As art makers, we have a tendency to think of suffering as "grist for the mill." I certainly did once, and, in many ways, probably self-inflicted pain just so I could one day mine it for some provocative, confessional beauty that would carry me to a vague notion of poetic stardom, if such a thing exists. These days, I've come to believe that the value of suffering lies not in the artistic material it provides, but in the peace and clarity of vision its endurance affords. The poet Afaa Michael Weaver seems to lend evidence to this, having emerged from a barrage of harrowing experiences with a poetic voice that is both finely wrought and commanding in its conveyance of grace, harmony and forgiveness. The best of Weaver's poems, many of which can be found in his 2014 Kingsley-Tufts Award-winning collection The Government of Nature, ember with the soft insistence of fireflies, coaxing us toward wisdom, inviting us to remember truths we didn't know we knew, as Frost might say.
A Christian and devoted practitioner of Taoist meditation and Tai Chi, Weaver has relied on his spiritual practice in order to transcend trials that have included the death of his first child, Schan; fifteen years of factory work performed during a period in life that is, typically, the young poet's most formative; the dissolution of three marriages; a severe psychological breakdown for which he was largely ostracized by the black community in his native Baltimore; a grim diagnosis of congestive heart failure that nearly killed him at age 43; and the recovery of repressed memories -- unearthed over time with the help of an analyst -- concerning childhood sexual abuse and incest at the hands of his uncle. This last realization, arrived at in 1998, was so traumatic that it kept Weaver away from poetry for the next seven years. When he resumed writing, in 2005, he concerned himself with poems about nature and landscape, presumably to keep a distance from the pain of personal history. Many of those poems ended up appearing in The Government of Nature and sing with the humble assurance of one who has survived, and learned, much. Which is not to say that notes of suffering are absent in Weaver's recent work -- they most certainly are. But Weaver's is a suffering transmuted, one that has been made radiant and reveals the deep strength humans possess should we choose to summon it.
I had the good fortune of speaking with Weaver last month. Here's what he had to say:
Ben Evans: In your brilliant "Plum Flower Trilogy" -- made up of The Plum Flower Dance; The Government of Nature; and City of Eternal Spring, respectively -- I am most fascinated by the expansion that occurs between the first and second books. Whereas The Plum Flower Dance is more concerned with unearthing and chronicling your origins and personal history, the "I" in The Government of Nature seems, somehow, both more collective, and more poetically distinct. The collection seems to evidence your departure from a smaller, more conventional notion of the "self" to a more dynamic and inter-connected one. I guess, is that accurate? Did you experience a diminishment of ego in the period between those two books?
Afaa Michael Weaver: I think that is accurate and I think the period between the two books is a very long period, because "The Plum Flower Dance" covers a span of 20 years of published work, and from the very beginning when I began writing I had the kind of definite thing that you'll see when I'm writing about something as specific as race, but then something that's much larger when I'm trying to deal with issues of being human. And, when I was younger and I looked out, and I was working and studying as a factory worker, I looked out on the landscape of work being done by poets, African American poets, some of them in the political realm, and I didn't see a lot of people writing about the interior lives of black people. And at an early age I decided, "Well, I just have to do that," you know? I didn't grow up in my home, in my family's house, we didn't grow up talking about things racially, it just never happened, we went about our lives and there wasn't a racial construct to it, what happened inside the house. I mean we were aware of difference, but our lives weren't, our conversations weren't, governed by that. And then as I moved through writing I sometimes wrote in an organic way, and once in a while I did a project book, like "Stations in a Dream" is all about Marc Chagall's paintings, but "The Government of Nature" came about in an organic way, which is to say I started writing it when I was in this monastery in Taiwan, on the Eastern coast there for a few weeks. And I had not really been writing on my regular schedule for about seven years because the truth of my childhood trauma, the incest, came out in 1998 after four years of working with an analyst in Philadelphia. And when it emerged, it terrified me and I stopped writing, because it came out of my poetry, the book of mine called "Talisman" that Tia Chucha Press published, Tia Chucha under Luis Rodriguez. That book I wrote in the summer of 1994 and inside that book I found the key to the incest itself; once the memories began to emerge, it was uncanny because the box of the new books arrived around the time the memory emerged. And I think there was something that happened in my psyche around that same time because I was beginning to write from a more intensely personal lyrical vantage point. And there's a book of mine called "Sandy Point," which was a handmade book that was produced when I was at Bucknell as poet in residence in The Stadler Center in the spring of '97, and there were only 150 copies so it wasn't available to many people, but inside that book are poems that are clearly on the way to what's inside "The Government of Nature." But I didn't write very much after that, not in a regular way, and in 1990 I wrote a draft of the book of mine "The Ten Lights of God" which Bucknell University published, and those poems were inspired by the Kabbalah, the rabbinical idea of God's body having ten lights, so little by little as I continued to write, I wrote my way into this self-discovery, this self-awareness, and was not able to recover from that from 1998 until the spring of 2005. You know, you didn't see very much about me in big venues etcetera in those seven years, those were the seven years that some of these younger poets came through like Major Jackson and Terrence Hayes, but I went pretty quiet for about seven years. But then once I started writing "The Government of Nature" in the spring of 2005 I began with poems about nature, and didn't really know how all of that... I just started writing. And after I did the segment on the nature poems I contacted Pittsburgh (Press) and suggested "The Government of Nature" as a book to do. And once that book was published I went back and looked at those nature poems and tried to understand where they were going and then I began writing little by little about the trauma itself. So that book came together piece by piece in a way that some of my other books came together, like the very first book, but this time when it came together piece by piece I had to deal with the issues of betrayal, having been betrayed at such a fundamental level I felt less bound to ideas of loyalty both on a personal level and on a racial level, and I began to believe that I had a right to take care of myself and to honor myself, and that had been my struggle all my life: not really being able to take care of myself as in being respectful to my own needs, and I wasn't really able to talk in any kind of articulate way about the world of my own feelings until I began to go into recovery from childhood sexual abuse.
