They called him the flower of the warehouse, back when he worked at a Baltimore factory. Decades later, Afaa Michael Weaver is an award-winning poet—and as of this week, $100,000 richer. That's after Weaver won the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award on Wednesday.
"I was wondering if it was a practical joke," Weaver says of getting the good news, which he heard over the weekend. "It's sinking in rapidly now."
Many headlines about the award have focused on what seems like an unusual life journey for a poet, one that involved years spent on a factory floor. But that's just one verse of Weaver's saga.
Born in 1951 in Baltimore, Weaver grew up in a neighborhood that he describes as now having the dubious honor of being one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. The area was segregated—"Baltimore was a very Southern place in that way," he says—and working-class. He did well in school, skipping the eighth grade and starting college at the University of Maryland in 1968, at the age of 16. But he was young, the country was in a state of cultural turbulence and he just didn't fit in, so he returned home after two years, got married and worked in a steel mill during 1970 and 1971. "Working in the factories was the work my father did and several of my uncles," he says. "It’s the world that I knew.”
That time at college made an impression. Though he was meant to be studying engineering there, he began to write. A composition teacher during his first semester—Mr. Wood or Mr. Woods, he can't remember—told him that he was meant to be some kind of writer. It was the first time anyone had singled out Weaver's way with words. At the same time, he had fallen in love with the young woman who would be his first wife. He began writing romantic poetry, and didn't stop when he left school. After the steel mill, he joined the military reserves and went to work at Procter & Gamble's Baltimore manufacturing plant, where he spent more than a decade doing jobs like stacking product for eight hours a day by hand, cutting the thin sheets of paper that went around Ivory soap and loading trucks (he also began to practice tai chi, the martial art that earned him the "flower" nickname). At the tail end of his time there, he was a janitor—which was the best job, because he had time to read and write.
"I would work the night shifts and take my poetry with me. The discipline of writing against adversity was my foundation," he says. "When I write poetry I have a chance to put a lens on my life and the lives of people around me.”
In 1985, when—after years of trying—he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and ended up at Brown University, he left the factory life behind. He eventually became a playwright, Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan, Pushcart Prize winner, university professor and, of course, published poet. The book for which he was awarded the Tufts prize, The Government of Nature, is his 12th; it's the second part of a trilogy, and he says the prize will be a nice boost for its finale.
And even though the factory was a long time ago, even though the phrase "former factory worker" is unnecessary before "poet" to accurately describe his career, Weaver says he doesn't mind that it makes the headlines when he's written about. At 62, he says he's at the age where he's begun to think about how the different parts of his life fit together into one whole. He's not ashamed to have worked in a factory—he's proud of it, in fact—and he says that some of the nicest things that are said to him come from students of his from working-class background, who say that he's their proof that such a background doesn't mean you can't be a poet.
Not that that means he was ever just a factory worker. “I remember telling the guys I worked with in the warehouse that I was going to apply for Brown University," he recalls. "They laughed at me. They said, 'You’re going to stay in here and die with the rest of us.' I said, 'No, I’m not.'”