The poet Ai, whose name is the Japanese word for "love," is the winner of the 1999 National Book Award in Poetry, for her collection, Vice. She currently teaches at the University of Oklahoma at Stillwater.
Ai is a warm, animated, thoughtful, and deeply engaging conversationalist. We arranged an interview for an autumn afternoon last year. In the weeks before we spoke, Ai had been reading her works at a book festival in Austin, during the national controversy over the 2000 U.S. Presidential election. Ai was noticeably electrified by the events surrounding the election, in the same way that she often responds to current events, which later find their way into her poetry. Also involved with a deeply personal historical project, Ai brings a full scope of intelligence, foresight, and humor to this conversation.
Canéla A. Jaramillo
In an interview with PBS, regarding your National Book Award Prize for Poetry, you said, "when I'm realistic about my work, it's rather edgy and very dark in many respects. And I was worried that someone whose work was a bit safer than mine might win." What makes a work of art "edgy and very dark"?
Well, I don't know about anybody else's; I just know about my work, you know. It's kind of on the edge. I write about scoundrels; my specialty is generally scoundrels. If somebody's done a bad thing, I just talk about it. I don't prettify it or anything. My characters, a lot of them are disgusting - what they've done in the past. Somebody described them once as "last-ditch attempts at justification." And sometimes that's what my characters or my personae are doing: they're saying, "Yes, I did this and that thing, and perhaps it was evil. [Laughs.] It was bad - maybe it was even evil - but this is why I did it. You don't know the circumstances surrounding it." And this is the telling; they're almost re-telling what happened from their point of view.
What would be "safe," then?
Oh, I don't know. I wasn't trying to say somebody else's work was necessarily "safe"; I'm just saying that mine is dark. I use "bad words" whenever I feel the need, you know, I just put 'em in there - if it's true to my character. I always like to think that I'm doing things that are true to character. And I hope that, when I'm dealing with violence, for example, that it's not gratuitous, that it's coming out of character that requires that.
So maybe a "safe" work wouldn't ruffle any feathers?
Yeah. I guess so.
Well, that's definitely not your style.
No, not at all. I ruffle something. But I'm not doing it just to do it, you know? It comes out of character, and it depends on the circumstances of the character's life, and how that character responds to outside forces and internal forces. If somebody has killed someone in the poem, then that person talks about it.
It's character-driven, like in drama. You've mentioned that before.
Yeah, I usually start with character, rather than a concept or an idea. If I do want to deal with an idea, I must create a character, in order to work from there, from that angle. You know, I guess in order for people to really see what I mean, they have to buy the book [Laughs]- they have to read some of the poems, where I talk about "edgy" and "dark." There's one loosely-based on Jon-Benet Ramsey, "False Witness." That one I consider very dark.
That one made me cry.
Oh wow. I think that it's really ... it's intense. I didn't read that, my last reading. I told people to buy the book, if they wanted to hear that one.
And people do buy your books. You've enjoyed that kind of success pretty roundly throughout your career.
I think in some respects I've led a charmed existence, in that I had a reputation as a good poet, from my first book. But I have had financial ups and major downs, you know, during those ... what? ... thirty years or whatever. Well, my first book came out in '73; I graduated from Irvine in '71. So I've been publishing professionally since '69. I started young, though, you know. Compared to a lot of graduates from writing programs today - they're much older, when they have success. A lot of them are in their 30s now, when they get a first book. I think I was 25, so I was pretty lucky. Or 26? Yeah, I turned 26, but it was accepted when I was 25.
Speaking of your first book, Cruelty, Robert Mezey said, "Sometimes it is as if she had made her poem with a knife." Is that an accurate metaphor for your writing process?
Oh, no, I don't know if I work that hard - I work hard on some, but not all. I took that as a real compliment, though. To me, it meant that they're so hard-edged, you know, and they're so intense. It depends, from poem to poem. I have one poem that is about Waco, that I was inspired to write after Waco, but it was so creepy that I didn't really want to do it. It's called "Charisma." But after the Oklahoma City bombing in April, like, I think two days later, I sat down and wrote that poem, "Charisma." I hardly did any revision of that poem; it just came out.
