’ve always been Western in my mind.
When I was a teenager riding with my uncles and cousins at night in the fields in Patapsco State Park, we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was a wonder we didn’t get killed. The horses were slow; we probably wouldn’t have done any damage. But anyway, when you get older, you learn that you can be critical of English riding and say, “Oh, look at them posting,” but there’s posting in Western, too.
“And you have to have some faith in your ability to fall as well.”
Ernest Hilbert: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Afaa M. Weaver: And you have to learn how to post when the rear leg of the horse comes up and how to use the pressure with your knees. But the most important thing is to connect emotionally with the horse. When Kristen and I go for lessons, I rode Rupert, this big old Chestnut. I’d go, “Hey, Rupert. How are you doing today?” And I’d rub him on his withers and he’d look at me. And you’d have to have that connection because when you get on the horse, you’re one unit and you have to move with the horse and you can’t be afraid.
Ernest Hilbert: Right.
Afaa M. Weaver: And you have to have some faith in your ability to fall as well. Horses are beautiful. They are beautiful.
Ernest Hilbert: You’ve also worked as an editor and I wanted to ask you . . . You edited a book called These Hands I Know: African-American writers on family. I was wondering if you could say a few words about that process, again, the good and the bad of being an editor and dealing with other writers and soliciting, deciding who to solicit from, how to suggest changes or alterations, and how to bring the whole thing to press and find an audience for it.
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, I started a small press when I was in Baltimore and at that time, being an editor meant running the whole operation and to face the reality that it is easy to get a box full of magazines, but try selling them.
“There is that editor experience, a really grueling experience of establishing the business, resurrecting and rebuilding the structure in the magazine.”
Ernest Hilbert: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Afaa M. Weaver: Distribution is the heart of the game. In 1997, I took over Obsidian at North Carolina State University. There are three sister magazines, as I call them. Callaloo, African American Review, and Obsidian. And Obsidian was devoted to creative writing so I came in and took over Obsidian. And I used to fly down from Boston two or three times a year, and for me that became the challenge of running the magazine. And I brought in editors for genres. Kwame Dawes, I asked him to be the criticism editor, Shara McCallum and Marcia Douglas became poetry and fiction editors. I couldn’t do all of that and apply for grants and run the business, so I held business meetings.
There is that editor experience, a really grueling experience of establishing the business, resurrecting and rebuilding the structure in the magazine. I did that. With These Hands I Know, Sarabande did that work and they did all the clerical stuff. So for me, it was a matter of the vision of the book. I wanted Michael Harper’s father’s memoir in there because his father was important. His parents were educated. Michael Harper’s grandfather delivered him when he was born in Brooklyn. The other grandfather set up the first AME church in South Africa. Michael Harper came from the privileged part of the black world and very few people understand that about Harper. Very privileged, light-skinned black people. And I wanted his dad’s memoir so I took a chunk of that and other things in there . . . I have a section there from Henry Louis Gates’s memoir.
“I remember one of the reviews of the book said, ‘Oh, Weaver thinks there’s still a problem with racism.’ What would you say about that now?”
So for me it was the vision. And when I wrote the preface to it, I was in Poland at a tai chi summer camp. That’s another matter. So I was in Poland when I wrote the intro to that and I wanted to talk about the history of slavery and racism. I remember one of the reviews of the book said, “Oh, Weaver thinks there’s still a problem with racism.” What would you say about that now? Tell that to Steve Bannon and his friends.
Ernest Hilbert: Yeah.
Afaa M. Weaver: And David Duke is as strong as he ever was or stronger. But that one review suggested I was off track by talking about racism and slavery. I quoted Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” in my intro to talk about the challenge of building a family for African Americans. So that was my vision. At that time, it may not be true now, but it was the only book by creative writers on the subject of family. And some sociologists use it as a textbook.
Ernest Hilbert: I hope to have some time to have you read some poems when we’re done a few more questions.
Afaa M. Weaver: I don’t want to read any poetry [jokingly].
Ernest Hilbert: All right. So can you say a few words about your work as the Director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center?
Afaa M. Weaver: When I was hired at Simmons, I was asked to build a literary center. But at that point in my academic career, I wasn’t really aware of the dynamics of an institution. In a very practical way, when deans and provosts are making up budgets, a center has to be integrated into the budget. If the center is this auxiliary function, which it always was, then getting the funding for it is always a struggle. And so I wasn’t aware of any of that. And then when the dean who hired me was later fired, his vision went with him.
So there I was with my letter of appointment and my job, and so what I did in the course of the history of this center was to host readings. I brought people to read. I did those two Chinese poetry conferences under the auspices of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center. And I named it after Zora Neale Hurston to give a nudge to that northern aristocratic thing. It was a labor of love, the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center.
