Saturday, January 31, 2015


The Bethlehem Steel Plant in Sparrows Point

My Lucky Book of Dreams
                                                                           -by Afaa Michael Weaver 蔚雅風 
                                                                 a poetic rooted in the ordinary and driven by a faith in transcendence
also see Word Factory and The Plum Flower Trilogy 
         Eighteen year old boys are called men for matters of convenience, such as to justify their acceptance as soldiers by the military. We are, after all, about as strong as we will ever be, naturally strong. It's as if we are in full blossom, one that lasts until our mid-twenties. It's a time when we feel invincible but also full of fears at times. We are, in many cases, afraid we will not be perceived as men, and most of what we know about what that means involves some kind of courage. Well, it was that way for me, at least. I also thought I could plan my life and life would comply. After all, I was exerting my well-developed powers of perception and discernment.

Going for Bad, Going for Broke

I had been part of the Vietnam protests, but then I volunteered for the Army Reserves. I made a lot of decisions that spring semester: to drop out of the university, to get married, to join the military, and to be the writer I knew I was born to be. I loved my wife to be with all the passion of a teenager. I did everything with the passion of a teenager, and with a teenager's innocence. When Bethlehem Steel company accepted my application for a job as an unskilled worker in its Sparrows Point Plant, I proudly announced it to my dorm mates at the University of Maryland in College Park. Caesar, who was later to become a sports journalist, was not impressed. As I walked toward my father's car with the last of my worldly possessions from my room, he hollered his opinion out the window.

As I walked away, I heard Caesar's voice almost singing, "Weaver, you are an asshole!"

That's another thing teenagers do. We call each other names. I was going to get more of that in the steel mill. I was used to it in the streets of East Baltimore. When I had more than my share of cheap wine and Old Grand Dad, I was not above calling people names, and worse. It's what men did, the men I watched in the place where I lived, bad men who "went for bad" at a young age. In claiming the poet in me, I was trying to climb out of that place where I was molded and sculpted.

"Come Ride Wit Me"- East Baltimore, a film by Theodis Walkins

I walked into the steel mill and a life as a factory worker as an odd mix. Most of my education had been in math and science. I had fourteen credits in English when I left the university, and I had the conviction that writing was what I could do best, what I was meant to do. Physics, mathematics, and art are related. They share structure and functions, and the stark way the mills were built was not beautiful. They were three to four stories tall and more in places, with the floors made of wooden bricks pounded into place. Metal was everywhere, and it was always dark. More so than an engineer I had wanted to be an architect. Architecture weds math and physics into the sculpting of space as art.

Trading Books, You Read Mine, I'll Read Yours 

Life was supposed to obey the same rules of math and science I had learned so far in classrooms. With the factory as my classroom, I would read. The lectures would come from the sounds of the machines and the sounds of the city that was home. I did what my father and other men did. I packed my lunch in a brown paper bag and stood outside on the street where my family house sat. It was a major road to Sparrows Point, which we called "The Point." All you had to do was hold out your bag and get a ride. I once rode for awhile with a man who drank Vodka on the way in the mornings.

It was okay to read on the job as long as you were careful not to get eaten by one of the machines. One of my early books was a trilogy, Three Negro Classics. It included Souls of Black Folk, Up from Slavery, and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In poetry I had an anthology by Conrad Aiken, and I read Negro Digest where I saw black poets published.

My first job was to be in the labor gang. At the start of the shift we all sat around in a small area marked off by heavy iron railings painted yellow that were broad enough to sit on while we got our assignments for the day. Things had changed to where black and white men worked together. One day I sat next to a white coworker who also had a book covered with brown paper from a lunch bag.

He looked over at me and in a gesture of friendship said, "I read, too. Wanna trade books?"

I thought that was pretty cool, so I agreed. It did not take long to see that he was reading the hard core pornography that was so hard there was barely any narrative, just one explicit sex scene after another, enough to keep you awake for sure on late night shifts. I decided to give it back to him the next day. He was just as determined to give my book back to me. I had given him Three Negro Classics.

"Here, take this stupid shit. Don't you ever give me any more of your fucking books!"

The math had failed. The physics had failed. There was no logic. I was in a place where poets were not supposed to grow. It was the world of my father and uncles, an architecture that was both familiar and alien. It was an architecture of consciousness, and I would be in that consciousness for  fifteen years.