But there are others ... like my poem that is called "Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey" was inspired by a joke that Johnny Carson told, which is, "Who did they find under Tammy Faye Bakker's make-up?" and the answer was "Jimmy Hoffa." And that's how I got the idea to write. I said, "Hey! I wanna write a poem about Jimmy Hoffa!" [Laughs.] It just proves how you can be inspired by almost anything. Then I started it, and it wasn't working. It just reached a certain point. Well, I always read biographies, for poems that are based on historical figures. So I read this biography, and I didn't even start 'til I read that he often spoke of himself in the third person - as in "Hoffa don't have no machine." That's a quote. I was like, "That's it!" So that was another key into the poem. First I was inspired to write it, then I read the biography, then I had to get in character. And that was how I got in character. But at a certain point I hit a wall, and there are a lot of revisions of that. I re-worked it and re-worked it. And finally, one time I was working on it, I got the idea that Hoffa had been abducted by an alien. From then on, it was smooth sailing, pretty much. You don't know really whether it's true or not - it's after death, and he's saying, "Well, you think this is what happened to me, but what really happened is: when I was in the parking lot and I was gonna be killed, I was blinded by this light, and the next thing I knew, I woke up on a spaceship, see." And he says in the poem that he's not buried in "some New Jersey nightmare"; he was abducted by aliens, and eventually, the alien taught him a few things - taught him how to drive a spaceship, fly the spaceship and all that. The alien died though, so Hoffa took over, and he became an alien himself, in a way, and he started abducting people.
Is that a metaphor?
No. I don't know. I don't think so. It's just his tale of what happened to him.
Most of your characters don't end up on spaceships.
No, but he did. He did. He's narrating the tale of his life. He's saying, "No, I didn't die. I wasn't killed by these people. I was abducted by an alien!" So, at least in my mind, anyway, he in a way is rejecting what really happened to him. He's saying, "No, that didn't happen to me - an alien abducted me." So I guess it is metaphorical, in some ways - it's not necessarily literal. But you don't know. That's what I like about that. That's my favorite poem in the book, but I usually don't tell people at readings, 'cause I don't want them to feel like they have to applaud or anything. But I really enjoy reading that poem, and I like that character. I really got into that character - I even had a voice for him, which I never do. I never read in it though, 'cause I'm a poet, after all; I'm not an actor. But sometimes I am.
What do you mean when you say you don't usually have a voice?
Well, you know, in acting, I had a character voice that I could read in, if I were performing that poem. I had a voice that he spoke in. And that was the only time. But sometimes, in my mind, a character will talk a certain way, but I never try it out loud - which is what I did for the Hoffa poem; I actually read the poem in that voice a couple of times - to myself, you know, not to anybody else. And I had written with this actor in mind, so I had bigger ambitions for that poem, actually. He was talking about maybe doing a one-man show, for a while, and that was the poem I was thinking he could perform, and I started writing stage directions for him.
You've not done that before, have you?
No. I thought about it, though. During that period, I met some actors, and I started thinking about working with them. But the actor started getting some roles in movies, and I left the East Coast and went to Arizona, and that was sort of it - I didn't pursue it.
Actors tend to like the "big, bad" roles. They're meaty.
Yeah! I know why! 'Cause there's a lot you can do with a flawed character - there's almost more, because a flawed character can be transformed and, a lot of times in my work - although it may not always be obvious - I'm talking about a transformation. My characters are trying - in their narration of their past lives or what they've done, or trying trying to make a case for what they did - they are, in some respects, trying to transform themselves. And, if not themselves, they're trying to transform people's ideas about them. So it's a constant kind of underlying theme, I guess. It's physical and spiritual transformation, that my characters are trying to do for themselves. Some of them are looking to, say, God, for instance, but a lot of them are trying transform themselves. They're almost "self-help," in a weird way. [Laughs.] But not really.
You've said that you think suffering is transformative.
It can be. Can be - but not always. It depends.
Do you think the empathy or ambivalence you bring to the perpetrators in your works is an aspect of the poems' effectiveness?
I think so.
Do you think that readers have a hard time with that?
I don't know. Judging from the book sales, I guess not! I've never anything negative. In fact, Sin was sold in Christian bookstores, actually. But I think it was the title. [laughs] I was like: "Do they actually read these poems?" And the way it was designed on the jacket, too, it read "Sinai," because it was "Sin/Ai Poems"; I think "Ai" was right below "Sin," right, so it was almost like "Sinai," you know? So, if you were looking for a hidden message, there it was!
I wanted to ask you about the themes of Christianity in your work. Some of the speakers, like in "The Good Shepherd," are portrayed as acting in accordance with God.
