Afaa Weaver, Photo: Lynda Koolish
Afaa Michael Weaver
with Nicolette Reim
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017
The Government of Nature
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
City of Eternal Spring,
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Afaa Weaver’s interest in language originated in childhood experiences that showed the way Black Americans raised in the South communicate is different from “Northerners.” Indeed, his Baltimore birthplace still struggles with the question of whether it is a southern city or a northern one. Weaver’s pursuits in language are lyrical and post-modern. Formal concerns join personal themes of individualism and the consequences and dangers of difference for Black Americans. His thoughts don’t lead to new solutions or substitutes for the old, but to resolution through inclusions. He sees each man’s task as a unique path, not part of a monolith. The path leads to options of being and an overall hope of embracing complexities the world has to offer. I had the honor to select poetic pieces for this interview, but Weaver’s oeuvre includes journalism, essays, reviews, fiction and playwriting, as well.
My Father’s Geography
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992
The Plum Flower Dance
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007
Timber and Prayer
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995
Nicolette Reim: Your poems are immersive and bring readers into histories of Black Americans. They pulse with family, community and companionship—travelers together, even with those who have been hurtful. The poems balance dualities of young/old, family/outsiders, male/female, black/white, blue collar/white collar, north/south, and east/west. Do I dare ask you during this discouraging time if you remain optimistic that historical dualities are becoming more at peace or do solutions still lie with the slower pace of individual change?
Afaa Weaver: Chaos perhaps best describes the state of things now, but chaos is also the natural state of things in the process of becoming. Historically, I think we are inside the “end stage” of European expansion that began the 14th to the 15th centuries, the post-renaissance beginnings of colonialism, and the great project of acquisition of wealth. No one could have seen the limits of extraction, disruption of cultures, how it has affected the natural environment, and no one knows, quite frankly, if this is the first time this has happened.
But let me be more specific. I am still not convinced of the ability of poetry to affect policy making. We have enough history in the U.S. to know deliberate disinformation is not new. It was used to help steer people into the first Civil War. However, the creators of lies have underestimated, I think, the ability of their own machinery to backfire. People can honor themselves enough to know when they are being taken for fools. Poetry affects that, as I think the expansion of Creative Writing programs has helped foster a higher level of emotional intelligence, which can nurture the intersection between activism and art.
With climate change and these pandemics, time is of the essence. We are into the realities of the real fragility of this system, its chaotic state, and there is a sense of suspension of time, and the overwhelming weight of selective realities. I’m a believer in the idea that reality, as we know it, is a matter of the shared functioning of consciousness, with sometimes imponderable variations in perception, and yet poetry lives in the center of this consciousness. We are bending and being bent. Something will give soon, but it should be very painful.
Although COVID-19 brought the harsh realities of racism, racial disparities, and other problems that black and brown people live with every day, that shock seems to be wearing down. So when I think of progress, I have to remember that different people define that differently. Extreme Weather is here, and it’s moving faster than we can predict. The film Don’t Look Up is about that reality, and how human frailty never fails.
Langston Hughes’ “Montage of a Dream Deferred” is the perfect looking glass. All that’s wrong and hopeful about this country is in that long poem. It amends “Song of Myself.”
Along with renewable energy sources, reparations for descendants of enslaved African Americans, social services to support police reform, paid child care for the poor, holding members of Congress accountable for taking part in Jan 6th, federal regulation of private equities and high tech, and increased taxation of wealth, we need love.
NR: Afaa, your poetry steadily and insistently pulls. Jolts come from highly original descriptions. Poems can be ekphrastic, inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s paintings and convey jazz rhythms, a saxophone, the piano, paying homage to great musicians. Your knowledge and love of music shine through. You invented a poetic style called “Bop.” How far did you go with this and can you describe it for us?
