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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Afaa Michael Weaver, This Tongue of Yours

If I think of where I began, it seems overwhelming. My naivete seems so large and implausible. Forty years after walking into the steel mills and declaring myself a poet, I wonder why no one was able to make me see the difficulties inherent in succeeding in literary life. I find it much easier to talk to poets who feel they have had to live with being given God’s tongue rather than trying to acquire the same. The difference for those of us who feel it was given to us is that we sometimes want to give it back. All along the way, I have resisted the categorizing, the placement, the misperceptions, all the things that come from acting from an inner base and contrary to what most other people move in life when they think they are poets.

“Here God, I think Gabriel could make better use of this tongue of yours. After all, he has wings.”

If ambition and self-loathing are not a recipe for inner turmoil, then there is no such thing as the soul’s chemistry, but there I was, the son of a sharecropper become steelworker, working in the steel mill myself and writing poetry. It has been forty years since I scribbled those juvenile poems that are now a part of the Howard Gotlieb archives at Boston University alongside Dr. Martin Luther King’s papers as well as Walt Whitman’s papers. I knew in the past when I was having to summon a gargantuan courage, but it is only now that I am realizing the courage it takes to begin to make an honest assessment of the distance I have traveled to this point as a poet and writer, of the distance and the depth. The greater wonder is that it feels the way it has always felt in the past when I thought I had established a firm foundation in my writing and my life.

It is good to always think of oneself as a beginner, and from that place pray and work for an honest humility, one that is a quiet acknowledgement of what one has done and hopes to do. Success and critical assessments can make that project of honest humility a harder one to undertake. It has not been easy to even think about my accomplishments as being on the same level as Whitman, to think that I have laid a foundation not just for myself but for my culture.

I think of this comparison in little bits of time, a little at a time. It’s not good to stare into the sun, into God’s eyes.

If you are working class and white, discussion of class is a more recognizable thing, but when you are black and working class, which is to say born working class and working in the working class world, you know discussions of class do not often take place among black people. Someone recently told me that I was playing the “class” card, but I don’t see it that way, especially as the person who told me has had the privilege afforded in the black community by our own strategies of opportunities based on color, including education historically. High school education in better schools in Baltimore, my hometown, was a matter, in the past, of how light-skinned one was. Segregation kept people of different occupations in the same neighborhood, but our social worlds were points of demarcation. My family knew nothing of Cape May’s segregated beaches for middle class blacks in south Jersey. But people who went to those beaches lived in houses that were structurally like mine, although my parents’ home bore the markings of different levels of education and black privilege.

My Kool Aid was not your Kool Aid is one way of pointing up the slowly and begrudgingly emergent discussion of class among black people. For one thing, it threatens that old sense of ourselves as a group that is bound in complex ways in our use of the first person plural pronoun. We are an amazing people is something I still believe.

It was against and within this that I launched myself, determined to use what I was given, as in the biblical story of the ten talents. I know now that it was a matter of coming up the rough side of the mountain, and it was ambition, an ambition made more complex by my inability to embrace whatever success came my way. I just kept moving along like a lumbering freight train until I hit that ultimate destination, me. It was my interface with my childhood that gave me the light to use as a tool of inner illumination. It was when I saw the power of child sexual abuse to configure our lives that I came to understand my writing life and my life, as well as came to understand how my spiritual and truer self is independent of God’s gifts.

God’s gift is life itself.

God’s gift requires recognition, recognition of ourselves by ourselves. There are nearly forty boxes of documents and artifacts in those archives at Boston University that verify most, if not all of the stories I have told people over the years, stories that seem almost incredible to me, but are made credible by affirmations of that terrifyingly beautiful tongue, the tongue that some of us are given, and which we can only see as a blessing when we let go the thing that drives us, ambition and the will of the ego, the will to fame.

Why do I write? I write because it is the work that I do, and I am working class in nature, although I have a professor’s office next to a park where Canada geese have the unmitigated gall, the temerity to stop traffic whenever they please.

That’s a long, long way from East Baltimore and the steel mills, my beginnings, as now I begin once more.

