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It felt very inclusive, I think, for a lot of people.

Yeah. And for Native Americans and Indians -- well, we just call ourselves Indians here; I'm vice president of the Native American faculty, too, so I have a lot of duties now here -- so it was another win for them, too, and for Oklahoma, which is a state that's had a lot of problems, like the Oklahoma City bombing. You know, that's the thing about minority faculty that I don't know if people understand: you are not simply filling one role; you don't go to a school just as a faculty member. You have duties. Like I am standing in for Blacks, Native Americans, and Asians at my school, generally, because I'm the only minority faculty in the English Department.

Seriously?

Yeah. There's a man from India, but that's it.

Is that something that you choose?

What? To help? To stand in?

To be there, as opposed to someplace where you would...

Oh! Well, I was here as a visitor, just for a year, and then when I won the Book Award, they offered me tenure starting in January. So I won the Book Award in November, and they offered me a full professorship with tenure in January. And I was like, "Well, Ai, a bird in the hand, you know... this is a really good offer." So I thought, well, I'll just take it. So I sort of ... they made it so fast, I sort of didn't think about it. And I'm here doing research on my Indian family. I'm not done with my research, and they gave me a lot of money, too, so you know, it's a good deal! There are probably other places I'd like. I wouldn't mind being in Arizona, but Arizona didn't make me an offer! And I'm doin' okay. I don't know. Oklahoma certainly has its share of bigotry, which I feel I have certainly experienced. I haven't talked to the powers-that-be about it, but I certainly feel that there's some out there, and I'm not used to the kinds of encounter here, and some of it has been anti-Indian. [laughs] So I'm gettin' it from everywhere! I talked to this taxi driver about it, 'cause she's trying to find her Cherokee grandmother. She said, "Oh, they're very prejudiced towards Indians here." And I said, "Well, why?" And she said, "Well, they think they have everything." I said, "Well, they lost everything!" So there's definitely some of that in my area of Oklahoma.

The resentment?

Oh yeah, I've heard that. Well, I've certainly had some problems; let's just put it like that. Some racial, and some sexual. It's a mix, when you're minority faculty and a woman, because it's race and sex. I'm not trouble-free.

Do you feel that from the other side, too, where you get exoticized as a woman of color, and given all sorts of exotic praise or put up as window dressing?

Oh, I'm sure it happens. I don't think I'm getting that here actually, which I guess is a compliment to the place. But I have sometimes wondered about the amount of praise I was getting. Slightly. [laughs] But it always happens, when you're a minority. I don't think I've been over-praised; I write good poems. I just think of it like that. I don't question it too much.

I never think of myself as a token. Anytime people try to make me one, I just reject it. I never really capitalized on my minority status. I didn't really want to do that. There were instances when I was younger when I certainly could have done that. I'm not an enrolled tribe member now, but I'd mentioned it in a magazine somewhere, and Indian people wrote me and stuff, but it seemed like I have so many mixtures, it wasn't right of me to capitalize on my Indian blood. And that might have been skewed, you know, I might have been wrong, but it's been proved to me since I moved here that it's not too late, and it's your family, so you have a right. I have a right to go in there and say, "I have this and that Indian blood."

It's real interesting here, 'cause my experience with the family background is not uncommon here; things that happened in my family are rather common here, and that's been good for me to see. Like, for instance, some of the Indian women married with whites and didn't get on the rolls, because they didn't want to be on the rolls. They wanted to be safe, didn't want to be Indian. And you would think, like when I was in Arizona, my opinion would have been, "Oh, that's bad; they were ashamed." But since I moved to Oklahoma and I can understand the historical circumstances, I understand that, and I'm not judging people for what they did then. They were trying to survive. But it raises interesting moral questions, and in some of my research I have to get the case files, and one family said they had a Choctaw mother, so they rushed out to Mississippi when they were doing the final rolls, and they tried to get on them. And the Choctaw/Chickasaw people questioned them over and over again. They would say, "Well, how does she look?" They got real down to it. They would say, "Was her hair kinky or straight?" I mean, it was totally naked. Over and over again, they'd describe her. She sounded Indian to me, but they went as far as to forge a letter from a Chief, saying she was Indian. They did bad things, and a lot of the names were similar to my family names. [laughs] I said, "Oh, they're pretty under-handed here; hmmmm, they could be family!" Two of the sons were in the Confederate Army, okay? So that would have been something. In the end, not enough names matched up, so they weren't my family, but they were denied tribal membership. But how would I have dealt with that? Two sons in the Confederate Army, for god's sake!

So there's a lot of interesting stuff in Oklahoma. They had slaves, too, you know, the "five civilized tribes," so there's all the different roles and mixtures, and it's just fascinating. So there is a rhyme or reason for my being here. I almost feel my great-grandfather, like the ghosts are out there. There are still things being hashed over today that began back when, on the Trail of Tears, for instance. If you tap into your ancestors, if you tap into the ghosts of these ancestors, they are still doing things. They are still saying, "Granddaughter, I want you to look into this for me." That's the way I feel about my great-grandfather, sometimes. He's saying, "You know, I want you to check on this; check on these mineral rights to this land that we have." So I'm looking for a deed, 'cause they sold the land, but they kept the mineral rights. It's all kinds of stuff here; it's just totally rich.

