Afaa Michael Weaver: Interview

Afaa Michael Weaver by Randall Horton

I first became familiar with Afaa Michael Weaver while immersed in an MFA program at Chicago State University through his poetry collection Talisman. What Talisman did was dissect the black family unit in relationship to the black male, confirming a humanity rarely investigated within this social construct. To be certain, Weaver is an extremely important poet whose literary work helps bridge the connection between the 20th and 21st centuries in terms of class. The fact that Weaver is blue collar—nuts and bolts from East Baltimore—a fifteen-year factory worker, offers a certain necessity to contemporary poetry that at times is missing. These days Weaver is the Alumnae Professor of English and director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center at Simmons College. In addition, he is Chairman of the Simmons International Chinese Poetry Conference. We sat down in an artist loft in Manhattan to talk about the influences of the Chinese language and Xingyi, which seeks to improve the body in relationship to trauma. We also discussed these influences that helped create a trilogy of work, which includes: The Plum Flower Dance, The Government of Nature and City of Eternal Spring. This is perhaps the most candid Weaver has been in addressing memory, trauma and his Chinese influences.

Randall Horton: I was wondering if you could talk about how you came to be interested in Chinese language? It would seem this interest has had a major impact on how you approach the poetic process.

Afaa Michael Weaver: I was in Baltimore. It was 1984. I had been doing Tai Chi for about 6 years, and I took an interest in the language. There was a Chinese community association downtown, and the lady who ran it was a Miss Lillian Kim (she has since passed away) but there were weekend Sunday classes. Chinese communities usually have a Sunday school for kids, and most Chinese-American kids I know hate the school, but they have to go. So, they had an adult class, and I went there on Sundays. I did that on weekends for about 6 months. During this time I received an NEA Fellowship, and I was still working in the factory. When the fellowship came I quit and went to France. When I went to France I stopped the weekend lessons. But it was out of general interest because I was doing the Tai Chi for 6 years at that point.

9781889330723_p0_v2_s260x420Then I went to Taiwan in 2002 on a Fulbright, so that little weekend Chinese I had before wasn’t getting it. I realized that right away. I was 50 years old then, so I decided to start more intensive formal study. I did 2 years at Simmons as a faculty audit. You can take one class for free when you’re a faculty member. I started in the Fall of 2002 when I came back from the Fulbright Fellowship. I was in Taiwan that spring. I did the first year and the second year. When I ended the second year, it was my sabbatical, so I went to Taiwan for 8 months and I lived over there because I knew I needed to be there.

RH: I would say that translation is critical in imagining a global world. Sometimes I think we as Americans are too insular in our approach to poetry. We don’t think in the context of outside our own narcissism. I was wondering if you could talk about translation and what it has meant to your own poetic process.

AW: When I translate I also take into consideration language acquisition because I’m studying at the same time I’m doing the translation. But in the process of studying the language, I also write poems in Chinese. So, there is that question that’s becoming more and more prominent which is “what’s the difference between writing in an acquired language and translation?” In other words, someone will say to me where’s the English version of your Chinese poem? And I say there is none. Which really frustrates some of my Chinese friends sometimes. They say well, there must be an English version and I say no, I did the draft in Chinese.

There is a time when you’re studying a language where you’re thinking about what to say, you’re actually translating. But then there’s this bridge you go over where you reach the first step of fluency, where you’re just talking and you’re not scrambling trying to translate things. You’re always going to be doing that to some extent. There’s a physiological level to another language especially when it’s as difference as Chinese.

For example, the word for fish. There’s a funny way of learning how to say the word for fish. The word for fish is ‘yu.’ We don’t have that mouth formation in English. We don’t say ‘yu.’ My teacher said to me “Make your mouth like a fish.” If you do that, you can depress the tongue and pull the ‘yu’ back so it doesn’t become ‘you’ which is not a fish. There is a physiological component to learning the language.

So when I came back after 8 months, I realized I was writing English with Chinese word order. I was getting frustrated with the western alphabet. I said to myself: this is just like computer language. It’s analogic.

RH: Also, I am thinking about Walter Benjamin and his essay “The Task of the Translator,” where he writes: “Translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. It cannot possibly reveal or establish this hidden relationship itself; but it can represent it by realizing it in embryonic or intensive form.” Would you tend to agree with that assessment or is there anything to add for your own experiences of translating.

