Spirit of a poet, born in East Baltimore

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October 12, 2008|By Felicia Pride | Felicia Pride,Special to The Baltimore Sun

When Boston-based playwright, poet and Simmons College English professor Afaa Michael Weaver returns home to Baltimore, he often can be found doing tai chi under the trees at Lake Montebello.

The martial art, which he has practiced for 20 years, is representative of his life and work, which seamlessly bring together different worlds - Chinese culture, the African-American experience and poetry.

Weaver's 10th collection of poetry, The Plum Flower Dance (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007), has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Pushcart Prize (2008), an annual award for works published by small presses.

Weaver is highly regarded in Baltimore's literary circles. This year, organizers of the CityLit Festival named April 19 "Afaa Michael Weaver Day."

Weaver, 56, was born in East Baltimore to parents who didn't complete high school. After he learned to read, words became his constant friend.

Upon graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, he enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, but dropped out.

He worked briefly at Bethlehem Steel, before landing a job at a Procter & Gamble factory and holding it for 14 years. In his spare time, he wrote poems on plant tally sheets smudged with grease stains. He also spent time in the Army Reserves, where he penned romance poems and sold them to some of his service buddies.

In 1985, his part-time writing led to the publication of his first poetry collection, Water Song, by Callaloo Press. That same year, his factory days came to an end when he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to study creative writing at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Weaver found leaving his blue-collar world in Baltimore to go to a primarily white, Ivy League institution "a tremendous class and cultural leap."

He would go on to earn a bachelor's degree in English literature from Excelsior College (Albany, N.Y.) and a master's in creative writing at Brown.

Though his art is challenging, it gives him solace. "Poetry is my way of moving through the world," he says. "When I'm active in my poetry, I'm engaged in my life."

Tai chi, which he describes as the centerpiece of his life, helps him focus and organize his thoughts. He has risen above some obstacles in his life, including depression and worrying about what others think of him.

"I've gotten much better at being able to stand up for my own perceptions and beliefs," he says.

That's probably why he doesn't feel the need to defend or apologize for his intimate relationship with Chinese culture.

He studied Chinese in Taiwan, and his fluency in the language has led him to translate Chinese poetry into English. He organized the second International Chinese Poetry Festival, a gathering of distinguished poets from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong that took place earlier this month at Simmons College in Boston.

"The things that we usually cling to for identity, such as race, culture and personality, are all false," he says. "The true self is spiritual. When you act from the base of your true self, you embark on the path to transcendence."

That's a goal that Weaver believes is rarely achieved, but one that he looks toward nonetheless.

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