Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Kungfu writing

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Kungfu writing

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Where does a poem come from? I asked Afaa Michael Weaver to talk with me about one of his poems, “The Shaw Brothers.”

Born in Baltimore, Afaa worked in a factory for 15 years while writing poetry and short fiction, a period he refers to as his literary apprenticeship. He is the author of 10 poetry collections and two plays, the editor of two anthologies, and the recipient of numerous awards and honors for his work. He holds an endowed chair at Simmons College in Boston, where he is also the director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center. When I spoke with him for my Boston Globe column in 2004, he told me about his fascination with Chinese literature and culture. He frequently travels to, and teaches in, China and Taiwan. In Boston he directs the Simmons Chinese Poetry Festival.

About “The Shaw Brothers,” Afaa says, “As I composed this, I had in mind a tribute to the Shaw Brothers, the Hong Kong based film company. When the kungfu films they produced hit the market in the 70’s they were popular in the black community, and in places like Baltimore, the audiences interacted with the film and studied the moves so they could try them at home—or in the movie house. So the poem is also a nostalgia piece about an aspect of black urban life. The martial arts were a way of channeling energy and emotions for many black people, so much so that lives were saved as some people were able to set positive directions for themselves. I wanted the poem to move associatively with an inexact syllabic count. I also wanted it to be evocative throughout as opposed to a syllogistic movement that leads to a concluding set of lines. I have been concerned about how loosely people apply the term “narrative” to poetry, which is to say I don’t consider this to be a narrative poem. If anything, I would say the construction is a montage, in the filmic sense of the word. Cultural references include popular myths in the black community, as well as Afro-Centric ideas of the dissemination of African culture throughout Asia, such as the historic renderings by Chancellor Williams in “The Destruction of Black Civilization.”

The Shaw Brothers
                     for the Drunken Boxing Masters

If we had the space in the backyard we could have built
a Shaolin temple of our own, or at least one of the chambers,
the sun sparkling off the edge of those shiny blades,
silk outfits popping with that invisible power, iron palms,
golden shirts, eagle claws, death touches, and most of all,
flying, we would be flying, higher than after two gallons
of battery acid cheap wine, or Sunday’s holiest dance,
the earth trembling when our bodies shake to ancient wisdom
when Hong Kong came to Black America and saved us
from the lack of answers in the box of riddles life came to be,
we cheered, ate popcorn or the contraband chicken taken
from the kitchen keeping place, and all else that made
Saturday kungfu the first level in Paradise, never mind Dante,
never mind the way the world turned flat at the edge
of where we lived, with the drowning river between us
and what lay all around us in a world that was round, we
had the secrets slid to us from the old connections
because Egyptian mystics sent the secrets to India and China
then back to us as we watched quadruple somersaults
ending in spinning triple twirl back kicks, masters who
melt iron and stop waterfalls, snatch dead warriors back
from six feet under, stomp their feet and make an army rise up,
just when somebody ate the Babe Ruth without sharing
and we started practicing in the movie house, reverse
punches and steel fingers, eyeball staring contests to see
who could make the building shake, throwing steel darts
we made at home out of aluminum foil that won’t fly,
letting loose the secrets this time in a world of Kool Aid,
blessed by eyes peeled to stars, touching nirvana with fingers
weaving the tapestry of what holds us together, what makes life.

Published in “American Poetry Now,” edited by Ed Ochester

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ellen,

Interesting piece. And very relevant to me today since I am giving a teaching assignment based on Irish poet Michael Longley's comment, "If I knew where poems come from I'd go there."

Susan D.

April 13, 2009 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Mim said...

Kung fu popular in the black community! Cross-cultural for sure.

April 16, 2009 at 2:12 PM  

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