“Can you see the poetics of me assembling myself?”


Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar

The study of Chinese language, culture, and poetry is a huge force in your life. What sparked this apparent lifelong fascination for you? Its influence on your poetics is unmistakable.

In 1973 a coworker in the factory, a man by the name of John, gave me a copy of Laozi’s Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), the Gua Fu Feng translation with photographs by Jane English. I started reading it and kept at it for years, in typically naive Western fashion. I was writing poetry at the time and working on the packing floors section of the P&G plant in Baltimore. In all of that time there in Baltimore as a factory worker, it was the Taoist idea of handling the space between seeming oppositions and working and being productive in that space that helped bolster my courage and faith in myself as a poet. Of course, the contradictions were glaring at times. When I started publishing consistently, it was when I managed to land a job in the warehouse part of the factory and had more space and -- on the night shifts -- more time. Factory work can deaden the imagination in ways you can’t understand unless you’ve worked on production lines.

But there I was, studying French surrealist poets while doing my work as a janitor in the warehouse. “Know the white but keep the black,” the Dao says. These treaties with contradiction are solved in the Bible, at least in my perception, but it took going to a somewhat opposite culture to find what had been obfuscated for me by my own struggle. In 1978, I found Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) and I had a physical way of meditating on the philosophy of Laozi. Chinese culture gave me a path to being productive and accepting myself as a young poet. I left the university in 1970 to enter the factories. I’d entered the University of Maryland at College Park in 1968 when I was just sixteen years old. I came through an accelerated junior high program where I skipped the 8th grade and went to a high-powered high school for science and math, and that squeezed the poet out of me. But I was under tremendous psychic pressure, and it was Chinese culture that helped me be in the space of an American poet. It wasn’t just the factory life. I had personal tragedies by the ton. The Tao Te Ching says, “Up and down rise together.”

You’ve talked about writing drafts in Chinese and not worrying about translating those into English. Can you talk about some of the pleasures of writing in a non-native language? We sometimes hear about this process from foreign-born poets writing in English, but rarely from native English speakers writing in new languages, especially non-Romance languages.

Well, there’s Samuel Beckett, but there aren’t too many more, as you say. I suspect that has to do with the inner-directed attitude of English as the main lingua franca of European colonialism. Wherever English went it called for other languages to submit to it.   That time is waning, and so it’s a good time for those of us who are native English speakers in places like the U.S. to explore, extend, and grow. There are more complex situations such as people who are native English speakers in Hong Kong, or situations such as Chinese poets in Taiwan who had to learn Chinese because they grew up under the Japanese occupation. For me, it’s a different matter, of course.

It allows me to be transported. After studying Mandarin at Simmons for two years on a faculty audit, I moved to Taiwan in my sabbatical year 2004-5 and lived there for eight months. I lived on a tight budget as I was on 50% salary, and my credit cards were piled high. Yet, I knew somewhere inside me that I needed to go. I’ve always studied all three levels, reading, writing, and speaking. It’s enough to keep you out of sports bars and late night dance marathons. In Taiwan I was studying at a private school with two teachers for two hours a day and writing homework in Chinese for two or three hours a day. It was grueling and lonely. At times I didn’t know why I was doing it. One day one of my teachers suggested I write my poems in Chinese because I was struggling to write in English while studying Chinese. I did so and a dimension opened inside me.

As foreigners entering other languages, we have our own preconceived ideas. Friends of mine from China coming here for the first time asked about Marilyn Monroe. I had to let them down gently. Another friend from China here for the first time was amazed at the highways. He sat forward as we drove through Wisconsin with his eyes stretched open. My first time in Taiwan was the spring semester of 2002, just a few months after 9/11. I was on a Fulbright at National Taiwan University and had a faculty apartment. In back of the building I used to do my martial arts practice. I was just learning Xingyiquan, and one day a stranger, a Taiwanese man, parked nearby and watched me. I never knew who he was. Taiwan was such an amazing and beautifully new world for me, and that’s before I started studying Mandarin. I came back to Simmons and started the faculty audit in Mandarin that fall.

