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Black and white portrait of a woman wearing an earring with her hair tied back facing left
Ai Ogawa portrait, unattributed, [ca. 1983?]. Box 13, Folder 5, Ai Ogawa Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Story-Teller Poet: The Ai Ogawa Papers are Newly Available in the Manuscript Division

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This is a guest post by Barbara Bair, historian of Literature, Culture, and the Arts in the Manuscript Division.

The recently acquired personal papers of award-winning poet and teacher Ai Ogawa (1947-2010) are newly processed and open to researchers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. The Ai Ogawa Papers include 18,000 items documenting Ai’s family life, schooling, and professional writing and academic careers. The collection includes correspondence, writings, poetry, notebooks, teaching materials, select photographic materials and snapshots, and genealogical research related to her family heritage, especially records involving Native American allotment and census records. Researchers will find documentation of Ai’s university and fellowship appointments, her personal life and activism, poetry readings and workshops, friendships, interactions with publishers and other literary figures, and files reflecting her very lively interests, which she gathered for her reference use in crafting her poems.[1]

Throughout her career, Ai delved into the human psyche and issues of race, sex, multiracialism, and gender identity. In her poems, which often read like vignettes or stories, she took on personas or created alter-egos that spoke to circumstances of her own life or of historical instances of violence, trauma and discrimination. She wrote in the voices of men and women, old and young, girl and boy, Irish, Choctaw, Japanese American, and African American, embracing stories of inner lives and motivations of those who were often abused, facing injustice or poverty, and downtrodden—or conversely, individuals who played prominent roles in historical and contemporary celebrity culture.

Ai was an avid student of her own ancestry. She self-described as Japanese, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Comanche, Black, and Irish.[2]  She was born Florence Leah Anthony in her great-grandmother’s home in Albany, Texas, to a single mother soon after World War II. Her biological father was a Japanese man named Ogawa with whom her mother had a brief affair, and after her mother married, she went by the step-family name. Ai addressed this era of her childhood in her unpublished memoir included in the collection and her poem “Chance” (“I had on my red Roy Rogers cowboy hat, / my western shirt, cowboy boots, and Levis”), which features a family moving from Kansas to Arizona in 1952 and driving without knowing it through winds carried from nuclear testing grounds in New Mexico.[3]

Black and white image of a young girl standing outside with shoulder-length hair wearing a western-style shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.
Ai as a young girl, unattributed, ca. 1952, Box 13. Folder 4, Ai Ogawa Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Ai spent part of her early years living in Tucson, Arizona, and her love of Native American Southwestern aesthetics and jewelry was evident in her personal style throughout her life. She majored in Oriental Studies with a focus on the Japanese language at the University of Arizona and in her college years began in earnest as a creative writer. She examined issues of identity, sexuality, multiracialism, and gender roles while earning an MFA in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine, where she was mentored by Charles Wright and Donald Justice. An edited draft of her master’s thesis of poems and manuscript materials for her later books of poetry are part of the collection at the Library of Congress, as are autobiographical materials and an unpublished novel (Black Blood). In 1973, the same year she published her first book of poems, Cruelty, she legally changed her name to Pelorhankhe Ai L’Heah Ogawa (adopting “Ai” as her pen name).

Tan poster with "Ai" in large red scripted font.
Poster, Ai book talk on Greed, Associated Students of Arizona State University Lecture Series, Oct. 19, 1993. Oversize Folder 3, Ai Ogawa Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Ai was fashionable, strikingly beautiful, and bold in her ways. During her career, she was befriended by celebrities like actor Willem DaFoe, who is featured in her papers in correspondence; photographer Annie Liebovitz; and Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros, for whom she agreed to be on a jury of judges for a literary prize. The collection reveals Ai as a science fiction fan of Star Trek, a dog and cat lover, and a keen follower of the news.

Many of Ai’s poems are historically based and take the form of lengthy often surreal proletarian stories, written in dramatic monologues or dialogues. Her poetry engages in psychological probing and portrays the depths of human depravity, frailty, or evil. It is also sprinkled with popular culture references, such as the Mills Brothers, Billie Holiday, RuPaul, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Mike Tyson, and the movie Taxi Driver. She explores uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes horrifying dimensions of domestic violence, child and substance abuse, homicide, suicide, body horror, political repression, and racial terrorism. She set her poems variously in cities and in the rural South, and though most of her work addresses American subjects, she also chose to highlight justice conditions and incidences in many parts of the world, including Central America, Cuba, Germany, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, Spain, and Vietnam.

Open archival box with folders containing papers and blue post it notes used as organizational labels
Ai Ogawa Papers during archival processing in 2022, photo B. Bair. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The titles Ai chose for her books read like a litany: Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed, