#36: Afaa Weaver 2018
Meditation and the Life of the Mind, February 27, 2019
In this episode, author Afaa M. Weaver recounts his journey from the military to the factory floor and finally to the life of a scholar. Along the way, he found his Southern Baptist roots gave way to his current practice of meditation in the Daoist tradition. Scholar Sarina G. Moore mediates this conversation, which reflects on the nature of masculinity, the relationship between the body and the soul, and more.
- Afaa Michael Weaver,
- Spirit Boxing
- Government of Nature
- Eva Wong, Cultivating Stillness
- Tao Te Ching
Lauren Cole (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
The power of names, the many paths to poetry and playwriting and the creative life. A conversation with Afaa Michael Weaver on this week’s Rewrite Radio.
I’m Lauren Cole, a junior at Calvin College and a Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
On today’s Rewrite Radio, independent scholar Sarina Gruver Moore talks with author Afaa Michael Weaver about how his journey took him from factory work to a Fulbright—and the spiritual practices that helped him along the way.
Afaa M. Weaver is a poet, short story writer, playwright, and editor. You need to listen to this episode to learn his whole story, but—spoiler alert—in 1985, Weaver published his first collection of poetry, Water Song, received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for poetry, and attended Brown University’s graduate writing program on a fellowship. Weaver has gone on to publish 10 poetry collections, including Multitudes, The Ten Lights of God, and City of Eternal Spring. As a playwright, Weaver wrote Rosa, which was produced at the Venture Theatre in Philadelphia. He edited the collection These Hands I Know: African-American Writers on Family, and his short fiction appears in a number of anthologies including Children of the Night.
Weaver has received many accolades, including the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a Fulbright Scholar appointment, and a fellowship from the Pew Foundation. In addition to teaching at the National Taiwan University and Taipei National University of the Arts on his Fulbright, Weaver held the Alumnae Endowed Chair at Simmons College. He remains a member of the core faculty in the Drew MFA program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation. His papers are held in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
Here’s Afaa Michael Weaver with Sarina Gruver Moore at the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing.
Afaa Michael Weaver: [00:02:31] Thank you.
Sarina: So I was wondering if you would give us an introduction to all of your names and how you acquired them and what they mean to you.
Afaa: Well, when I was born my parents named me Michael Shawn Weaver. In 1997, I took the African name Afaa given to me by Tess Onwueme whose from the Ibo culture in Nigeria, which means “oracle”—Afaa, and the middle name became Michael. In Chinese, my name was given to me by my godfather. He is a professor emeritus at National Taiwan University—Mr. Perng Ching-hsi. And that name is Wei-Yafeng and so the “Wei” is actually a surname and a family name, and the “Ya” is related to the character for elegance or the tooth character and then “feng” is wind. So the translation is “someone who has the air of a poet,” and the “Yafeng” is taken from the [Yafuay] section of The Book of Songs, the first anthology of the ancient book of Chinese poetry. So the short version of that is “Yafeng.” So sometimes they’ll call me “Yafeng.” My Tai Chi teacher made me one of his disciples, and my disciple name is Yuan Ya—that’s the same character for inside the Chinese name. So every disciple has yuan which means the first generation after your teacher. My father was not able to pronounce Wei-Yafeng, so he said, “Where you from?" [laughter]
Sarina: Well, you’re only 66. Do you think you might get another name?
Afaa: I don’t know. [Afaa laughs] I think I have enough for now. Some people call me Afaa and some people call me Michael or Mike. My family still calls me Michael.
Sarina: Some of you may have been at yesterday afternoon’s talk when Afaa spoke about holding space; creating spaces: “A Southern Baptist Embraces Daoism.” I’m going to kind of pick up on some of the pieces that you left for us in that talk, which was really marvelous. It was in the Seminary Chapel. Afaa said in the talk at one point that you had decided at one point to be a minister and that pleased your father greatly—you didn’t—but it felt like hearing a sermon yesterday a bit. So maybe we’ll hear another sermon today.
Afaa: Well, [Afaa laughs] I’ll try not to be didactic.
Sarina: No not didactic—
Afaa: —or preachy.
Sarina: No, no. But you told us a bit about your early faith experiences as a Southern Baptist and being baptized as a child, and I wanted to hear more about what it was like to grow up in East Baltimore, you know, as a boy. What was that neighborhood like and community and Mount Zion Baptist Church and some of those early, early experiences?