AW: I would agree with some of that, but also Benjamin sort of ignores the readers in ways that are a little bit problematic. He also says the best translations are done when there is a shared truth and he talks about sacred texts and a pure language. It’s useful in terms of a pure language, the idea of a pure language. He also talks about accuracy. He says the greatest accuracy can be had when you have something close to a sacred text which you’re translating. But I don’t think Benjamin spent a lot of time thinking about cultural differences between Asia and Europe.

RH: In a talk that you delivered in Beijing, China you talked about the goal in studying Xingyi has been to improve the whole health–body, mind, and spirit in relation to trauma, especially as a kid growing up in Baltimore. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the practice and perhaps how it relates to writing about memory and trauma. Have you noticed any connections?

AW: It’s an internal system. When we say internal we refer to the fact that the power in the system is developed internally. So for example, if you’re doing what we call Wai Dan, which is external power versus Nei Dan, which is internal power, Nei Dan includes Xingyi Quan, Tai Ji, Ba Gua and so on. And that’s based on developing what people often refer to as chi. But it’s directed by the mind.

9781889330419_p0_v2_s260x420When you’re doing Xingyi Quan there are five fists or five basic movements. The first movement is primary because it exists in all the others. It’s what we call pi. The pi represents the eagle and the bear in conflict. The bear doesn’t attack unless it really has to. But eagles love to fight. They live to fight. They’re entirely aggressive. So the pi action is a grabbing like the talon. Rise, drill, and overturn. That’s basic in all five. If you order those five fists in a creative path, like I write about there, you have that pi. Then you have that drilling. Then you have the beng which is smashing. Then you have pounding which is the heart. Then you have what we call crossing. You’re supposed to do those every day.

When you do those things, there are correspondences between the yin organs and emotions and positioning within the elements. The pi, which is called splitting, corresponds to the lungs and I describe it as grief. You’re moving out of the non-moving position, which you do with some reluctance. This actually is sadness, corresponding with the kidneys. And the adrenal glands sit on top of them. The pituitary glands form a triangle of connection. The interaction between, as I explain in the paper, the pituitary glands and the adrenal glands is what controls your mood: depression, anxiety, mania. Those things are controlled by a triangular interaction. We’re going to leave that under the realm of body-mind theory but antidepressants target that reaction. This is the spleen, which is anger. Fire can correspond to love and this is a settling, a kind of a coming to terms with things and you end there.

According to Chinese philosophy, you should, with practice, come to understand that you can identify the elements and their movements in human interaction. That’s kinesthetic knowledge. It comes with practice. You will identify, for example, the splitting or the anger, and you’ll sense that in people’s interaction, but you’ll feel in your body a kinesthetic realization of philosophy. There’s a lot more to practice, but that’s the basic thing.

RH: I have to admit when I read about this I immediately thought about your book Talisman because there are specific moments where one could say a child was traumatized, and I am speaking specifically about the poem where the narrator is unclothed in front of his aunt and discussed in terms of sexual prowess. When I read on, it was interesting to see how I was right in terms of what this book means in that regards.

AW: I wrote the manuscript in 1994 in the summertime. The book was published in ‘98 and when I read that poem “Little Girls,” the only poem where the word Talisman is used, then I remembered out of body experiences, and started to connect things and was able to draw a kind of map of the trauma, if you can call it that. One of the most immediate effects of it was anger. A mismanagement of anger.

I can tell you a story about Xingyi Quan is notorious for its cruelty and viciousness. You do what they call the phoenix eye. It’s done with full body impact, and if you do it with specific points of the body, you can kill someone, with no weapons. The story is that someone who is proficient, a Xingyi person, is given a job to do, to take this person out. What you do is you go to the place where he lives, you knock on the door, and if there’s no answer, you kick the door down and search the place. If he’s not there, burglarize it and burn it to the ground and go to the next point. When you find him, kill him. Now that’s extreme. That would be a hitman. A police officer would use that skill to go get someone and arrest them.

