Interviewer: Okla Elliott



OE: You write largely "persona" poems. This is refreshingly uncommon today, in an age where the majority of our poetry is so openly autobiographical. What is your attraction to writing persona pieces?

Ai: That´s all they are. They´re all monologues. I just do characters very well, I think. I don´t know. I wrote everything--all sorts of poems--when I was beginning. In workshop, my teacher, Richard Shelton, said the first-person poems were the strongest. This was all part of our experiments in writing. He gave us poems to try, but I realized eventually--about my senior year--that I had a gift for writing characters in the first-person. I also tried some lyric poems, and nobody liked them. I remember Ginsberg came. I gave him some poems, and he took them with him and actually sent them back to me with comments, but by then I had abandoned that form. I´d gone back to the monologues or what you call “persona" poems. I actually call them monologues.

This approach allows me to become someone else, like an actor. I think often, when people review my work, they don´t see that separation. They think they´re just masks for me, when in fact these are characters I´m creating. They´re not supposed to be masks, anyway. Whether I´m successful or not depends on what people think, I guess. If I were a playwright, no one would have a problem with it, but since it´s poetry, people think the poems are all about me. For me, it´s stepping into other characters, creating someone from the ground up, so to speak. I try to create an entire psychology. In a sense, I´m the playwright, the director, and the actor in these poems.

OE: Your persona poems have been based on such diverse characters as Jack Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa. Where do you find the subjects for these poems? Is there a discernable pattern?

Ai: No, there´s no pattern. I´ve read widely; my interests are very broad. Newspapers, history...I was actually a strong history student in high school. I scored higher in history than in English. I never really did much with it. I think it started to come out with my book, Sin. I realized I wanted to deal with historical and current figures. I´m really inspired by many things. I think that with the new book, Dread, the few reviews I´ve read have not dealt with the poems that are fictionalized versions of my family history. I don´t know if the reviewers just don´t believe them, or what. My mother is in some of those poems. I´m in some. I´ve started drawing from my own life. My multi-racial background is so interesting that I´m not bored with it. It all started when I decided I wanted to join the Choctaw nation. My family has Choctaw background, but it´s hard to prove. I started doing research in '94 and just recently found...I needed my great-great-grandmother, but I didn´t have her surname. Her name was actually a Choctaw nickname. So, it´s taken me until January to find her. I deal with that and my Japanese father, but if you didn´t know me, you might think they´re just characters.

I don´t feel like it´s navel-gazing because it´s really quite fascinating. I´m supposed to be working on a memoir. I´d start but then I wouldn´t have the right information and would have to start again. So that´s what I´m doing now. The poems in this issue of The Pedestal Magazine are loosely under the title of "Black Irish Chronicles." I have Irish in me, and in fact the Indian side is Scots-Irish, which I just found out.

I heard about two brothers in Massachusetts, one is a scholar and the other is a hood. Their name is Bulger. I was inspired by reading about that in the newspaper. In December, I decided to base a poem loosely on them, titled “Brotherhood." And when I was done, I just couldn´t get the Irish voice out of my head. The three that Pedestal is going to post are in that series.

OE: In Sin there are also two poems dedicated to other major poets, James Wright and Robert Lowell. What was your relationship to them?

Ai: I was a young writer when I met James Wright, who was a very nice man. I went up to him at a reading and was surprised to learn that he'd heard about me. This was before I had a book. Galway Kinnell introduced my work to both James Wright and Phil Levine. Years later, I went to a dinner with him--the dinner of all dinners: James Wright, Robert Bly, and Galway. It was at Galway´s house in New York City. I guess I was pretty lucky.

Lowell I never met. I heard he´d died, and I was depressed myself at the time. I started thinking about confessional poets and thought I should try writing a confessional poem. I was sitting at my desk and a feeling came over me. I was asking Lowell: “How does it feel to be dead?" And he answered!

OE: You have a unique name, chosen for unique reasons. Would you mind discussing your name?

Ai: Ai is my legal name. People--like writers for the New York Times--keep mentioning my stepfather´s name. My mother divorced my first stepfather. She had an affair with a Japanese man and became pregnant. When my stepfather found out, he beat her. Well, first she tried to abort me by throwing herself down the stairs. My great-uncle came and got her and took her to Arizona. Then, my great-grandmother in Texas told her she was going to lose me if she didn´t come to Texas, so my mother made the difficult trip to Texas. And after I was born, my stepfather showed up and she stayed with him another eight months. Then she got pregnant again, but he didn´t believe it was his, so he hit her in the stomach, and she lost that baby. And she left him. His name was on my birth certificate.

Then she married Sutton Haynes. So all through my childhood I was called Florence Haynes. And mama told me he´d legally adopted me. It wasn´t until they broke up when I was twelve that I found the divorce papers and realized that that wasn´t true. But I still was Florence Haynes throughout my undergrad years. Then, when I was in grad school, I switched to Anthony, which was still on my birth certificate, because I thought it was more poetic. So I was Florence Anthony. My mother was horrified. I didn´t know all the details of that first marriage, all he´d done to her, when I took his name back.

I´d had hints my whole life that I was Japanese, but it wasn´t until I was seventeen and we were at the dinner table, and my third stepfather started in on me about being the daughter of a Philippine woman and a black man. We were eating roast beef and peas--I had peas on my fork. My mother said: “Florence´s father was not black. Have you looked at her? Her father was Japanese." And he said: “Yeah, she does have those Oriental eyes." I still had those peas suspended in the air. Then I just ate them, and we went on with dinner like nothing had happened.

It wasn´t until I was twenty-six that she told me all the sordid details, and I was a little mad. Like: “How did she keep this from me all these years?" It was as if I´d known but not known, in a way.