 My Lucky Book of Dreams, the Intuitive Path

A white supervisor took an interest in me. He was proud to know one of his workers was an aspiring writer. He suggested I try for management and go up that way. However, I was as much the purist then as I am now, if being a purist is what you can call it. I thought as I do now that the only upward movement was to a place where I could write more poetry. I worked from the inside out, as I do now. I had to write just as I had to breathe. The lessons I would learn over the years would include trusting the still voice inside me, my intuitive voice. Sometimes there was too much static to hear it.

My ambition has been my very own Lucky Book of Dreams, referring now to the little books my elders used to find lottery numbers in their dreams. I have often been too nervous to claim it as ambition, but that is certainly how the world sees it. What else is there to say of this man-child who walked into factories with dreams of being a man and being a poet, totally unaware of how far he was from the world of American poetry?  I barely knew of Gwendolyn Brooks and had no inkling of Charles Olson, who died that year I sat on the yellow railings and traded books.

Neither did I know the importance of growing as a poet so deep inside a place most poets did not know in their worlds of privilege. As my indignant white coworker might say, "I had a lot of balls."

Copyright © 2015 by Afaa Michael Weaver

Go to my own  Word Factory to read more of my odyssey
as a poet, a journey supported by 中國文化 Chinese culture

IMDB Come Ride Wit Me Theodis Walkins
The inclusion of this video here is for educational purposes only.

Friday, May 03, 2013

An Actor's Journal
Building Troy Maxon in August Wilson's Fences

Micky's is a legendary check cashing place on North Point Road leading from the old Bethlehem Steel Plant in Sparrows Point just outside Baltimore and back into the city.  In 1970, it had a dirt parking lot, and on a dry day the cars made dust rise up from the stones and dirt that crackled under the tires as men who worked the day shift stopped to cash their checks and buy their liquor.  I was among them on the days I worked daylight, as we used to say.  Daylight was hard to get, but Micky's was open for convenience long before convenience stores became a popular term.  Micky's wasn't the only place where you could buy liquor, of course, and one of my riders drank as he drove on the way to the mills and drank going home.  Vodka was breakfast, and we thought nothing of driving under the influence or Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  We were new to things like seat belts and padded dashboards.  We sat in the car and rode with him, our heads bobbing a little from still being sleepy.

August Wilson's play Fences opens on a Friday evening, after the week's work is done, and Troy is out in the yard with his buddy Bono, whom he met in prison while he was doing a fifteen year stretch for manslaughter and armed robbery.  He is a big man like me, and although I never killed or robbed anyone, I worked with men who did and I know men like that, men who were friends and cared for me and loved me.  I know what it is to work hard enough to be glad to come home, and although I don't drink anymore except for a few sips of an occasional social glass of wine at dinner, I know what it is to drink hard.

I work on building this character, this 53 year old black man who is a garbageman in a large American city in 1957, and I encounter my autobiography.  However, I work from the theory of creativity as a student of acting.  Troy cannot be me.  I have to create him from my imagination.  This character has responses and tendencies I do not have, and I am wary of the dangers of retrieving emotional histories rather than creating the same.  Troy is a recovering thief, and in his days as an armed robber he had to manifest a certain menace, an aggressiveness that lets the victim know he or she will be hurt if they don't give up the goods.  An armed robber has signed his soul over to a specific maliciousness that he has to be willing to back up because he can meet his match or even be overmatched in the streets, which is what happened to Troy.  He used a knife to rob, and a would be victim one day had a gun.  He shot Troy, and in his pain Troy lunged at him and killed him.  

"They told me I killed him and they put me in the penitentiary and locked me up for fifteen years."

In my own life, I served fifteen years, too, but my institution was the world of factories in my hometown, Baltimore.  My crime was against the expectations of society.  I dared to proclaim myself a poet.  It was hard labor, and I emerged unrepentant.  I kept at the business of being a poet and added playwriting to make myself a fuller bard.  August Wilson was a poet and playwright, a fact some people may not know.  I had one occasion to talk to the man, and he told me about his poetry.

August Wilson
April 27, 1945 to October 2, 2005

It was 1989, and I had just finished teaching Fences at Borough of Manhattan Community College, one of my several adjunct jobs at that time in my life.  My wife and I were living in East Orange, New Jersey, and I was taking the Amtrak to Watertown, Massachusetts, just outside Boston proper.  I was going up there at the invitation of Gian Lombardo to give a poetry reading.  At the time I had only one book, Water Song, my first one.  