I love the sound of the language, and when I’m forming poems in Chinese I associate through sound, usually through some nonsense assembly, and then I may look for meanings of words that sound interesting as I find them in association. I write that way or I start with an idea in English, which is not to say I am translating. When I say idea I am thinking of a feeling or an attitude. I will start there as a walkway into Chinese, and once in the Chinese I find the poem.

The writing system is fascinating. I compose the poems on my laptop with a software program called NJ Star. Moving through the composition   of a poem I am as much interested in the look of each character as I am in the meaning of the word. There is so much that is absolutely fascinating about the language and the culture. In Chinese, you don’t say northeast. You say east-north. East/West is the axis from which you refer to north and south. We are vertically oriented in cartography and the Chinese are horizontally oriented. Time is different, too. The future is thought of as being below, while the past is above. You are not in Kansas anymore.

In ancient China, poets sometimes lived in caves. Well, they were hermit poets. My apartment is in the bottom of a house at the stop of a steep hill here in Somerville. It’s not entirely the basement, as the kitchen looks out onto the parking lot. From my window I can see MIT and Harvard. I can walk out my door onto the parking lot. So I call my place “The Cave.” Sometimes in here I create my own Chinese world,  complete with Zhong Tian, a cable station broadcast from Taiwan. I’ve been an overly English environment in The Cave for the last few months or so. It is time to turn on the Chinese. That ability to make a world of Chinese is what happens when I write my little poems in the language, and that’s not too often. I have other Chinese things to do, of course. There is my daily Daoist meditation, my Taijiquan, Xingyiwuan, Qigong. Keeps an American poet busy. It is a world.

I should review and practice my Chinese for at least an hour a day, but I end up doing something like watching the 1980 “Flash Gordon” for the umpteenth time in the evenings to wind down instead of writing characters. I need to go to some Chinese reboot camp at one of these summer programs and endure the suffering. In Chinese culture you must suffer in order to learn. Bear down and cry out in anguish and those characters will set in your mind. Really. I’m serious.

You've discussed being the victim of childhood abuse how it "disabled (your) sense of self," how you found a way to rehabilitate from that "murder of the soul" by working a program of recovery. I'm curious about that particular process in relation to your writing, how it affected your creative life (if at all).

Recovery for me is a matter of bringing several platforms together, and without going into laborious detail let me say that 12-step programs can make therapeutic knowledge active. You can spend years in therapy without being able to change your responses to trauma or key aspects of your behavior that are not serving you. Recently, a paper I did for an AWP panel proposed by Hannah Fries was published in APR along with publications by the other panelists. It was about how we saw Calvino’s idea of “lightness.” A key challenge for me in recovery from trauma was learning to function as an artist without feeding dependency. I took a long hard look at my relationship history and the way I related or failed to relate in those major partner relationships (marriages in other words). That has made a difference for me. I am not totally free of dependency, of course, but to be aware of problems and work on them has been major for me. I think we are at a point in history now where what we have learned about humanity through science and health can move us away from glorifying addiction, as if that is necessary for the life of the artist. Some people hold to that. I choose not to believe addiction is necessary or what makes great art. I also think that if some artists in the past had been held accountable for their prejudices and various -ism’s, they might have given us better art than the great art they did give us. Life will never be free of suffering, but there’s need to take the chance on increasing suffering by glorifying damaging and dangerous behavior. Afaa says “no” to self-destruction.

I’d wear an Afaa Says “No” to Self-Destruction t-shirt. On the topic of rebirths, of sorts, you've adopted a couple new monikers throughout the years (your Chinese name, Wei Yafeng, and the name Afaa which now precedes your given name). Can you talk about the genesis and meaning of these? I'm interested in the way taxonomy informs identity, how the adoption of these names might have changed the way you perceived yourself or the ways others might have perceived you.

When I was born, my parents gave me the name Michael Schan Weaver. My mother and one of her sisters decided on the “Schan” spelling of “Sean.” When my first wife and I had our first child, we named him Michael Schan Weaver, Jr. We called him “Schan.” He died at ten months from causes related to Down’s Syndrome. Our second child is alive and well. In fact, he has a child and step-children. I am PopPop a few times over. But, I grieved the loss of that first child in deep ways.

