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An Interview with Afaa Michael Weaver

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 52, Number 2, Summer 2011
pp. 212-235 | 10.1353/cli.2011.0021

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Figure 1. 

AFFA Michael Weaver

Poet, editor, journalist, translator, and playwright Afaa M. Weaver was born in 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, the only son of working-class parents. He graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1968 as a National Merit finalist and pursued studies in engineering and sociology at the University of Maryland for two years. In 1970, he left the university to work in a factory, first at Bethlehem Steel, where his father spent thirty-six years, and then at Procter & Gamble on Baltimore's harbor, opposite the Fell's Point community where Frederick Douglass once lived. During the Vietnam War years, Weaver also served in the U.S. Army Reserves as a volunteer enlisted man, completing his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood and receiving an honorable discharge in 1973.

Weaver remained a factory worker by day for fifteen years, writing poetry at night. By 1978, he had begun to publish poems in small journals and became involved in the thriving Baltimore literary arts scene. His first book manuscript, Water Song, a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, was published by the University Press of Virginia in the Callaloo poetry series in 1985. During those years, Weaver began to write op-eds for The Baltimore Sun, eventually writing features, book reviews, and travel essays for a wide range of newspapers, including The Baltimore Afro-American, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune. He founded 7th Son Press and the literary journal Blind Alleys, co-edited with Melvin Brown, which for five years published many of Baltimore's luminaries, including Lucille Clifton and Andrei Codrescu.

In 1985, Weaver received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, quit his factory job, neared completion of a B.A. in English at Excelsior College, and was accepted into Brown University's M.F.A. in creative writing program on a full university fellowship (with the understanding that he would complete his B.A. in his first year of the program). After earning his M.F.A., he taught at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey until 1997, when he became poet-in-residence at the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University, the first African American poet to hold that position. In 1998, Weaver received a Pew Fellowship and accepted an offer from Simmons College in Boston to become the Alumnae Professor of English, where he also served as the director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center until 2008.

From 1997 to 2000, Weaver edited the journal Obsidian II (later Obsidian III), published out of North Carolina State University, a position that enabled him to work with a wide range of both established and emerging African American writers and to initiate significant aesthetic discussions among African American and white scholars and writers relevant to African American literary and cultural heritage. In the inaugural issue of Obsidian III, to give one brief example, Weaver included a forum on black poetic forms—begun at the first literary retreat for African American poets, Cave Canem—which considered models for prosody that could be drawn from African American musical tradition. Asking how it was possible to discuss lineation in terms of "musical periods," he argued, "we need to look more closely at musical phrasing in terms of specific forms, such as bebop, southwestern shouters in the blues, ragtime, [and] spirituals." Such telling comments suggest critical approaches to Weaver's own oeuvre, as do his discussions in the following interview of working-class "interiority" as a "very solid tool of resistance against working-class oppression." Indeed, into poems of classic, lyric intimacy, Weaver introduces not only interrogations of race but also significant critical representations of class and race privilege.

In 2002, Weaver received a Fulbright fellowship to teach at the National Taiwan University in Taipei and the Taipei National University of the Arts in Kuandu. Thereafter he embarked on what would turn out to be a decade of frequent travel to both Taiwan and mainland China. Upon his return from the first trip, he began to study Mandarin Chinese at Simmons College, learning reading, speaking, and writing concurrently. Modest about his proficiency in the language after nearly ten years...