An Interview with Ai
Tomas Q. Morin | December 2003
Ai is the author of seven collections of poems: Dread (W.W. Norton, 2003); Vice (W.W. Norton, 1999); Greed (W.W. Norton, 1993); Fate (Houghton Mifflin, 1991); Sin (Houghton Mifflin, 1986); Killing Floor (Houghton Mifflin, 1978); and Cruelty (Houghton Mifflin, 1973). Most recently, she was the recipient of the National Book Award for Vice. Sin won an American Book Award and Killing Floor was the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1979. She has received many prizes and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and two NEAs. Ai is a full professor of English at Oklahoma State University and held the 2002-03 Mitte Chair at Texas State University when this interview was completed.
Tomas Q. Morin: Could you tell me a little about your background? The usual when and why you started writing.
Ai: Well, the first writing experience I had was when I was twelve in Catholic School. One of the nuns asked us to pretend we were martyrs and go home and write our last letter. We were to pretend we were going to be fed to the lions the next day. She had me stand up and read mine and I was mortified, but I realize now that she thought it was good. And after that we had to memorize the Gettysburg Address and the Whitman poem "O Captain! My Captain!" We memorized some of that and we wrote poems, and that was the first time I wrote poetry and I enjoyed it. It was another two years before I wrote anything because we were taken out of Catholic school, and I was sent to a public school. I saw an ad one day at school about a poetry contest. You had to write a poem based on a historical figure. I tried to write something, but then we moved back to Tucson where I asked my English teacher if I could write some poems for extra-credit; I've been writing ever since, from fourteen on. So I had an early beginning as a poet. I stopped writing my freshman year in college and started again my sophomore year when I showed some poems to the secretary of the Oriental Studies department where I worked. She told me about an English professor named Dr. Granger who was really inspiring, so I took a British literature course from her and I started showing her my poems and she encouraged me. Then I got encouraging words from my freshman English teacher after the year was out. So the English freshman teacher, I can't remember his name, Cindy the secretary, and Dr. Granger were the first encouragers in college. Then, the summer before I was a junior, I had a National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship at Columbia in Japanese. I went to New York, and I really didn't apply myself. The students there were from Ivy League colleges, and they were ahead of me. I was not having fun, and New York was terrifying and so impersonal. It was the '60s, and I spent many a day in the Village and went to see Frank Zappa, the Fuggs, and the Four Tops. So I had a good time that way but as far as studying, I wasn't doing that much. Around that time I started reading the Beats, and I became a big fan of Ginsberg that summer. Needless to say, I was called to the office about my grades, and I was told to shape up or ship out. It was that weekend that I got a call telling me that my favorite cousin had been killed in Vietnam. This was my second cousin because my mother is an only child, but I had grown up with him. So I shipped out because I had lost my will to stay in that program, but I never stopped writing. It was after that summer that I decided to drop the English and Oriental Studies part of my double major and just minor in Creative Writing. In their program you had to take fiction and poetry so some semesters I took both. I finished up my Oriental Studies requirements because I knew I was going to be a poet, or that at least I was going to go to graduate school in poetry.
Morin: What years did you attend the University of California at Irvine? Were there any teachers at Irvine who influenced your development as a poet?
Ai: I was there from 1969 to 1971. I would have to actually thank my undergraduate poetry teacher Richard Shelton first for giving me a sense of craft. He was great with craft. He's the one who said that the first person was the strongest. I had started my monologues already by the time I got to Irvine. At Irvine my first year, my teachers were Jim McMichael and Robert Peters. Charles Wright had been on leave, but he came back the second year when Donald Justice was a visiting professor. So I had some strong teachers. One of the best things that happened to me, right at the end of the last year, was that I took a poem to Charles Wright called "Cuba, 1962," which I was going to throw away and Charles said no, I don't think you should. I think you should just keep working on it and it turned out to be one of the strongest poems in my first book Cruelty. In fact, I can't really single out one of my teachers because they really taught as a group. It wasn't team-taught, but it was a really small program. I think we had eight poets so you really got a lot of hands-on guidance. I mean, Charles used to give me a ride to school from Laguna Beach. In fact, I was late to my master's exam because Charles was late. I totally freaked out, but he told them it was his fault I was late so they said they would let me take it another day. The program at Irvine was very personal. It had a lot of visitors like Philip Levine and Galway Kinnell. Galway Kinnell had been at Irvine the year before I went there. He was the one who encouraged me to go there. I had been offered a Teaching Assistant position at Eugene and a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend Columbia University. It wasn't until July that I received a letter from Irvine offering me a fellowship.