Ernest Hilbert: You’re currently Director of the Writing Intensive at the Frost Place. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, actually I’m on the Board of Trustees, and Maudelle Driskell is the director. In that way she’s my supervisor and she would have laughed to hear me say that. But they elected me to the Board of Trustees, so I had my first trustee meeting in October. October 28th. And so, that’s what I do. I have taught there twice, read a couple of times. Baron Wormser brought me there the first time, back in 2001 I think. But more recently, they asked me if I would be a trustee and I said, “Sure. I’d be happy to do that.” That’s what I do at the Frost Place now.
“So what do I do? Who am I? What do I do?”
Ernest Hilbert: You’ve done so much and so I have to ask you, we’re all probably wondering, what’s next? What are you working on now and what do you hope to have time to get to?
Afaa M. Weaver: Well, there’s the Chinese, too. I need to practice, I don’t practice. I meditate every day so if I get up and I do my meditation, and Kristen and I have our breakfast where we like to read at breakfast and chit chat, and after that if I do a little tai chi, then it’s almost time for lunch. I really need to pay attention to my tai chi. My teacher made me one of his Daoist disciples. So what do I do? Who am I? What do I do?
And there’s a guy by the name of Chris Kiely who teaches tai chi. Chris is in his mid- to late-40s. His wife is an administrator at Sarah Lawrence in creative writing, Paige. So periodically, Chris and I sit down and have tai chi tea, as we call it. We just talk about tai chi. And I said, “Just what do I do? Poetry, meditating, tai chi, what is it?”
Towards the end of teaching at Simmons, I started to think the last three years, “I really don’t have time to teach.” Now I get a social security check so it’s okay, but I just want to be and to do those things. The meditation is essential. I spend at least an hour a day in the meditation and it’s really essential to me. And the poetry. And I want to write about Baltimore. That’s what I’m trying to do, to write about Baltimore. And people say I need to do a memoir. Okay, if you say so.
“It was a doctor that said, ‘You’re done. You’re out of here. You’re done.'”
This is not entirely the same thing, but when I was at Rutgers, you remember, I got tenure and then I was in the cardiac unit with congestive heart failure. So I came back to Rutgers in the fall. That was 1995. After having been in the hospital that June, I was back to teaching in September and barely walking alone. I was coming up the hallway and one of my colleagues, a sweet man. God bless him. He was near retirement. He followed me down the hallway and he said, “Put everything in boxes so we can find it.” It was a doctor that said, “You’re done. You’re out of here. You’re done.”
Ernest Hilbert: Oh no.
Afaa M. Weaver: They told me I wasn’t going to live very long. So when people say, “Do your memoir,” it’s like that moment, like, “Put everything so we can figure out which are good.”
Ernest Hilbert: What’s in a name? I wanted to also ask you about two of your names. The Ibo, “Afaa,” and also your Chinese name, I’m going to perhaps not say this properly, “Wèi Yǎfēng.” Can you say a few words about both of those names that you’ve assumed?
Afaa M. Weaver: Tess Onwueme, the Nigerian playwright and fiction writer, gave me that name in 1997. And I wrote to her, I said, “Tess, I need to have an African name, I think, a first name.” She said, “I’m glad to hear you say that.” She sent me a list and I chose Afaa, and she said, “Good. That’s the one I wanted you to have.” It means “oracle,” which is not about knowing the future because in Ibo, the future belongs to God. It’s more translatable as a therapist. So a person like me, you should be able to come, and I should be able to tell you what’s going on. I should be able to sort it out for you in the present. So that’s supposedly what I can do. I don’t know about that.
The Chinese name, Wèi Yǎfēng . . . though the way the surname is a surname as it was originally given to me also has something to do with first lieutenant corporal, whatever. And the Yǎfēng comes from the Ya Fueh, which is a section in the Book of Songs, the first anthology of Chinese poetry. And these are kind of folk songs. And so my godfather in Taiwan, Dr. Ching-hsi Perng, gave me that name. I went to Taiwan with a rudimentary kind of Chinese name. He said, “No, that’s not it.” So he said, “Wèi Yǎfēng,” which means the spirit of the poet, blossoming spirit of the poet.
So go along a couple years, I’m in mainland China, in Beijing with poet friends there. I had the unmitigated gall to travel to China by myself several times. Just ignorant. Foolhardy is probably a better way of saying it. The government gave poets permission to have a Poetry Club, and I was there when it was officially established. One of my friends in Beijing wanted to modify the Wèi so he put a grass radical on the top. The significance of spirit boxing is I restored it in the name the way my godfather gave it to me. I took the grass radical away. Chinese. I took that away so now it is as it was originally with a real surname.
So that’s the story of those names. When I did something bad, my mother used to call me Gus. We won’t get into that.
“. . . we’re just these pitiable little creatures stumbling around, burdened with this thing called poetry. Just try to be happy for other poets no matter what. Just don’t get into that backbiting competitive thing. Don’t do that.”
