Weaver, Afaa Michael 1956–
Afaa Michael Weaver 1956–
Poet, playwright, teacher
Often defined as a narrative poet, Afaa Michael Weaver is a versatile poet whose style cannot be pigeon-holed. Indeed, fellow poets have frequently commented on the remarkable range of this work. For example, as Alicia Ostriker told Sarabande Books, “Afaa Michael Weaver is a poet of angels and demons. His roots are wide and deep, going back to writers of mystical and devotional poetry like Traherne or the early Blake, and conjoined with, at times, the mood (though not the rhythms) of blues.” Writing for African American Review, George Elliot Clarke declared, “Weaver is of the same vintage as Rita Dove, but his inspirations are not avant-garde, gaudy, Afro-Modernist stylists like Melvin B. Tolson or Amiri Baraka, but rather plainer, quieter, narrative poets like Michael S. Harper…. Weaver fixes on family and, fundamentally, the chronicle of life itself…. It is not the archive that matters, but ancestry, not existentialism per se, but existence.”
Weaver has held several teaching positions since the late 1980s, has authored nine books of poetry and twenty plays, edited two anthologies, and has received several awards for his work. He developed the first graduate level course in African-American Poetry at New York University. In addition, he has been the editor of Obsidian III since 1997 and since 1998 has held an endowed chair at Simmons College in Boston as the Alumnae Professor of English. In addition to teaching and writing, Weaver has studied the Chinese internal arts of Taiji and Xingyi.
Afaa Michael Weaver was born Michael S. Weaver on November 26, 1951, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, Otis, was a steelworker and his mother, Elsie, worked as a beautician. He loved the feel of books, paper and pencils, and his most prized possession was his public library card. Weaver attended public schools, skipping the eighth grade and graduating from high school at the age of 16. He was a serious student, and as a young boy he was driven by a desire to please his parents. However, as Weaver told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), he was also motivated by strong “unconscious forces of destiny.” He remembered long conversations with his aunt, Lenora Davis, when he was a young teenager. Davis was his principal influence during these formative years. The pair would often visit art galleries, bookstores, and other intellectually stimulating places. The best, most invigorating, discussions took place sitting at the kitchen table.
At a Glance …
B orn Michael S. Weaver on November 26, 1951, in Baltimore, MD; married and divorced; children: Kala, Michael S. (deceased). Education University of Maryland, 1968-70; Regents College, B A, 1986; Brown University, M.F.A., 1987. Military: Specialist 4th Class, 342nd Army Security Agency, 1970-73, honorable discharge.
Career: Essex County College, lecturer, 1987-88; Seton Hall Law School, writing specialist, 1988-90, City University of New York, lecturer, 1988-90, New York University, adjunct assistant professor, 1988-90; Rutgers University, associate professor, 1990-98; Simmons College, alumnae professor, 1998-.
Memberships: Poetry Society of American Dramatists Guild; Academy of American Poets; National Writers Union; Pen New England.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985; Playwrights Discovery/Development Award, 1993; Pennsylvania Arts Council fellowship, 1994; Sidney Becht Prize, Paris, 1996; Penn Fellowship in Arts, 1998.
Address: Office— Simmons College, Department of English, 300 The Fenway, Boston, MA, 02115.
After high school Weaver attended the University of Maryland in College Park, finding himself one of the few blacks on campus. His original intention was to study engineering, but after two years of college, feeling rather disillusioned and alienated, Weaver realized that what he really wanted to do was write. He dropped out of school, got married, and found a job at Bethlehem Steel as a laborer, later fathering two sons. In a conversation with Robin Travis-Murphee, a reviewer for poeticvoices.com, Weaver explained, “I thought that the best thing for me to do would be to learn to write in the world itself, rather than becoming an academician.” In 1970, shortly after Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia, Weaver decided to join the armed forces. Because he was morally opposed to the Vietnam War and to participating in combat, Weaver joined the Army Reserves. When CBB asked Weaver about his decision to join he replied, “I was in no real danger of being drafted. I wanted the military experience. In my world, at that time, it was a macho thing to do, and I wanted that macho badge, despite the political misgivings I had at the time. When my American Legion card and lapel pin came, I felt a resurgence of that pride. It’s a funny thing. I just wanted to go.” Weaver was a Specialist 4th Class in the 342nd Army Security Agency, where he served for almost three years, receiving an honorable discharge. Although he was on call to serve in Vietnam during his entire time in the Reserves, Weaver’s unit was never called up. After his six-month basic training Weaver returned to Maryland and found employment at Proctor & Gamble, where he worked in the warehouse for the next 14 years.
Although he worked in a factory (“It was such a non-literary reality,” he described to Travis-Murphee), Weaver was busy writing, and was able to involve himself with literary endeavors and establish friendships with other writers. When Travis-Murphee asked him how he developed into a poet during this time, Weaver replied, “I think of the literary life as three stages: your apprenticeship, your journeyman period, and the granting of your license. You become a practicing poet. My apprenticeship took place in the factory. That’s where I did my fundamental writing and reading.” While holding a job that he compared to imprisonment, Weaver struggled to find time to write. In response to CBB’s inquiry about that challenge, Weaver responded, “Solzhenytsin often came to my mind during those days. On the evening shift, I sneaked away to scribble during breaks. In the early eighties I took the graveyard shift and was able to do more reading.”