At Brown I had entered as a poet and switched to playwriting, which I studied under George Houston Bass and Paula Vogel.  I loved playwriting, and while studying at Brown I learned how to read scripts in the workshop and played the lead in my own play with script in hand.  Paula wanted me to do more acting, and she said so on more than one occasion, which is why I am studying acting now as I hope to return to my playwriting.  But let me get back to my point of being both poet and playwright.

Once on the train I decided to go back to the cafe car and get a Coke to go with the cold cut sandwich I made at home.  The adjunct life was a poor one.  I cut my own hair and learned how to survive a workday in New York with just a few subway tokens and five dollars.  As I was walking back to the cafe car I could not believe what I saw.   August Wilson was sitting alone at a window seat.  There were less than ten people in the whole car, and I did not want to stare.  But once I had my soda and was back in my seat I decided to give him a gift of a copy of Water Song.  I took it back to him and said, "Mr. Wilson, I am a big fan of your work.  I just finished teaching Fences, and I would like to give you this copy of my book of poetry."

I was shamelessly star struck.  I had a few minutes of fame in Baltimore as the city's working class hero poet, but here was a man with a Pulitzer in drama.  More importantly, I deeply and genuinely admired his work.  When I got back to my seat he gave me a gift.  I was sitting there about to eat my sandwich when I felt a presence.  Wilson was standing next to me with his bags.  

"Can I sit and ride with you?" he asked.  

I nearly choked on my sandwich.  Had I done so I might have ridden the glory train to heaven having choked to death from being starstruck.  August Wilson sat and talked with me all the way to New Haven, where he was going so that he could work on Two Trains Running at the Yale Repertory.  He and Lloyd Richards were making history and would continue to do so as the twentieth century wound into the twenty-first.  August Wilson talked and behaved as someone might imagine a Troy Maxon would talk and behave.

Water Song  was published in Charles Rowell's Callaloo series at the University of Virginia, and the other poets in the series were listed on my book just as on all the other books.  It was a prestigious list that included a man Wilson knew, Gerald Barrax.  As we rode Wilson told me how he studied poetry with Gerald, and when I met Gerald ten years later, I asked about Wilson's story.  Barrax said it was true.  Not only was it true, Wilson also came to class in a tweed jacket so as to look like the poet he wanted to be.  Of course, he was a poet.  His plays are language driven, some more so than others.  

In Fences I think there is an even hand of character and language.  Troy Maxon roars on the page, and he resonates inside me and the black working class men I have known.

So it is Friday as I write and prepare to post this blog.  Micky's check cashing store is about five hunded miles south of where I live here in Massachusetts, an area with its own history of workers, but not so many of them the black men from the south like my father or like their sons who followed them, men like me, men who learned a certain music of being a worker, one that helped define the character of what we call African American culture.

Songs like one my father taught me or the blues that fill Wilson's plays are songs that bond the lives of black working class men, lives that are filled with the difference race made between them and the white men they worked beside, as Troy Maxon knows because he has filed a complained to his boss, saying black men should be driving trucks, too.  My father taught me a line from a chain gang song he learned from a coworker at the Norfolk naval base, a black man they called Philadelphia Slim.  

It went a little like this, "Fifteen years ain't no long time...I got a brother somewhere got a lifetime."  

I guess I better get busy at the work I have to do this Friday morning, the work of building a character made out of my imagination but filled with the breath of men I know, men like me, men who know the meaning of "fifteen years" not as a phrase but as a sentence, a statement about being.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

an update on the Bop anthology

---Here is an update to those who are interested in the progress of the anthology of Bop poems that Tara Betts and I are doing.

We have not secured a publisher, despite some inquiries.  We have not sent out additional inquiries in the past several months to conflicts in our respective schedules and the necessities of having to adjust to personal emergencies.  During the winter break we will be sending out queries to publishers once again.  

The journal Brilliant Corners, edited by Sascha Feinstein, will have the Bop as its focus in the forthcoming December issue.  You will have a chance to read the original essay I wrote for the Bop in 1997, when I was a member of the first faculty to be invited to teach at Cave Canem.  There is also a small section of poems chosen by Mr. Feinstein from the manuscript of the anthology.  We plan to include this issue of Brilliant Corners in our queries to editors.

We are quiet happy with the manuscript of the anthology, but in discussing it over the course of the last two years, we have noticed there are not too many celebratory or even humorous Bops.  As you proceed as poets, please not that the Bop is for the full range from heavy to lighter fare in subject matter.