AW: The Bop has traveled first in the work of Cave Canem fellows, and from there to many other places. I have written what I consider the definitive essay on the form for a collection of essays How We Do It, which is forthcoming from the Hurston/Wright Foundation. In one essay I explain an aesthetic influence that led me to invent the form, the “golden mean.” As a young poet, I often traveled with a 35 mm camera, and even had business cards describing myself as a freelance writer and photographer, a rather bold move some might say. Whatever the level of ambition, I studied composition, and had one important conversation with a photographer in Washington D.C. in 1976, the year I met Essex Hemphill. He talked to me about the horizon line, the placement of it, and he encouraged me to stay the geometrics of my subjects because I am color blind.
In inventing the bop that spring in 1997 while teaching at Cave Canem, I was thinking of the form vertically, of course. However, with all my poetry I think of its three dimensional presence, which for me comes from studying depth of field.
What’s missing now is an extensive anthology of bop poems. Tara Betts and I assembled one, but if we could start all over with a commitment and editorial support from a publisher, that would be wonderful. It could even be graphic, complete with drawings and thought bubbles - Bops for an Ideal Climate-Concerned World.
NR: Your generous tributes to other artistic ways in your writing is part of a non-exclusionary philosophy and goal of self-definition not based on separation. Fellowships and honors in recognition of your work gave you opportunities to study language and Taijiquan in Taiwan and Mainland China. Your most recent work includes even more of the variety and resourcefulness of historical Black communities; longer line lengths appear. How has your poetic tone and point of view become affected by experiences with these different cultures?
AW: The study of Mandarin changed the way I pronounced English, when I came back from living in Taiwan in 2004-05, my first sabbatical at Simmons. When I studied I read the textbooks, as I was studying on the three levels: speaking, reading, and writing. In Chinese the western idea of grammar is difficult to translate. It is possible to alter the order of the characters and still have the same meaning. The pronunciation depends heavily on pitch, and the pronunciation of some characters changes when they are adjacent to certain other tones.
In reading Daoist philosophy, studying Mandarin, and practicing Taijiquan, I have found doorways into myself, into realizing what the experiences of my life mean to me. In 2002 I began my Taoist sitting meditation practice, and that especially is the source of an abundance that has driven deeper experiences of developing a container in my spirit that allows me to hold powerfully divergent energies and has driven changes in much of my poetry after The Plum Flower Dance, the first book in my Plum Flower Trilogy, the second of which is The Government of Nature, and the third is City of Eternal Spring.
My own poetic sensibility has been influenced by the study, and the travel, and in organizing the two international conferences on contemporary Chinese poetry at Simmons 2004 and 2008, which gave me a chance to get to know Chinese poets, some of whom I maintain contact with today. My godfather, Dr. Chengshi Perng, a scholar and translator of Shakespeare, as well as a playwright, gave me my Chinese name and helped facilitate my first return trip to Taiwan in 2003, when I was a guest of honor at a conference on poetry in Taiwan, hosted by Dr. Yu Hsi of He Nan Temple and monastery in Hualien, on the country’s western coastline. Beginning in 2002 when I went to Taiwan on the Fulbright, my life there was the other side of my life in Boston.
When I started studying Mandarin, it was as a faculty audit, and I lived in my “cave,” as I called my small apartment in Somerville. My study method included taping the vocabulary of my Chinese lessons, chapter by chapter, on the walls of my bedroom, and listening to my audio tapes, watching Zhong Tian television, and Chinese movies. It was my own immersion experience. I did my sitting meditation in my bedroom facing the rising sun and practiced my Taijiquan and Xingyiquan outside on the parking lot.
That was my life, and it still is, with some adjustments made, of course. In 2019 I remarried, and so I am no longer a lay monk. Spirit Boxing, is the more recent work to come from all of that, the vocabulary on the walls, all of it. The philosophical ideas of the Yijing and Taijiquan directly inform the structure of the poems and the entire book.