The key to all of this is that you never come out of control. It’s cold and sublime. So Mao Zedung outlawed Xingyi Quan when he came to power. There’s an understanding that Tai Chi has that hidden in it. That same ability, but it’s hidden. In Xingyi it’s out front. I told my teacher I want to dig deep into this Xingyi because I want to come to terms with anger issues, which I knew were coming from the trauma. And I knew from growing up in Baltimore—you know, it’s a very violent place. That’s when I began to see that I could tease this out. I started Xingyi in 2000. So, when I got to Taiwan, I had been doing it for a year. It’s a nasty art.

RH: In assembling the poems for The Plum Flower Dance, you organized an existing body of work according to your knowledge of the effects of childhood abuse, trauma, as reflected in your work. What did you come out of this process learning?

AW: It was clarity. It gave me a view of where I was going with my poetry. Because when the traumas came out full force, when the first big chunks came out, I actually stopped writing. It was 1997 and I was at Bucknell as a poet in residence. I used to have, a more or less, daily or regular, writing schedule, and in 1997 I stopped, and I didn’t really pick it up again for almost 8 years. I just wrote sporadically. But now I’m back to my writing schedule.

9780822959793_p0_v1_s260x420Another part of that was I had had congestive heart failure in 1995. The doctor said he didn’t expect me to live very long so I started collecting things. That’s why I pulled Multitudes together because I figured well I can see that before I pass away. These other two books, they all just came out within a year. But then I kept on living.

It gave me a chance to see what had been driving my work, what had been driving my need for mother figures in my work, and also how I had had trouble with some issues of expressing anger or violence in my work. Although this poem is not in the book, there’s a poem of mine which I call my credo and it’s a poem called to “Malcolm X on his Second Coming” and it’s in the African American Review along with a bunch of other poems of mine—about 1998, 1999. I worked on that poem for about 18 years. It’s funny. Now I look at that poem and it’s a nationalistic poem, but it’s also a poem of a somewhat unconscious trauma survivor.

And it was interesting to me to find that there was some evidence in the letters of Malcolm X that were discovered that he wrote when he was 12 or 13. There was an innocence and a softness to that boy that got lost. So the Malcolm X that people saw had been traumatized somewhere along the path. Of course, the loss of his father, that was trauma. But there was something there that had hardened him. I identified with him. When I look at that poem today, I can still sort of touch some of those feelings of anger. Racially, but then I know this stuff is being driven on a more personal level.

RH: I want to go come back to trauma for a moment. Have you ever been able to make a correlation between your trauma, and the trauma that derives from being African American and knowing that history? How can the two connections serve your exploration into the past?

AW: I think about it a lot. As a matter of fact, I teach this survey course in African American Lit and I use a book on cultural memory and identity by that Scandinavian scholar. I can’t remember his name right now. I’ve used it the last 2 years, and I think he’s dead on. It helped to frame what Du Bois was working with in The Souls of Black Folk, and I think about Of the Coming of John, but I also think about Howard Thurman, The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, that little book. Melvin Dickson wrote an essay on the black spirituals and slave narratives that draws on Howard Thurman’s book, but Howard Thurman’s book is the book to read.

Chris Rock. Chris Rock said being an African American is like being raised by your abusive uncle. He put it right there. For me, that becomes super-imposed. Because this uncle of mine was my favorite uncle. That was a repression from when I was a child. What happens is, in a personal situation like that, to use Chris Rock’s statement: you’re idolizing the very thing that is destroying you. So for African Americans, there’s this question of—we call it keeping it real, or how black are you. But it’s much more complex than just saying that. It’s a complexity of the failures and the contradictions and the hypocrisies of American democracy.

Large_Standing_AfaaWeaver-10It’s that, and it’s trying to forge a culture inside that space. I think if you look at the cultural trauma of racism and look at African Americans. Say that they were not abused. The impact of living in this society comes home with you and affects you in a way that becomes personal in a way. But then if you’ve got personal inside of that, it becomes a rhythmic pulse between two forces that can tear you apart. It can tear you apart, or it can make you entirely dysfunctional and sociopathic. I think that’s the challenge.

For me, I was saved by tragedy. When I was younger and experienced a tragic first marriage, I had to be hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. But that pulled me out of the track of everyone else in the neighborhood. So being in that track pulled me out of the track of what happened to cousins of mine. Younger cousins of mine got hit really hard.

