Feature Poet: Afaa Michael Weaver

Who are your biggest influences?

---My first two mentors-- Dr. Valerie Sedlak, professor emeritus from Morgan State University in Baltimore, and Lucille Clifton, who lived for many years in Baltimore. They were huge influences on me when I was in my twenties and living in Baltimore, which is my home. As for poets, I would say I have been most influenced by Jay Wright. My Tai Chi teacher, Shiye Huang Chien Liang, is a huge influence. As a young man the Book of Proverbs was a major guide for me, and the influence of that never goes away.

What advice do you have for poets?

---Well, I would advise poets to read judiciously as they write. Read contemporary poetry with a critical eye. The poets of the past are more reliable insofar as they have been looked at more critically, but it is also important to know as much as you can of what the stream of work from living poets is about. When a poem or book inspires you, bookmark it and go with the inspiration. But always give the poet credit. Be careful also of what you don’t like as that may also be influencing you, which is to say never say never. You might actually be doing the thing you talk most against. In fact, you might have been doing it for quite awhile. There is the willed subversion such as Eliot tried to do against Wordsworth in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” but then how much was he really rebelling against Wordsworth? As poetic ambition goes, developing poets will often try to unseat someone who is doing what they are doing by saying you shouldn’t do it. I’m speaking of hidden agendas in poetics.

Which are your favorite literary journals?

---When African American Review (AAR) was Black American Literature Forum I co-edited a special issue on black theatre with James V. Hatch back in the early nineties. It is the official MLA journal for African American Literature and I have had several poems in there over the years, for which I am grateful. Of the journals devoted more specifically to creative writing, there is American Poetry Review, Tidal Basin Review, Orion, and last but not least in any way--Poetry. I am proud to have made the cover of Poetry.

What most inspires you?

---A lot comes to me when I walk or am doing a round of Taiji. Music moves me.  I may be inspired by way of having a memory triggered by a sound or a smell. Sometimes I will hover around a photograph from my files on my computer. I have been inspired deeply by Jewish culture. Baltimore has a large Jewish population, and the proximity has influenced me probably in ways I do not know. Specifically, I have written to the work of Marc Chagall in my book Stations in a Dream, my ekphrastic project. The Ten Lights of God, my other specifically Jewish book, was inspired by the Kabbalah. I was living in New Jersey and teaching in elementary schools for the state arts council when I researched Chagall and the Hasidim. I came across the Kabbalah while researching classical Jewish texts so that I could make proper references in the poems. When I was a little boy going to Southern Baptist Sunday School in Baltimore, reading the Old Testament just filled my imagination, which is oriented through the mystery of human consciousness, toward the epic, which is to say I had and have a big imagination. My mother would say, “Boy, stop daydreaming.” But as in my advice to other poets above, I am inspired by reading. Recently, Fanny Howe’s “Outremer” gave me quite a charge.

How would you define “spiritual poetry”? Can you name poems/poets you find spiritual?

---Spiritual poetry is soul work. Poems that directly confront questions of how and why we are alive, what makes us human, and what constitutes goodness can be spiritual. I suppose how effectively they struggle with those questions is most certainly a determinant. I am speaking in a general sense, but there are, of course, specific faiths and religious practices that produce spiritual poetry. However, I would say the spiritual crosses borders and gets us beyond the detrimental effects of extreme religiosity and dogma, which could stymie spiritual poetry. That doesn’t always happen, but there is so much potential for closed mindedness. There is a certain irreverence that, I believe, is required for writing spiritual poetry. The spiritual, for me, implies an openness, a willingness to consider such things as universal notions of a fundamental, interfaith goodness. I was raised as a Christian, but I like to say, and not quite so jokingly, that Jesus was an enlightened Tai Chi master. That may not amuse some of my friends and relatives who are strict interpreters of the texts, but there is always mysticism. I suppose I should try writing poems about Jesus, the divinely enlightened Tai Chi master, another version of how he calmed the storm at sea. There is a kind of braiding or weaving” that has to happen between established ideas of the religious and the secular contemporaneous that has to happen in the hand of the poet for spiritual poetry.

As for examples of published works, I would cite Lucille Clifton’s book two headed woman, which I think is the book of hers that touches me most powerfully and deeply. One other example is directly from my biblical upbringing, and that is the Book of Psalms. I have lots of favorites there, including Psalm 139.

Jay Wright’s work is entirely spiritual. For a specific example I would cite his poem “Love’s Dozen.”

Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris is spiritual and secular, beautifully so.

Frantz Wright (no relation to Jay) is definitely a spiritual poet.

Most recently, I have to say Jane Hirshfield’s new book Come, Thief is remarkable.

Among contemporary Chinese poets I offer the names Shi Zhi, who lives in Mainland, and Luo Fu, who is Taiwanese. They are giants and very spiritual.

How has Asian culture shaped you and your writing?

---Specifically, Chinese culture came into my life in 1973 when a coworker in the factory gave me a copy of Laozi. Five years later I started doing Tai Chi. Tai Chi opened creative spaces for me in a time in my life when I had to nurture and protect my creativity against the deadening threats of the repetitive nature of factory life in Baltimore. I was one of a handful of black people doing Tai Chi in Baltimore in those days. The Tai Chi form itself became something that I embodied, an energetic presence in my consciousness that allowed me to ground myself in troubled times, of which I have had more than my share. It also allowed me to organize experience.  In the last ten years I have been doing daily Daoist sitting meditation, which is the core of Tai Chi, and that has only deepened the profound quality of the presence of Chinese culture in my life. It has improved my health in all ways and helped me think about spiritual things in ways that both affirm what I was taught as a child and add to those things. My Christian faith has been both affirmed and broadened, perhaps beyond what some people would accept as Christians, but that is not a concern for me.

Ron Brownlow, a journalist in Taiwan, and Henry Louis Gates of Harvard have commented on the evidence of mind body connection in my work. I have never worked consciously for that effect, but I can see what they are saying. Working consciously for an effect can be showy and ultimately not so original as you might think. Ginsberg’s mimicking of Whitman comes to mind, but then those of us who admire his work, and I count myself as one, do so for reasons other than that rather blatant mimicry. I am always moved by the sentiment in Kaddish, and I suppose I am speaking of embracing cultures again, although I didn’t start this paragraph that way.

I am only beginning now to think of ways to consciously “play” with the fusion of Chinese culture and poetics in a new manuscript of mine that I am calling City of Eternal Spring, but saying too much about that might destroy unwritten work. There is much I have to read and reflect on as I continue in that project. Thinking cognitively about an acquired language takes away from your proficiency in a weird way, as well as the joy of trying to use the language. I want to embody and enjoy the Chinese as I write poetry, to live the Chinese as much as I can in the name of hybridity. 

Your poems bridge so many cultures that you are a “translator” or ambassador in many ways. What does it feel like to embody and contain so many different cultures?

It feels like my internal world has been reshaped. It was once a small canyon, but now it feels like the necessity of pursuing my path in life has made it a grander canyon that accepts emptiness and fullness as being one and ultimately knows there are no borders.