Morin: A great many poets teach nowadays. What I'm wondering is, whether your role as a teacher has contributed in any way to your work as a writer, or has it been a distraction?
Ai: Well, I can't say that it's ever really distracted me. Although, if I have a semester where I teach undergraduates some of the bad writing gets in my mind and I find that I don't write that much when I'm teaching all undergraduates. On the other hand, when I teach a graduate class I get energized. It's kind of a double-edged sword because on the one hand you can be energized and inspired, but on the other it can also leave you feeling drained. Teaching never distracted me or kept me from writing. What I do is write from October to May. The summers, forget about it. I almost never write in the summers. I always take the summer months off and then pick right up in October, which is usually when I'm teaching. It's sort of weird that way. Sometimes it's annoying to have to stop and go teach if you're really focused on something that you're working on.
Morin: Have you ever experienced any long or extended silences when there was nothing to write?
Ai: Well, after my first book I started slacking off. Partly because Cruelty was well received. People said you'll never be able to duplicate that, and I listened to them. Then I had a friend, who was an editor, who was giving me criticism that was blocking me. It was weird. He would say oh, that isn't as good as that poem in Cruelty. So I would put a mental X over anything that reminded me too much of Cruelty. I was blocked for, I don't know, a year. I was writing, but I wasn't happy with what I was writing. Since that time I've never really had a bad patch. I've had periods where I wonder if there are any more monologues and think about writing something else. But the thing about monologues is the voices always come. There is always a new character. One reason why I love the monologue form is because of how many characters there are: it's infinite; it's seemingly endless. But if I got tired of them, if I thought there was nothing else to learn about monologues, I would stop. But I'm continually fascinated by these characters I'm creating.
Morin: In an interview you are quoted as saying, "In my poetry, the search for self through living other 'selves' is paramount." Could you say more about this?
Ai: Well, I don't think that's a quote from Ai. Somebody either wrote that themselves or paraphrased something I said because I never used paramount I'm sure.
Morin: What do you think about the idea of finding the self through the existence of others?
Ai: No, I don't think I agree with that. I'm not really searching for myself when I'm writing. I know who I am. Not only did I not say that, I don't agree with it. I guess it's like an actor who gets a chance to live other lives. That I do enjoy, pretending. In some respects it's like play-acting. It's real close to being a playwright and an actor to me. I'm not really searching for myself when I'm creating these characters. It's human nature that I'm exploring, the behavior of everyone, every man and woman.
Morin: Picasso once said, "Every human being is a colony." I find the idea of a polyphonic imagination interesting. Do you see yourself as having a multi-voiced imagination? Do you hear voices first and then later find the characters that serve as vessels for the voices in your poems?
Ai: Well, with the characters based on historical figures, I've usually read something that makes me think this would be an interesting character to write about. After my first book, I realized I often had the last line first. For some reason that has totally disappeared. I don't really think about that anymore but I made it one of my goals to always have a strong ending. In my first book, a lot of those last lines I wrote and worked at first, but now I don't. Usually it's a character and not anything else; an interesting character and it's usually not an idea. I can work with an idea if I get a character, but only if I have a character. If I have an interesting idea I want to work with, I must create a character to complete that idea.
Morin: I'm thinking of somebody like Fernando Pessoa and the extent to which he was able to contain and give life to varied poetic voices that often contradict each other. In a sense, it's almost as if there were three or four different poets living within the one man.
Ai: There's only one in me. I have a poem called "The Father" where the father, the mother, and a little boy speak and they do contradict each other. That was an early multivoiced monologue where I started with the form. I might not have to start with the form today because now I can integrate stuff better so I don't need to do that. But back then, I was like how do I do that? In "The Father" each voice was a separate monologue. That poem really came together from different points of view.
Morin: As a form, how flexible do you find the dramatic monologue?
Ai: For me it's been just fantastic. But of course it's tied to character so you can always have a powerful character. You need a powerful character to make them work. I don't feel like it's hampered me at all. Maybe some people are critical of me because of it. I got a nasty note from somebody once who said if he wanted to, he could pick some character out of the newspaper and write a monologue. I was like, go ahead. It's not that easy to make it believable. The big problem with the monologue form is you're essentially tied to character and your character must be believable. Even today I might be writing and find something the character says or does is not believable and I have to work on that. I think there will always be a question of whether or not you can make a character believable.