We have this mythic representation of this situation we’re referring to. One of them is that one of my Uncles who was not abusive, God bless his soul. Uncle Frank said to us one day “You know, you better stay in school because the white man never sleeps. You go to bed, he’s up at his desk, checking his charts, getting his papers together, making sure the plan’s going ahead. Ya’ll messing around out here drinking wine and carrying on—he’s sitting up at his desk, even while you’re sleeping.” That was a mythic representation of the adversary. In the context of that mythic representation of the adversary you have these tracks that black men are put into.

Malcolm X talked about the church of the street but how do you manifest your manhood, however you define that, whatever that means for you? There are places where it goes, there are tracks for it. A white man said to me, sharing an in-house white joke, that inner-city schools have no windows because they’re being prepared for their destiny. There’s a deliberateness that is undeliberate.

Then you have that systemic reality of abuses—that the system is formed inside human behavior. There’s denial, there’s repression, all of these things. These are your constraints as opposed to laws that say you can’t do this or that. So you have a set of invisible restraints and visible restraints. That’s the way I see that. So I think then, that when Nat Turner walked down the street that day, that he essentially zapped out. He couldn’t take it.

RH: You have always been proud of your working class background, working in a mattress factory if memory serves me correct. I have always believed that poets need to have a variety of experiences. This is not to understate the power of reading and the transports that happen through great literature. How would you say this background prepared you for your literary career?

AW: Actually, in late April 1970, I landed a job at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore, and subsequently dropped out of the University of Maryland. The steel mill granted me leave in December 1970 so I could do my basic training for the military out at Ft. Leonard Wood. I completed my basic training and returned to the steel mill in mid-May 1971. I landed the job at Procter & Gamble in Baltimore that June. I stayed at Procter & Gamble until January 1985, when my manumission came in the form on the NEA fellowship and I made literary history. Brown University accepted me that spring. I was a semi-skilled laborer in all of my factory years.

I think it gave me a link between the world of my family, my father, who was a blues kind of man. And, it helped me forge my own sense of what I should write about. It wasn’t easy. I can’t sit here and pretend it was always easy because I was in the factory, writing and publishing. I would look around some days in the warehouse at those conveyor belts and forklifts and so on and I would think this is nothing to write about. But, I remember talking to a friend of mine Rodger Kamenet, and I said Roger, you know, I’m struggling with being in this place and he said, “Well that’s your poetry.” So that’s my first book, Water Song, which is out of print. That book is basically the book that came out of me getting closer to that subject matter. But it was not interiority.

When I was in the factory, I would look out on the literary landscape. I used to read Black World Magazine, which started out being Negro Digest. That magazine was very, very important to me. But when I looked out also at the people I admired, I read them, I said you know, I want to write about black folks’ interior lives. I saw that early on as my work. You had black interiority from a working class perspective, but it hasn’t been easy. Because I had a neo-Marxist line when I was young that lyric poetry was bourgeois indulgence.

RH: If you don‘t mind I would like for you to comment on the state of African-American poetry from your point of entry until now, and the significance of Cave Canem in the 21st Century. How has the landscape changed since you have been writing?

AW: Folks now have a lot more access. There is still that thing of us and them. There’s still a paternalism and so on. But having said that, Lucille Clifton and Michael Harper, they had less than I had in terms of mentoring and so on. They came along and had to be guarded, even against young black poets. So there wasn’t a feeling of wanting to pull us in. It was a feeling of having something they worked very hard for and they wanted to protect it. I understand that now, I didn’t understand it at times when I was younger.

In the 70s I was writing and the Black Arts people were being, little by little, co-opted. Haki Madhubuti’s Black Books Bulletin at Third World was a really important presence in my life. I just loved that magazine and I told him so in a note.