Yeah. Or their ideas of God. He brings in the Greeks, too - Saturn - 'cause he's reading mythology. Well, I was raised Catholic, so I guess there's that background. I went to Catholic school 'til I was 12. I have that. I'm really interested in good and evil, and morality - what is moral; how people behave when they're faced with moral questions. I've done a lot of reading about the Holocaust; I've done a lot of reading on dark subjects; and God; and I've studied a lot of religions, too, actually. So I have interests that may not actually show up in my poetry, necessarily. I don't think, in the early days, anybody thought of me as having a spiritual life, for instance, but I certainly do. But I don't think people thought that.
I would think that there's starting to be sort of an evolution in your approach to some of the characters. For example, how would you compare the speakers in "The Priest's Confession" and the more recent "Life Story"?
I don't know; I think you have to give my readers some credit. I don't know if there is a comparison, to tell you the truth. They're just two different characters. They're both priests. There are other similarities, but one is based on a real person - or inspired by a real person - and the other one isn't. "Confession" was just made up; it was totally made up. And I was surprised, because in my mind, it's set in Europe; it's not set in America. But I thought, "Well, I'll go with it." I like it. It was good enough to go in the book. But at first I was even skeptical, 'cause I said, "Well, is this gonna work?" It's an interesting tale, an interesting moral tale. And then "Life Story" was inspired by the stories about priests accused of abusing children.
Do you have empathy for all your characters?
I have to have some. In order to work, there must be something I can look at and say, "Oh this was a human being who did this," you know? Unfortunately, that's another thing I'm grappling with: some of the people have done terrible things, so why are they human; how can you say that these are not monsters, they're human beings? What distinguishes a human being from a "monster"? And, if a person has a choice between good and evil, why does a person choose the evil? If it's a simple as making a left or a right turn, why does one person go left and another go right?
What's your answer?
Well, I don't know! That's what I'm talking about, in my poetry. It's really depends on the circumstance.
It does seem so. And your work touches on a broad range of topics that shows differences in those choices. So the violence rarely seems to come from a stark, singular hatred, in your work. You often make references to larger, systemized networks of powerlessness.
I don't know if a hatred is necessarily
what I'm dealing with. People just react to things, a lot of
times. It's totally individual. I don't know if I'd call it powerlessness,
either. When I'm writing, I'm not thinking that, "Oh, my
character's powerless, so he's got to react this way"; I
really don't think that way at all. I just say there's these
certain events, certain circumstances, that this character's
responding to, and that's it. But I'm never that analytical about
my characters. That comes later, if I want to do it.
Are you a writer?
I am, yes. But I've not published a great deal, yet. And I think, too, that it's still a struggle to gain recognition as a Chicana writer.
Oh, you think so? I didn't know that. I'm surprised to hear that. I thought you guys were getting your share of publication.
It's getting there. We just don't have the same level of representation in the media at large. It's a different kind of struggle.
Yeah. I have noticed that. I try and tell my students, especially my White students, that they shouldn't believe all that stuff about minorities "getting everything." Because, the higher you go, the fewer minorities there are. I have noticed that more than one racial group - of course, I belong to so many that it's perfectly normal [laughs] - but so many seem to be delighted that I won [the National Book Award], and in some respects, seem to want a piece of it!
Well, it's sort of a win for everybody.
Yeah. They seem real happy about my success.
It's actually very compelling, because you won at the 50th anniversary of the National Book Award. And, in the entire history of the competition, there have been very few people of color who have taken prizes in any category.
I've wondered about that. For a while, I wasn't paying attention to prizes, because I wasn't winning anything! You know, I went through the whole '90s - I was selling; my books have always sold - but it seemed like prizes and things were going to other people. And I was like, well, my work is hard-edged, so it's not gonna win. But you know, I met a man in Austin, who was Hispanic from San Antonio, and it seemed like he was just happy that I won! [laughs] I was like, well, I don't recall Mama sayin' I had any Mexican or Hispanic blood, but my father was Japanese with ties to the Philippines, which I never say - I just keep that one to myself, because it's almost too much - and she never said anything other than that, but who knows? But I did grow up in Arizona; I went to school with lots of Mexican kids, so I have a real early connection to Mexican culture, which I enjoyed having, and I think it added to my life to have it. I also grew up in a Mexican neighborhood of Tucson.
I think a lot of people are just pleased that a person of color won.
I think that must be it. I feel that people were genuinely happy to have me win, and I'm really grateful myself that I did. It's nice to show the world. [laughs] I told one reporter that night, "Well, score one for mixed race!" She was British; she was like, well, you know, we're out there; that was good for us, too! I talked to a woman who's part Japanese and White; she was all excited. Then I got a letter from people in Hawaii who are Japanese, and they were excited. So really, you're right -- it was almost a win for everybody, and I'm really grateful.