Morin: What is your relationship to the history of the monologue as a form?
Ai: I was a big fan of Robert Browning as an undergraduate. I was also inspired by Shakespeare's dramas. A Mormon spiritualist-I don't know where my family met her, but they adored her-gave me a little leather-bound set of Shakespeare's plays when I was fourteen. I read those and was really excited by them, but I never thought of being a playwright. I also liked the Russians. Dostoevsky I discovered when I was in high school with The Brothers Karamazov. I think I started developing a notion of good and evil as a kid even though my mother was overprotective, but it didn't start coalescing until I was in high school and I read Dostoevsky. So there are certain themes that I carry with me, and when I'm reading, no matter what I'm reading, I tend to go for darker themes. I also liked Appalachian folk tales a lot when I was in high school.
Morin: Trickster tales?
Ai: No, they were more like ghost stories. I track the history of the monologue back to Aristotle's Poetics. One of our professors at Oklahoma State University found women in the 18th century who were writing monologues and were unknown. I think I might be the only woman on the monologist list currently, which is not to say that there aren't others.
Morin: Have you ever written any poems where you adopt what would be the assumed character of something from the animal world or the plant world? I'm thinking of someone like Louise GlÃ¼ck and the work she does with voice in The Wild Iris.
Ai: No, but I've got a poem about a whale that's not in the new book. In the poem, he swims with the whale that he's going to impregnate. I sort of like it, but it wasn't ready. Then I have one where I'm an alien. Actually, that poem is about an abductee who talks about her experience and how she was impregnated by an alien. That's all I can think of. I don't have too many. Right now I have a great idea for a novel that is not in the voice of a human, but I don't actually see myself writing it. That's the only thing that's inspired me since I finished this new book. I was so excited when I thought up the idea and then I thought, Oh no, a novel! I already have a memoir in the pipelines. I don't worry about teaching interfering with poetry, but what I have consistently worried about is another form stifling poetry. My loyalty to poetry is so complete that that is what I worry about. So when I took my break and wrote a novel, I was worried about my poetic voice.
Morin: Do you think it would be easier to adopt the voice of a cat as opposed to someone like Bobby Kennedy?
Ai: Well I've done Bobby Kennedy already, but I think a cat might be harder. My whole career has been an exploration of the human psyche or the human response to things that occur in life. I don't know what a cat's point of view would be. I think it would be more work to get into an animal. You would have to really makeup a lot. Unless of course you're a petpsychic, you wouldn't really know. I know the behavior of my Siamese. I have observed their behaviors because I have lived with them since I was two years old.
Morin: It sounds like the difficulty would be in cueing into their psyche or their emotional lives.
Ai: On the other hand, who would know if you did a good job? There's not a cat you can go to and say "Chan-Chan, is this accurate? Is this how you felt?" I have talked to people who have said, "That was an accurate feeling, I was in a similar circumstance, and I felt that way." I did read something eerie the other day. I wrote this poem called "Fairy Tale," which is in American Writers Respond to September 11th, about a World War II vet who is afraid of the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood" because of an incident in his childhood. He becomes a pilot in World War II where he has an encounter with a kamikaze. He's a lapsed Catholic who's retired to Arizona. On the highway he has a flashback to World War II, where he's flying side-by-side with this other pilot, and he looks into the pilot's eyes and it reminds him of the wolf, and then he shoots him down. When he gets to the San Xavier mission, the priest tells him what happened with the Twin Towers, and he wonders if his flashback was a premonition. So I was reading in the newspaper about a World War II veteran the other day who had an eerie experience where he saw a kamikaze pilot during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He looked him in the eye, and he said he couldn't forget that face. And in my poem this man could not forget the face of the kamikaze either. It was eerie when I read that last week. So that was a case where art sort of mirrored life. I almost feel like writing that guy.
Morin: After writing a poem, have you ever been tempted to go in and change the voice from the first person to the third?
Ai: No, I have switched characters or emphasis though. In my poem "Blue Suede Shoes," which is about Joseph McCarthy, the first draft was in the voice of Roy Cohen. I was married then and my ex-husband who was a good critic of my work said, "Honey, I don't know if this is working in Roy Cohen's voice." And I had toyed with putting it in McCarthy's voice, which I thought was better, and he was right, so I switched characters. Sometimes I think something isn't working in the first person so I toy with going to the second person. But I usually don't play with it; I just find a different way. With my poem "False Witness," which is loosely based on the Jon Benet Ramsey case, I tried the voice of the little girl, which wasn't working. I tried the father's but it wasn't working. It wasn't until I put it in the mother's voice that it worked. I have one or two I think that are not in the first person. My O. J. Simpson poem "Rapture" is not in the first person. Some work better in another voice and let me tell you, I'll go with it if I have to. But usually my poems are stronger for me in the first person.
