Pseudonym: Florence Anthony. Nationality: American. Born: Albany, Texas, 21 October 1947. Education: University of Arizona, Tucson, 1965–69, B.A. 1969; University of California, Irvine, 1969–71, M.F.A. 1971. Career: Visiting poet, Wayne State University, 1977–78, George Mason University, 1986, 1987; writer-in-residence, Arizona State University, 1988–89; visiting associate professor, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1996–97. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; Radcliffe fellowship, 1975; Lamont Poetry Selection, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1978, 1985; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1983; St. Botolph Foundation grant, 1986; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, 1987, for Sin.Address: c/o Jill Bialosky, Editor, W.W. Norton, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10110–0017, U.S.A.
Cruelty. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Killing Floor. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Sin. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Fate. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Greed. New York, Norton, 1993.
Black Blood. New York, Norton, 1997.*
Manuscript Collection: New York Public Library.
Critical Studies: "The Will to Transcendence in Contemporary American Poet, Ai" by Rob Wilson, in Canadian Review of American Studies (Calgary, Alberta), 17(4), winter 1986; "A 'Descent toward the Unknown' in the Poetry of Ai" by Susannah B. Mintz, in Sage (Atlanta, Georgia), 9(2), summer 1995; "Ai's 'Go'" by Michele Leavitt, in Explicator (Washington, D.C.), 54(2), winter 1996.
Ai is the only name by which I wish to be and, indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father's identity from me, I feel that I should not, for all eternity, have to be identified with a man who was only my stepfather.
My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first-person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I have been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write, and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.* * *
Ai is a dangerous writer and means to be. Hers is a poetry that aims to be disturbing, and less sophisticated readers may take the violence and sometimes brutal sex that propel her writing at face value. There is considerably more at work, however.
This is poetry about people seeking transformation, a rough sort of salvation, through violent acts. The poems sometimes lift up stones and hurl them at the reader. At other times, especially in her later collections, the poet steps back with her burden so that we can see bits of the national psyche, wriggling and squirming in a new, raw light.
Ai's poems are almost all dramatic monologues. In earlier books like Cruelty and Killing Floor the voices we hear are often those of the anonymous poor. "Why I Can't Leave You," an early poem from Cruelty, Ai's first collection, demonstrates the author's power to suggest erotic entrapment in relationships devoid of tenderness:
I know that we can't give each other any more
or any less than what we have.
There is safety in that, so much
that I can never get past the packing,
the begging you to please, if I can't make you happy,
come close between my thighs
and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.
Killing Floor is in some ways a transitional book, mixing the anonymous voices from the first collection with those of the famous, including Yukio Mishima as he commits hara-kiri and Marilyn Monroe reflecting on her mother's death. In the latter book the acts of violence that fill Cruelty and Killing Floor become emblems for psychic violence, as in "Guadalajara Cemetery," where the speaker apparently contemplates sex with a widowed man:
It's time to cross the border
and cut your throat with two knives:
you wife, your son…
You, me, these withered flowers,
so many hearts tied in a knot,
given and taken away.
In Fate and Greed speakers often bear the names of real people, many famous to the point of being cultural icons. Ai reinvents each persona, taking real or perceived traits to an even more archetypal extreme. What each says, returning after death, expresses more about the American psyche than about the real figures, and Ai intends it this way. Her speakers include Mary Jo Kopechne, J. Edgar Hoover, Jack Ruby, Jimmy Hoffa, James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Alfred Hitchcock. Characters include both the anointed famous and recipients of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame, such as the possible rape victim and certain victim of media penetration in "Evidence from a Reporter's Notebook," from Fate:
Six straight days, she's front-page news
She makes guest appearances by the dozen
Everybody's cousin wants their piece
of tender meat…
By the end of the poem the reporter realizes that she has violated the victim whether an actual rapist has done so or not.
In other poems in the later collections the speakers return to perform other acts of violation, often visited on themselves as much as on real or imagined victims. Sometimes the poems pick up, as does one on Jack Ruby, on scurrilous material published about the notorious, and Ai proceeds to discover the deeper truth lurking even in lies. In "Oswald Incognito & Astral Travels," from Greed, Oswald sees himself vanishing into his own act:
I write my name on the wall
beside the Coke machine. OSWALD
in capital letters.
I erase it with spit and my shirttail,
but it keeps reappearing,
each time the letters get larger,
until the "O" is a hole
I can walk through
and when I finally do, it closes around me
like a mouth around the mouth of a rifle.
In "Miracle in Manila," from Greed, a posthumous Ferdinand Marcos reflects on his wife Imelda, who perhaps as much as any contemporary figure has come to personify greed. Here she stages a mock crucifixion, displays phony stigmata on her palms, and then
After a transfusion, a facial,
and a manicure,
she's campaigning again, although it's useless
and I'm back to tap-dancing at her side,
while she proclaims herself
the only candidate
who can rise from the dead.
