‘Several contemporary writers challenge neatly drawn, “naturalized” cultural categories by ernphasizing their own mixed ancestry and the multiplicity of their identifications. . . .
‘The poet Ai refuses to reduce her identifications to a single ethnicity and thereby calls cultural boundaries into question. Disturbance of boundaries–though by no means only ethnic boundaries–also characterizes Ai’s poetic practice and makes of that practice a powerful cultural critique.
‘Ai’s poems have the indirect effect of calling cultural definitions of all kinds into question. A dramatic monologuist, she invents voices for those whose entrapment in their cultural definition is most apparent. The speakers of her poems include the obscure and despised who are usually presumed to have no voice at all and those public figures who have become sheer icon, whose cultural meaning subsumes anything they can be imagined saying. In the crucible of her work, their unbearable identities seem always at the point of being shattered and remade, or simply shattered. The poems’ speakers by no means transcend cultural definition, but they speak in such a way as to profoundly unsettle the very positions from which they speak.
‘The poems achieve these effects by a variety of devices. As Bulgarian literary theorist Julia Kristeva argues, ambiguous image–images that obscure or transgress boundaries–tend to disturb the sense of settled identity. The speakers of Ai’s poems often describe themselves breaking the body’s boundary through violence, by transgressing laws and gender roles, or by crossing from the world of the ordinary into surreal, dreamlike experiences. The poems contain horrifying and unsettling images of the bodily remnants and effluvia that disturb because they seem neither human nor inhuman, as well as characters who disturb by their ambiguity, seeming both innocent and evil. The reader is both deeply engaged and deeply unsettled by the poems’ speakers; none of the positions constructed by the poems invites comfortable identification. Thus, the poems have the effect of destabilizing the reader’s position as well as the positions of their own speakers. By means of these destabilizations, Ai’s work performs a radical critique of the identities constructed by contemporary culture.
‘All Ai’s work is stark, harsh, and dramatic in style. But as her preoccupations move from personal violence to historic atrocity, her imagination opens out into the public arena; the domestic turns political. Throughout her poetry, a stripped-down diction conveys an underlying, almost biblical indignation–not, at times, without compassion–at human misuses of power and the corrupting energies of various human appetites.
‘Although virtually all the poems present themselves as spoken by a particular character, Ai makes little attempt to capture individual styles of diction, personal vocabularies; the result, if monotonous, is also striking. A Mexican revolutionary, an old woman with a young lover, the dead Robert Kennedy, a Vietnam veteran–all speak with a sullen, deadpan passion that galvanizes our attention through the voice’s intensity rather than by the accumulation of realistic detail. The foreshortened, nearly parodic vividness of Ai’s characters makes them closer to types than to historical portraits.’ — collaged
Ai @ Poetry Foundation
Ai @ Modern American Poetry
‘Cruelty’ @ goodreads
Ai, a Steadfast Poetic Channel of Hard Lives, Dies at 62
Ai, an Indigenous Poet You Should Know
A 1999 PBS Interview with Ai
Tribute to the poet Ai
Carolyne Wright Remembers Poet Ai
A Conversation with Ai
You write largely “persona” poems.
Ai 1947 – 2010
Assuming the Mask: Persona and Identity in Ai’s Poetry
Ai Ogawa’s Poetry and Being Incomplete
Walking, bleeding, breathing on the page: A tribute to Ai Ogawa
Write the Body Bloody: Violence, Gender & Identity in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath & Ai
“The Good Shepherd” by Ai
Marilyn Chin spoke about Ai Ogawa
Michael Cuddihy: Would you like to tell us something about your childhood—what forces, conflicts, or events led you to poetry?
Ai: Well, when I was fourteen we lived in L.A. and I went to Mount Vernon Junior High. One day I saw an ad up on the board that said “Poetry Contest.” The poem had to be about a historical figure. But before I could enter the contest we moved back to Tucson. But I’d discovered that I could write poetry, and I’ve just continued from the age of fourteen, though there wasn’t much in my family life that encouraged it.