Ernest Hilbert: Do you have any advice for a young person starting out who wants to be a poet?
Afaa M. Weaver: Yeah, don’t do it. [laughs] I would say if that’s what you want to do, God bless you. Just do your best, try to enjoy it, understand it’s a rigorous thing, and always try to be happy for other poets.
Ernest Hilbert: We need more of that.
Afaa M. Weaver: Yeah, because we’re just these pitiable little creatures stumbling around, burdened with this thing called poetry. Just try to be happy for other poets no matter what. Just don’t get into that backbiting competitive thing. Don’t do that.
Ernest Hilbert: Good advice. I’d like to open it up at the end, if anyone here in the room has a question they’d like him to field. Anything at all. Larry? Anyone?
Audience Member: My question is would you read your poetry to us?
Ernest Hilbert: Yes. We were getting to that, I was going to ask him. But someone had a question before.
Audience Member: You’ve led such a varied life. China, various colleges, Chicago, whatever. And it seems that you’ve been able to take all these influences and make them whole in yourself.
Afaa M. Weaver: Are you asking me if I’ve done that?
Audience Member: No, that’s the way I see what you’ve been talking about, from Baltimore and whatever. You’ve integrated so many things into your being, let’s say, and that’s really a difficult thing to do. And I think you would agree with that.
Afaa M. Weaver: I would agree, yes. It is difficult, yeah.
Ernest Hilbert: Anyone else?
Audience 2: I have a question, I’m sorry. I’m curious, so many of your poems have to do with labor and the physicality of that kind of environment versus the academic life that you seemed to have lived. I’m curious, do you see yourself as a poet of that kind of movement, of the labor movement like Levine or like Joe Millar today?
Afaa M. Weaver: I’ve been described that way and the first time I read someone’s description of my work and myself that way, I thought it probably has a lot to do with my formative years as a poet in the factory and studying tai chi. Because when I studied tai chi, or in Chinese it’s tàijí, tàijíquán, it became a feedback system that allowed me to entertain all the contradictory elements inside myself and my environment. My formative years I composed in my head while I was working, stacking boxes of soap, driving tow motors, walking around . . . I was in the warehouse for 10 years, the last 10 years at Procter & Gamble in Baltimore.
“So when I was knocked out of the parameters of acceptable things in society as a young person having had those problems, I said, ‘Well I’ve been bounced out into this space, I may as well learn how to inhabit it.'”
One of the biggest challenges for me in academia was just having to sit still in an office, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I always took days off. But there’s a physicality that’s part of my formation as a poet. And I never consciously sat down and said, “I’m going to write a poem that’s about the mind/body interaction, et cetera.” But in today’s terms in psychology or in therapeutic terms, what I was doing with tai chi and Daoism was learning how to hold space. My sister works in an outpatient psychiatric unit in Baltimore and her director said that I’ve done a pretty good job accomplishing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the process of becoming realized, which is unusual for someone who had challenges with mental illness as a young person, which I did.
So when I was knocked out of the parameters of acceptable things in society as a young person having had those problems, I said, “Well I’ve been bounced out into this space, I may as well learn how to inhabit it.” So I think that . . . And I’m very different from every other poet as Joe Weil, teaches up in Binghamton now . . . Joe was in a factory for a long time. Then there was Antler. I don’t know what happened to Antler, where Antler is. There are a few of us, but in the African-American world there aren’t many. Monica Hand died; she worked in a post office. She died earlier this year. But there aren’t many of us at all who have that physicality.
And I have to remind myself that in the ‘70s, working in factories was a lot different than it is now. That was 1975, 42 years ago, almost a half a century. Work isn’t done that way anymore. When I was in the steel mill, those days you could work 24 hour shift, triples. We lived in the mill. I could only do one of those a week. Labor as I knew it is disappearing.
Phil Levine was really supportive of me. He wrote for me for tenure before he even met me. I called him one day to ask if he would write for me for the Guggenheim. I got a Guggenheim this year, after many years of trying. I had asked him to write for me about 15 years ago, I called him up in Brooklyn and said, “Phil, it’s me, Mike.” He said, “Oh yeah. You’re the guy who made 15 years. I only made six years.” I believe it was it six or seven. I was like, “Phil, I wasn’t trying to stay there.” He understood that difference between my experience and his. And his family was educated. Mother was a bookseller and so on. My parents didn’t finish junior high. At times I feel like Phil was writing about people like me, who had aspirations to living the way his parents lived.
But the physicality. Tai chi is physical, but I never set out to do that. It’s interesting to hear people describe it that way. I don’t disagree, it’s just that I don’t want to say that was an intentional project. That would be preposterous. It wasn’t. I don’t think you can’t do something like that intentionally. I was just trying to live.
Listen to Weaver read “Spirit Boxing” with a short introduction here.