In 1997, his death was 25 years in the past, and I decided to let go of the grieving by releasing his middle name from my own in a gesture mimicking Ibo ritual in Things Fall Apart. Tess Onwueme, the Nigerian playwright and fiction writer, gave me the name. It means “oracle,” which is someone who can explain the present circumstances of your life to you. In the Ibo culture, the future belongs to God.

My Chinese name had rough origins in Roosevelt Park in Manhattan where I have joined in with a group of senior friends who do Taiji in the park there in the mornings. The teacher, Jenny, gave me a rough version of a Chinese name. When I got to Taiwan as a Fulbright scholar in the spring of 2002, Chinghsi Perng, a Shakespearean scholar and my godfather, gave me the name Wei Ya Feng. Three years later my poet friend Bei Ta added the grass radical to Wei to give it the meaning of “flourishing.” Previous to that, the Wei was a family name. So, you may see my Chinese name in several versions. With the Afaa, some use the Chinese “fa” which means “law,” while others use the one which means “to make,” which I usually use.

What an extraordinary tribute – I hadn’t realized the adopted (and released) monikers had such heft. You touched on the notion of one’s ability to tap into trauma, turn it into a generative, instructional experience. For many (most?) people, the anxiety of loss, of bearing an extreme trauma, can govern interaction with the world in oppressive, cruel ways. In my experience, it’s seemed individuals who’ve passed through an intense suffering emerge with a sort of insulation from that dread, a sense of having already endured their trial. Can you talk about writing after trauma, of writing out of a hard-earned emotional resilience?

Let me summon the spirit of Frederick Douglass. As I may or may not have mentioned he lived in Fells Point, the neighborhood directly across from Locust Point, where I worked at Procter & Gamble for fourteen   years. In fact, let me summon the ancestral parade of African Americans who survived slavery. Not enough has been written about the psychological challenges of that period in the country’s history, but I am firmly convinced that the cultural transmission of survival tools (along with dysfunction) happens in any culture, but for black folk it is more acute.

My parents came along during the Great Depression, and they instinctively did things that I internalized unconsciously, especially a certain strength. Why didn’t all black folk come through the way I’ve come through? I don’t know except to say I believe in a Divine Order, the quantum physics of our soul space, which is a whole thing apart from outer space. I’m writing directly now in a whole brand new manuscript about my life as a factory worker. It has taken this long for me to get to it in what I think is the fuller manner of a poet, and that perhaps speaks to the question of the immensity of the experience.   Being a factory worker was not easy at all, but in that confined space I was able to do some of the heavy internal lifting I needed to do in order to grow later. I was not attuned or in touch with the truth of real memories I had even then, and I think it is important to note that fact. My case is not one of recovering buried memories. Some early things were blurred, but other memories were as real as can be, or too real.

I am in a writers’ retreat now, Renaissance House on Martha’s Vineyard, and we write for at least three hours a day. That’s required, or we sit there and beg the Muse for three hours. But I wrote several poems about my factory worker life this morning, and afterwards I took a nap. My energy was sapped. Writing out of a hard-earned emotional resilience requires great energy.

I was finishing up a memoir in 2012 while on a year-long sabbatical when friends in a peace initiative in Wisconsin asked me to write a poem about African American history. I wrote a series of thirteen poems that span the entire   history, beginning in the Atlantic slave trade with a ship carrying children. The discovery of that ship happened just as I was finishing up the work on the memoir, which is partly about trauma. It was a gift in that I had a chance to come out of my personal trauma and write from the intersection of personal and group trauma with the same goal -- of trying to be transcendent, trying to offer something to give readers a chance to see hope in a difficult situation.

Slavery is abuse and trauma, and I think that if we confront it as such we have a chance. But ask me if I think that will ever happen. Not really. But, I have to keep making art in the hopes that we will. For me, that is being active in the program toward bringing about some social justice. Social justice for black folk will not happen until we fully claim our own humanity, until we confront our spiritual challenges remembering the journey of black culture, remembering it with a reverent intelligence.

One of my favorite pieces of yours comes from your magnificent poem, “To Malcolm X on his second coming”:

Caravans form in the streets, unloading the unconscious souls. The open eyes of the living dead stare from windows and shops at this voice that is in every doorway, this body that is the landscape, as if the city is now flesh. In one moment he is there, and then he is gone, letting their bodies go softly back into time. Negroes wonder what has been among them and is now gone. Malcolm sits on steps on Convent Avenue, again just another man. An old woman pulling a cart comes to him, touches his head, and both of them vanish into Allah's wish.