I remember I’d written once before, when I was twelve, at this Catholic school in L.A. The nuns said we had to write a letter in which we were a Christian martyr who was going to die the next day. They told us to go home and pretend this was our last letter. But, as I’ve said, I didn’t really start writing until two years later. It was a rather unconscious thing—as I grew older I realized that poetry offered a way to express things that I couldn’t do otherwise.
Lawrence Kearney: Some of the poems in Cruelty have that quality of “last letters” for me.
Ai: Maybe they do, I don’t know. Sometimes I can’t even remember the poems in Cruelty. I guess I don’t care about them as much anymore.
Kearney: I’d like to ask you about Cruelty while we’re on the subject.
Ai: Sure, I’ve got it right here—in case I need to refresh my memory. (Laughter)
Kearney: Which poems in the book do you feel closest to?
Ai: The only one I really feel close to at all is “Cuba, 1962.” For me, that’s the beginning of my new work, my new interest.
Kearney: In what sense?
Ai: The character speaking in “Cuba” seems to me a character with “heart,” a character larger than life, no matter how insignificant his own life is. . . . That’s what I think has happened in the new book, Killing Floor—the characters have moved beyond their own lives into another world.
Kearney: How would you characterize that other world? Or is there a way to?
Ai: I don’t know. It’s not so much a world as—what’s that science fiction term?—”dimension.” That other dimension, rather than inspiring fright (as it did when I was a kid and watched The Outer Limits) is simply an expanded consciousness.
Kearney: A sense of oneness with life? That kind of consciousness?
Ai: Not so much a oneness as a not being separate.
Kearney: An interesting distinction. . . . Sticking with Cruelty: many reviewers, although it seems to be missing the point, accuse the book of being obsessed with sex-and-violence. But to me, the poems are about loss. I remember you said once that Cruelty was a book of love poems.
Ai: I don’t remember when that was. The distinction between my “sex-and-violence” poems and others you might read is that in mine the characters love each other. The poems are not hate poems. A lot of women’s poetry approaches the theme of trouble between men and women in terms of hatred, I think, or “giving it to the man” in the same way that men have given it to women—and I never wrote from that point of view. Loss is very important to all the characters in Cruelty—even if they don’t identify it as loss—it’s something they can’t get or can’t get back. And so, there’s quite a bit of desperation in it, and I’ve used violence and sex as a way to express that desperation. . . . What I wanted—I did have a “grand reason” for the poems (at least after I’d finished the book)—I wanted people to see how they treated each other and themselves, and that’s why I accepted the title Cruelty for the book.
Kearney: What was your original title?
Ai: It was Wheel in a Ditch. It symbolized the wheels of the chariot in Ezekiel’s vision. Wheel as the circle, of course, and as the spirit of man trapped, stuck and not able to pull himself out.
Kearney: In a recent interview, Norman Dubie says something to the effect that the characters that speak in his poems are “contexts” for his own voice, rather than personalities separate from himself. Do you feel that way about the people who speak in your work?
Ai: No. I think that might be the fundamental difference between Dubie’s work and mine, or at least the way we approach our work. I know from the new book, Killing Floor, where I’m dealing with some historical figures, there will be people who will see similarities. But my characters are just who they are—they’re not, you know, vehicles for my own voice that much. My characters aren’t me; some are archetypes, some are people I knew, most are made up. I used to preface my readings with a statement that I hadn’t been pregnant and had never had an abortion—because people tended to believe all those things in Cruelty had happened to me. Which seems pretty naive.
Kearney: They couldn’t believe you could write those poems without an autobiographical intent.
Ai: Yes. It’s the tyranny of confessional poetry—the notion that everything one writes has to be taken from the self. Which for me isn’t true. If anything, my poems come from the unconscious—I’m irrevocably tied to the lives of all people, both in and out of time.
Kearney: Okay, but I’ve heard you talk at poetry readings about some episode from childhood or whatever that gave rise to a poem. I guess what I’m trying to get a handle on is where is Florence Ogawa then, in your poems? If it isn’t you speaking, then what kind of continuity of sensibility do you feel in your work? A continuity that would be “you” in the poems.