Morin: Any first person plurals? Any collective Is?
Ai: The royal we? No, I might have tried it, but it didn't work. Yeah, I tried it in the voices of the Challenger astronauts. I liked the first part but the rest of it didn't work. I think it's in my file somewhere because it just didn't get very far so I just abandoned that. I had mentioned it to my old editor, Peter Davidson, at Houghton Mifflin. He said, "I'm sure there are a lot of bad poems about the Challenger." So I was like, now that was a negative thing to say to me. Then I was like, well shit, if it's not working then just abandon it, Ai. I have one for the OSU basketball team that was in the plane crash about a year ago that was not in the first person.
Morin: In poetry, the integrity of the speaking voice is always threatened by the presence of language. One wrestles with utterance and questions concerning its authenticity. One could even argue that in the monologue the threat is even greater, especially when the character is historical. A lot of people have a general knowledge of Jimmy Hoffa or Robert Kennedy. When you're writing, do you ever find yourself thinking, this doesn't sound like something this person would say?
Ai: We might have touched on that already. I had someone once complain about my Elvis poems because they said Elvis was uneducated. And I said, "Well I know that, but I like to think that it's written from beyond the grave. And I like to think that beyond the grave it wouldn't matter because he'd be party to all this stuff and he might use the King's correct grammar after he was dead." So that was my defense. She wasn't satisfied with my response so I blew her off. I think my Hoffa poem would fit with Hoffa. I try to make sure that somebody would use a certain kind of grammar. That is a criticism I have made myself of some monologues written by other people. I didn't believe the voice because it was too educated. That was the same criticism of my Elvis poem. What you need to do is suspend your judgement and accept that this is the person speaking and just forget that it's actually written by someone else.
Morin: It sounds like the idea of the artifice getting in the way of the art. Because it's not Jimmy Hoffa speaking in the poem.
Ai: Yes it is! I believe.
Morin: .but Jimmy Hoffa filtered through written language and poetic form.
Ai: Well, that's something I don't bother about to tell you the truth, that's for others to worry about. When I'm doing my monologues I think, is this believable, yes or no, and then I just go on. It's like a question that I don't really concern myself with as the writer. If it works, then I'm happy. If people like it then I'm happy, but I realize for critics it's something they would really think about and maybe be concerned more with. If I were writing a scholarly paper on the subject then I would address it. I think poetic monologues are more trying than theater monologues. Watching some plays I think, God, if that were a poem you could never get away with that. You have to be so much more attuned to language as a poet than in some of the other forms. Of course, our form is so much smaller. Really, to get someone's attention in a poem, I feel you have to grab them in the first line or the first few lines, otherwise forget about it.
Morin: In terms of achieving an authentic voice in a poem, is it easier to assume the voice of a speaker who is historical, as opposed to say, a child-beater?
Ai: I think they are both equally hard. Just because I have a few facts doesn't mean that I'm going to be able to just set that character down. Usually, I have to get into character for a historical figure. I usually need something that opens the door for me to write a successful monologue. I've had equal problems with both. Most of the poems in the new book are not based on historical figures, which will be interesting. I just wasn't inspired by any this time around.
Morin: Do you ever feel that a monologue on someone like Emiliano Zapata might be lost on someone who has no idea who he is?
Ai: Well, if the power is in the work, again, it's tied into how great a character you create. For most of the poems, before I read them, I'll say something about who the figures are for those who might not know.
Morin: Your poem on Hoffa is so much richer if you know something about the man.
Ai: I don't know. I think if you create a powerful enough character it shouldn't matter. Now in the Zapata poem, setting counts a lot and images count a lot. I don't know; both Hoffa and Zapata are hard to know today because we're getting further and further away from them. But that's where the writer comes in and makes a character accessible no matter who they are and no matter whether you've heard of them or not. One way I decided to do that when I was an undergraduate, was by using the language of the common man even though I was not a Wordsworth fan. In fact, I hated Wordsworth then but I strongly supported his idea. I guess I simplified my language and tried to make my poetry accessible. As I grew older, I stopped worrying about it so much and just let my characters speak for themselves.