Afaa: Well, we moved into the house on Federal Street and into a community that in later times was named Berea, but we called it the Valley. The elementary school that I attended was Fort Worthington and according to some research I did, it was a storage house for military equipment way back—I think in the 1800s—but it’s a huge stone building that sits atop a hill and then there’s a dip in a small valley. Those houses were built around World War II or shortly after and they were, you know, working class houses, two-family houses and the second floor was a bedroom, a kitchen, and a living room. I was five years old when we moved there; it was the fall of 1957. That birthday I turned 6 years old. I remember my first grade teacher Mrs. Holt, and she was a very stern woman. My world at that time in the 1950s, you know in Baltimore, it was segregated, but I didn’t think of it that way. It was just the way the world was.
We moved into that community and the remaining white families left very quickly—I don’t even remember them very much at all; they left very quickly. The church Mount Zion Baptist was about a 10-minute drive away on Caroline and Lanville streets there in East Baltimore. I went every Sunday; I went to Sunday school and I was an usher—I had a badge and I served communion. I was a very pious little boy, the oldest in my family—oldest of five. At that time, you know, African American families moving up from the South had a kind of cooperative economic system inside a family. So my Aunt Bernice and my Uncle Willy, who were my father’s side—my father’s sister—they had a house on Biddle Street, which is no longer there, was three stories, and so people would move up and sometimes stay briefly with them and then move on.
On mother’s side, my Great Aunt Margaret was a matron. She and her husband didn’t have kids of their own. Uncle Robert worked in the steel mill. When my mother and her sisters came up from Virginia, they stayed with Aunt Margaret. And when my father was dating my mother, he had to bring her back at a certain time to the house at a curfew, you know, and my father would say, “In those days, you didn’t know whether the lady you were dating was a bear or a gorilla until you got married.” That was his way of talking about the codes of behavior in those days. My father worked in the steel mill and I grew up on the weekends—my uncles would come by and they would sit around and have the table full of cheer—their drinks—and my mother would make soup for them.
[00:09:34] And I studied very hard. School was my whole life, you know, and I wanted to do the best that I could. The elementary school was around the corner. My parents went there and talked to the principal one day—I was in the sixth grade—and they came home and announced that I was going to skip the eighth grade. And so in 1963—the fall that President Kennedy was killed—I went to a mostly white, predominantly white junior high school as part of the movement toward integration and now skipped the eighth grade. And then my mother decided that I should go to an engineering high school, which was probably one of the toughest public high schools in Baltimore. It produced the CEO of Procter & Gamble, among other people. It was all boys, you know, I wore a shirt and tie every day and caught the bus, but that was still in East Baltimore.
So it was a childhood of doing homework. I was in junior high and the counselor said to me, “You should play.” So of course I was very scientific—"I should play"—so I came home and I said, “Well, I’m going to play from seven o’clock to eight o’clock.” I come home—I had a schedule, you know—I don’t know they’ve got lots of words for what that is, [laughter] but I chose the word “disciplined,” you know.
As the oldest child in that situation, once I got into junior high school, my parents could not help me with my homework. My father could have done some of the math fractions and so on, but I was doing algebra. And my mother went to the sixth grade, almost the seventh; my father I think finished the seventh grade. So that I had to figure out on my own—the French, you know. I just loved foreign languages, but I would have to do the conjugations and all those things by myself. I wasn’t an autodidact, but I didn’t have a support system in some of my immediate family.
So I started in junior high school with above three or four hours of homework every night. In order to get into the Honor Society, I had to have a hobby so I took chess caused I wanted to get into the Honor Society. In high school it was photography and that got me into the Honor Society there, but that engineering high school was pretty tough. And again, three sometimes five hours of homework. And so by the time I got to the University of Maryland, I was 16 years old. No social skills whatsoever. I mean dating—I’d never been on a date, you know, I went from that to being married—you can imagine.
The 1960s was the time of my adolescence. My 13th birthday was 1964 and in 1970 was my 19th birthday. So the 1960s is a coterminous period with my adolescence. So I went through the challenges of being an adolescent who was unconscious of his own trauma in a time when the country was in turmoil. Then when Dr. King was killed in 1968—that’s the year I graduated from high school. And I remember being inside—we had to stay in the house—there was a curfew and the military and there was a Jeep with a 50 caliber machine gun in front of the house by the post office. And my grandmother and I—my grandmother couldn’t walk—she had Huntington’s (that’s a whole other story—Huntington’s doesn’t happen in Africa, but my Irish great-grandfather brought that into that). But it was that whole ethos and the Vietnam War and so on.