Ai: Hmmmm . . . Sorrowful? That life is sad, or is most of the time. In Cruelty you just see that side of it. As a child, there were good times, but they were always eclipsed by bad times. It’s like I haven’t been able to accept that I’m an adult, that the bogeyman isn’t just around the corner. Of course, that’s something one goes to therapy to deal with. When I was a child in San Francisco we never had enough money, and my stepfather would go down to the street and borrow some. He’d buy a hamburger and cut it in half for my sister and me for supper. Sometimes he’d spend the whole day borrowing money and by the next morning he’d have gotten some polish sausage and grits and we’d have milk and maybe even fried potatoes. But most of the time we just had S.0.S.—shit on a shingle. To this day I hate biscuits, because they were always the shingle. Bad times just around the corner.
Kearney: In reviewing The American Poetry Anthology, Louis Simpson says something to the effect that your work makes the work of your contemporaries look juvenile. Do you agree?
Ai: I don’t feel very comfortable assessing my own work. And I don’t feel very knowledgeable about contemporary American poetry. My tastes run to older poets’ work, poets like Galway, Kinnell and Phil Levine. Randall Jarrell. I love Cesare Pavese’s poetry. I loved The Lice by Merwin when it first came out. I like Gerald Stern’s work, and of course, Louis Simpson’s. Honestly, there are very few of my contemporaries whose work I admire or feel inspired by—I really like Steve Orien’s poetry and Jon Anderson’s and Norman Dubie’s. There is an obvious kinship, I believe, between Dubie’s work and mine. . . . My favorite poet for a long time has been Jean Follain, whose work is totally different from mine. The list goes on and on.
Cuddihy: I’m aware of your wide reading, particularly in Spanish and Japanese literature. Could you name any writers or poets among this group who may have influenced you?
Ai: I don’t believe my work is influenced by anybody. People may not believe that, but the hell with them. I am inspired though, by other writers. Miguel Hernandez, and Vallejo, when I was younger. I really love Hemandez’s work. I recognize Neruda as a master, though I don’t particularly care for his work. A Chilean poet, Enrique Lihn, his early work is very inspiring. My greatest inspiration comes from fiction, especially Latin American. Some Russian work, also. Juan Rolfo. Asturias’s Men of Maize. And, of course, Marquez—whom I really love. “Cuba, 1962” was inspired by reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, though I wrote it months later. Also, “The Woman Who Knew Too Much,” which I wrote a first draft of about the same time, which is in Killing Floor. Even then—this was the summer and fall of 1972—I was moving away from the poems in Cruelty. The bulk of the poems in Cruelty were written between March and July, 1972, when I was twenty-four. It’s always interested me about myself; an incredible maturity on one hand, and an incredible immaturity on the other. (Laughter) So, I was still able to put all those poems in Cruelty, and, at the same time, had already moved away from them.
Kearney: An obligatory question about craft. How do poems happen for you?
Ai: The way it does for most writers, I suppose. I might hear a tune, or see something, or read something, and that sets me off. . . . The other day I was reading the first chapter of Serenade by James M. Cain, a mystery writer of the ’30s. I’ve been working on a great poem (or at least what I hope is a great poem)—and I happened to start reading Serenade. They have a way, Cain and Raymond Chandler, of suspending you—of holding your breath while their characters talk. And you don’t breathe till they’re finished—whether it’s a chapter or a paragraph. I was sitting there in a local shopping mall and when I’d finished I said, “Boy, that’s great!” and I let out my breath and took out my notebook and just started writing.
There’s also another way I tend to write: everything I want to say is filed in my head. I work out the first stanza or first part or whatever in my head first. Before I write anything down, it’s planned—”planned” is the wrong word, it makes it sound like planned parenthood. I’ve got to have my character. I’ve got to know what kind of person he or she is. What are they doing? What would they wear? What colors do they like? Everything. What I’m doing, really, is painting—I’ve got to picture them before I can write. Like the poem “Childbeater” in Cruelty—I have to be that person.