BE: I wonder if recognizing your own mind's capability for repression with regard to the sexual abuse you experienced in childhood taught you anything about the nature and function of memory in poetry?
AMW: It did. I think that there's a place in the mind that is a kind of... Well there's a meeting place in the mind and a consciousness where God sort of lets us go on our own, our own minds and consciousness or what we call our mind is connected to God, it's the root of our spirituality. In that rabbinical tradition of the Kabbalah there is one saying that wisdom begins above thoughts, or when thought ceases wisdom begins, which can be taken as a Buddhistic idea too, and there's a good chance those thinkers were influenced by intersections of Buddhism... but I think that when horrible things happen to us the mind has, we have this way of protecting ourselves through dissociation because we cannot endure the actual act itself, we can't be fully present there, and repression is related to that, or repression is a function of dissociation. And I think that poetry, due to the fact that the creative state of consciousness is so much similar to the dream state as research has indicated, as we know ourselves, as Coleridge wrote about dreams, and I think poets have always known about dreams, you know Shakespeare said: "To sleep perchance to dream," but in that opening up of the mind that's a prerequisite to writing poetry, there's also an opening up to the areas where things are kept, and I think that a lot of what may appear to us in the form of poetry comes out of these canisters where these things are locked. I think some poets are astute enough about their own consciousness to know what they're filtering through, but others of us are not, which is not to say it doesn't happen, but I'm just trying to configure two ways of looking at repression and memory and creativity. Some of us directly work with it, and the more you directly work with such a thing the more you are informed by it, which is to say you can't open those canisters and just close them at will. Once you open them then you have to be courageous enough to work with what they will continue to give you. There really is no scientific definition of the mind, and philosophers go back and forth about whether or not the mind is a function of the physical organ, the brain itself, or whether it's a combination of that and the activating and governing force from outside the body. I believe that our brains are activated and governed by the spiritual force, by the divine, that's my belief, and to say that the mind is purely a function of the brain is kind of an egotistical materialism that leads to things like Marxism.
BE: What do you believe is the appropriate relationship between thinking and living? Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching -- a text you reference often -- suggests that thought, action and by extension I suppose poetry, should all arise organically in order to be authentic and in accord with the Tao. As a scholar and deeply thoughtful human being, how do you reconcile, how can we reconcile, the human need to think, to solve, to name and explain with that Eastern imperative of pure Being, of purely Being?
AMW: Well, I have an image sometimes of a kind of, of a very, how should I say this, efficient way of existing harmonically and working etcetera. As a poet if I could have a job where I would have physical work to do that allowed me to think and be creative while I'm moving along, that's a privilege to be able to do that I think, and to be able to do that with some freedom. Thinking and doing have to be done in conjunction. When you meditate you go into a certain state of consciousness, and when you finish, or when I finish, I might feel great or I might feel like I spent a lot of time with something that's troubling, but I can never engage myself purely on the basis of myself, it's not until I leave the house, or leave the cave as I call my apartment, and go, for example across the street to the store and get something, or to say "hi" to a neighbor, or drive some place to an activity with people or if I go to teach, then I can come to understand how I really am in relation to other people. And I think, the idea of, say for example, cleaning up a yard and thinking and working, being creative in that process, is a kind of microcosm of being with yourself and your environment, but in a larger way even that state has to come into play with other human beings. So I think that thinking and living have to be done with some kind of simultaneity, so when I'm sitting and meditating I'm not just thinking about thinking, I'm both aware of what's going on around me -- whether it's the noise this old house makes or the traffic as it starts to rise up early in the morning because the house is right on the street, or whatever it is -- know that those things are there but then also focus on whatever it is I'm focusing on so I'm not disrupted or stopped by them. And it's the same thing going into my job, I still call teaching, as I did when I was in the factory, "going to work," and dealing with all there is to deal with there, which is natural in a place of employment, but going into that and maintaining what I have gotten from spending time with myself. It's easy to walk around by yourself in the woods and declare yourself an enlightened being but it might be a total fantasy because you're out there by yourself, your not engaged with other human beings. It's much more difficult to deploy that consciousness in contact with other people.
BE: I wonder if you'd agree that suffering is the great purifier; if you think it's possible for one to attain a higher degree of consciousness without first enduring pain?
AMW: Well, I think it is the great purifier. It makes you grow. If it doesn't kill you, you grow. And in the tradition in which I was raised I had the example of Christ enduring the suffering and then in the Buddhist tradition you have Buddha going out in the world to experience what he saw as suffering in order to transcend. I think it's kind of difficult to get around the fact that suffering does teach you.
This interview can be listened to and read in its entirety here.