But yeah growing up in, you know, in East Baltimore, we had so many cousins, they were mostly my playmates. I had friends too, but my mother’s side of the family consisted of 12 siblings as did my father side. So 24 aunts and uncles and then a legion of cousins, you know, and so a small army. Yeah. And about half of them were born in Virginia in Brunswick County, which is 15 miles from North Carolina. And a smaller group of us were born in Baltimore and some in New York, but mostly they were born in what we refer to as the country.
[00:14:49] And Southern food and Southern language and idiom inside the home. So, you know, I would say, “What y’all talking about? What’s going on in here?” “It ain’t your business!” Somebody say well, “What are you doing?” I said, “Min’in’ my business and leaving yours alone.” [laughter] And so that was the language I grew up with, so in a sense I felt when I got to school, of course, I couldn’t, you know, I had to try to dress it up a bit. But at home, that’s how my parents, my family talked.
Sarina: Hearing you describe your childhood—I know your story that you had a lot of trauma in childhood as well and we may get there in the conversation, and of course the country was experiencing communal trauma in various ways. But it also sounds so idyllic, too, in a lot of ways, you know. And your disciplined focus on education. In some ways it feels to me as though the childhood we would want to give our children, minus the trauma, but that’s so instructive, I think—that what we think is perfection and what we want to give our children, you know, the big family and the southern food and church every Sunday, good education—it doesn’t protect us from trauma and it doesn’t shield us from the suffering of life, you know and the four noble truths—and maybe we’ll get to the first noble truth here.
So you started working at Procter & Gamble, is that right?
Afaa: Actually when I left the university I went to the Bethlehem Steel company.
Afaa: Sparrows Point.
Sarina: Yeah, and then you were there for how long?
Afaa: Well I had a grand design for my happiness, and so I joined the military. I mean that was not something I had to do because there was the lottery system at that time and my number was very safe—was in the 200s, but I had three or four cousins who were in Vietnam and I wanted to you know—it was on one level it was a working class machismo kind of thing to do, and on another level it was an early manifestation of trauma, I was very insecure about my own masculinity. I didn’t understand why it was a matter of having to “kill the lion,” so to speak, you know. So there weren’t many units open, as a matter of fact, there was only one unit open—it was an intelligence unit: Army Security Agency. So I got into that, but I had to have an FBI clearance. So the FBI came through my neighborhood, my family. I got a top secret clearance in order to get into the system and then I became a cook. So I was a cook with a top secret clearance. [Sarina laughs]
So after the steel mill—I went there in May of 1970—and I got my orders to ship out for basic training in December. And so in my first marriage we married the day after Christmas, and on the 29th I was in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri with my drill sergeant who said he was now my family. I had no other family; he said, “Forget about it. You’re here with me now.” [Afaa laughs]
Sarina: When you came back from the war you did start working in the factory again, and you also started writing poetry at night. And you kind of became—I read an interview where you said you sort of became like the working class poet and you had some caché among other young poets as a result of that. I wonder if you could talk about that time and and maybe even—Spirit Boxing has a lot of poems about that whole period of time and who you became there.
Afaa: Well, you know, when I left the university one of the justifications I did was that I had read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and I thought, “Well if he could educate himself in prison, then I can finish this education in the factory.” It was a grand idea. And why I would equate the factory life with prison life, you know, I could talk a bit about that—factories are kinds of prisons—but a trauma survivor likes enclosure, you know, I know that now in retrospect. Enclosure and familiarity—things you can count on, you know, and so I retreated to that. And what the decision that I was—I said, “I am a poet. I’m a writer of some sort.” And so that’s what I did.
[00:19:56] In 1974 I published a poem in the student journal at the University of Maryland. My first published poem. In 1975, I gave a reading again at the University of Maryland. By that time I had gotten the job at Procter & Gamble. When I came back from basic training, I went to P&G and stayed there till ’85.