Cuddihy: In a related area, how do you answer the criticism of some that too many of your poems are written from the male point of view?
Ai: Whoever wants to speak in my poems is allowed to speak, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.
Cuddihy: You have been criticized by some black and feminist spokespersons for not identifying yourself sufficiently with either group. Is this because of your ethnically mixed background, or because, as a writer, you simply wish to be treated as an individual instead of being classified according to race or sex?
Ai: I’m simply a writer. I don’t want to be catalogued and my characters don’t want to be catalogued and my poems don’t want to be catalogued. If a poet’s work isn’t universal, then what good is it? Who the hell wants to read it.
Also, I don’t feel black. I can’t be more honest than that. I was telling Lawrence the other night that my mother was a maid and my grandmother was a maid; most of the black women I know were maids. I certainly relate to “the black experience” on that level, the human level of having to be a maid all your life. That means a hell of a lot more to me than an educated black person using a bunch of “dems” and “dats” when he writes poetry, even though he doesn’t talk like that himself. It’s pretentious. My experience is not “the black experience”—it’s simply the experience of having lived as a poor person.
Thunder’s Mouth Press
‘When Cruelty was published in 1973, I read the collection repeatedly, transported by the mystery in the poems and by the politics of gender on almost every page. The way the first poem in the collection, “Twenty-Year Marriage,” opens is a clue to this poet’s psychology: “You keep me waiting in a truck / with its one good wheel stuck in a ditch, / while you piss against the south side of a tree. / Hurry. I’ve got nothing on under my skirt tonight.” The speaker’s insinuation is calculated. The intentional, invented tension breathes on the page. She has our attention. But Ai knows—like any great actor—that language and pace are also crucial. Sometimes a poem may seem like personalized folklore, a feeling culled from the imagination. The characters hurt each other out of a fear of being hurt, and often they are doubly hurt. Do we believe her characters because they seem to evolve from some uncharted place beyond us but also inside us? They are of the soil, as if they’ve always been here; but they also reside on borders—spiritually, psychologically, existentially, and emotionally—as if only half-initiated into the muscular terror of ordinary lives. All the contradictions of so-called democracy live in her speakers. Most of the characters in Ai’s poetry are distinctly rural, charged in mind and belly with folkloric signification, always one step or one trope from homespun violence and blasphemy. What first deeply touched me in Cruelty is this: Ai’s images—tinctured by an unknown folklore—seemed to arise from some deep, unsayable place, translated from a pre-language of knowing or dreaming with one’s eyes open, as if something from long ago still beckoned to be put into words.’ — Yusef Komunyaka
Outside, the rain, pinafore of gray water, dresses the town
and I stroke the leather belt,
as she sits in the rocking chair,
holding a crushed paper cup to her lips.
I yell at her, but she keeps rocking;
back, her eyes open, forward, they close.
Her body, somehow fat, though I feed her only once a day,
reminds me of my own just after she was born.
It’s been seven years, but I still can’t forget how I felt.
How heavy it feels to look at her.
I lay the belt on a chair
and get her dinner bowl.
I hit the spoon against it, set it down
and watch her crawl to it,
pausing after each forward thrust of the legs
and when she takes her first bite,
I grab the belt and beat her across the back
until her tears, beads of salt-filled glass, falling,
shatter on the floor.
I move off, let her eat,
while I get my dog’s chain leash from the closet.
I whirl it around my head.
O daughter, so far, you’ve only had a taste of icing,
are you ready now for some cake?
￼The Arizona wind dries out my nostrils
and the heat of the sidewalk burns my shoes,
as a woman drives up slowly.
I get in, grinning at a face I do not like,
but I slide my arm across the top of the seat
and rest it lightly against her shoulder.
We turn off into the desert,
then I reach inside my pocket and touch the switchblade.
We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,
but somehow, I get the blade into her chest.
I think a song: “Everybody needs somebody,
everybody needs somebody to love,”
as the black numerals 35 roll out of her right eye
inside one small tear.
Laughing, I snap my fingers. Rape, murder, I got you
in the sight of my gun.
