Killing Floor, 1979
Cruelty/Killing Floor, 1987
Fate: New Poems, 1991
Vice: New and Selected Poems, 1999
“On Being 1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish,” Ms. 6 (June, 1974)
Ai (pronounced “i”) was born with the name Florence Anthony; she has also used the names Pelorhanke Ai Ogawa and Florence Haynes. She describes her ancestry as being one-half Japanese, one-fourth black, one-eighth Choctaw, and one-sixteenth Irish. Her Japanese heritage derived from her father, a man with whom her mother had an extramarital affair; Ai learned about him when she was twenty-six years old. Ai spent part of her childhood in Texas with her great-grandparents and then lived in Las Vegas and San Francisco with her mother. She was raised as a Catholic and attended parochial schools. She began to use her middle name, Ai (which means “love” in Japanese), as her complete and legal name in 1969. Among the awards she has accumulated during her career are the prestigious Lamont Poetry Selection Award for the best second book by an American poet for Killing Floor, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Fellowship, an award from the Before Columbus Foundation for Sin, and the National Book Award for poetry for Vice. She has taught extensively, including being poet-in-residence at Arizona State University and a visiting associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She also does lecture tours and readings.
Resistant to participation in the black student culture of the late 1960’s, with which she felt no kinship, Ai turned to her Japanese heritage for identification and direction in her studies at the University of Arizona. While there, she attained a B.A. in English/Oriental studies and began a friendship with the poet Galway Kinnell, who encouraged her to go to the University of California at Irvine for her M.F.A. In 1973, her first book, Cruelty, was published. The poems in Cruelty are in the format of dramatic monologues, as are all her poetic works; that is, they are first-person narratives written from the point of view of the character the poem is about. The personalities in Cruelty are anonymous, poverty-ridden people whose lives are intertwined with wrenching violence. The poems discuss difficult and harsh subjects–birth, abortion, child-beating, murder–in clean, spare, matter-of-fact language and without judgment. The book was alternately praised as a stunning new voice and criticized as a “pornography of pain.” No one, however, denied the energy of the poet’s voice, which marked Ai as a skilled writer.
Killing Floor, Ai’s second book, retained the tone of the characters in Cruelty while expanding their perspectives. Many of the poems are in the person of historical figures such as Leon Trotsky, Yukio Mishima, and Ira Hayes. The personae in both collections seek to transcend their lives and expand their worlds through violence, but in Killing Floor they can do so on a wider scale, being in general both better educated and more public personages. They enact their struggles before the curtain of history instead of in the squalid homes of the earlier characters. Ai did not seek to reflect the history of their lives accurately, but rather to offer an analysis of what they may have felt.
After winning the Lamont award for Killing Floor, Ai moved to New York and produced Sin. Sin, again, is populated heavily with historical personages, many of them male. Ai has stated she did this consciously, as Cruelty had been written in mostly female voices. The theme of the poems is the corruption that issues from the attainment of personal power, and it is illustrated by poems in the personae of the likes of John F. Kennedy and Robert J. Oppenheimer.
Inspired by working with a group of actors, Ai’s use of dramatic monologue in Fate is more pronounced; the characters are conscious at times that they are actually speaking their parts. In this collection, she expands beyond historical characters to beings who have attained the status of cultural myths, thus losing the very individuality which first made them cultural icons. Her cast includes Alfred Hitchcock, James Dean, Lenny Bruce, and even the Virgin Mary.
Greed scours contemporary tabloid pages for characters, including Imelda Marcos, Marion Barry, and Mike Tyson. Some have likened the poems to “true crime” confessions and to conversations from television talk shows, adding that the poems have a veneer of commentary that takes them out of the realm of the vulgar.
In 1999, Ai published Vice, a collection of poems taken from her previous five volumes, as well as eighteen new poems. The selection provides a gallery of Ai’s most shocking and memorable portraits of real and imaginary people. Many of the new poems leap from news headlines, although many are carefully labeled “a fiction.” They give glimpses of adulterous presidents, paparazzi, and other national figures. The most striking poems in this section are about historical situations that Ai has personalized. “Chance” tells the story of a young girl whose family vacation resulted in her father’s cancer because of nuclear tests conducted on unsuspecting civilians in the 1950’s. “Rwanda” has as its speaker a girl whose family is killed by a neighbor who has joined terrorists. She is raped and gives birth to a son whom she does not kill only because her mother’s bones tell her that killing is a sin.
In 2003, Dread continued Ai’s pattern of dramatic monologues and character-based confessions, using such backdrops as the World Trade Center collapse, the hunt for a serial killer, and the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Ai’s work contains elements of confessionalism without confessing, realism without adhering to reality, and transcendentalism while remaining vividly earthy. She is a writer who treats the experiences of women from angles associated with masculinity, a woman who writes about men with neither bitterness nor sentimentality, a multiracial poet who does not write from the perspective of race. Her use of the dramatic monologue has allowed her to speak without revealing herself and to begin each poem with a fresh perspective, since it is not the poet per se who is speaking. She seeks to disrupt traditional ways the world is viewed both in her poems and in her repudiation of labels.