Also note, especially if you are teaching the form, that a poet should always choose or create a refrain that is free of copyright restrictions.  As I created the Bop for the workshops at Cave Canem, I was not concerned about copyright issues.  As the form has entered the public, I would like to emphasize that you treat previously published material in music as you would any other when writing.  A created refrain is the most secure, and as such, it can be inspired by music that is under the protection of copyright.  You need only say so and be sure your refrain is your own work.

We will release updates as we go along.

Thank you for being a part of this anthology project, and we are sorry it is taking so long.  We are doing the best we can.

Afaa & Tara

Friday, July 06, 2012

Save the Children

In thinking about the tragic murder of Heaven Sutton, the 7 year old girl in Chicago who was hit by a gangbanger's stray bullet, I come back to the intersection of personal and social trauma of the 1960s'. 

At that time several forces intersected in the lives of black people, such as the loss of old social institutions created during segregation, the violence of urban rebellions, the Vietnam War, the shift in the American economy toward global economics, and the personal trauma of child abuse.  A vortex of violence was created in the 60's, and Heaven was caught unaware in what that vortex of violence has bequeathed to us, a tragedy that should have us looking more critically at what happened in the late 60's when black communities became battlegrounds and then were emptied of economic opportunity.

There is plenty of data and research available, but what I am suggesting is that we have not looked closely enough at this period as a beginning of the violence that is now tragically prevalent in black urban communities in how it relates to trauma.  The abuse black people continually suffer is complicated in some instances by severe personal trauma, especially sexual abuse.  African Americans are not immune to sexual abuse, but we are slower to discuss it.  

Part of the silence is rooted in a real historical need to keep a wall around the community during the years of slavery and segregation, to in fact build the wall and then sustain it.  It was a life and death matter for many years, the years when violence leveled at the black community often went unpunished.  The number of blacks killed in internal terrorist campaigns by the white extremsits is staggering.  But these are different times, times deeply affected, I think, by the truncation of gender roles in the black community during the 1960's, a time of liberation that was full of ironies, including the reconstitution of class structure in the black community.

When gang and drug culture formed at the end of the 1960's in black urban communities, we saw the beginning of what still plagues us but in a way for more destructive than those beginnings.  However, there doesn't seem to be a lot of discussion about the connections.  If we were to look at them now and include a lens for personal trauma, I think we could understand urban violence in ways that are not part of the public discussion now.  Just as we are now seeing the connectedness of issues that make for climate change, it would help to see the connectedness of what is happening in our cities, of what leads to tragedies such as the murder of children, often by those who are little more than children themselves.

When the gangs in LA were formed in the late 60's, they were formed by teenagers like me and the friends I hung out with in the streets in Baltimore at that time.  We were aware of the larger political forces at play.  We saw the military come to occupy our communities.  We saw the riots.  Some of us were out there taking things but mostly not because we were too young.  Our parents kept us in the house.  But those who were in the streets, mostly men, were fighting a battle inside a country at war, a war that was the first of its kind.  The language of war came into our lives along with the veterans who came home.  Gang members became soldiers.  Workers in drug networks became soldiers.  A good number of these soldiers were men and women who had been abused as children and were more prone to self-loathing and violence.  These cultures were formed as a negative consequence of the 60's struggle against American racism, a tragic interplay of ironies.

The Baltimore Riots
Sparked by Dr. King's Assassination

Self-loathing manifests in ironic ways.  I felt a familiar sadness when I listened to Tookie Williams' ex-wife explain how self-hatred drove Tookie to body building, of how he loved to look at himself in the mirror.  It was an unhealthy obsession with self, the kind that is a sign of trauma.  I have no idea of what happened to Tookie as a child, but from my own experience I know that trauma drives us to overcompensation, excessive acts of kindness or violence, an illogical sense of loyalty, and other distortions of the basic health and integrity of the psyche.  When this energy was connected to the social violence of the Civil Rights Movement, we had the intersection of forces that filled the urban landscapes with a corrosive energy that was aided and abetted by the persistence of American racism and the still unresolved and cancerous notions that racism sustains in the American consciousness.

Martha & the Vandellas
Dancing in the Streets
Ed Sullivan Show 

We were sixteen and seventeen years old in the summer of 1969.  As boys we liked things that made us appear strong.  We lifted weights and tried to make our biceps bigger.  We walked together in groups on the sidewalks to display a group strength, a power.  We drank and played cards.  We argued, and we fought.  We fought the white boys.  We dressed up and stood on corners and sang.  We claimed those corners in the summer at night, singing, dancing, drag racing in the streets, standing up to older men, some of whom had killed people in a country on the other side of the world in a global system that is more threatening now than it was when we were hardly more than children.  