Sounds a little like the stuff that you touched on in "Passing Through."

Yeah, although I fictionalized it, so it's a woman who's half White. But yeah, that poem was sort of opening the door to what I'm actually working on for a memoir, for my own history. But, as far as I can tell, there wasn't any rape involved in what went on with my family's mixing; they willingly went to the other side or whatever, so that's interesting, too. But I don't know all the details. I have to track everything. I don't know whether I'll ever learn everything, but I'm trying to track some things down.

One woman here is Creek, and her grandmother was at Indian school when a White man married her when she was 12, and it was to get her land, see. So it's possible that my great-great-grandmother may not have even been married to this man, but she had a child with him. But it may have been that he had another wife; that's what I'm trying to zero in on. A White wife, see. Some of them had two and three families. One of the White men I looked at, he had several Choctaw wives. [laughs] He divorced one, and they said, "Why did you divorce?" He said, "I wanna get me another one!" It was weird like that. It was weird stuff! And then the last letter in his file is from one of the Choctaw wives, and they said, "Well, we understand he's a fugitive from justice." And I said, "Oh, could be my family; it's so wild!" It was really wild, you know.

These are your people?

[laughs] These are people I was hopin' might be my relatives! No, I haven't found them. You know, I'm lookin' up family names and a lot of times you get one name that's the same, and you don't know until you send for the case file from the national archives. Then you have all the information. So one name might be a family name, but then when you look at all the other wives, sons and daughters, they don't match up, right, so it's not your family.

And this will be your first novel?

Well, memoir. I wrote that novel, but it hasn't come out. I haven't dealt with my family history at all yet, so it'll all be in the memoir. It's so fascinating and interesting, it's kind of a riveting tale. I think it will be. It'll be part history, part memoir. There's not a whole lot out there about mixed-race people in the Old West in this area, so I thought I'd touch on a lot of things.

How will it be to have yourself as your subject for the first time?

It'll be okay. I sort of am a fictionalized subject in my novel, actually. I'm a character, and so is my mother, and my grandmother, my ancestors. But I don't know what's going to happen with that, because my editor keeps telling me it's not ready, and I don't want to do a re-write, so it's just in limbo. [laughs] I sold it, but I collected half the advance.

You don't care whether it's published?

Well, yeah, but I had to sort of let it go. I was upset for a while; I was real upset. But now, it's been so long since I sold it -- I think I sold it in '94 -- but it wasn't finished. It was only half-way through, I think. In '97, when I was in Boulder, I sent what I considered to be my final draft, and then she told me it wasn't ready, and then I was mad, and I didn't do anything for two years. Then after I won the Book Award, I had interest from other publishers, see, and then I told my editor, and she said, "Well, let me read it again." Then she thought it still needs works. It's at an agency, but I haven't signed with the agency, and they thought they could piggy-back with the memoir, so they were waiting for the memoir. So anyway, I don't know I'll do. Oh well. [laughs] It has interracial sex in it, so I wonder if that might be a problem. It shouldn't, but, you know.

Not anymore, though. The interracial movement is very strong now.

Well, that's what I'm dealing with. The novel is called Black Blood, and it turns on how much Black blood these people have, in the novel. [laughs] So how did they get mixed? By having sex with somebody in another race; that's how! But I think my memoir is really gonna be good. [laughs] If she ever finishes her research! I could go on and on; I guess you could tell. [laughs] It's weird because the past is living for me. I was brought up short in Austin, because I mentioned a rancher my great-grandfather used to work for in Texas, and a woman came up after and said, "I haven't heard those names in years!" He was one of those cattle kings, right, and the day of the cattle king is over, but to me it's living. I hadn't really thought about how much in the past that is. To me it's like it was yesterday.

Is that part of what you've described as "psychohistory"?

Well, no, psychohistory is more like ascribing some kind of psychological reason for an historical event. At least, that's how I think of it. But in the end, I might actually touch on some of that in my work -- maybe by saying, "Why did a relative not get on the rolls" or whatever. So anyway, I probably deviated from your question. And you're not payin' me for this interview, either!

No, ma'am!

Well, let's wrap it up, honey; it's almost 5! [laughs] What else did you want to ask?

Just a couple of questions. What do you see as the relation between history and poetry, or between poet and historian?

Well, I guess I sort of touched on that in the last conversation, right? The Greeks used to take a poet to battle with them, so the poet would stand on a hill or something and record the battle. And I do think of that as sort of my role sometimes. You know, we are observers sometimes, rather than participants. But other times we're participants/observers. I felt that way in Austin. I almost hated to leave. I went down for this book festival which is chaired by Laura Bush, so it was fascinating to be there and to have protests going on -- the festival was at the capital. At that time, I really did feel like it was almost Grecian, in that I was a poet and I was observing, and who knows, I might write something, sometime.

That was a remarkable event.