So I went to court and changed my surname to Ogawa, and I figured while I was at it, I´d go ahead and add Ai as my middle name, my pen-name that I´d been writing under for some time (I took the name in 1969). Ai means “love" in Japanese.

But some people won´t stop bringing up my stepfather´s name. My first editor at Houghton-Mifflin insisted on putting that name on my book even though I asked her not to. And the New York Times will say things like: “Her real name is Florence Anthony." It´s not as if I don´t know my own goddamn name, my own life. My father´s name was Michael Ogawa. And my legal name is Ai Ogawa. Actually, Ai is my middle name; Florence is still my first name.

In the 80s, I was living in Cambridge and had to go get an ID made, and I took a copy of my book, Killing Floor, and said: “Look, this is me. This is my book. I don´t want to be Florence anymore, just put Ai on my ID." And they did it.

OE: You recently began writing memoir. Why did you avoid it for so long, and why did you finally decide to do it?

Ai: I didn´t avoid it. I just wasn´t inspired to do it. I just loved writing poetry. I did write a novel that was sold but never came out. I don´t know, I guess I started talking to people about my family and my life and they kept telling me that it´d be a good memoir. I´d never really written about myself before. I thought, in America, racially, I feel brushed aside. The Native American part was certainly brushed aside. I wanted to be a part of that group. I actually just wanted to find out about things. I got annoyed at how the Anglos or the gringos would just sort of brush it aside. I said: “Well, damn it, I´m going to go all the way." I found that even the Native Americans in Oklahoma would try to make us out to be freedmen, which we weren´t. My great-grandmother had no black blood. If she were a freedman--one of the slaves of the Indians--then...but she turned out to be a Texas Choctaw.

That´s a roundabout way to explain how I started memoir. I think the story will be better as a memoir. Though the project was taking so long, I´d get frustrated and end up writing poems about it as well. So that´s where those poems in Dread come from. It´s like the pressure was building, and I´d just say: “I´ll write a poem about it!"

It turned out that my band had chosen to be Confederate. I knew that the Five Civilized Tribes had slaves and that some went Confederate. But it´s odd what you can dig up.

In a book about black Texas cowboys, I discovered that my family had borrowed some details from a black cowboy's life and ascribed them to my great-grandfather. My great-grandmother's great-niece saw this black cowboy when he visited my great-grandfather. That was very interesting.

OE: Many of your poems use internal and end rhyme. What is your attraction to formal verse?

Ai: I didn´t make any distinction regarding formalism when I started using more rhymes. It´s simply another tool the poet has in her/his arsenal. Just all of a sudden my characters/personae wanted more music in their monologues.

OE: The literary environment is, according to many, growing less appreciated, less vital, and more homogenous. In his essay “Can Poetry Matter?" Dana Gioia places much of the blame on the proliferation of MFA programs. What is your response to this view of the literary world and to Gioia´s assessment of it?

Ai: I never really joined in on that debate. I don´t know why I haven´t. I´ve heard many other writers...I can´t name names because I might be misquoting...but I´ve heard other writers complain that the homogeneity of writing can be blamed on MFA programs. I´m not sure if the programs can take all the blame. My MFA program at Irvine...I needed the extra time in school with guidance from professors, like Donald Justice and Charles Wright. I felt that it was of value to me, but that´s just my personal experience. Now, there are poems people say you can tell have been “workshopped." I don´t know, sometimes I can get that feeling from a poem, but I can´t always see it myself.

It seems to be the culture in general. I was talking to another writer friend--he´s in screenwriting--and we were discussing the general mediocrity and the failings of education in all the arts, not just poetry, but we didn´t know who or what was to blame. Another friend of mine thinks that no one wants to take chances anymore--just write the same old stuff and avoid any negative criticism. But that´s not a quote from me.

There´s still some good work out there, if you´re willing to dig for it.

You can teach someone to write a good poem, maybe even a great poem. But great, naturally talented writers don´t come along that often. I´ve had maybe three students like that, and one of them died young.

OE: In your newest book, Dread, there are poems about the destruction of the World Trade Center and other headline events. Political poems are often the most difficult to write. How do you approach a political or societal issue? You avoid, for example, the amateur´s tendency to sound preachy or self-righteous. What advice would you give to young poets about writing such poems?

Ai: I start with a character, not with a forced concept. If I said: “I want to write about the World Trade Center," I´d have no poem. But if I start with character and get into character, then there´s a poem. I don´t think of them necessarily as political poems. Really, they´re about character, and they just happen to be political.

OE: Since a fair amount of your work has political undercurrents to it, what are your personal political views in regard to the Bush administration´s dealings in the Middle East and domestically?

Ai: I prefer not to talk about that sort of thing as a rule, but let´s just say I´m very worried, scared, about the world and its current state--its current spiritual state. I´m speechless when I think about it. I think people are asleep. It´s hard to be politically aware, but you have to be.

These times are hard financially. I had a horrible time financially, then in 1999 I got a job and won the [National] Book Award, and things got a lot better for me.

My Choctaw band has been trying to get state recognition in Texas. That´s where my political energy has been focused.

But I don´t feel like trumpeting what I believe.

I´ve always been hopeful for human beings, but lately I´ve been worried about people and wondering if maybe those people who say that humans are bad might be right. I hate to think that. It´s like the Hopi Indians ask: “Are we a bad bunch?" Like maybe a new bunch needs to come along and replace us. I don´t know.

OE: What new projects can your readers expect from you in the future?

Ai: I´m still working on the memoir, and then of course there are always new poems--in journals and such.

Home      Register     About Us/Staff     Submit     Links     Contributors     Advertising     Archives     Blog     Donation     Contact Us