So my literary connections were in Washington, DC. In 1975, I met Ethelbert Miller who was retired from Howard, but at that time it was at Howard at the library working. In Washington DC I established myself as a poet, and then in 1978 I started to do more of that in Baltimore and I met Rodger Kamenetz and André Condrescu.
So it was about 1980 at that point; ’78, ’79—I’m trying to get the dates here. But in ’79, I started a small press with James Taylor and David Baldwin. They had their presses and they helped me write my Articles of Incorporation. I applied for 501c3, and I worked overtime at Procter & Gamble in order to get the money for paper and printing costs etcetera. In the factory I started two manuscripts in 1975, but I was on the packing floor, and I was working in the liquid detergent department for dishes. And so with all the moving machinery and so on, I couldn’t get away to do a lot, but I put in a bid for a job in the warehouse section. And in the warehouse, he said, “That’s where all the crazy guys worked.” They were renegades in the warehouse. So I went up to the warehouse in ’75 and there was more open space there and gradually I got job titles in the warehouse where I had more freedom to ride around and work at night. So by 1978, I was a relief operator on the machines—’79 actually—and I could work the night shift from time to time, and I would take books to work with me and read.
And I decided to finish up my Bachelor’s through an external degree program called the University of the State of New York Regent’s College formed by the regents of the public colleges and universities in New York state. The other thing—I was pretty busy—but I started freelancing for The Baltimore Sun. In 1980, Rodger and his wife Moira Crone was a fiction writer, they connected me with the editor of the op-ed page for the morning Sun—some papers in those days had two daily additions—morning and evening. So my first published piece, my first byline, was in 1980 and I was working in the warehouse still and it was an op-ed piece about the election Reagan won. And I talked in it—it was a kind of loosely researched op-ed piece about the potential of the black church for influencing voting and how they could have helped, you know, make a difference. On the job I came to understand—and working as I did with men who I say are like the core of the country’s patriotic stream, you know, these guys—like my father was a patriot even given growing up as a sharecropper in very tough circumstances in Virginia, he’s still a patriot.
And I said to him, I said, “You know the unions are going to suffer now.” And I would argue with the guys. Okay, you know, but you want and that’s what happened, but some of that was what the unions brought on themselves. I kept writing for The Sun. I was publishing the magazine. I published Lucille Clifton, Kimiko Hahn, Juan Felipe Pereira, he was young—I published him in that little magazine. I started reviewing books for Andre’s magazine Exquisite Corpse, and I did that while I was working in the factory.
[00:24:41] And I started applying for the National Endowment for the Arts and I got turned down twice. I even applied for a Guggenheim. I just got a Guggenheim last year and was like, I was embarrassed to tell people how long I’ve been applying for it, but that I was so happy. Ed Hirsch was happy for me too. He gave me a big hug; Ed’s a friend of mine. But yeah, I applied for the Guggenheim when I was working in a warehouse.
But in 1984, I was doing op-eds and I graduated to feature stories. I did a couple of those for the Sunday magazine section of the paper. So I’d developed a portfolio. I kept a portfolio of my publications, including Poetry magazine etcetera and used that as part of my application for my Bachelor’s. I applied for Brown University in 1984, and I was in the warehouse in the recreation room. And I told the guys, I said, “I applied to Brown University.” They laughed. They said, “You’re crazy.” They said, “You’re gonna die in here with the rest of us.” I said, “No, I’m not.” [laughter] And I had applied for the NEA again too, and I was negotiating with Charles Rowell to have my first book published through Callaloo, the University of Virginia Press.
All of that was going on in and then in January 1985 the acceptance letter for the NEA Fellowship came. My second marriage was gone by that time; I had left my wife and I was living with my father. I went downstairs and I saw the letter, and I said, “Ah another rejection, you know.” I opened it up and said, “Oh my God. You want to give me an NEA?” And I went downstairs and I said, “Pop, look what I got.” And I was always, as they say in my family, “into something,” you know, and he said, “What have you done now?” And he was shaking; he was making breakfast in the kitchen. “What have you done now?” I said, “Pop, I got $20,000 from the government.” He starts shaking more. He said, “For what?” He said, “Boy, you have to pay that money back.” [laughter] And I was like I said, “It’s for poetry, Pop.” He said, “Poetry?” [laughter] I said, “I’m going to quit that job now.” He said, “You can’t quit that job. What are you talking about?” He was so upset with me—for years, you know. It was only when I got the tenure track job at Rutgers and got health insurance, he said, “Okay, never mind the poetry."