Afaa Michael Weaver (b. Michael S. Weaver) is a poet, playwright, short fiction writer, translator, editor, and journalist. He has been an NEA fellow, a Pew fellow and a Fulbright scholar. In 2008 he received a Pushcart prize. His tenth collection of poetry is The Plum Flower Dance (U Pitt 2007). His eleventh collection of poems, Kama i’reeh (Like the Wind, a translation of newer and selected poems of his into Arabic by Wissal Al-Allaq is in press. Afaa works with poets in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and holds an endowed chair at Simmons College. His websites are: &

Monday, March 01, 2010

Sandy Tseng, Tragedy and Art

We’ve all seen it before—the undeniable connection between tragedy and the creative process. I have never been good at humor, wit or rhyme, but take a tragic event—my own loss or someone else’s—and I feel thoroughly consumed by it, fueled by it, energized to write for days, even weeks or months.

When my husband joined a team of medical professionals from Denver to go to Haiti last month, I had never felt so unhelpful as I had watching them pack up 1500 lbs of medical supplies. There we were, working around the clock on a few hours of sleep to get the team ready to go, and I didn’t know enough about medicines and supplies to help pack their duffle bags. I did, however, appreciate learning two new drug names, Ketamine and Lidocaine—words that were sure to contribute to a poem eventually. Throughout the night, someone would mention the drugs again, and while I never noted the context, the musicality of those words echoed in me, rolled off my tongue. How many feet were in those words? I mouthed the syllables and counted the stresses on my fingers. Could the words be used in the same line? Ketamine. Lidocaine. That all depended.

I saw the medical team off at the airport at 6am on a Sunday morning, and it was a good hour to get started on my writing. Yes good luck, team--I’ll just be hanging out in Denver, writing. Let’s face it. There’s a reason someone doesn’t study medicine. I couldn’t assist in surgery even if someone gave me an instrument and told me exactly when to hand it to the surgeon.

But then something exciting happened after the team returned to Denver. The entire team of 11 medical professionals began talking enthusiastically about writing a book together. Each of them had an insatiable desire to express what they had experienced. Did they go as doctors and nurses and come back as writers? Were they driven, for the first time, by the inexorable energy that produced art?

Amidst the team’s talks of memoir writing, I can only begin to imagine the energy running through the Haitian artists at this time. I am sure that the energy in the Haitians is many times more inspiring and empowering than what we are experiencing. What we don’t see on CNN is the Haitians singing, dancing—celebrating art—in spite of tragedy.

And every one of them has a tragic story. The artist Joseph Sandral, whose banana bark collages my husband purchased in Haiti, lost his daughter during the earthquake. The artist Thamara, who made boxes and jewelry out of cow horn with her father, lost her husband whom she just married in mid-December. We receive these updates through Matthew 25 House (, where the team stayed, and where there was once an artisan shop featuring paintings, banana bark collage, jewelry, wood and metal sculptures by over 20 artists. Many of the artists continue to stop by the house, and they are able to receive some money for food because of the artwork that volunteers purchase while passing through. Despite the circumstances, the artists continue to endure, and they continue to produce art.

There is a power in art that has the ability to bring us through tragedy time and time again. Art is as essential to our survival as food and water. We require it as a form of self-expression. Art is an act of mourning, it’s an acknowledgment, and it brings healing. It is a rebuilding process. If it is possible, in the five days spent in Haiti, to make writers out of doctors and nurses—to inspire memoirs out of people who have never expressed an interest in writing—then the Haitians are indeed rebuilding themselves. This is their rebuilding process. They are building mansions in place of shacks, and they will rise in the spirit of their music and dancing. Many people are asking how this poverty stricken country can ever recover, but indeed they will rise out of the rubble. Out of the graves of their loved ones, they will rise.

Sandy Tseng

Sandy Tseng is the author of Sediment, published by Four Way Books in October 2009. Among her awards are The Nation's Discovery Award, the Louis Untermeyer Tuition Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Vira I. Heinz Foundation scholarship. She has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Currently a resident of Colorado, she teaches at Metropolitan State College of Denver.