I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Poet Ai (Florence Anthony Ogawa) ten days ago in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She had apparently gone to the hospital on March 17 with pneumonia, which turned out to be a complication of advanced, and previously undiagnosed, breast cancer. Three days later she was dead. As a full professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University for over a decade, she must have had health insurance–had she not gone to a doctor, or had a checkup? This is a question that hits home in the days just after the massive federal health care bill has passed, and people like Ai--who seemed too tough and ornery to die--are suddenly gone.
Poet Ai and I were colleagues at Oklahoma State in 1999-2000, the year she won the National Book Award for Vice. The department had hired two poets, "Ai and I"--that was the silly homophonic joke I made that year. It was enjoyable to hang out with her and Lisa Lewis--we were the three poets on the faculty, and we tried out every old and new restaurant in Stillwater that year. I liked hearing Ai's anecdotes about poets she had known, some of them quite hard-hitting, and the intricate history of her family. We occasionally visited thrift stores as well, but I was traveling light for that visiting year, so she did more of the purchasing. She joked about her "thrifting," as she called it--it was one of her endearing quirks. She lived quite modestly, in fact, with her cats, her books, her thrifty purchases, her writing and teaching--all the wildness was in the poetry.
Her work was fearless about exploring the darker regions of the human psyche, in the persona poems in the voices of historical figures and celebrities as well as the obscure rural women, outlaws, and renegades of her early books, "Killing Floor" and "Cruelty" especially. These voices gave her great freedom to express emotions that would be constrained in more autobiographical work; but she had been working on a memoir that had her visiting her mother (still living then) and other family members in Texas, Arizona, and elsewhere in the Southwest.
The turquoise necklace she's wearing in the photo accompanying all the obituary notices: she bought that at Red Earth, the Native American festival in Oklahoma City that June. We went together that year (2000), and I also bought a few items, consulting with Ai, because she had very discerning taste in Navajo jewelry. Whenever I wear those pieces, I think of her.
A lot of people out in the wider world of poetry seemed to dislike her, as I learned when I mentioned that she was one of my colleagues that year. Some based their dislike on hearsay, it seems; others had their own anecdotes. But she was also loved and greatly admired by many fellow poets, and especially by many of her students. Ai inspired strong responses in people--and as with all of us, her poet’s personality interacted with those of other poets and was a factor in her own poetic sensibility. Would a less forceful person manage to summon up the forcefulness we admire in her poetry?
I think she would not have minded harsh comments--she would have returned the compliments in kind. ("F**king A"--that was one of her expressions. I heard her deliver it with gusto and an ironic laugh, in a bantering conversation one night in the parking lot after a dinner at one of Stillwater's eateries . . .) She was straightforward, but I observed that she could laugh at her own foibles–she had a sense of humor about herself, and would apologize if someone let her know she had hurt that person’s feelings.
She was controversial, yes, but she was generous to friends. She was a poet friend for that year in Stillwater, and I have mostly memories of good times--eating out, shopping, exchanges of gifts, conversations on everything from politics to po-biz, and moments when bits of conversation would inspire lines of poetry.
My most recent contact with her was after a stay at the Vermont Studio Center in 2003, where her former teacher, poet Norman Dubie, told me that Ai's mother had died. I sent her a card of condolence, and she sent an email to thank me for that. Now it's time for condolences again--this time for Ai herself.
Her work inspired me to be less circumspect in my own work about speaking truth to power, and to allow poems to tell their stories, in whatever voice the dramatic situation calls for. There is power in bluntness and directness, another kind of power in understatement. In my own work, I try for hard-hitting language appropriate to the poem's dramatic situation, so that the directness serves an aesthetic purpose. Ai accomplished this in her own distinctive voices.
Thanks for this chance to write a few words.
Carolyne Wright has published eight books of poetry, four volumes of translations from Spanish and Bengali, and a collection of essays. Her latest collection, A Change of Maps (Lost Horse Press, 2006), nominated for the LA Times Book Awards, finalist for the Idaho Prize and Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the PSA, won the 2007 Independent Book Publishers Bronze Award for Poetry. Her previous book, Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire (Eastern Washington UP / Lynx House Books, 2nd edition 2005), won the Blue Lynx Prize and the American Book Award. A poem of hers appears in The Best American Poetry 2009 (ed. David Wagoner) and also in the Pushcart Prize XXXIV: Best of the Small Presses (2010). Moving back to her native Seattle in 2005, Wright teaches for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts’ Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Program, and for colleges, conferences and festivals around the country. A new book, Mania Klepto: the Book of Eulene, is forthcoming in 2011. Carolyne's translations of poet Kabita Sinha's work appear in HFR #46.