Morin: I noticed some of the new poems in Vice are subtitled "A Fiction." Could you talk about why that is?
Ai: Well, I started doing it because I was dealing with historical figures and didn't want to be sued, so I thought that might help. Especially when I started writing about people like Ted Kennedy. I don't think that until the book Sin, which came out in 1986, I did that. My editor at Houghton Mifflin at the time said, "Well, I don't think you should worry too much because who reads poetry?" Isn't that bad? It was like early '80s, late '70s when he said that. I wasn't writing fiction so I didn't have to worry about it. Now though, Norton puts a disclaimer in my books so I guess I don't have to worry because of that. When I wrote a novel they sent me a huge handout about being sued, so I think they worry more about fiction than poetry.
Morin: Have you ever come across a character whose voice you felt demanded more room to speak than one poem could offer?
Ai: Well, I have two monologues about J. Edgar Hoover. When I sent the first one to Agni, the editor, Askold Melnyczuck, said too bad you don't have another one of those. I took that as a challenge and wrote the second one. I then sent it to him and he rejected it. But I didn't care because it was taken right away by somebody else. It came out of a biography I was reading; I always read the biographies of historical figures I want to write a poem about. In the biography there was talk that Hoover might have had black blood. So I thought, whoa, this is a whole new wrinkle. So that was the aspect of his life I decided to fictionalize and deal with in that poem. It was too good to pass up, and it kind of coincided with Askold saying too bad that you don't have another one.
Morin: You have a new book that has just come out. Is there anything you can tell us about it? Are there any departures from the new work that appeared in Vice?
Ai: In my new book Dread, I have a character, and I was just sort of having fun, I called the psychic detective. I wrote one poem with that character and then I fantasized having a quartet. And then I ended up with five. I've never been able to finish a series because the minute I think I'll do more than one, I can't do it. So the fact that that went on for so many poems is sort of amazing to me. It was rich, though. In my mind, it's a woman, but sometimes it's a man. The psychic detective has a partner named Bob and he/she takes Bob along as a "just the facts" kind of guy. They solve serial murders. Bob and the psychic go to a crime scene and try to find the killer. I actually think the second poem is even stronger than the first. They all have these titles, which I think are fun, like "The Psychic Detective: Fantasy," ".Infinity," ".Divinity." They all have these "-y" endings. It was really fun. It was dealing with really dark stuff and I really enjoyed it. You really get a sense of the whole character. It's not just that he/she is solving crimes but eventually you find out what happens to this character, why this character became this serial crime solver, and then her partner has a dark secret that she discovers, by then it's a she, in the fourth poem. It was fun to write. It's really dark, though, and horrible. And I wasn't going to write any more serial killer stuff because I've written enough of that but it was too good to pass up. The thing that kind of creeps me out about the poems is that some of them you could see happening to people today. When I look back on one of my poems about a priest who has an affair, "The Priest's Confession," and I read some of the details of abuse in the newspapers, it's shocking how similar some of the things are to my poems. "Life Story" is another one. I was really surprised at the similarities. Sometimes my monologues creep me out, to tell you the truth. These poems were written before all this came out about the clergy, long before.
Morin: In Halflife, Charles Wright wrote, "Each line should be a station of the cross." What is your relationship to form and the line?
Ai: I don't know, I just write. I don't have a formal philosophy about it. But I think I have a good ear for my work. I usually read my new poems out loud because something that might look okay on the page might not sound right. Or vice versa, something that sounds good when it's spoken doesn't look right when it's on the page. For some reason, and I think it was after Sin, I started writing in iambic pentameter and why I don't know. My characters seemed to be speaking in iambic pentameter and I also started using more internal rhymes. It just happened; I didn't plan it. Sometimes now I think there are too many little rhymes. I was worried for awhile because in a biography of Anne Sexton I read, it mentions a period where everything for her rhymed, and I think it was a part of her mental condition. So I'm like, Oh my God! I started getting worried about that. You know, in the '60s I would never have written in iambic pentameter. When Merwin dropped form he was an inspiration to a lot of us because he had been more formal in his earlier work. The great thing about an education in poetry is that the stuff that I learned and had no use for as an undergraduate has come back to enrich and inform my poetry now.
Tomas Q. Morin was educated at Texas State University and Johns Hopkins University. He has published poems in Baltimore Review, Midwest Poetry Review, and Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review.