Afaa Michael Weaver
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Afaa Michael Weaver was born Michael S. Weaver to working class parents in 1951. His poetry echoes the gospel and blues ethos of his mother and father, who were themselves the children of farmers in southernmost Virginia. His father grew up as a sharecropper. The eldest of five children, Weaver graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic high school and entered the University of Maryland in College Park at the age of 16. He studied for two years before leaving to marry and take a job in a Baltimore factory owned by Bethlehem Steel. He also joined the 342nd Army Security Agency as a reservist that spring. Weaver was called to basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, that winter and returned to Bethlehem Steel in the spring of 1971, when he was hired as semi-skilled worker at Procter & Gamble in the Locust Point neighborhood of South Baltimore, just across the harbor from Fells Point, the neighborhood in which Frederick Douglass lived until he escaped from slavery.
Weaver received his Chinese name, Wei Yafeng (蔚雅風), in its initial form from Ching-Hsi Perng of National Taiwan University. Bei Ta of the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature in Beijing, China, modified “Wei” by adding the “grass radical” on the top of the character. “Yafeng” refers to the ya fueh section of The Book of Songs, China’s first anthology of poetry, first officially compiled by Confucius.
Weaver developed interests in jazz and photography while working in the factory, a time he refers to as his literary apprenticeship, and they inform his poetry. From 1970 to 1985, he labored at the craft of poetry, established 7th Son literary press, and worked as a freelance journalist for the Baltimore Sun papers, the Baltimore Afro-American, and the City Paper of Baltimore. A member of the Baltimore literary renaissance of the early 1980s, in 1985 and still a factory worker, he received a fellowship from the NEA. Weaver left factory life two days after learning about the NEA fellowship, and his first book of poetry, Water Song, was published that year.
Weaver entered the Brown University graduate writing program that fall on a full university fellowship. He focused on playwriting and theater under George H. Bass and Paula Vogel and simultaneously finished his BA at the University of the State of New York, a distance-learning institution that is now Excelsior College. After graduation, he taught as an adjunct at New York University, Seton Hall Law School, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, Essex Community College, and Brooklyn College before landing a tenure-track appointment at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, where he received tenure with distinction as an early candidate.
The years 1996 to 2001 were transitional for Weaver. In 1996, he was invited to speak with the fellows at Cave Canem, and in the following year, he became a member of its first faculty, along with Elizabeth Alexander, and was subsequently named its first elder. From 1997 until 2001, he edited Obsidian, an academic journal at devoted to writing in the Black Diaspora. He served as poet in residence at the Stadler Center of Bucknell University in 1997 and later accepted an endowed chair at Simmons College.
In 1997, with the encouragement of Tess Onwueme, the Nigerian playwright and novelist, Weaver took the name Afaa. He refers to it as a symbolic ritual inspired by the one in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, in which a spirit who takes children away must be appeased. During his first marriage, Afaa and his wife lost their first child, Michael S. Weaver Jr., to Down syndrome.
In 2002, Weaver taught at National Taiwan University as a Fulbright scholar, and his lifelong interest in Chinese culture took on deeper dimensions. After his return to Simmons, he began formal studies of Mandarin. Since that time, he has convened two conferences of Chinese poets from abroad at Simmons and lived and studied in Taiwan and China on several occasions. He terms his Chinese language studies as an ongoing pursuit alongside his Daoist practice.
In early 2013, the University of Pittsburgh Press will publish The Government of Nature, Weaver’s 12th collection of poetry and the second book in a trilogy that began with The Plum Flower Dance. He has had two plays produced professionally and has won awards for other plays over the years, including the PDI Award in playwriting from the eta Creative Arts Theatre in Chicago.
Weaver’s other awards include a Pew Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a May Sarton Award. Contemporary Literature has published an extensive interview with him conducted by Cynthia Hogue, Chris Burawa, and Stacey Waite. His papers are held in the archives of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
Poems By AFAA MICHAEL WEAVER
Articles By AFAA MICHAEL WEAVER
- My Walking Shoes
Working-class origins of an American lyric.