We claimed those corners, and those corners claimed us.  A few of us escaped.  Many did not, and that story is only getting worse.  If we are to turn this around, we have to look at the center of the heart of this monster, abuse, and we have to look at it as being both personal and social.  One feeds the other, and what is created only feeds death.   In looking at the center of this monster, we have to see how it connects to the larger complex of our problems so that we can make the most judicious assessments and develop alternative strategies for making the environments of our cities safer places for children.  Children are the future.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Men, Work, Violence, Men, Work

I pulled over into a rest stop in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago because I was getting a little sleepy.  At 2 o'clock in the afternoon I'm settling too much into the Satellite radio, and things are getting a little droopy, so I pull over to sit for a few seconds and then get out to walk into the McDonald's for a coffee.  

It's before Zimmerman has turned himself in, and I have already had a warm greeting from a black man I don't know, a stranger.  It was just a warm exchange of smiles and a nod of the head, the kind of moment that reminds me of what I've read about the signs used during the time of the Underground Railroad, tilts of the hat from a certain kind of hat at a certain corner, etc.  

At this second stop the black man I saw must have been in Islam at some point.  He is especially excited to see me wearing a hat that looks like it might be on the head of a Muslim, but it was actually made by one of my Taiji classmates a few years ago, a woman who is takes a name from one of America's indigenous cultures.

The McDonald's was staffed by Latinos as many of those places are along the stretch in Connecticut.  My smile put them at ease, as it often does, and I have gotten so used to it that I don't so much question the circumstance.  I am beyond looking for trouble.  I am looking for the next place to turn on the highway, and on this trip I was trying to make it into mid-Manhattan for a special spiritual celebration for a friend of mine.  I was hoping to get to the George Washington bridge before rush hour.

I suppose what I am thinking here as I write is how the signs we use to decode life are rapidly changing and how our repertoire increases with age.  My students now were born around 1993, and I am trying to gather notes for what I think are the signs they use to decode our culture and our world.  They were only two years old when the film "Heat" was released.  My parallel for the time space difference for them to try to relate to "Heat" is that of me relating to "Shane," which is not so difficult for me.  It was my father's favorite film, and it is much about American men and their guns.

In some complex way American men associate guns with work.  A farmer needs a good shotgun.  A policeman, of course, needs a gun for the bad people.  In this scene from "Heat" De Niro is a bad person, but he needs his gun to do his job.  His work is stealing from other people and from institutions.  This scene has nothing I would call humor, but the subject of men and guns and work comes up again for me in the most recent "True Grit" when Jeff Bridges' character explains to young Mattie that he robbed a high interest bank in New Mexico and had to made a run for it.  Young Mattie is horrified, bound as she is to her Christian ethics.  But it is again that idea of guns and work.

This week I had to get a new tire, which I was not expecting, and the man who works at the dealership as a general manager gave me a ride back home to get my credit card as I don't carry them.  I would rather not own one, but that seems impossible in our world, or at least my part of it.  I do not own any firearms of any type and have not had one since my military training.  I travel as light as I can, but in traveling I sometimes see how heavy men can be when they are at the business of work, and how much of it touches on guns and violence in some way.  As I rode to get my credit card, the manager was telling me of how he lost his job as a machinist.  We began talking about the difficulty of that work, not the least of which is having correct tolerances.  He was glad to be free of the heaviness of that life.

It's the heaviness, I guess, that makes America such a violent place, the heaviness of men having to think of work as moving weighty things such as bad people and obstinate objects through space, and in that kind of thinking there is not much room for lightness.  But wouldn't it be a great thing if we could have more lightness and would not have to think that heaviness and the "true grit" of bringing your rough intentions to bear on a subject or on a life are the frames that give a man his character?  

I like "Heat," and watch it again from time to time.  This evening I watched it knowing that neither of these men know the real heaviness of the life they are portraying.  They may have known such men, and that may help inform their performances.  But the paradox is having to think of whether what they do is making our lives heavier or lighter.  All we can do is wonder and know for sure that in one tragic moment in Florida a man thought his work involved the heaviness of carrying a gun, or that the act of that gave him a manly character.  