I move off toward the street.
My feet press down in it,
familiar with the hot, soft asphalt
that caresses them.
The sun slips down into its cradle behind the mountains
and it is hot, hotter than ever
and I like it.
My sister rubs the doll’s face in mud,
then climbs through the truck window.
She ignores me as I walk around it,
hitting the flat tires with an iron rod.
The old man yells for me to help hitch the team,
but I keep walking around the truck, hitting harder,
until my mother calls.
I pick up a rock and throw it at the kitchen window,
but it falls short.
The old man’s voice bounces off the air like a ball
I can’t lift my leg over.
I stand beside him, waiting, but he doesn’t look up
and I squeeze the rod, raise it, his skull splits open.
Mother runs toward us. I stand still,
get her across the spine as she bends over him.
I drop the rod and take the rifle from the house.
Roses are red, violets are blue,
one bullet for the black horse, two for the brown.
They’re down quick. I spit, my tongue’s bloody;
I’ve bitten it. I laugh, remember the one out back.
I catch her climbing from the truck, shoot.
The doll lands on the ground with her.
I pick it up, rock it in my arms.
Yeah. I’m Jack, Hogarth’s son.
I’m nimble, I’m quick.
In the house, I put on the old man’s best suit
and his patent leather shoes.
I pack my mother’s satin nightgown
and my sister’s doll in the suitcase.
Then I go outside and cross the fields to the highway.
I’m fourteen. I’m a wind from nowhere.
I can break your heart.
When the rooster jumps up on the windowsill and spreads his red-gold wings,
I wake, thinking it is the sun
and call Juanita, hearing her answer,
but only in my mind.
I know she is already outside,
breaking the cane off at ground level,
using only her big hands.
I get the machete and walk among the cane, until I see her, lying face-down in the dirt.
Juanita, dead in the morning like this.
I raise the machete—
what I take from the earth, I give back— and cut off her feet.
I lift the body and carry it to the wagon,
where I load the cane to sell in the village. Whoever tastes my woman in his candy, his cake, tastes something sweeter than this sugar cane;
it is grief. If you eat too much of it, you want more,
you can never get enough.
“Sit in my hand.” I’m ten.
I can’t see him,
but I hear him breathing
in the dark.
It’s after dinner playtime.
hidden by trees and shrubbery.
He calls it hide-and-seek,
but only my little sister seeks us
as we hide
and she can’t find us,
as grandfather picks me up
and rubs his hands between my legs.
I only feel a vague stirring
at the edge of my consciousness.
I don’t know what it is,
but I like it.
It gives me pleasure
that I can’t identify.
It’s not like eating candy,
but it’s just as bad,
because I had to lie to grandmother
when she asked,
“What do you do out there?” “Where?” I answered.
Then I said, “Oh, play hide-and-seek.” She looked hard at me,
then she said, “That was the last time.
I’m stopping that game.”
So it ended and I forgot.
Ten years passed, thirtyfive,
when I began to reconstruct the past.