You know, I was supposed to have an interview with her; she was interviewing four writers, and it was going to be on an NBC affiliate. And that morning, as they drove off to the ranch, I thought, "Well, I guess there'll be no interview." And I thought maybe she wanted to interview me because I was born Texas, but I did win the Book Award -- that's how I haven't quite absorbed how big a prize that was. That was a really major award, and I'm sort of a representative of poetry now, in a way that I hadn't been before.

You were. But now there's larger recognition.

Yeah, definitely. I got so much press, you know. I went to the ceremony, week before last in New York, when Lucille Clifton won, and it was nothing like the year before. The press were everywhere for that 50th anniversary. There were press at this one, but they seemed to be everywhere the year before. I imagine Oprah being there had something to do with it, too, but we got a lot more attention I think last year. Plus, the press were all involved in the election this year. So that really was the year to win, for me anyway. It was a great year to win.

What do you think about Lucille Clifton winning this year?

Oh, I think it was great for her to win. I feel like she really has given a lot to poetry.

It's the first time two women of color have won, back to back.

I know! I was thinking about that, and I was saying, "Next year, that probably won't happen." [laughs] 'Cause someone somewhere is probably fussin' about it. You know they are. Well, Lucille Clifton is well-liked in poetry, she really is. She writes good poems, and she's a really nice person. It was great to see her win; it really was. We still didn't know, when we were sitting at our little table waiting for them to announce the winner, any prize you really don't know. I guessed; right before, my friend said, "Who do you think will win?" and I said, "Lucille." But until that moment, I wasn't sure, 'cause you don't know. Some people, I guess it's obvious, and others it isn't. Sometimes, when I'm judging things, you pick your finalists, and then, if it's close, then it's really tough. You have to keep reading and reading and reading. Sometimes that's really hard; sometimes when I judge I wish I could give more than one.

What do you consider the most important relationships between teaching and writing? You know, a lot of people say writing can't be taught.

Well, you certainly can teach students what makes a good poem and what makes a bad poem, and you can teach them how to write a good poem. It can be taught. For your gifted students, that's a whole other thing. But it can be argued that the raw talent is already there. You can teach somebody how to construct a good poem; you can teach someone how to read a poem; and how to tell if what they're reading qualifies as good or bad or mediocre. So there are definitely things that can be taught. And it also teaches discipline. I feel like the discipline that you learn in being able to sit down and concentrate on one subject and craft something can be carried over into other areas of your life. And that's what I try to teach my beginning students, many of whom are not going to be writers. Our beginning writing here is a Humanities course, so we often have many students who are just taking writing as a one-time deal. I really do think some things can be taught.

Your poem "Pentecost" ends with the lines, "If you suffer from the grave/ you can kill from it." This is the only published poem you've dedicated to yourself. Why?

[laughs] Oh, yeah, well, I was younger then! I guess I was into this Zapata thing back when. I got into Mexican history and I was reading a lot, and I was remembering that movie from years ago. To me, he was a hero. See, it was more like, not the reality, but the character I created that I was into. Now this is so old I don't know that I even remember exactly what was going on at the time, in my mind. It was just a long time ago.

You've never dedicated another poem to yourself.

No, I wouldn't today, I don't think.

Out of humility, or what?

Oh, I don't know. I guess I would, if I wanted to. Maybe I thought that was the be-all and end-all for Ai at the time, but I certainly don't think there's a be-all and end-all now.

To be a revolutionary?

No, it wasn't literal at all.

Iconographically.

Maybe. I don't know what I meant. Sorry! I can't help you! It was thirty... how many years ago was that? '78? '77? There's a lot of water under that bridge. A lot of poverty-stricken summers for Ai.

Really?

Yeah! I was pretty broke, before I got this job. I was so broke, they sent a grad student to get me, [laughs] and I had to use his credit card; I had to buy stuff on his credit card. The dean lent me a thousand dollars, when I got here, so I could rent an apartment. I was totally broke.

Last year!?

Yeah! I hadn't taught since Colorado. I couldn't get a job.

Get out.

No, I'm not kidding you; it was horrible.

And you went from that to winning the National Book Award.

Yeah. [laughs] But I had to sell my whole poetry collection to survive. I have hardly any books of poetry left. I would have to buy someone else's collection. I called this guy I sold them to, and I think he sold my stuff. So I have to begin again. And many of them were old, signed copies. It's really sad, but I guess it's okay.

So that's what you meant when you said that you'd worked off all your bad karma.

Yeah, I guess I have! I mean, it was horrible. I had a horrible time, beginning in Boulder, the second year. I couldn't afford the rent. I had to get out of there and go to Arizona. It's really a fuckin' nightmare. But Baby Ai can pay it now!

Isn't that strange - to go from a position of not being able to negotiate for yourself, to being able to get what you need done.

Yeah! I would say some guardian angel somewhere was lookin' down on Baby Ai.

 

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Text © 2001 by Ai and the STANDARDS' Editorial Collective.

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Image of Ai © 2001 by Emmanuela Copal de León, based on the book jacket photo for Vice.
 

 

 

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