In the summer of 1970, Afaa Michael Weaver was a clerk recording the weight of the massive tin coils produced at Sparrows Point Steel Mill, tin that would later be turned into soup cans and the like. He used a crayon to mark the coils, which would be warm enough to melt the wax, so his numbers would stick. In between, he wrote poems on the backs of the tally sheets. He remembers when he showed up for work one day just as a co-worker's foot was being amputated; it was caught in the machinery and it was the only way to free him. Weaver thought, I gotta get a safer job. He did, relatively speaking, and worked the next 14 years on the packing floor and, later, in the warehouse of Proctor & Gamble's factory in Locust Point.
Weaver is a "working-class poet" who last month was awarded the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a $100,000 prize given by Claremont Graduate University each year to a mid-career poet for an outstanding published collection. He chuckles at the thought of being considered "mid-career," not because he is a full professor in the English department of Simmons College in Boston with 12 books of poems under his belt, but because he has been writing for over four decades as a "dyed in the wool" member of the working class. He says he feels "perpetually displaced": the tension of belonging both to his roots in skilled labor and to the academy. When a fellow academic noted that he cannot be considered a working-class writer with so many published books, Weaver asked, "What are you trying to say about working-class people?"
Weaver grew up in East Baltimore during a time that he calls "Baltimore's version of Jim Crow." He was the oldest of five children and part of a large extended family; "my playmates were my cousins." His father worked at Sparrows Point from the mid-1940s until 1982, and his mother was a part-time hairdresser. While a factory worker, Weaver was an avid writer, studying for a semester at Morgan State University, freelancing for The Sun, the Afro, and City Paper, and becoming part of the city's burgeoning literary scene-a scene populated by the poets, James Taylor, Andrei Codrescu, and David St. John, among others. He considers Lucille Clifton and Dr. Valerie Sedlak, both accomplished poets working in Baltimore at the time, as his "two guiding lights," mentoring him as he made a name for himself.
Weaver went back to school after "retiring" from factory life, an adjustment that he calls "psychologically challenging." In 1985, when he applied to Brown University's MFA program in writing, his fellow Proctor & Gamble co-workers laughed at him in the rec room, saying: "You're crazy! You're gonna die here just like the rest of us." His application was successful. At Brown, he felt that his "earthy" poetry differed from that of his peers, and he had trouble getting used to its environment of overflowing privilege. With interests in poetry and playwriting, he worked as an adjunct professor in New Jersey and New York, eventually receiving tenure at Rutgers University. He left for Simmons in the late 1990s, where he now holds the alumnae endowed chair and teaches courses that range from African-American literature to world drama and creative writing.
Perhaps his safest job has always been as a writer and poet, having started with love letters to a sweetheart-the "poetry of courtship," as he says-while at the University of Maryland, before dropping out and taking up work in Baltimore's mills and factories. However, he may disagree. His most recent book of poems, The Government of Nature (University of Pittsburgh Press), for which he won the Kingsley Tufts award, faces traumas that he endured in his childhood, including sexual abuse. Over the years, he has analyzed through his writing the lasting damage of this trauma while also uncovering and "weaving together" themes such as growing up in Baltimore as an African-American, Christianity, industrial life, and more recently, his interests in Chinese spiritual practices. He also shares many of the beautiful memories of his childhood, spent near the corner where David Simon's The Corner is set: walking to get frozen custard in the summer months; the way his father "always talked in metaphors," an early influence on developing his love for writing; and a beloved weeping willow in his yard that was coincidentally chopped down after his mother's funeral.
Last year, he took a walk around the old Proctor & Gamble buildings, where Under Armour now operates in buildings Weaver describes, perhaps wryly, as "brightly colored." In his mind, he says he heard the humming and belching of the machines that once surrounded him. Feeling emotional, he stopped two young employees who were leaving to go home. He told them that he used to work there, even though they probably were not born yet when he did. They appreciated the commentary, but Weaver notes, "I felt like somebody who had come from another world." Around the same time, he bumped into Big Mike, an old co-worker from the factory, at a Korean buffet restaurant; he said that seeing Mike "took me right back there again, but there was difference."
That difference, whether subtle or dramatic, is not only the subject of much of Weaver's poetry but of poetry itself, which is one of the ways language reckons with time.
"Petunias"By Afaa Michael Weaver
for my mother
The cement border kept them on one side,
On the other bricks pushed down in the lawn
while they outgrew and spilled over the lilies,
far away from my sweet potatoes, the food
from roots I started in glass jars in the window.
You came in the quiet moments, in one of your
old dresses, walking side to side on old slippers
in late spring, days before we built the awning
that made shade where there was no shade,
added the tapping sound of the rain to our ears.
In the rain the petunias held up, the strangeness
of fragile stem and bright petals, the violet inviolate
it seemed, under the rain that fell until the slurping
was like a tongue going up and down some part of me
I will not name here, not on this page, not in this light.
The slurping like the slurping today, here in this place
where I have barricaded myself for ten years, the bars
on the windows, the back wall a solid stack of giant
stone bricks set before your mother was born, secure
now, I listen to the rain, how it is kept away from me.
If I choose to walk in it, this glory as natural
as undisturbed sex in undisturbed lives, it will feel
and smell like something welcome, something I want--
had I not been undressed, had I not been handled
in the dark and made to know an evil wetness.
At night I wonder how deep my sleep would be
had you known I was in danger and saved me.
"Petunias" from the Government of Nature by Afaa Michael Weaver, ©2013. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.