February 4 , 2006
A Weaver of Disparate Strands

Some people have it all planned out. They have their maps and they’re sure of where they’re going. Others, and I am one of them, make plans but then tend to drift a little with the prevailing winds, sometimes arriving in an unexpected place.

Afaa Michael Weaver is one of those, too. He is a poet, playwright and professor who holds an endowed chair in English at Simmons College, where he is director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center. When we meet, he is preparing to leave for China, where has spent much of his time in recent years. The life he is living probably was not what he envisioned when he was a child named Michael S. Weaver growing up in an African-American family in 1950s Baltimore, or during the 15 years he spent as a factory worker. And I can’t help thinking that the story of his journey lies in his name.

Michael Weaver became Afaa M. Weaver when the Nigerian playwright Tess Onwueme gave him a name from the Ibo language.

“Afaa means oracle,” Weaver says. “It is a good name for a poet because an oracle is a person who can clarify things in the present time.”

Weaver also has a Chinese name, Wei Yafeng. “Wei” means flourishing or blossoming. “Yafeng” is the title of a section from the oldest anthology of Chinese poetry and carries implications of middle age. Weaver says he asked his Chinese godfather, who gave him the name, to add a “radical,” or character, that indicates grass growing.

Weaver describes the chain of events so logically you think it could have happened to anyone: At first, while working in a factory, he began studying tai chi.

“It helped with my balance,” he explains, meaning physical balance, but noting that, as he began struggling with depression, it seemed to help him maintain emotional balance as well. Weaver continued practicing tai chi casually as he began writing poetry, saw his work published, founded a literary journal, and began freelancing for newspapers like the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Chicago Tribune. He was still dabbling in tai chi when he published his first poetry collection, Water Song; when he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; and when he completed his B.A. and M.F.A.

And when, teaching at Rutgers University, he experienced congestive heart failure, he added more intensive practice of tai chi to his medical regimen.

“It restored my health,” he says, “ and I thought maybe Chinese culture was something important in my life.” So when he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, he chose to study in Taiwan.

Since then he has written poems in Chinese, including some he considers among his best. And even symbolism from the Kabbalah has found its way into his poetry as this weaver has brought together disparate strands of far-flung cultures.

“There have been different manifestations,” he explains. “At first I was writing about the United States, north and south. My Father’s Geography is part of that. Timber and Prayer I saw as my last ‘migration’ book. Then there is the inner movement of Talisman and Multitudes. At this point I can look back and see more clearly what I was doing.

“It’s a blessing for a poet to know you don’t always have to figure it out. It’s kind of a gift that requires a self-knowledge and self-awareness that are not always available to you, especially when you’re younger. One should always hope for surprises.”

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com. You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.

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