Ai Interviewd by Lawrence Kearney and Micheal Cuddihy Essay

Ai Interviewd By Lawrence Kearney And Micheal Cuddihy Essay

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First published in Ironwood 12 6, no. 2 (1978)

Michael Cuddihy: Would you like to tell us something about your childhood—what forces, conflicts, or events led you to poetry?

Ai: Well, when I was fourteen we lived in L.A. and I went to Mount Vernon Junior High. One day I saw an ad up on the board that said "Poetry Contest." ;The poem had to be about a historical figure. But before I could enter the contest we moved back to Tucson. But I'd discovered that I could write poetry, and I've just continued from the age of fourteen, though there wasn't much in my family life that encouraged it.

I remember I'd written once before, when I was twelve, at this Catholic school in L.A. The nuns said we had to write a letter in which we were a Christian martyr who was going to die the next day. They told us to go home and pretend this was our last letter. But, as I've said, I didn't really start writing until two years later. It was a rather unconscious thing—as I grew older I realized that poetry offered a way to express things that I couldn't do otherwise.

Lawrence Kearney: Some of the poems in Cruelty have that quality of "last letters" ;for me.

Ai: Maybe they do, I don't know. Sometimes I can't even remember the poems in Cruelty. I guess I don't care about them as much anymore.

Kearney: I'd like to ask you about Cruelty while we're on the subject.

Ai: Sure, I've got it right here—in case I need to refresh my memory. (Laughter)

Kearney: Which poems in the book do you feel closest to?

Ai: The only one I really feel close to at all is "Cuba, 1962." ;For me, that's the beginning of my new work, my new interest.

Kearney: In what sense?

Ai: The character speaking in "Cuba" ;seems to me a character with "heart," ;a character larger than life, no matter how insignificant his own life is. . . . That's what I think has happened in the new book, Killing Floor—the characters have moved beyond their own lives into another world.

Kearney: How would you characterize that other world? Or is there a way to?

Ai: I don't know. It's not so much a world as—what's that science fiction term?—"dimension." ;That other dimension, rather than inspiring fright (as it did when I was a kid and watched The Outer Limits) is simply an expanded consciousness.

Kearney: A sense of oneness with life? That kind of consciousness?

Ai: Not so much a oneness as a not being separate.

Kearney: An interesting distinction. . . . Sticking with Cruelty: many reviewers, although it seems to be missing the point, accuse the book of being obsessed with sex-and-violence. But to me, the poems are about loss. I remember you said once that Cruelty was a book of love poems.

Ai: I don't remember when that was. The distinction between my "sex-and-violence" ;poems and others you might read is that in mine the characters love each other. The poems are not hate poems. A lot of women's poetry approaches the theme of trouble between men and women in terms of hatred, I think, or "giving it to the man" ;in the same way that men have given it to women—and I never wrote from that point of view. Loss is very important to all the characters in Cruelty—even if they don't identify it as loss—it's something they can't get or can't get back. And so, there's quite a bit of desperation in it, and I've used violence and sex as a way to express that desperation. . . . What I wanted—I did have a "grand reason" ;for the poems (at least after I'd finished the book)—I wanted people to see how they treated each other and themselves, and that's why I accepted the title Cruelty for the book.

Kearney: What was your original title?

Ai: It was Wheel in a Ditch. It symbolized the wheels of the chariot in Ezekiel's vision. Wheel as the circle, of course, and as the spirit of man trapped, stuck and not able to pull himself out.

Kearney: In a recent interview, Norman Dubie says something to the effect that the characters that speak in his poems are "contexts" ;for his own voice, rather than personalities separate from himself. Do you feel that way about the people who speak in your work?

Ai: No. I think that might be the fundamental difference between Dubie's work and mine, or at least the way we approach our work. I know from the new book, Killing Floor, where I'm dealing with some historical figures, there will be people who will see similarities. But my characters are just who they are—they're not, you know, vehicles for my own voice that much. My characters aren't me ;some are archetypes, some are people I knew, most are made up. I used to preface my readings with a statement that I hadn't been pregnant and had never had an abortion—because people tended to believe all those things in Cruelty had happened to me. Which seems pretty naive.