But coming back to The Plum Flower Trilogy, City of Eternal Spring has several poems where I do my best to embody the experience of being deeply inside Chinese culture. “Meeting Old Friends at Drunken Moon Lake” is one where I felt the lines breathing the experience, as I did in many other poems in that book. The Harlem Book Fair awarded me the 2014 Phillis Wheatley Book Award for City of Eternal Spring. I treasure that award because it comes from the community of black and brown artists, scholars, and critics. That means so much to me.
NR: I want to ask you about a particularly well-known, anthologized poem – “The Appaloosa.” Sometimes a horse is just a horse, but I read its black, brown and white markings as a striking way to explore the universal evil of racism. The horse, its coat of many colors beautiful upon arriving, has been held down by a saddle. The horse turns mean, rotten. Black, brown and white all succumb when the horse is put to death. I wondered about the difficulty of finding poetic means that describe racism without resorting to dichotomies of good/bad, which you avoid?
AW: I’ve always tried to write without casting blame, or by suggesting it in ways that are more concerned with poetry than polemics. That is a direct result I think, of grasping Daoist ideas of non-dualistic thought when I was in my twenties, and through living my life, trying to understand those principles. The way of nature, as Daoist philosophy explains, is that all things are in the constant state of creation, and that we are, in every part of our being, each a microcosm of the perceptible universe. That is not too unlike the ideas that emanate from Judaism, but without the Jewish emphasis on rational thought. The mind cannot understand the mind, nor can it understand reality in its truth. That requires emptiness, and another way of perception that is above language. The Kabbalah says that, too, but rationally. In April 2023, Red Hen will publish my sixteenth collection, A Fire in the Hills, and the structure and texture of that book is Daoist.
NR: Much of your poetry reflects memories of places—southern farms/northern cities, neighborhoods, the distinctiveness of foreign countries. Globalization is homogenizing a world we once took for granted as having differences. Do you see this trend affecting your work and/or poetry in general?
AW: I believe human beings have an urge to differentiation. Only for so long can we withstand homogeneity. When everyone starts wearing purple and gold, a few folk who can no longer stand it will opt for another color arrangement or none at all, as in anarchy. The worst that can happen, I think, is nihilism. How will that affect poetry? Well, poets are connected to the inner workings of language, and who knows what’s inside the inner world of language? Down that road lies the end of theory, but not the end of philosophy. Globalization is, I think, the endgame of western capitalism, the chaos.
When I think of writing, or am actually writing a poem these days, I come away from the exhausting space of worry about all that is happening, and when I do step away I embrace the ordinary, the way something gets still in me when I look up at the pictures of my family all around me in my cave, or the way it feels when the pencil scratches across the page, or what comes up when I free sketch in my pad in between writing, or the way the afternoon fills the house with south/southwestern light, filling the space of the windows into our home. When I think of writing things like a manual for my great grandchildren, hoping there will be some, or for all the children of that generation who will be in 2052 - thirty years from now - in a world more uncertain than this one today, I come back to thinking about the faith I had in writing about the persistence of the ordinary as an indication of how we love and how love will live beyond death, or how we believe those things. I come back to that faith and to my love of poetry and theater, of all the arts, of all the ways The Gift comes to some of us, and how The Gift comes with unnamed vulnerabilities, sensibilities, pain, joy, and resilience, and that is all I have or ever will have, that faith and the hopefulness in the joy faith brings against the storms.
That’s me for now. May we all be safe and resilient and kind to one another.
Buying a History of the Language
in a Beijing bookstore
If there are not enough stars in the sky to count
the years it will take to learn these characters,
do not tell me. The shame of it will make me
put my head down, forever counting my toes.
The lines that contain dynasties and emperors
are in these books, and the clerk tells me the lines
even know the way the idea of ink came to China
before the long march to Manhattan art galleries.
It is a bookstore where the simple act of turning
is something I do in the way of Taiji. I go silent,
remember the spine is the steel axis of my mind,
and mind is a thread turning the navel’s wheel.
The silkiness of silence wrapping around steel
is the secret wealth of how I have learned
to move in a place where I am the whole world
of difference, black on black on black in silhouette.