So I called the personnel office at P&G and I said, “Well, I want to retire.” And they said, “Well if you want your four weeks of vacation you have to come in and work one day.” And that’s what I did. I came in and walked around with a broom for a day. My supervisor, Lynn Matresini, who later passed away—he was a nice guy. He said, “I’m going to get something out of you today, your last day.” He teased me, but it was very hard to leave. It’s like that film Shawshank Redemption. Part of me, I was just like, “I gotta get out of here.” But when the day came, I just wept all the way up the to the gate. It was so hard to leave, you know. It was all I knew.
Sarina: That’s such an interesting description of the factories as a place of wounded but also like protected masculinity and camaraderie and care even under circumstances the, you know, factory production, which is really somewhat dehumanizing of the body. I wonder if you would read a poem from Spirit Boxing. You have a number of poems about the kind of masculinity of the factory and if any of them strike you.
Afaa: Oh, well, that’s uh—I work with combat veterans and I was a non-combat veteran with PTSD. But I had some guys who were there who had been to Vietnam and World War II and Korea, and there were also men there who were gay and bisexual and so on. I’ll read 46, I think they were page 46. I suppose I should put on my glasses. I have them in my pocket.
And this one is entitled “When Hard Men Love Each Other.”
[00:29:47] Sitting beside each other, flying to Alaska
on vacation, their rifles in the cargo of a plane
ahead of them in the thick of trees, a bear
alone in their sights their two breaths one,
hushed into a harmony by the need to feel
the feeling of being men, rocked into strength
like mysteries that kill lions with bare hands,
hearts that love wives and children from inside
the hardness, pacing the corridors at work,
riding tow motors that can crush as well as
pack what is soft, flesh or cartons, mush
of liquid soap spills in inventory, floors full
of Downy fabric softener, or gurney’s
full of machines and men gone mad
the way factories explode and burn us,
my Uncle Paul turned to overdone bacon,
my cousin loving him with hands trying to put
out the fire heat like, the Sahara
where workers chased Rommel, came home
to work, make soap and remember the wars,
taking showers in gasoline in a decade
when we lined up for the oil embargo,
these men, we who made America, gave
it all a man can give, forgave it when it took
all we had and left us to love each other
some in clandestine rooms where one
could open his soft endings to take in
what the other wanted to give, a filling,
their station the hidden place on a cross
made in rooms that dream factories
to be perfect unions of the rough and soft:
our days now eight-hour shifts and lifetimes.
Sarina: [00:31:36] I love that line “perfect union of the rough and soft.” Was it there that someone gave you the copy of the Tao Te Jing? Is that where you first began your exploration of Daoism?
Afaa: I was on the packing end of the plant that time, and I must say that at that time in American history was what labor historians called the “end of the golden age of capitalism.” There were a lot of us who had dropped out of college and universities, and some guys were finishing up their Bachelor’s while—so the educational level of the American workforce had risen to that point in that time. And John, was his name, gave me my first copy of the Daode Jing in 1973 when I came back to the job from being hospitalized. I had a breakdown when—after the child died, so when I came back John gave me that book.
Sarina: I wanted to ask about your own meditation practice. So you’ve had a long Daoist meditation practice. What does that look like for you on a daily basis? And then also, you mentioned yesterday that meditation—it is a healing process, but it is also a process that reactivates trauma. I think sometimes we have a very superficial understanding of meditation—that we think it’s wholly good or wholly beneficial, and I wonder if you could just talk a bit more about the complexity of that for you.
Afaa: The Dao meditation as opposed to the Buddhist—the Dao is more involved with engaging your thoughts with your actual physical or physiological functioning, all right. Well, to describe the actual event as it may happen on any given day—so I have a poet cave in the basement of the house where we live now, we just moved to this—
Sarina: I’m sorry, “a poet cave”?
Afaa: A poet cave. [Afaa laughs]
Sarina: I just wanted to get that on the record. [Afaa laughs]
Afaa: Chris is laughing because he knows what the poet cave—so I’ll go down there, and I always face the sun, even in the evening when it’s going because the energy from the sun is beneficial. The optimum times for meditation are about five to seven in the morning and eleven to one in the morning/afternoon, but anytime you can. So I’ll go down there and during the week for about an hour or so, or a little more at times, and on Sunday when it’s quiet, I’ll do about two hours or so.
