(1947— ) Ai's work has been important for its explorations of the dramatic monologue, as well as for testing the limits and possibilities of poetic narrative. Her most significant influence is Galway kinnell, though her work has been frequently compared with that of the poet Norman Dubie. Her fidelity to narrative has produced a widely accessible and popular poetry. Her writing, however, offers a sustained critique of narrative representation, giving voice dispassionately to both the silenced and the iconographic.
Ai was born in 1947 to a Japanese father and a "black, Choctaw, Irish and German mother" (Ai 1). She received a B.A. in Japanese from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine. Her first book, Cruelty, was published in 1973, and six other books have followed: Killing Floor (1979), Sin (1986), Fate (1991), Vice (1999), which won the National Book Award (1999), and Dread (2003). She has been the recipient of numerous grants, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.
Ai has spoken against the "the tyranny of confessional poetry—the notion that every thing every one writes has to be taken from the self" and has suggested, instead, that she wants to "take the narrative 'persona' poem as far as [she] can, and [she has] never been one to do things by halves" (Ai 3). Her writing seeks to make apparent the erotic and disturbing desires that sustain American culture's fascination with the cult of personality: She writes with the voice of John F. Kennedy, an abused daughter, James Dean, J. Edgar Hoover, a pedo-philic priest, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and others. Of the latter she writes: "To me the ideological high wire / is for fools to balance on with their illusions." A more suitable alternative is "to leap into the void." These lines suggest something of the mocking ambivalence that characterizes Ai's work as it aims both to transcend and critique the political. Her attention to the violence of the everyday and of the monumental also produces a poetry that challenges the distinctions to be made between the two. Although this writing's ability to give voice to the voiceless has implications for both identity politics and cultural revisionism, it actually questions the assumptions of each. Ai's tracing of the limitations of self, her marking of the boundary between the transcendent and the abject, places notions of identity, articulation, and self-knowledge under pressure.
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