The chatter around me is a music I know in part,
the tones going the five directions, the meaning
like a walk through Baltimore’s Bohemia, teasing
the idea of language as soul, some kind of genius.
Congo Square Is Everywhere
Now as we wish for music that went unrecorded,
as we eat under reconstructed magnolias, blind
to brash ways people try to forget sacred music,
in negligence of voices that lived in the souls
of the dead, innermost light in a candle’s flame,
diminutive knees bending until the day we refuse
the genuflecting, the failure to see God has moved
the line of action to where we must wear the prayers,
stand up, sing out to where God can feel appreciated,
to where we are honored as human against the power
of thieves, the need some have to prove they own more
than any of us can own, in Congo Square, octaves
above the silence of harvests dying a shrill death
in drought brought on when tears dry and marrow
waits for us to know Congo Square is everywhere.
It breathes, it lives when we refuse brutality.
BEATITUDES, THE MERCIFUL
A white man born in coal country,
George knew the power of dirt,
what dirt can do, raise you up a mess
of vegetables in a season of kindness
between the hard edge of the hills, a gift
for the hungry. A white man born where
not much grows, he knew the dirt of work,
of chasing Rommel across the Sahara,
taking hot showers with gasoline.
He knew to be grateful for having lived
a soldier and come home mostly whole,
meeting me for our afternoon coffee,
our blue shirts, our blue pants, or blues
in five notes—
You need that five dollars, Mike?
To give me what he needed more than me,
I took the five and gave it back seven days
from the first day of the week, back again
for coffee, back again for what is not free,
our blues the five notes of this ritual—
Here’s your five back, George. Thanks.
Need it again, Mike? Just say the word.
A black man born in a steel city knows
the power of dirt, how hard things
come out of it, go back, back into earth
where dirt is the clean thing of a world,
a mercy seat for men who love kindness,
five dollars going back and forth until
a day men are not only clean but free.
for George Mayo
Our army in its finery
steps, courses the avenue.
It wears the infinite frivolity,
tassels in white, sashes in blue.
With infectious hilarity,
hats off, heads up, pride preens thru.
With the flash, dash of mock sabers,
a whole river halts for solos.
Music pierces the staid onlookers.
The whole river deepens. Heroes
rise from regalia. Marchers
knead a culture with its woes.
Open the windows. Celebrate.
Throw on your hat. Fall in the crowd.
Let the pots simmer. Congregate.
Meet the marchers, glorious, loud.
Come into the swell. Vacate
despair, angst. Join the proud.
THE HIPNESS OF HIPS
I say it began with The Bump, a dance
done on weekends under red lights in basements
after a week of double shifts in the steel mills,
bump the hips, hop a little, and bump the hips,
a quintessence of skill in a hip’s doubleness,
one not unrelated to Shake that Booty, another
weekend ritual when men wore dress pants,
women wore skirts and makeup—when young
was young or so it seems now that the hip
makes the gray heads hop, some hips titanium,
worn from whole days on your feet toiling
as domestics to rich people, coming home
to serve a family with what was left of you,
or using skills you learned in Italy before
the ride to America, cutting stone for marble
steps, these hips had full cartilage in the days
bump was a dance, when bodies still touched
in hand dances and men wore pressed cotton
shirts with collars and pockets for a pen
on the way to the mills to be the lowest low.
Oh hip, you were always the coolest way
to say so and so was hip, and so and so had
hips that were cool enough to sway back
and forth between what it took to make
a living and then to live, to dance, to live.
A poet, playwright, and translator, Afaa M. Weaver is Professor Emeritus at Simmons University, and a part-time member of the MFA faculty at Sarah Lawrence. In April 2023, Red Hen will publish his sixteenth collection of poetry, A Fire in the Hills. Afaa is a native of Baltimore, and a Cave Canem Elder.
Afaa Weaver, Photo by Cat Laine
Nicolette Reim is a visual artist, poet, and writer, who lives and works in New York and Atlanta.
Nicolette Reim, Photo by Elias Maus