What will it take to save us from ourselves?  I was thinking something like that when I walked up to the counter and asked for a coffee and smiled at the very nice lady about my age who was just trying to make it through the day.  Something will have to help us to think there are other ways to be other than taking, that more of us can give.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

That Summer in New Hampshire

That Summer in New Hampshire
Water Song Part II

                      When my ship comes in is a phrase we all know, or a certain generation knows, and it's about the thing hoped for but not quite seen.  The poet's success is some ship out in the bay for many of us, and maybe it's when we realize it's better for the ship to stay out on the water that we come to understand the real prize of this thing called being a poet.

I left Baltimore and drove up to Indian Pond, New Hampshire, without a clue as to how long it would take.  I had been on the road for eight hours and realized it would be a few more before I got to the turn I was supposed to take to get to Catrina's house.  There was supposedly a mailbox there at the road just past the junction where New Hampshire met Vermont, but it was dark.  There were no lights on the road, just the road itself and the way it revealed it's curves and dips to my Datsun 510.  

Recently, I had to explain to my students just what a Datsun was.  "It was what Nissan was before it became Nissan," I told them.  "Oh really," they said, "Professor Weaver, you are old."

But there I was in the dark with my five speed hatchback.  I had most of what I owned in and on it, including my Schwinn High Sierra bicycle.  My buddy Duck, a man I worked with in the warehouse for years had explained to me that a bike was the emblem of freedom, that and staying out of debt.  Before I left the warehouse he gave me the precepts of a black man's wisdom.  "Keep your bike, Mike.  Pay your bills, and guard your affections.  You know how easy you are to fall in love."

That last precept took a few years to sink in, and when I finally saw that mailbox I took the turn onto the dirt road leading up a steep hill.  There were no lights anywhere, but I could make out the grove of trees Catrina had drawn on the map she mailed to me with a letter explaining my station as her artist helper for the summer.  I went just past the grove and took a right turn, and it wase the right turn.  When I eased onto her grass just outside the kitchen door near her well, she threw open the door and stood there as vampish as she could for all of her maturity.  She was eighty-three years old, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who had known the entire Calder family of American sculptors as well as Madam Soon Qing Ling, one of the last female aristocrats of Old China.

"You look like a man without a home," she said, standing there smiling.  Her hair was neat.  She looked as if she had been prepping for my arrival all day.  I was glad to turn off my engine and leave the car.  She had some snack prepared for me in the kitchen, which was the heart of the house when it was built before the American revolution.  The furniture was all Shaker.  When daybreak came the next day, I saw the militia certificate on the wall for the man who built the house.  It certified that he fought the British.  

There was a big field of wild blueberries in front of the house, and now and then a deer would poke across, taking its time to feel each blade of grass on its hooves.  There was indeed a pond nearby where the locals and vacationers came to swim and sunbathe.  When my son came to visit me, we went slipping out into the water like two bears, the only black people on the beach.  I took him mountain climbing on the smaller mountains nearby.  We made it halfway up one of them.  Beneath us we could see the plastic tubes connecting the trees and sending maple syrup down to the store by the road.  

It was an idyllic summer, one that gave me a place to rest after being in Europe for two months and before going into Brown that fall.  It was my year of fellowships.  I had won my NEA earlier that year, and when Brown accepted me they gave me a full university fellowship.  I was riding high.  I had copies of my book Water Song in a box in my room upstairs where I listened to French radio from Montreal.

Catrina invited Jay and Lois Wright to come visit and I said I would cook and make tea.  True to my Baltimorean form I made fried chicken wings and served a generic tea from the store.  Catrina looked on in amusement.  I did my best, and I was absolutely stunned by Jay's presence.  Charles Rowell had described him as the most learned of all American poets of any race, and I do believe he was right.  He made such an impression on me that I have always striven to "know" as well as to "write."  Jay and Lois were kind enough not to speak disparagingly about my fried chicken wings.

Catrina picked her times to give me instruction and comeuppance.  I was at the kitchen table putting together a scrap book of photos and favorite things from my trip to Europe as she stood by in one of her humorless moods.  After a few seconds she could not contain herself.  

"When you have been to Europe as many times as I have you won't need a scrapbook!  I went to Europe on a steamer after I finished my degree at Radcliffe.  There were no transatlantic flights.  As for tea, had you read your Victorian fiction you would know the proper time for tea."