[00:34:43] The Daoist meditation is one where you come to understand that in the same way that the mind forms an image of say a house that someone wants to build and the house you know becomes a reality, the mind can also form an image of say your heart and produce a physical effect on your heart. In a way that imaging is used sometimes now in athletic training or military training, when in some aspects of military training they tell them to imagine a target’s head etcetera.
But I don’t want to go into that too deeply, leave that military stuff alone. But the mind can affect the body, and then you come to understand it’s one system, you know. And so from there you move and the enhanced functioning of your physiological system produces a gradual clarity and stability of the mind, but it will also bring back memories. You have an intense experiencing of your physical self, right down to the nervous system.
So I stay in touch with my teacher by email—he lives in Baltimore; he’s Chinese from Malaysia. I let him know how I’m doing, you know. I saw him last Sunday for his birthday; we went to Baltimore for his 70th birthday. He looked at me, he said, “He’s all right.” But you know, I don’t have a community. I have a couple other disciple brothers and sisters who do meditation, but I’m the one who just actually does it every day. But there’s no hall that I sit in and none of that, and I do the meditation but I also read the Bible and get a greater understanding and even comfort from reading certain things and my own perspective and so that’s what I can tell you. That’s what I can tell you about the Daoist meditation.
You come to understand the body is a womb for the spirit. It’s like a flower, you know. Incarnation, as I understand it, is like a flower. We are a seed and from that we develop a physical body. And so from the seed, the manifestation of the physical in this part of life. And the origin of the seed is like questioning the unknowable and so I come to understand that God gives me the ability to meditate and the ability to form those images and focus etcetera is my experience of the divine working in me. When it’s all over, that’s where I will go back to when it’s done. So—but that’s it. Well, you know, that’s not it but—
Sarina: Sure. [laughter] Do you think it was important that you had a teacher as you’re learning how to meditate—someone to guide you through that process?
Afaa: It is important. It is important to have that. You have to study anatomy. You have to know where the pineal gland is, for example, or the pituitary. You have to know difference between the renal and the kidney where it’s—because you have to image those things. And you can’t do the wrong points, you know. If you don’t do things the way you should, you could adversely affect yourself. You could adversely affect your heart rhythm or your blood pressure if you don’t do it the way you’re supposed to do it. And meditation has different levels: there’s a basic and then there are more advanced things that he only teaches and then there’s advanced-advanced, that I don’t know.
[00:39:34] So it is important to have someone teach you because you cannot learn from books. It is so experiential. There is no book that can tell you, “Well, this is what you’re going to do.” There is a book called Cultivating Stillness, which is a translation by Eva Wong of a primary text using Daoism, but as the years have gone by I’ve understood certain things, but there’s no order to the book per se; things happen in different ways and the metaphors that are given for colors etcetera are for certain perception. But for Westerners, for myself—I cannot speak for anyone except myself—I take just basic English terminology. So the heart is the heart is not some golden flowering in the Grand Canyon; the heart is the heart, never mind a metaphor.
Sarina: Just before we started talking here, you and I were talking about the figure of the Bodhisattva in Buddhism. In your first poem in the Government of Nature, you mention the Bodhisattva. And I’m thinking about this idea of the teacher and the way of Daoism meditation and how we come to know what we know about suffering, about our own experience—I’m going to ask you to read again, that’s why I’m getting this this out—Buddha reveals the apocalypse to the Cowboy and you mention here the Bodhisattva figure. So I wonder if you would talk to us about what that is—the Bodhisattva—and then who the bodhisattvas have been for you in your life.
Afaa: Oh, well, I have to mention Professor George Bass who passed away in 1990. He was my mentor in graduate school at Brown and he suffered. He died early, he was 52, but he suffered. He had some powerful forces working inside of him, and I just want to acknowledge him in that.
When I started writing the Government of Nature, I was living in Taiwan on sabbatical, 2004–2005. And I moved over there to study Mandarin in a private school, because I started studying Mandarin—I did two years as a faculty audit at Simmons with two of my colleagues. And the first teacher, I think is my more favorite, more thorough—he said he was using the “grandfather method.” We had dictionary drills. So Chinese—I did all three levels which moves more slowly: the speaking, the reading, and the writing, and you have to learn how to use the dictionary. So you have to be able to look at a Chinese character and know whether it’s the simplified jiǎntǐzì or the old style fántǐzì. So to look at that character and find the radical component and count the strokes in it and go to the dictionary and find a radical component. So he gave us three minutes to find these characters; is it was grueling and the textbooks were from mainland, so they were simplified.
