Afaa Weaver has much to say - about racism, poetry and how Taoist martial arts saved his life. But first he needs to eat. Ever the gentleman, he apologizes while sitting in the Leader Hotel's restaurant, though he's just finished four hours of Chinese class and looks beat.
Fu Jen University is housing Afaa Michael Weaver - Afaa is an Ibo name a Nigerian playwright gave him - in this relative luxury because he's one of the finest poets writing in the US today, a child prodigy from Baltimore who dropped out of college and worked in factories for 15 years before publishing his first book. Weaver, 55, has been nominated for a Pulitzer, and his editor, who handles a roster of Pulitzer nominees, calls him "the African American successor to Walt Whitman."
Weaver's poems have a visual, tactile style that shows the strong mind-body awareness of a lifelong taichi practitioner. In Charleston, penned after he toured a former plantation, he writes: On steps across from the slave mart,/ I peel an orange for the slow rip of its flesh/ in my thumb, the sweet dotting on my nose/ with its juice. I suck the threads of it,/ gaze at the wooden doors now closed,/ at the empty space inside with iron hooks ... I can smell/ the congregation of odors, humans fresh/ from slave ships or working in fields, and/ humans fresh from beds of fine linen,/ sleeping with fingers in Bibles and prayers.
Imagining Africans hung up like meat for auction made him feel sick, Weaver says between bites of fruit. "The memory of black people for slavery is one that gets re-experienced sometimes when you least expect it." This is what much of Weaver's poetry and teaching focus on - trauma and how trauma repeats itself in cultures and individuals' lives.
Taichi and mind-shape boxing (xingyiquan, 形意拳) have helped Weaver deal with personal traumas. His mother wouldn't let him play football so he turned to martial arts and later freelanced for Inside Kung Fu magazine. He believes in qi, the life force traditional Chinese culture holds exists in every living thing. "In xinyiquan we talk about unified qi, developing qi so it becomes an energetic body inside the physical body," he says. "It's good for people who think too much."
One summer night in 1995, when he was teaching at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, and neglecting his taichi, Weaver found he had trouble walking, like he had a bad cold. The next day he checked into the hospital. The nurse said his lungs were full of fluid and his heart was failing. A doctor told him he needed medicine and a heart transplant. Weaver said no thank you - he was going back to his taichi master. "What's that?" the doctor said. Weaver shakes his head as he tells the story. "They don't believe in the qi. The qi is a real thing." Twelve years later no new heart, but Weaver's fine and just has to watch his blood pressure.
Trauma is in Weaver's intense eyes. He saw abuse in his family growing up, lost a son and has been divorced. His forehead seems permanently furrowed. Otherwise he looks like a big sweet guy. Chinese-American poet Marilyn Chin calls him "Buddhistic." Built like an offensive lineman, Weaver talks, walks, writes, even practices his xingyiquan slowly and deliberately. No doubt years of taichi and meditation played a role, building a calm persona around a sensitive core.