When I went to Brown in 1985 and I look back now, Cornelius Eady and I are at a color cusp point. And I’m a couple years older than Cornelius, but we’re in that generational shift when the Black Arts Movement took people like yourself and Honoree and Terrance. But Cornelius and I were in that space, generationally. When I came to Brown, I walked in with an NEA fellowship in one hand and a book in the other. Except for the M.F.A. I had the same credentials as C.D. Wright, who was teaching at Brown. There I was at Brown and I was the most accomplished poet in the workshop, but when they ranked the poets at the end of that first semester, and Michael Harper told me this, they ranked me in the middle of a bunch of mostly fresh undergrads with B.A. degrees who were writing about things that were very ethereal and philosophical. Harper was more grounded in a work-a-day world, and CD Wright as well. But Keith Waldrop, and Keith was good in his own way, was heavily engaged with French theory.

So there I was. The only thing that separated me from CD was she had an MFA. She had been teaching for two years when I got there. So I was and I wasn’t. As Houston Baker said to me one time, “Michael, Rita Dove has a foundation. You have a ‘groundation.’ “ That was Houston’s way of talking about my feet being that far down in the thing we call culture. I also had to make that struggle between working class and academia, and I wrestled with whether or not to talk openly about being a factory worker.

So you have this big black man who is a factory worker and they’re like he can’t possibly have a refined sensibility. That kind of person does not have a refined mind. It just doesn’t happen. And some black folks say that as well. I’m not going to put it all on white folks. Because I’ve had to deal with black folk, too. And it’s hurtful when it comes from your own people. [Vincent Woodard] put it most succinctly to me one day. Vincent, God bless him, said, Afaa, you have what we call in Vodou bull energy. If you see a bull, you’re not going to mess with it, but it doesn’t look exceptionally intelligent. It’s so composed and so still. And he said: “Afaa, people are constantly misreading and underestimating you.” It’s just my path in life.

So I had that. But that’s why I went to Brown. I had a sense that I needed something, I needed a counterweight. Brown put it on me, and it was tough, but it was tough not for the work itself. It was for the adjustment, not actually knowing enough about class to negotiate certain places, and also not having enough confidence to push back against people who wanted to project onto me. So I had a really hard time, but I got through. It was a psyche game.

I got out of there and I was adjuncting. I adjuncted here in New York for two years. NYU. I taught the first graduate course in black poetry ever taught at NYU. I developed it. The very first. Black poetry had never been taught at NYU at the graduate level. I have my syllabi in my storage locker in the archives. David Mills, now a Cave Canem poet, was one of my students.

I taught African American drama at NYU, then composition at Brooklyn College, and I had jobs everywhere. Then the thing came up at Rutgers. A lot of that was because the EEOC office, Economic Equal Opportunity, was constantly hounding the English department. But they took me and there I was in a tenure track position but still, nowhere along there did I have what you guys have at Cave Canem. Nowhere along there was there a Darkroom collective. I was an object of study for the Darkroom Collective. I remember hearing Sharan Strange took my book, My Father’s Geography, and told somebody “You need to read this.”

But I didn’t have any of that. Cornelius didn’t have much of that either. Mary Oliver is a good friend of his, but Cornelius came through in ways similar to my own. Except he didn’t work in the factory. So I look at things now. I saw Terrance Hayes in New York. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge together. I said, “Terrance, how are you doing” and he was telling me and I was like “It’ll be okay, it’ll be back to normal by next spring.” His success story and Honoree Jeffers’ and Major Jackson’s and Natasha Trethewey’s and Camille Dungy’s is built upon having access. I mean, you have talent, but you poets now have a forum. An institution. And I didn’t have that.

The Black Arts Movement had their fellowship, but for me, I was estranged from the literary world in a way like Wallace Stevens. He makes me so angry, but some of the anxiety I have around him is knowing that we both had that exilic development. I always promised myself I wouldn’t be like him and I wouldn’t be like Richard Wright who came to really dislike black people, I think. I said I’m not going to let that happen to me. So having a forum and having an institution is about having a social process.

RH: I want to talk a minute about some of your early influences in terms of who you were reading and felt drawn to in terms of aesthetic choices when you began to take poetry seriously?

AW: I had two anthologies. I had The Poetry of the Negro by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps and I had The Library of American Poetry by Conrad Aiken—with no black folk in that anthology. And I had How Does a Poem Mean. Lucille Clifton told me to get that book. And I had XJ Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry. But I read poems that spoke to me, and Langston Hughes spoke to me, of course, but so did Ezra Pound and TS Elliot. And TS Elliot’s eloquence has stayed with me for a long time.

