This house opens its eyes/reaches to me with hands held/together in silent prayer/begging me to take every lesson/and go on with life peacefully—"An Improbable Mecca"
The poet Afaa Michael Weaver parks in front of 2824 Federal Street in East Baltimore, his childhood home. The street, which could be straight out of The Wire, has changed a great deal over the years. "It's a shame how impoverished things have become," says Weaver.
Weaver points out houses where old friends died, some violently. "This place taught me how to be urban," he says, "how to walk the streets, with all that's good and bad about that.... Some of that I've had to unlearn in order to be sensitive and vulnerable."
This is where Weaver shouted up two stories to propose to his girlfriend when he was 19 years old. It's the same place he left everyday to go to work at Bethlehem Steel, then at Proctor & Gamble, where he wrote poetry to break the monotony of packing boxes of Tide detergent for eight hours a day. "[Writing poetry] helped me to balance what I was doing at work," says Weaver. "Poetry has always been that for me, a way to balance and hold on to something inside myself."
"I used to call him a bookworm," laughs Marlene Spruiel, who worked with Weaver for more than 15 years. "He was a person of few words, but when he spoke, it was something that needed to be said."
The city and its factories, coupled with personal trauma and Eastern philosophy, have significantly informed Weaver's writing. They have shaped him into what Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr. dubbed "one of the most significant poets writing today," and poet Edward Hirsch called a "distinctive musical voice." Fellow poet and National Book Award nominee Michael Harper has compared Weaver to Walt Whitman.
"He has a wonderful way of showing how he has transformed his experience into art," says Toi Derricotte, cofounder of Cave Canem, a New York-based organization that supports African American poetry. "His art changes as he changes and his perspective changes."
The 56-year-old Weaver calls his latest book of poems, The Plum Flower Dance: Poems 1985 to 2005, his signature work—a conscious overview of the things that have influenced him as an artist and a person. A student of Taoism who speaks, reads, and writes fluent Chinese, Weaver is equally at home on the streets of East Baltimore, or teaching at National Taiwan University and Simmons College in Boston, where he is an endowed chair as the Alumnae Professor of English.
Weaver honed his commitment to academics with the encouragement of his mother, Elsie Lee, who had a sixth-grade education, and his father, Otis, who never finished high school. At the age of 16, he graduated from Poly as a member of the honor society, bent on pursuing a career in architecture or engineering at the University of Maryland. But in the fall of 1968, a composition class changed that, when the instructor told him, "You're some kind of writer, although I don't know exactly what kind yet."
That winter, Weaver started writing poetry—mostly love poems for his girlfriend. Not long after, she got pregnant, and he dropped out of college and went to work in the factories. But he never lost his love for the written word and continued writing at work. In fact, those early writings are now housed at Boston University's Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, where many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers are held.
During a strike at Proctor & Gamble, Weaver—who now lives in Somerville, a Boston suburb—worked as a substitute teacher at Lake Clifton High School. One day, he was called to the office and told that his ten-month-old son, born with Down syndrome, had died from complications of the disease. Soon after, Weaver was hospitalized for depression, and it would be 25 years before he could look at a picture of his son.
A co-worker at Proctor & Gamble helped Weaver crawl out of this dark space, by giving him a copy of Tao Te Ching. He studied the philosophy intensely and began meditating every morning. The practice, he says, yielded "a very deep sense of relaxation and sharpened [my] intuitive skills."
It also helped him reconcile with his past and solidify his place in the world. In front of his old house on Federal Street, Weaver leans back in the seat of his rented Jetta. "There are working class people in academia, but very few who did what I did," he says. "It can be a very lonely kind of feeling. I have a friend who said, 'When you get to a point where you feel comfortable in the world wherever you go, you have arrived.'
"I am getting closer to that."