Off The Shelf by Doug Holder
When Poet Afaa Michael Weaver walked into the editorial offices of The Somerville News his presence seemed to require a hush. He is a large, distinguished-looking, black man in his late 50s who has made considerable contributions to the contemporary poetry world.
This is not a poet who went straight from a top shelf college to an MFA mill. He is from the streets of Baltimore, a working class kid who wrote for The Baltimore Sun, and started his own small press while he toiled in the less than academic settings of a tin mill, and a Procter & Gamble factory. He was a member in good standing with the International Oil and Chemical Workers Union, and his hands were callused from hard physical labor, not pampered with a pen.
Things changed for Weaver when he won a NEA grant. He quit his blue-collar job (much to his father's chagrin) and went to Brown University to study poetry and playwriting. Later he went on to publish several critically acclaimed poetry collections, (his most recent “Plum Flower Dance”), had his work anthologized, his papers archived at Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, and won the 2008 Pushcart Award for his poem: “American Income.”
Weaver said he was a very odd duck at Procter & Gamble in Baltimore. Few if any workers penned poetry while working with tin, and certainly no one was writing book reviews and articles for The Baltimore Sun. His fellow workers used to joke with Weaver saying: “You'll die here with the rest of us.” But Weaver was determined to escape the pounding anonymity of the factory floor.
Weaver was fortunate to make the literary scene in the early 1980s when Baltimore's literary renaissance was in full flower. Weaver met the famed avant-garde poet Andrei Codrescu (founder of the magazine Exquisite Corpse) and others who proved influential in his trajectory as a writer. Weaver said a lot of great writers passed through town to lecture and or read at the John Hopkins Writing Center. Weaver started the small press magazine “Blind Alleys” with Melvin Brown around this time as well.
Weaver laughed at the memory of himself as a sometimes-brash young critic. He remembers panning a poetry collection by Alice Walker writing: “A great novelist doesn't always make a great poet.”
One thing lead to another and Weaver penned the poetry collection “Water Song,” that lead to his NEA, and his journey to the groves of the academy at Brown University in 1985. At Brown, Weaver intended to study poetry but he wound up studying playwriting with the noted playwright and director Paula Vogel. He was befriended and studied with such poets as Keith Waldron (Burning Deck Press), and George H. Bass, the literary executor of Langston Hughes estate.
After Brown, Weaver taught at Rutgers University, and other colleges. Along the way he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and founded the Zorra Neale Hurston Literary Center and the International Chinese Poetry Conference at Simmons College in Boston, where he is a tenured professor of English.
This year's conference will be held at Simmons Oct 4 and 5. The press release states:
“More than two dozen well-known poets from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the U.S. as well as academic scholars and translators, will meet to explore ways to improve communications between the cultures through the exchange and translation of poetry…The gathering will also focus on women and their role in contemporary Chinese poetry.”
Talking about his Pushcart Award-winning poem “American Income” Weaver said it was birthed when he a read a survey in a newspaper about how weight loss improves income prospects for the general population except for black men. The poem explores the lineage of the African-American experience and the heavy weight it carries.
Weaver has been through a number of marriages, was close to death from congestive heart failure and suffered the black dogs of depression, but now seems to be the picture of health and is enjoying his prime. He says he sees the trend of “careerism” in poetry shifting back to the importance of the poem as art and having something to add to our ongoing conversation with the world.
Weaver said he loves living in Somerville and remembers renting his current apartment (that he refers affectionately to as the “cave”) from Norton Real Estate, which the editorial offices of The Somerville News now occupy. He regularly attends meetings of the “Bagel Bards” in Davis Square whenever he is in town. Weaver may travel the world, and break bread with the big literary wigs across the country, but he feels most comfortable with his family and grandkids in Baltimore, and perhaps walking the unpretentious streets of our city.
Ibbetson Street Poetry Award
The winner of the Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Contest award (must be a Massachusetts resident) will receive a $100 cash award, a framed certificate, publication in the literary journal “Ibbetson Street” and a poetry feature in the Lyrical Somerville column of The Somerville News.
To enter send three to five poems, any genre, length, to Doug Holder at 25 School St. Somerville, Mass. 02143. Entry fee is $10. Cash or check only. Make payable to “Ibbetson Street Press” or “Doug Holder.” The deadline is Sept. 15.
The contest will be judged by Richard Wilhelm poet and arts editor of the Ibbetson Street Press.
The winner will be announced at The Somerville News Writers Festival on Nov. 22.