So I moved to Taiwan and in the Spring a friend who runs a monastery there asked me to come and teach Tai Chi to the nuns—which was an ordeal, but he said we’ll help you with your Chinese woman [bongjuni]. I said, “Yeah, sure.” [Sarina laughs] It didn’t help me very much at all, but it’s called [Hernan] Temple and Monastery and Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan. It’s a beautiful place and it’s about maybe a hundred fifty yards from the ocean, the Pacific. So you’re sitting there facing California, you know. At the top of the hill is Guanyin, you know, who did everything necessary for—and was enlightened, but decided to sit at the gates of heaven to help human beings. So for me, that’s the personage I was thinking of. The idea of having done all of that work—which is an enormous amount of work to get through that—and then say, “No, I’ll just sit here and be a light for human beings.”
There are points where the path—there are many paths, you know, but there is this one saying that somewhere along the line, there are people like the entities like Guanyin, and a certain point in your meditation level there’s one who sits there and bangs a drum. And so one day you feel—to my teacher I said, “I think I heard him drum.” He said, “That was the house making a noise.” [laughter] He is so practical. He’s like, “Get out of here. It was the house pipe knocking.” So, so much for that, but I was thinking of Guanyin when I put that inscription here—and the cowboy is my uncle, you know, my main perpetrator who passed away.
Sarina: Would you read it for us?
Afaa: [00:45:28] “Buddha Reveals the Apocalypse to the Cowboy"
With a quote from 1 Corinthians 14:33, “God is not the author of confusion."
The harness comes tight up under the throat, whistle
caught the way the desert tightens a howl in hot dust
without air, the single hairs on your arm at night the pages
in the book that will write itself in your grave, your bones
turning with the embryo still caught, a peculiar failure
of the body that makes sages weep, no mesh for the night
of death to keep the maggots away, no gathering of prayers
in the loom that moves the veil between here and there,
the gate where bodhisattvas sit to counsel the desperate,
their song something you take as fool’s gold, roiling
last chances, throwing them back to the mixing bowl
sitting somewhere in the continuum of space and time.
Your father was his grandfather, the man on the running
board of the 1940 Chevrolet, when America dreamed
its highways, the connection that bound us to desert fruit,
as you built your own ultimatums, no way to see the engine
of what drove you to speak holy names as convenience,
no sense of samadhi, no sense of lying down to let wrong
write itself on the heart’s tablet, exorcise this thing in you,
a mutated ambition, you the son of the morning light.
Sarina: [00:47:16] Thank you. You started talking about learning Chinese and the characters, and I know you do a lot of work with translation now. Would you talk about translation as a spiritual practice and maybe the limits of translation? What of the sacred cannot be translated or—how do you think about translation with regard to your spirituality?
Afaa: Translation and spirituality...I think translation is essential and—a translator is a different person than an interpreter, you know. They’re equally as important and perhaps equally as difficult, you know. To interpret meaning, to be able to communicate on the spot, and have someone understand what the other person is saying.
I convened two conferences with Chinese poets as an extension of my work for the Fulbright. So in 2004, I brought poets to Simmons where I was teaching in Boston for three days, and they came from mainland Taiwan and Hong Kong—and some of them had never seen each other, you know. There were different political positions there and so on. Some people were expats from the Tiananmen incident. So there was was a lot of potential for conflict there, but it was all good. It was all good.
And the second time was in 2008, and then I focused on translation as a means of cultural communication. So my model for that conference was—and Simmons was the only place in the country where these kinds of conferences have taken place—the model was to have a Chinese poet, a translator, and then an American poet. But I said to them, “I want you to just dwell in the space of the translation and talk to one another about things relating to this particular piece, and I don’t want you to rush. So don’t stand up and say, ‘Afaa, when we finish.’” And then what do they do? “Afaa, we’re finished.” [laughs] But that is something that I wish I could do again, you know, because it’s so important.