When I asked myself
why I was attracted to men who disgusted me
I traveled back through time
to the dark and heavy breathing part of my life
I thought was gone,
but it had only sunk from view
p.s. Hey. ** Niko, Hi, Niko. Yeah, bummer indeed. It’s hard to describe how the maze would have worked without showing you diagrams and things, and I’m not sure where they are at the moment. Basically, vaguely, there was a front part of the maze that was a replica of an abandoned and rather disorientingly laid-out hotel with lobby, hallways, doors to the rooms, some of which could be entered, etc., and you eventually entered a destroyed kind of employees only/behind the scenes space where the maze became very constricted and was threatening to collapse upon you and where you discovered something that explained everything you had experienced thus far. There was to be a very complicated sound and lighting design that would — as you said — be prerecorded and designed to confuse/attract. It would have been pretty incredible and quite a feat to pull off, but also prohibitively expensive, it turned out and alas. Wow, I have to say the novel you’re working on sounds really incredible! I don’t know if you’ve read my novel ‘The Marbled Swarm’, but it does some of the things you’re doing, albeit in a surely different way. I love the sound of that a lot! I passionately urge you to keep at it and not give up or worry about it failing. I would kill to read it, let’s say. That’s very exciting. Please feel free to share whatever is of interest to you to share as you build it. Thanks! ** Misanthrope, Good, good. I hope your today fell in line. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Ah, so glad you’re feeling right again. I’m bettering too, but it’s a weirdly slow recovery. What a strange effect. Oh, well, if he looks like twinkletwinkle then I think he and can work something out for sure. To be that loved, sigh, I’ll take it, ha ha. Love that is as accommodating to your every whim and wish as TheHeavenlyHellBoy’s butt, G. ** Sypha, Okay, gotcha. ** Steve Erickson, Yes, not a bad batch yesterday, I agree. And some new angles even. I’m assuming they’re comparing the new one to ‘Love’ because they mean it’s less flashy, more laborious, and badly written? ** David Ehrenstein, Wow, I haven’t seen Gerard in ages. He got old, just like the rest of us. No clue as to why I’m slightly surprised by that. ** Brian, Hi, Brian. Yeah, I had a soft spot for Hardcorestreetboy, ha ha. I think the problem is what people want ‘depth’ to mean. They usually mean psychological or emotional depth, but there are all kinds and varieties of depths, obviously. The prioritisation of exhuming emotional/ psychological trauma as art’s optimal goals is a big reason why most films, for instances, are so crap, if you ask me. Dumb example: even in disaster movies where all one wants is a visceral charge, there always has to be an estranged father/child or couple or whoever whose journey to mutual love/etc. is laced throughout and poisoning the fun because it’s set in stone that otherwise the film will be just a ride, but all that badly layered in phoney ‘human’ stuff does is just ruin the ride. Depth can be just fun or intellectual or whatever and still be fully deep, you know? Anyway … I’m better but it’s a slow, slow thing. Everyone I know who had this says it is, so I’m just waiting and trying to be patient. But I’m okay. I did book the US tickets, yes! I can’t believe it! ‘Sodom’, yeah, great. Luther Price’s stuff is very cool. I did a post about him. I don’t know if you saw it. Hm, tough call on that tricky trip to Light Industry. Especially solo. I’d probably end up with a ‘nah’, but I’m not so into going to the movies solo for some reason. You might go to a prom instead? I don’t know why that sounds so much more fun — my light fever might be to blame — but it does. Mostly yesterday was figuring out the US trip. It’s complicated because Zac and I want to stopover in Orlando for a few days on our way to LA to hit the theme parks, but we managed to sort it. Crazy! It’s been so long. And the producer of Zac’s and my new film is coming Paris this week, so I’ll get to meet with him and get updates on where we are in the fund-raising, which is info that Zac and I sorely need. So it was okay. It’s boiling hot here today, and I’m not expecting a miracle. How was Wednesday chez vous? ** Dalton, Hi, Dalton. My own personal theory is that the more destructive or self-destructive the stated desires or offers are, the more they’re likely to be just guys fantasising aloud and having an online circle jerk. Otherwise the sites where I find the escorts and slaves would have been shut down years ago. Simple logic, I guess. Yes, Portland does seem to be the hottest of the US hot spots for rebellion and resistance in recent months, wait, years. Interesting. Oh, man, I’m so sorry you’re in a downward swing inside and health-wise. Maybe the reopening is weirdly exaggerating things? I know that a lot of my friends are not feeling the bliss-out I do at the world returning in its familiar form. I hope you feel infinitely better as instantly as possible. They don’t show ‘The Great British Baking Show’ over here — well, not officially — but I saw some episodes the last time I was in the States, and, yeah, I ate ’em up, as it were. A bit of minor genius, that show, no? Yes, come visit France. I swear it’s really nice here. I’ll even show you the insider Paris scoop stuff. Take care, man. ** Okay. When I was just post-teen I was really, really into the book I’m spotlighting today. Recently I decided to go back and find out of Ai’s poems are still as blunt and powerful as I used to think they were. And I think they still are. Hence, the spotlight. See you tomorrow.