Kearney: They couldn't believe you could write those poems without an autobiographical intent.

Ai: Yes. It's the tyranny of confessional poetry—the notion that everything one writes has to be taken from the self. Which for me isn't true. If anything, my poems come from the unconscious—I'm irrevocably tied to the lives of all people, both in and out of time.

Kearney: Okay, but I've heard you talk at poetry readings about some episode from childhood or whatever that gave rise to a poem. I guess what I'm trying to get a handle on is where is Florence Ogawa then, in your poems? If it isn't you speaking, then what kind of continuity of sensibility do you feel in your work? A continuity that would be "you" ;in the poems.

Ai: Hmmmm . . . Sorrowful? That life is sad, or is most of the time. In Cruelty you just see that side of it. As a child, there were good times, but they were always eclipsed by bad times. It's like I haven't been able to accept that I'm an adult, that the bogeyman isn't just around the corner. Of course, that's something one goes to therapy to deal with. When I was a child in San Francisco we never had enough money, and my stepfather would go down to the street and borrow some. He'd buy a hamburger and cut it in half for my sister and me for supper. Sometimes he'd spend the whole day borrowing money and by the next morning he'd have gotten some polish sausage and grits and we'd have milk and maybe even fried potatoes. But most of the time we just had S.0.S.—shit on a shingle. To this day I hate biscuits, because they were always the shingle. Bad times just around the corner.

Kearney: In reviewing The American Poetry Anthology, Louis Simpson says something to the effect that your work makes the work of your contemporaries look juvenile. Do you agree?

Ai: I don't feel very comfortable assessing my own work. And I don't feel very knowledgeable about contemporary American poetry. My tastes run to older poets' work, poets like Galway, Kinnell and Phil Levine. Randall Jarrell. I love Cesare Pavese's poetry. I loved The Lice by Merwin when it first came out. I like Gerald Stern's work, and of course, Louis Simpson's. Honestly, there are very few of my contemporaries whose work I admire or feel inspired by—I really like Steve Orien's poetry and Jon Anderson's and Norman Dubie's. There is an obvious kinship, I believe, between Dubie's work and mine. . . . My favorite poet for a long time has been Jean Follain, whose work is totally different from mine. The list goes on and on.

Cuddihy: I'm aware of your wide reading, particularly in Spanish and Japanese literature. Could you name any writers or poets among this group who may have influenced you?

Ai: I don't believe my work is influenced by anybody. People may not believe that, but the hell with them. I am inspired though, by other writers. Miguel Hernandez, and Vallejo, when I was younger. I really love Hemandez's work. I recognize Neruda as a master, though I don't particularly care for his work. A Chilean poet, Enrique Lihn, his early work is very inspiring. My greatest inspiration comes from fiction, especially Latin American. Some Russian work, also. Juan Rolfo. Asturias's Men of Maize. And, of course, Marquez—whom I really love. "Cuba, 1962" ;was inspired by reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, though I wrote it months later. Also, "The Woman Who Knew Too Much," ;which I wrote a first draft of about the same time, which is in Killing Floor. Even then—this was the summer and fall of 1972—I was moving away from the poems in Cruelty. The bulk of the poems in Cruelty were written between March and July, 1972, when I was twenty-four. It's always interested me about myself ;an incredible maturity on one hand, and an incredible immaturity on the other. (Laughter) So, I was still able to put all those poems in Cruelty, and, at the same time, had already moved away from them.

Kearney: An obligatory question about craft. How do poems happen for you?

Ai: The way it does for most writers, I suppose. I might hear a tune, or see something, or read something, and that sets me off. . . . The other day I was reading the first chapter of Serenade by James M. Cain, a mystery writer of the '30s. I've been working on a great poem (or at least what I hope is a great poem)—and I happened to start reading Serenade. They have a way, Cain and Raymond Chandler, of suspending you—of holding your breath while their characters talk. And you don't breathe till they're finished—whether it's a chapter or a paragraph. I was sitting there in a local shopping mall and when I'd finished I said, "Boy, that's great!" ;and I let out

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