Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
I first met Afaa Weaver at a writing conference in Tucson where he critiqued a handful of my poems. I might sum up his advice for me with one word: Concision. Sage advice for any poet or writer. Tighten, trim. Make the sentences more succinct. The pieces I’d given him were narrative poems and his advice helped me see that there was plenty to cut. The process of revision and carving away the unnecessary would make the poems much stronger.
The day we met, I bought his book, The Plum Flower Dance, a collection of poems from 1985 to 2005. It proved to be a great way to sample Weaver’s work and get a look at the complexity of his persona. Shortly thereafter, I requested an interview, and that interview was just published in AWP’s February 2013 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle.
“Imagination and Memory” explores Weaver’s eleventh book of poetry, Like the Wind, a translation of his work into Arabic by the Kalima project in the United Arab Emirates. We also discuss The Plum Flower Dance, a collection of 64 poems (the same as the number of hexagrams in the Book of Changes, the I Ching) organized using the five elements of Xingyiquan, a form of martial arts in which Weaver is a master.
Fluent in Chinese, a survivor of congestive heart failure (without the recommended heart transplant), and a proponent of equal compassion as a tool for deconstructing the idea race, Weaver has come a long way from his earliest days of writing poetry. He reflects on those early days, working on the factory floor for Procter & Gamble and living in the neighborhoods in Baltimore now famous from the HBO series The Wire. But his drive to create resulted in an NEA fellowship and admission to Brown’s graduate writing program, two events that would change the course of his life.
Weaver chooses to identify as an African-American poet while not allowing that frame to limit his work and subject matter. Writing about Jewish and Chinese culture, his work places him in a vulnerable position and challenges expectations related to race. Hailed as the African-American successor to Walt Whitman, Weaver has thought deeply about the role of poetry in our modern world and, importantly, the significance of passing the torch.
Since our initial interview, I’ve had the opportunity to read a wide selection of Weaver’s poetry. The selections printed with the interview were unpublished pieces commissioned by the Kenosha Congress of Poets for Peace as part of The Wisconsin Project. The poems consider the history of Maafa, the African Holocaust, and are well-connected to the idea that every writer is influenced by the period in which he or she is born. In this case, it’s a reminder that our past is not so distant and there is healing left to do.
Much of Weaver’s writing relates to the process of healing, recognizing the impact of trauma and searching for a path forward. Our modern times still demand that we connect with the past, that we link experiences and ideas through language and find ways to connect in fundamental, human ways. These days, perhaps more than ever, we need the work of poets like Weaver to help lead us.
Weaver’s next book, The Government of Nature, is forthcoming in March 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh Press. My interview in The Writer’s Chronicle is available in print or online for subscribers and available at many local book stores.