So many of your trademark flourishes as a poet populate this excerpt – an almost photographic establishment of scene, deep empathy for the working-class, a movement between the corporeal and the spiritual. Can you talk about this poem a little – how it came to be, what's going on under the hood?

Malcolm X remains one of my central heroes for several reasons. There is that adamant resistance, but there is also the self-definition. He built himself organically out of his own experience. You can say that’s the American experience and I would agree, but in the specificity of being a black man in a predominantly white culture, there is another self-definition, another kind of organic growth that is not so much the boot strap theory.

I don’t want to fabricate meaning, but the poem is cinematic, like a Cecil B. DeMille mini epic. In my twenties I used to carry a business card that read “Michael S. Weaver / Freelance Photographer and Writer.” I freelanced for the "Sunpapers" (now "The Sun") back then, but only got to use my own photographs when I did a piece on Pere LaChaise in the spring after I left the factory. I have always loved photography and bought my first twin lens reflex, a Yashica, when I was 19 years old. I perceive things visually, although   I am color blind. I once got a tutorial from an art photographer in Washington, D.C. It was 1976, and he was having a show at the Corcoran. I have forgotten his name. He was African-American. I was dating a poet from D.C. at the time, a gorgeous poet who was as tall as I am. She and I were like two cherubs. But, I digress.

Fast forward to 1980, and I write the first draft of “to Malcolm X…” on the inside back cover of the first selected edition of Amiri Baraka’s work. He was an early model for me, and that epic vision of black culture in the poem is one I attribute to my Baptist upbringing. I was big on apocalypse as a little boy, which may have had something to do with the fact that I was traumatized. My elders believed in the Resurrection through Christ, but I also heard them say “First shall be last, and last shall be first,” which meant God would bring justice to bear on the situation of black folk in America. Not many white people, I think, understand that there are black folk who have this sentiment that divine justice will rain down on America for its past sins. It may be more like Samson and the Philistines when you think of things like climate change, or the scarcity of resources and growing population. I mean, if you are that kind of pessimist. Not to go way off the edge with that sentiment at all here -- I just want to say where that vision has its origins. It’s in the deep black southern culture in which I was raised.

I worked on that poem for 18 years and even misplaced it once while moving. When I wrote the resurrected draft I heightened the dramatic effect, having studied playwriting at Brown by that time. My third wife and I lived in Harlem with friends on the weekend, in the neighborhood of Hamilton Place, near Convent Avenue. My epic vision took on a certain flesh.

My work has and elements of theater from the very first book, where one poem is actually a dialogue, and in other poems like “The Aftermath” and “Currents,” I used contrapuntal constructions, pushing the poems forward by positioning one stanza against another. These are poems I wrote in the factory.

I love the image of you writing that poem inside a Baraka collection -- that extending of a conversation. In his Real Sofistikashun, Tony Hoagland talks about verse in terms of poetic chakras (image, diction, and rhetoric) and profitably discusses differences between certain poets by way of their different chakric calibrations. You've written about your studies Chinese kinesthetics, about the internal systems of Xingyi. I wonder if you might talk a little about how (or if) you see these corresponding to poetics, the way those mind/body relationships inform your output as a writer.

Ha! That’s a big question with a live large answer, but I’ll try to be succinct. The broad distinction in Chinese martial/spiritual systems is external vs. internal. Taiji and Xingyi are both internal. That’s a place to begin.

Now imagine me in the warehouse at the Procter & Gamble (P&G) plant there in Baltimore, in the southern part of the city, right on the harbor and across from where Frederick Douglass lived until he escaped. Imagine me practicing one of my Taiji postures, Brush Knee and Twist, up and down the length of the floor at break time with my coworkers looking out the window. Imagine me also having a bag of books and papers in my locker. The books are collections of poetry or magazines, and the papers are poems of mine in draft or poems other poets have submitted to the small press magazine I started while working there, something called Blind Alleys. Can you see my body in motion? Can you see the poetics of me assembling myself organically from a working class base in the “other cloth” of Chinese culture, a living sculpture made out of what Antonio Gramski would have called the organic intellectual growth of the working class?

