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Simmons College professor Afaa Michael Weaver wins prestigious poetry award

$100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

Martin Desmarais
Simmons College professor Afaa Michael Weaver wins prestigious poetry award
Afaa Michael Weaver, winner of the prestigious $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. (Photo: Catherine Laine photo)

Some might be surprised that the most recent winner of the prestigious $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the 62-year-old Afaa Michael Weaver, grew up in one of the most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods in America — the Baltimore ‘hood immortalized in HBO’s acclaimed “The Wire.” However, for current Simmons College professor and Somerville resident Weaver, poetry was just always part of who he was.

“Poetry has been my vehicle for self-realization. It has been a way to sort of bring myself to fruition,” Weaver said in a recent chat with the Banner. “I figured out early on I was a poet and I went about the business of developing that way … I have always seen myself at the core as a poet and I just kept at it.

“I always loved books and reading and writing ­— it was really necessary for me to have an inner life and by that I mean a reflective life,” he added. “I have always been a somewhat unique person. I was a very smart kid in a tough environment. There were other smart kids there as well, but not all of us made it.”

Weaver credits his parents for helping him access the best schools available in the public education system and for backing his passions, despite them not being typical pursuits for a young black man in his neighborhood. “It meant being able to hold on to, protect and have some artistic talent despite it not being celebrated,” he said.

Weaver’s pursuits took him to the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1968 as a 16-year-old, but he left college after two years to take on a job in a Baltimore factory. He would spend the next 15 years working in a factory, but also writing poetry and working as a freelance journalist for several Baltimore papers.

His writing work eventually earned him a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which allowed him to leave the factory in 1985, finish his bachelor’s degree and also complete a master’s degree in creative writing from Brown University in 1987.

He has published a dozen poetry books, and also written award-winning plays and short stories.

His immersion into the writing world additionally allowed him to enter into the world of academia. After Brown, Weaver worked as an adjunct professor at Essex County College in Newark, N.J., and at New York University and the City University of New York. He moved on to Rutgers University in Camden and received tenure at the school in 1995.

In the spring of 1997, he served as a poet in residence at the Stadler Center for poetry at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., and then moved on to be a visiting professor in the English department at Simmons. In 1998, he accepted an endowed chair position at Simmons as professor of English, a position he still holds.

Weaver also is a long-time Tai Chai enthusiast, as well as Chinese scholar. In 2002, he was a Fulbright scholar at the National Taiwan University in Taipei and Taipei National University of the Arts in Kuandu, while on sabbatical from Simmons. He has brought Chinese poets to the United States on many occasions and also translates their work into English.

But still his passion for writing his own poetry has not waned, and his recent $100,000 award — one of the largest given to poets — will allow him to sink into his craft even more. He said he intends to scale back on some of his duties at Simmons and increase his writing productivity.

“I can make space and time to focus on my work,” Weaver said. “It is nice to be able to have the time to just think about poetry and value poetry.”

The Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award was given to Weaver for his 2013 poetry book “The Government of Nature,” which explores the trauma of his childhood — including sexual abuse — using thematic structure drawn from Chinese spiritualism.

“The Kingsley Tufts Award is one of the most prestigious prizes a poet can win, and I’m delighted to see it go to Afaa,” Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award Chief Judge Chase Twichell said in bestowing the prize on Weaver. “His father was a sharecropper. After serving for two years in the army, he toiled for 15 years in factories, writing poems all the while. When he learned that he’d won a National Endowment Fellowship, he quit his job and attended Brown University on a full scholarship. He essentially invented himself from whole cloth as a poet. It’s truly remarkable.”

Weaver said his plan now is to delve into his own past with his poetry and examine the period of the 1960s — when he grew up — and African American culture at that time. In particular, he is interested in examining the dramatic shift from the status of segregation to the world of integration, as well as analyzing the models for black men and black masculinity as the 1960s evolved into the 1970s.

“I have always have faith in my background and a faith in black people. I take a sense of pride that we survived slavery,” he said.

Weaver has already started down this thematic path and has his 13th poetry book slated to come out this summer called “A Hard Summation,” which comprises 13 serial poems spanning the entire history of African Americans from slavery to today.

A seasoned Bostonian now, he admitted he has also experienced a changing worldview after years in New England.

“Boston is a pretty conservative place. It is a paradox because this part of the country gets labeled for liberalism. But in the way that people behave it is also very conservative. The two things live side-by-side,” said Weaver.

“In Boston it is very international with people from places such as Jamaica and Haiti. It is a whole new thing. It is a diaspora black community,” he added. “That is a new kind of African America for me. There is a whole diversity inside the black community in Boston I didn’t grow up with.”

Regardless of the different path Boston’s black community may have taken to their neighborhoods, Weaver can imagine that there are young black children with the same passion for the arts that he had.

He hopes they will follow their passion as well and has a message for them: “Believe in your own ability and take pride in the fact that you have a creative talent,” he said. “Young people need to know that creativity means being able to have creative solutions — if you develop your creative self it will fuel everything you do because it is all connected.”