In 1975 Weaver enrolled at Morgan State University for one semester, and there he met professor Valerie Sedlak, a Graham Greene specialist, who became an enduring mentor and friend, and who encouraged Weaver to continue with his writing. During his years working in the Proctor & Gamble Baltimore plant warehouse, Weaver became a freelance writer, wrote and published his first book of poetry, Water Song (1985), received an NEA fellowship in 1985, and founded a small press literary magazine, Blind Alleys. Weaver also developed friendships, forming a strong peer group. Rodger Kamenetz and Andrei Codrescu helped him get started as a freelance writer for the Baltimore Sun, and Melvin E. Brown joined with him to start Blind Alleys. Other writers who befriended him during this time included Lucille Clifton, James Taylor, David Beaudouin, and John Strasbaugh. During this period he also earned a bachelor of arts degree from Excelsior College (formerly Regents College). Weaver then left the factory to attend Brown University, where he earned a master’s degree in creative writing in 1987. While his graduate studies were focused on playwriting, Weaver also studied poetry with George H. Bass, Keith Waldrop, C.D. Wright, and Michael S Harper. For his graduate thesis, Weaver wrote a play, Rosa, which was produced professionally in 1993.
Weaver has drawn inspiration from his life experiences, and from music, literature, and art. Often one area of interest has opened new paths of discovery. For example, Stations in a Dream was inspired by Marc Chagall. While exploring Chagall’s work and creating the poems for Stations in a Dream, Weaver became interested in certain aspects of Judaism, which then led him to write another book of poetry. When CBB asked Weaver which aspects of Chagall’s work provided inspiration, he explained, “One critic made the remark that Chagall was the ‘Disney’ of surrealism, but that is what I like about his work, the sense of whimsy and romance. I also was beginning to take an interest in reading about the Jewish rabbinical tradition. This was a prelude to my book, The Ten Lights of God.”
Multitudes: Poems Selected and New reflects Weaver’s poetic journey. According to George Elliot Clarke, the book contains a final section, ’New Poems,’ that the reviewer felt “is a sign—or warning—of startling, shouted gospel; unexpected, pure-lust blues; and unconstrained, jazz-styled deconstructions to come. It is serious magic, verbal voodoo, disciplined experimentation, especially in the concluding tour de force, a poem whose title may be the longest in English literature: ’Composition for White Critics Who Think African-American Poets Cannot Work in Contexts of Pure Concerns for Language and Post-Post Modern Twenty-first Century Inventiveness in Lyric Expression Due to Their Self-Limiting Concerns With Language as a Means of Self-Expression and Racial/Cultural Identity in Poetry That Is Ultimately Perhaps Beautiful However Too Trite and Too Folksy to Be Post [II] Theorist Efficacy.’ The poem constitutes Weaver’s ars poetica.”
In an interview conducted at a poetry workshop at the University of Louisville, Weaver stated that he began writing at around age seventeen, “in response to my intuitive drive. Writing has led me to staggering truths about myself, and in that way it has saved me.” These staggering truths included the fact, as Weaver revealed, that he had been a victim of incest. Poetry, he told CBB, led him to where he could work on the issue consciously. He has relied on writing to work though many personal ordeals.
Married and divorced three times, Weaver has also endured the death of his son, Michael Jr., born during his first marriage. In 1997, in order to bring some closure to his feelings about his son’s death, Weaver performed an Ibo (Nigerian) ritual to release his son’s spirit. Because father and son had the same name, Weaver changed his name to Afaa, a Nigerian name meaning “oracle.” His new name was chosen by his good friend, Nigerian playwright Tess Onwueme. Weaver has published books under both names.
When asked if he had advice for young poets and writers, Weaver told Travis-Murphee, “It’s important to read with an awareness of where your experience fits with the tapestry of other poets who are working with you and those who have gone before. It’s also important to have a simultaneous project of interior investigation, not for the sake of confessionalism, but for a grounding.”
Water Song, 1985.
some days it’s a slow walk to evening, 1989.
My Father’s Geography, 1992.
Stations in a Dream, 1993.
Timber and Prayer, 1995.
The Ten Lights of God, 2000.
Sandy Point, 2000.
Elvira and the Lost Prince, 1993.
African American Review, Fall 2001.
Black Issues Book Review, November, 2000.
Chicago Defender, November 20, 1993.
Philadelphia Daily News, June 8, 1993.
Philadelphia Inquirer, June 5, 1993.
African American Literature Book Club, http://www.aalbc.com
Poetic Voices, http://www.poeticvoices.com
Sarabande Books, http://www.sarabandebooks.org
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a biography supplied by Afaa Weaver in September of 2002, and from a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography conducted in September of 2002.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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