Indian cosmology gives us the word “chakras.” In the Chinese there is the terminology of acupuncture, with words like meridians, channels, vessels, and points. It’s the same thing with different vocabulary. By same thing, I mean it is the study of life’s energy, our physiological functioning with all that goes on in that process, glandular interaction, cell replacement, the manufacturing of electricity, etc. I’ve been told my work displays a mind/body connectedness, which is nice to know. However, I don’t try to objectively view myself that way.

Mind/body connectedness has been a matter of life and death for me. I had to form the character of myself as a poet from the ashes of personal tragedy, the loss of a child and a major PTSD episode, nervous breakdown as we used to say, when I was just 21 years old. I had to assemble myself anew and rebuild, and it was Taiji that formed the central inner mechanism for performing that process. Life is lived performance.

There really is no disconnect between mind and body. When you discover the connectedness you are, in fact, becoming aware, but it is going to happen whether you like it or now. It’s that being aware makes you more attuned to what we call nature. That is a big part of what the Te Ching is about. It’s not all of the book by any means, but it is certainly a huge chunk.

There is also the tactile or tangible reality of being able to walk or sit and type with a whole sense of yourself, mind, body, spirit.

Jean Valentine told me I should ask (what a cool way to start a sentence!) you to tell the story about when you found out you'd received tenure. Care to regale us?

I had just received tenure at Rutgers University, which is no small feat. If that were not enough, I received tenure with distinction. The heads of the university system, the Regents, gave me a cash fellowship. I was one of the gold star candidates. I went home to Baltimore on a visit for Easter, and the family was gathered at my aunt’s house. My cousins were all around having fun, eating and talking, and one of my beloved cousins, who is now gone -- God rest his soul -- was sitting in the floor, joking and carrying on when I announced that I had gotten tenure. All of a sudden, he turned deadly serious, obviously very upset, near tears because he really cared for me. Jumping forward he shouted out, “Ten years! What did you do?”

At that point I explained. He was slightly embarrassed but relieved. Other family members smiled and tried to process this thing called “tenure.”

I think of my cousin and others from my past who have since died. This one who did not know tenure served in the Marines in Vietnam, and his example inspired me to join the Army Reserves in 1970, following black working-class machismo. The fact that tenure was foreign to him says as much about me as about him. That’s the world from which I emerged.   In academia I feel like I am always learning how to “be” in that space. Part of me will never adjust. Fifteen years of factory work is a long time. There are other poets from other racial/cultural backgrounds who have done similar things, but I don’t know of any black males.

When I was working at Procter & Gamble from 1971-85, there was something called “guaranteed employment,” which was like tenure. After seven years you were guaranteed to always have a job with the company. If the plant closed, you could move. I thought of applying to the plant in New York rather than giving it all up and going to Brown in the hopes of securing a teaching job. Some days now I think of what I lost, the chance to sit around with old buddies who could reminisce with me. We could gather at holiday times.

I sometimes think life might have been simpler had I never learned the meaning of tenure. I have gained a lot, of course, but that old world is gone. Sometimes I miss the people in it terribly. In the midst of academics or poet types who think they’ve come up the rough side of the mountain, I’ll say something in a rough way from my old life that’ll make their ears rotate. But that’s not nice. Bad Afaa or Bad Big Mike, as some used to call me.

The third book in your Plum Flower Trilogy, City of Eternal Spring, is due out on U Pitt Press later this month. What’s a "hidden" feature of this collection (or of this trilogy) that people may not have picked up on?

Oh, there are lots of goodies, I think. Friends have asked why I have not come home with a Chinese wife. People have asked how I experience race in Chinese culture. I suspect some people don’t think I could possibly be Daoist in thinking or behavior. I think the book will surprise some people that way. It may surprise people who have thought I have been trying to become a Chinese specialist, which is so not true. I have been doing what I have been doing all of my life, trying to move forward in growth and depth in my work as poet, a literary artist. It just so happens that Chinese culture has been my starship. Galactic Star Ship Plum Flower. G.S.S. Plum Flower.

Interview Posted: September 1, 2014


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