I notice in looking back at my work, there’s a kind of rhythmic thing I do that goes back to my very first book, that poem, “Water Song.” It’s a rhythmic pattern inside the lines just as much having gone to a Baptist Church, as it is anything. The idea of this sense of incantation. But, I would say the very first poets were Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, and TS Elliot.

RH: What people don’t realize is that you are an accomplished playwright, I am thinking about the play recently published in Tidal Basin Review that I had the privilege to read. The work seems to draw on the vernacular tradition through the sermon (show excerpt). It is a play in one scene titled Sermon in the New Land. There is not only great satire, but also there is great attention to detail with regards to the African American church and its histories. Were you influenced any by James Weldon Johnson? What drew you to this project?

AW: Actually, it was Reverend Tabrum from my church. He also worked at Bethlehem Steel Mill like some people did, preaching and working in those days. He was a very tall man and he’d give a sermon and say something funny and be the only person laughing. He had a huge white handkerchief, and he’d make himself laugh and wipe his face. But it was him and Reverend George Watley over in Newark. Those two ministers framed that performance piece I did.

But I do have to say about my time in theatre. I spent a lot more time than I actually talk about in interviews. When the second play “Elvira and the Lost Prince” was done in Chicago in 1993 at ETA and I won that playwright’s award, the PDI award. After that, I became part of a think-tank that we have on black theatre. So I got to work with Woody King and Eleanor Traylor and Rob Penny. I got to have social time with folks in the Black Arts Movement and the theatre and that went on for several years. I’m still friends with people out there on the Southside. Abena Joan Brown has been one of the most important mother figures in my life. So yeah, I spend a lot of time in theatre but don’t talk about that a whole lot.

RH: To quote from your Beijing address: The Plum Flower Dance is the first in a trilogy of books to deal with trauma. The second book of the trilogy is The Government of Nature, a completed but unpublished manuscript that deals specifically with my abusive childhood and which is arranged according to Daoist and Buddhist principles and sayings. The third book is City of Eternal Spring, a manuscript in progress concerning my experiences in Chinese culture in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong since first going to Taiwan in 2002 as a Fulbright scholar. I was wondering could you expand on this for the purpose if this interview.

AW: The only other time I’ve seen a sequence was when I was going from Water Song to My Father’s Geography to Timber and Prayer. But this time I see it more clearly, because with The Plum Flower Dance, it’s me looking back mostly. There are some new poems in that book; about 30% of that book is new poems. The second book, The Government of Nature goes to the trauma itself. It’s more obviously concerned with trauma and my Chinese spirituality. It’s trauma specific. The third one is turning out to be something where I’m dealing on different platforms, including my recognition of my working class experience being visible over there in the lives of people that I know, poets, who worked in the factory the same time I did. The manuscript is in progress, and I don’t like to talk too much about something that is not complete. I will say just a few things, but all of this is in the flux of the creative process.

When I left the University of Maryland in 1970, a lot of us in those days had our little red book. We had no idea what was going on in China. We didn’t know. But we had that little red book. And I read that quote from Mao Tse Tung about how the artist should be grounded in the common folk and, of course, I was the common folk.

This third part of the trilogy—some of those poems are coming out in the Writer’s Chronicle along with an interview at some point. But they’re also going to be in Asian American Literary Review with an extensive interview about my Chinese connection. We’re talking about different things in that interview. {Gerald Maw} interviewed me in Los Angeles.

But I’m realizing that this third one is more in-the-moment, as in present-oriented and not looking back and trying to understand the trauma from a chronological look backward. And it’s a lot about me seeing myself, or having my own experience affirmed, in a way, in the lives of people there. So I’m working on that and toying around with the issue of having a few poems in a sequence where you have a black character like Booman goes to Beijing. At the same time this stuff is happening, the black vernacular is presenting itself in whole new ways. Like that chanting poem. I call it “Back Spin of Hope.” I’m getting a whole new take on black vernacular. I’m going to find a way to put it in there. So it’s another kind of wholeness in that third book. That’s what it’s looking like right now.

Randall Horton is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Haven. An excerpt from his memoir titled Roxbury is published by Kattywompus Press. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press is the publisher of his latest poetry collection Pitch Dark Anarchy.