As a young man, Afaa Michael Weaverspent 15 years working in factories in his native Baltimore — not the usual career path for a poet. Then again, most laborers aren’t publishing a book, winning a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and earning a fellowship in the graduate creative writing program at Brown University (on the condition he complete hisbachelor’s degree, which he did at Excelsior College).
That was in the 1980s, and the decades have brought Weaver, 62, and now a professor at Simmons College, more awards and honors. Those include a Fulbright Scholarship in 2002, and just this week, the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award — and its $100,000 prize — for his 12th collection, “The Government of Nature.”
In it, Weaver, the grandson of a sharecropper, explores the trauma of his childhood, including sexual abuse, using what he describes as “cartography and thematic structure drawn from Chinese spiritualism.”
Weaver’s work focuses on family and culture and history, and its range is delightfully wide. A Somerville resident, he recently finished “Hard Summation,” a series of 13 poems about African-American history, written for a peace initiative he belongs to. Plans call for “Hard Summation” to be published by Central Square Press, in Lynn, this summer.
Weaver’s waiting to hear back from his editor about the third book in a trilogy, “City of Eternal Spring.” (He won the Kingsley Tufts award for the second book; the first was “The Plum Flower Dance.”) And he’s returned to a play he started last summer about Baltimore, race, class, and attempts at urban renewal. “At least that’s what I think it’s about,” he said.
These days Weaver wears dress shirts to work at Simmons, but his factory days are still with him. “I had a discussion by e-mail with a young scholar, and he said, ‘You are not working class anymore,’ and I said, ‘You don’t understand, it’s sort of ground into you. That’s what I work from in terms of how I see the world.’ ”
“It’s taken me a very long time to change my concept of work,” he added. “When you work on a time clock for 15 years, and then you go into academia and you’re sitting around at a desk, you wonder, what kind of work are we doing?”
As for that $100,000? Weaver plans to put his award money in the bank for now, he said, “and maybe pay a few small bills. I will use some of it to pay for time at writers’ retreats and to update my computer equipment later. My laptop is losing its speed and whining. Also, I really need a small desktop for my home.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.