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A poet forged in heartbreak

One-time factory worker Afaa Michael Weaver broke through a dam from his past - and the words flowed forth

Email|Print| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 11, 2007

or the longest time, even as Afaa Michael Weaver built a name for himself as a poet who burrowed into the deep themes of American life, there were regions of his own psyche he did not wish to explore. His inner life was a welter of "No trespassing" signs.

"I knew there was something, but I didn't know how to name it," says Weaver, a professor of English at Simmons College. "I had the ironic situation of being a poet who could not sit down with you and talk honestly about my feelings."

After his third marriage broke up, Weaver was determined to identify that mysterious "something" that had made him so fearful of intimacy, so obsessed with perfection, so devoid of satisfaction once he reached his goals. With the help of a therapist, he excavated long-buried memories of childhood trauma. He was able to remember that, from the age of 3 to 8, he had been molested by a relative who moved in with his family, and that at age 13 he had been sexually abused by another relative a few years older than him.

The memories were jolting and painful. Sometimes they returned in fragments, sometimes in torrents.

"It shook my foundations," Weaver says. "What happens to you has been called the murder of the soul. You take away the child's ability to love himself as himself. You disable his sense of himself. You take away the tools he needs to work at real intimacy with other people."

But since Weaver forced himself to confront his past, the poems have poured out of him - and his present could scarcely be better. He has just published "The Plum Flower Dance," a collection of his work from 1985 to 2005. He is featured on the cover of this month's Poets & Writers magazine. Boston University recently asked him to donate his papers to the university's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. (Weaver said yes.)

Heady stuff - absolutely none of which Weaver, now 56, takes for granted. He spent too many years working in the warehouses and steel mills of Baltimore, scribbling lines of poetry during coffee breaks. "In the warehouse, it was thousands of boxes circling around - every day the same thing," he recalls. "You felt like you were being pounded into anonymity. Holding on to the poetry was a way of keeping myself alive."

It still is, though Weaver does not look like the stereotypical poet on this recent weekday in his Simmons College office. He wears a trim blue blazer, a blue shirt, and a mild tie. No campus casual for Weaver: He dresses this way every day, as if heeding Flaubert's advice to "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

The life of the mind held a magnetizing appeal to Weaver from a young age. Born Michael Weaver, he was the oldest of five children who grew up in a row house in East Baltimore. His mother was a beautician, and his father, the son of sharecroppers, was one of many Baltimoreans who made their living as a steelworker at the large Bethlehem Steel plant on the city's outskirts. "I think he took two sick days in 36 years," Weaver says.

As a child, Weaver spent most of his time indoors, reading whatever he could get his hands on, from Ian Fleming's James Bond novels to Shakespeare. One day his grandmother said to him: "Michael, it's not good to sit in the house and read books all day. Go outside and play." Says Weaver, chuckling: "So, being the programmed kid that I was, I went to my guidance counselor and asked how many hours a day I should play."

Weaver's precocity was such that he skipped eighth grade and enrolled early at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, known for its rigorous curriculum and such alumni as H.L. Mencken and Dashiell Hammett. When he asked his mother for permission to try out for the football team at Poly, her refusal was couched in terms that spelled out the high hopes she had for him: "You might hurt your head, and that's the most valuable thing you have."

He knew that. Young Michael Weaver's mind was so hungry for knowledge that, whatever the subject, his interest in it "exceeded the hours in the day," says Weaver, adding: "I still feel that way now." When he was asked to do a research project, he chose for his subject the complex architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. But the careful architecture of Weaver's own life was soon to develop cracks and fissures.

He enrolled at the University of Maryland in 1968. College Park was as far from Baltimore as he was willing to venture, and even that turned out to be too far. "I had never been totally in a white environment," he says. "My insecurities just overwhelmed me, and after two years I came home." In 1970, his girlfriend got pregnant, so they married. He was 19. Eager to prove himself in some way in the wider world, he joined the Army Reserves.

Then, he says, "Life sort of hit us full force." The baby born to Weaver and his wife proved to have Down syndrome. The baby, Michael S. Weaver Jr., died at 10 months of age, and Weaver fell into a deep depression. Though he eventually recovered, it would be more than 25 years before he could bear to look at a picture of his son and namesake. (Another son, Kala, was born to Weaver and his wife in 1973.)

To make ends meet, Weaver worked in a "labor gang," doing all sorts of different manufacturing jobs, in the same Bethlehem Steel plant where his father worked. Later, he worked as a machine helper in a Procter & Gamble warehouse. But he fought to keep his writing aspirations alive. Every chance he got, Weaver would dash off a few lines of poetry on the back of the tally sheets used to record the weight of tin coils.

After a while, he persuaded the editors of small magazines to publish some of those poems. Emboldened, he used his overtime earnings from the factory and a small grant from the city of Baltimore to start a small publishing company, 7th Son Press, in 1979. A year later, he launched a magazine of poetry and short fiction called Blind Alley. He couldn't afford to give up his day job at the factory, though. At the end of a long day of work, he would spend his nights reading submissions from freelancers.

As he was published more and more, he was drawn into Baltimore's literary scene. "It was wild," he recalls. "We had opposing poetry camps and wars. There was an active Bohemian community." To others within that community, he says with a grin, "I was a working-class-hero poet."

On the home front, however, his marriage was foundering. The death of their child had driven him and his wife apart rather than bringing them together. In 1976, the marriage ended in divorce, as would two subsequent marriages. But Weaver was moving toward a full-time literary life. Lightning struck in 1985: He published his first book ("Water Song"), won a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and won a fellowship in the graduate creative writing program at Brown University (on the condition he complete his BA, which he did at Excelsior College).

Finally, he was able to quit his job at the mill.

In the 22 years that followed, Weaver published nine more books of poetry and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. He built a substantial academic career, teaching at Rutgers University, earning a Fulbright scholarship, and becoming the first African-American poet to be named poet in residence at Bucknell University. At Simmons, he cofounded the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center, and launched the International Chinese Poetry Conference.

Along the way, he also survived a major medical scare: He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 1995, and his condition was so severe that one doctor gave him only five years to live. But he recovered through a combination of medication, a reduction of stress (which he attributes to his practice of tai chi), and major weight loss after a complete transformation of his diet.

Transforming his spirit proved more challenging. He still felt emotionally blocked, still bedeviled by that unnameable "something." A few years ago he finally broke through with the help of a 12-step program that helped him access his memories of childhood sexual abuse. He confronted one of his abusers. "He didn't deny it," Weaver says grimly.

Helping Weaver feel whole was the fact that he had finally managed to recover from another trauma: the death of his first-born child. Just before he moved to Boston 10 years ago, he found that he was able, for the first time, to look at a photo of Michael Jr. The poet craved a ritual that would symbolize release, a letting go of his grief, so Weaver asked his friend, the Nigerian playwright Osonye Tess Onwueme, to give him a name. Onwueme sent him a list of names in the Ibo language used in Nigeria, and Weaver picked Afaa, without knowing its meaning. It turned out to mean "oracle."

So perhaps there is reason to heed Weaver when he turns from the past and looks toward the future. He is surprisingly sanguine about the prospects for poetry, the medium of small truths quietly delivered, in the noisy, warp-speed age of the Internet. He has, after all, overcome greater challenges than an elusive readership.

"At a time when people don't have a lot of time to read, a poem has a chance," he says. "If these things were put in supermarkets, people would pick them up. Put a poem in your iPod!" He laughs at his impromptu slogan, then concludes: "Poetry has a chance."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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