Well, that did not help my general lack of interest in Victorian fiction.  I made myself read Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, but Trollope was no match for Melville.  I chewed whole chunks of Moby Dick and loved teaching Billy Budd years later at Rutgers, but in this summer in the mountains of New Hampshire Catrina had near bout killed my desire to read fiction by the later 19th c. British scribblers.  They can all thank her.  Her spirit persists, despite the fact that it has flown.  She and her sister Betty lived past 100 years of age and carried whole histories with them.  Their father was the first accounting professor at Harvard, a man who thought DuBois was a rabble rouser.

The summer was about class distinctions and the mountains of things I had to learn as well as about the White Mountains that people the area like resolute saints.  I can see my son sitting with me now near the top of that smaller mountain, looking down and around at creation.  Time was suspended for us.  Troubles and doubts were at bay.  I had managed to tear off a chunk of freedom from life in a place where the night sky seemed nearly white with stars and I could see the infrequent traffic lights of cars peeking around the highways of distant mountains at night while animals I could not see made music I did not know in trees waiting for me to name them.  I call them memories.  I call them the gateways to the next phase of life, the sentinels that watched me as I slept those nights in New Hampshire.

As for falling in love, I was in love with a woman whom I would later marry, Ms Aissatou, but that summer I fell headlong into a loving friendship with Catrina, a woman fifty years my senior who loved sipping her brandy while watching Tom Brokaw and picking at me as I cut the lawn or trimmed the lilacs in front of the door.  I think of Catrina and the lilacs in this line from Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" as what is love if it is not sometimes careless and inexplicable? 

"You only I hear—yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart, )
Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me."

It was what Charles Rowell thought I needed, that summer with Catrina, who knew so much about me the minute she saw me.  About that much, he was certainly right, right about the right turn from the mailbox onto that steep hill leading up to parts of me that I had yet to "know" and to "write."

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Water Song

             It was heartbreaking.  I had hoped to win the Walt Whitman Award in 1983, but my manuscript, something entitled "City Folk," had only been selected as one of forty finalists out of a field of twelve hundred manuscripts.  I have only rarely submitted manuscripts to contests and have not done even that in many years, but at this point in my life I can say that was not a bad showing.  I was still in factory, working as a janitor in the warehouse at Baltimore's Procter & Gamble plant, and I wanted to escape.  I had a plan, but the best laid plans are only plans.  The imponderable civic of human activity and the intelligence that governs it have other plans.  

         In 1975 I wrote the first version of what became "City Folk," and that became "Water Song" in 1985, a sojourn of ten years between first draft of a manuscript and a published book.  In 1975, "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" was a box office favorite, and ten years later it was "The Last Dragon," and arguably postmodern look at identity and hybridity around the theme of the interface between African American and Asian cultures.  If the warehouse was my own cuckoo's nest, I "sure nough" wanted to fly, and I was more the "Leroy" character, utterly naive but hopeful, than the power wielding "Sho Nuff" Shogun in "The Last Dragon."  Those were ten years of trying to know myself and the world through my writing while stacking boxes, loading trucks, cleaning bathrooms, and scrubbing floors.  

         "City Folk" was written on a portable electric typewriter I bought while living in a garden apartment in East Baltimore.  In 1980 my wife and I moved to a house near the old stadium in Baltimore where the Colts and Orioles played.  I could hear the crowds cheering, and I could feel the stomach ache of a lull when things weren't going so well.  It was a two story house where I used the third bedroom as my study.   A few months after my rejection/congratulations letter from the Academy of American Poets, I received a phone call from Charles H. Rowell, editor of Callaloo magazine and the Callaloo series of books of poetry by such notables as Jay Wright.

         It was 1984, a Sunday morning in spring, my reflection time.  The phone rang, and Charles announced himself.  Before long he asked if I had a manuscript.  My breathing stopped.  My heart skipped a few beats.  This was a moment I had been waiting for, a chance to publish.  I was so excited, and I immediately said that I had two manuscripts, as I tended then, as I do now, to write in at least two streams when I am actively writing.   I had other irons in the works.  I had enrolled in a non-resident university program in New York to finish my bachelor's degree.  I had been applying for a NEA fellowship in poetry.  I was preparing to apply to the writing program at Brown.  But this seemed golden.  I was so excited.  Then another shoe dropped.

         "How tall are you?" Charles asked.

         I was caught and suddenly fearful where I had been so excited, but I gave my height.  It seemed so awkward, and Charles replied, "Oh, and so sensitive."

         Charles is an exceptionally intelligent man, well read and, quietly enough, perhaps one of the more 
knowledgable persons in the field of African American literature.  He is also well versed in the dynamics of how people move in the literary world.  At the time I knew nothing of such things, but my exit from the factory seemed more plausible now.  I did not want to jeopardize this opportunity.

