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Poetry Born in Baltimore Finds a Home at BU

Afaa Michael Weaver donates papers to Gotlieb archive


Poet Afaa Michael Weaver, the Simmons College Alumnae Professor of English, was recently featured on the cover of Poets & Writers. Photo by Lynda Koolish.

On a shelf in Vita Paladino’s office at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC) sits a pair of worn loafers. Fred Astaire’s dance shoes, as a matter of fact, and an almost irresistible conversation piece. But today, Paladino wants to talk about a very different kind of acquisition: the personal papers of poet Afaa Michael Weaver.

“We’ve been picking up stuff from him for the last couple of months,” says the HGARC director. “We’ve got more than 35 boxes so far.”

Weaver, 56, is Paladino’s latest find in her effort to bulk up the poetry collection at the HGARC. There, the Baltimore-bred poet joins the ranks of such notables as Robert Frost (Hon.’61), Langston Hughes, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton, May Sarton, Nikki Giovanni, Franz Wright, Maxine Kumin, and Aram Saroyan. The center specializes in contemporary figures of significance, many of them very much alive.

Weaver’s collection includes letters and postcards, drafts of manuscripts, photo albums, galley proofs, address books, legal contracts, even a sabbatical report for Simmons College, where he teaches English. “Poets make a lot of paper,” Paladino quips.

Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93) not only considers Weaver’s work important and his future bright, she greatly admires his personal journey. The future Pulitzer finalist spent many anonymous years toiling in a Baltimore steel plant, jotting down bits of poetry on whatever scraps of paper were at hand. Over the years, Weaver has overcome childhood trauma, the death of a son, and a medical diagnosis that once gave him five years to live.

“One of the questions I ask myself when considering a collectee,” Paladino says, “is who would I invite to campus as a role model for the students — who can impart some kind of revelation or inspiration to our kids.”

Paladino first came across Weaver through her research on the nonprofit organization Cave Canem (Latin for Beware of the Dog), which is committed to the cultivation of new voices in African-American poetry.

Paladino is one of many curators and literary gurus to recognize Weaver’s accomplishments. Poet E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the Afro-American Resource Center at Howard University, donated to the collection several letters he received from Weaver.

“He’s already having an influence on the up-and-coming generation,” Miller says. “You could assign him in class and I’m sure it would lead to some very fruitful discussions. His experimentation with form, his explorations of his personal life — it’s just gotten better and better. I think he could be a few years away from a MacArthur grant. And I like his character. If I was casting a movie, I’d get Forest Whitaker to play him.”

Weaver says he feels privileged that his materials will be under the same roof as the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59).

“It’s a huge honor,” he says. “I feel like it’s also a level of recognition that not many people get. It makes me feel like somebody cares. And the postmortem reality of things hit me, too. It means it’s for people to look at when I’m gone. That was a sobering side of the elation. When I’m not here, I’ll still be here in a way.”

Weaver recently published The Plum Flower Dance, a collection of work from 1985 to 2005, and last December he was on the cover of Poets & Writers. He published his first poetry collection in 1985 and won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant that same year, putting his factory days behind him. He has since published nine books of poetry. At Simmons, he cofounded the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center and launched the International Chinese Poetry Conference.

In April, Paladino will introduce Weaver to the BU community, along with other prominent poets, among them Elizabeth Alexander, Quincy Troupe, Major Jackson, and Cave Canem founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, at a poetry festival called State of the Art: African American Poetry Today.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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