[00:49:54] Now translation itself. You look at a poem in Chinese, right? In another language. Or I look at it, and I tried to step away from my own sense of myself as a poet, because I don’t want to impose that on the text itself. But Chinese and English and the sensibilities of the culture with the language are at times so seemingly, or maybe even really, oppositional. So if you’re writing a poem and you want to tell—someone’s asked you in Chinese, “Well, what are you doing? Nǐ zài zuò shén me? What are you doing?” I say, “Well, I’m writing poetry.” You would say, “Wǒ zài xiě shī.” Which means, “I am in the writing of poetry."That’s fairly easy to translate, but the idea of being “inside” an act, you know, is a little different from saying “I am doing the act.”
And so when I got to Taiwan, my teacher said to me, “Chinese doesn’t have grammar. We sort of invented it for you guys.” And so I said, “Okay...” And she said, “We have structure and not grammar in a grammatical sense.” So they have a whole vocabulary of grammatical terms, but there is a place in Chinese and the study of Chinese, and for me, it’s the study of Chinese culture as well, there’s a chasm where you have to have a leap of faith, because things will not cohere. I mean, you will not find a match on the other side.
I went back and forth. I spent two summers: 2007, 2009 in Taiwan. I went to conferences; I lived over there, traveled in mainland. The last time I spent a summer there (2009), I came back and I was sitting in the airport in Los Angeles feeling totally alienated. And I felt, because it was a physical feeling, you know, and I said, “This is what I go through, I can’t imagine what my Chinese friends go through.” Some of them experienced deep depression. They would come here and it’s just so different, you know. And I decided, “Well, maybe I should just stay home for a while, you know.” And I had even thought, “Well maybe I have to live here or I have to move.”
And having said that, my Chinese is very bookish. You can say Chinese is zhōng wén or hàn yǔ, you know. [Chinese phrase]. So my Chinese is like textbook Chinese, all right? So the kids can talk all around me; they know the jargon etcetera and when they use their cell phones they’ll take characters and make puzzles out of them. I tell people it’s equivalent to teaching someone English and then dropping them off in the Bronx with a bunch of teenagers. There are different levels of learning language.
Sarina: I love what you say about dwelling in the translation together; it sounds similar to something you said yesterday about your practice of Daoist meditation, which it allows you to hold the space for the contradictions of your own life in a kind of translating maybe the opposites in our own lives within the space of ourselves. So I like that.
We’re running close to time here—I want to make sure to get in a couple final questions. Who are you reading now? I know you’re an elder with Cave Canem—your the first elder with Cave Canem and you have a strong mentoring role with many young poets. Who are you reading now you’re really excited about that you want to tell us about?
Afaa: Well, I’m reading Duriel Harris’ new book. And Duriel is a very interesting younger poet, and she looks to me for guidance, etcetera. But she took over the magazine that I once edited—Obsidian, which was based at North Carolina State—and her new book is I think very interesting. It’s about intersectionality and the body. Durial studied acting at Yale, among other things. I think of her books it’s probably the most lyrical that I’ve seen. I’m very excited about her book.
One of my students from Rutgers—Ernest Hilbert. Ernest is German-American background and Ernest is determined to sort of ring a new metric out of contemporary American language. He has a book of sonnets that I think is just lovely. Then of course there are names that some people will recognize, but I thought I would talk about Duriel and Ernie. Because they’re not as well known as Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson, Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young—I know them all. Kevin’s the editor of The New Yorker now, so they’re on their own. But I wanted to just say Duriel Harris and Ernest Hilbert.
Sarina: I’m going to ask one final question, and then I’ll open it up for maybe five minutes of questions if anyone has one. So my final question—so there is the show that some of you may remember—it may still be on—Inside the Actors Studio. Do you know what I’m talking about? James Lipton? Okay, and he had a question that he would ask at the end of every interview with actors, which is, if God exists and when you get to heaven, what do you want God to say to you?
Afaa: Well, I want God to say to me that it’s okay that when I was about 3 years old I took a can of coffee and put it into my mother’s cake mix. [laughter]
Sarina: I wasn’t anticipating that. [Sarina laughs]
Afaa: That bothers me.
Sarina: Still. [Sarina laughs] Thank you so much.
Afaa: Thank you.
Sarina: Thank you for being with us.
Lauren: [00:56:56] Big thanks to Afaa Weaver and Sarina Moore for these winsome words.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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