         Fall approached and Charles began writing to me, letters I have since misplaced.  He wanted me to come and spend a weekend with him in Charlottesville, so we could take rides in the mountains and talk about my poetry.  Call it a misunderstanding, but I was only comfortable with a visit where I could get a hotel room nearby.  Things fell apart and we did not communicate much until earlier the following year, after much had happened for me.

         I had applied for the NEA again, and this time I won.  It was January, 1985, and I was able to leave Procter & Gamble.  I left friends behind, and I carried with me what I still have, a penchant for habits such as stopping by the 7 Eleven for a coffee in the evenings, or taking long walks away from my office at Simmons to remember some of what it was to spend a whole day on my feet.  I left, and some of my black coworkers gave me a dinner at a posh restaurant on Falls Road.  I left and moved out into the world half expecting people to know who I was, which was so naive.  I had no sense of the competitiveness in American poetry, the way people guard their territories.  My own sense of propriety would take years to cultivate.  But there I was, out of factory life.  I had applied to Brown before I left and that acceptance would come in April with a full university fellowship.

         Water Song was in limbo.  My personal life was in flux.  I had left my second wife and was dating the lady who would become my third wife.  I was a celeb in Baltimore, an ignorable fact in New York, but in B'more I was everywhere, and I did the best I could with handling the success.  There are quite a few poet workers in America, but among black poets I was rare, and I was more rarer for having made my exit from blue collar life with an NEA.  It was a singular accomplishment, more so than I understood at the time.  Water Song would follow later in the year, but there were hurdles.  Charles and I had another misunderstanding.

         I called him from my fiancee's apartment and announced, somewhere in the conversation, that I was remarrying.  Charles was less than happy to hear this news.  In fact, he was furious.   He thought that I was not taking my talent seriously.  Charles assessed my gift as a poet to be distinctive.  His wish for me was that I live a more monastic life, monastic except that I should make my romantic liaisons with men.  He thought women would take my essential energy away from me.

         "I don't know if I will be able to do your book!  I might do a small book, but I don't know when that will happen."  The call ended abruptly.  We communicated infrequently by mail after that, and it was agreed that I would ask David Driskell for a cover image.   Professor Driskell is one of the giants among African American painters, and I was thrilled.  My fiancee and I went to his studio in College Park, Maryland, and Driskell told me to choose whatever I liked.  I chose a beautiful painting of his depicting a minister with wings around him, and I choose woodcuts of nude figures for the two sections of the book.  Water Song treats the southern roots of my family and black culture in the first section, and in the second section there are poems about the industrial north.  It is thoroughly working class.

         Other people tried to give me advice about how to navigate this new space in my life, and when I chose to take some of my NEA money for my first trip to Europe, some thought it unwise because I should have been attending to my book.  But I wanted a touch of class, insecure as I was about having been a laborer for so long, insecure and afraid of people's judgments.  I had done all I could do for my book, I thought, and I trusted Charles to look after the proofreading.

         In late June I returned to the States after wandering in Europe, and the box containing the first copies of Water Song arrived, and it was full of surprises.  The cover was not the one I chose, and the woodcuts were not inside because Charles said there would be no naked people in his books.  Finally, there were typos and lines had been arbitrarily broken in a few poems.  I felt like I had been throughly whooped, allowed a measure of success with my first book but only after being picked up like a puppy, prodded and smacked around the ears.  In any event, there I was, with first book in hand.

         Call it a shared southern sense of communication, or call it the persistence of my own false humility, but Charles took it upon himself to recommend that I go spend the summer with Mrs. Catrina White in Indian Pond, New Hampshire, because Jay Wright lived nearby and I could get a chance to get to know him.  Charles explained that he thought Wright and I have something in common, a metaphysical centering, among other things.  Mrs. White, an elderly woman, was in the habit of keeping an artist as a summer helper, and I became that artist helper, and I started to get to know Jay Wright.  That summer changed the course of my writing and my life.

         When I work with young poets nowadays, I do so only if asked.  Once I decide to work with them, I try to be as judicious as possible.  They are a vulnerable lot, the necessary keepers of our cultural consciousness, vulnerable as they may or may not be.   When I sit in places where decisions are made, I remember all of what I have seen, the politics and betrayals as well as the unabashed displays of compassion, and I try to do the right thing.

         I go forward trying to remember what things cost, as in James Baldwin's trope "The Price of the Ticket."