This is poetry that hardly lays claim to being poetry. It is addressed to ordinary people, not to politicians or academics. Ai faces essential questions and lies about racial and sexual politics with great assurance.
Born Florence Anthony, 21 October 1947, Albany, Texas
Also written under: Florence Haynes, Pelorhanke Ai Ogawa
Married Lawrence Kearney, circa 1975 (divorced)
Ai is a narrative poet. Her work is intense, her writing efficient and vivid. Her poems reveal an intimacy between emotions and values that traditionally have been viewed as oppositional: love and hate are enmeshed, tenderness and violence interconnected. The characters who speak through Ai's poetry are as varied as the American, multiracial, multicultural society from which they, and she, emerged. All voices—of men, women, teenagers, children; of black, white, red, yellow, brown; famous and anonymous, infamous and obscure—are heard at equal volume. Each speaks of the effort and desire to assert one's will, to make an impact, to understand pain. Their voices are clear and even-toned, yet their messages are wrenching and sometimes shocking.
Ai grew up in the Southwest and in San Francisco. She earned a B.A. in English/Oriental studies from the University of Arizona in 1969. While an undergraduate, she met the poet Galway Kinnell, who became a mentor for her, the "most important literary relationship of my life." Through Kinnell, she went to the University of California at Irvine, where she completed an M.F.A. in 1971. She taught subsequently at the State University of New York at Binghamton, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Wayne State University. She received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1975.
Her first book of poems, Cruelty (1973), established her as a new, strong voice in contemporary poetry. Cruelty projects rugged images of sexuality, death, sensuality, and blood, and challenges the stereotype of "women's poetry." Noted Alice Walker, "If you want nice poems to 'like,' this [ Cruelty] is not your book."
Ai's Killing Floor (1979) won the 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection Award for the best second book by an American poet. The poems in this collection intensify the themes of sexuality and violence introduced in Cruelty and expand Ai's cast of characters to include public figures from history and popular culture. After winning the Lamont Prize, Ai moved to New York to "actually…enter the world of poetry." Since her move, she published Sin (1986) and Fate (1991), both books of poetry. The settings of the later poems also moved from the rural, smalltown world of her first two books into the urban arena.
In Sin, which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and Fate, Ai creates the voices, the "secret souls," of public figures such as Robert and John F. Kennedy, (Sin) and Mary Jo Kopechne (Fate). Still, the voices of anonymous Americans are also heard. The persona poems in Sin and Fate are longer, detailed portraits rather than the snapshots found in her earlier volumes.
In "On Being 1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 Black and 1/16 Irish" (1978) and "Arrival" (1991), Ai discusses her multiracial heritage, her struggle to forge an identity, the importance of her "true" name (Ai means "love" in Japanese), and her development as a narrative poet. (Given the name Florence Anthony at birth, she has also used the names Florence Haynes and Pelorhanke Ai Ogawa; she learned from her mother in 1973 that her father's surname was Ogawa.)
Ai's passion for poetry pervades her autobiographical works. As she has explained, "I wanted to write poetry with a capital P" and she continues to do so. Her latest works, including 1999's Vice: New and Selected Poems, presents a collection of 58 monologues from four of Ai's earlier books—Cruelty, Sin, Fate, and Killing Floor—along with 17 new poems. From the past are notable contributions capturing disturbing realities in the lives and deaths of such notables as James Dean, Jimmy Hoffa, Lenny Bruce, and J. Edgar Hoover. Ai's new subjects rise from more recent news headlines (O. J. Simpson, David Koresh, Jon-Benet Ramsey, and Monica Lewinsky) and from behind the headlines, including the agony of the police officer who commits suicide before being able to accept a medal for rescuing victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Ai's desire to examine conflicting moral values is alive and well and on display in this volume.
Successfully continuing in her quest to push the envelope of reader emotions, Ai offers yet another glimpse into worlds of human angst, edged with empathy, which moved one reviewer to observe Vice as "rewarding, but not for the squeamish." Authored by the "foremost poet of urban terror," this mini anthology reminds one of the poet's explosive earlier works and offers shades of things to come.
"Nothing But Color" (1981). "Ai" (1988). Greed (1993).
CA (1980). CLC (1975, 1980). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Belles Lettres (Spring 1991). Chicago Review (Spring 1979). LJ (15 Apr. 1999). Ms. (June 1974). NYTBR (17 Feb. 1974, 8 July 1979, 8 June 1986). Poetry (Jan. 1987, Nov. 1991). PW (29 Mar. 1999). Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 1991).
—DALE A. DOOLEY
UPDATED BY REBECCA C. CONDIT
1. Love in Mo Tzu's system, usually in the form chien ai, universal love. Universal love is in a different category from jen, being more related to utilitarian considerations: altruism has benefits running in both directions.
2. In Japanese Buddhism, ai (lust as well as love) is fundamental desire which may go in either of two opposite directions. It may become self-interested and self-satisfying, or, it may be self-denying and disinterested in the pursuit of the good of another, and is thus supremely the love of a buddha or bodhisattva, a transfigured love.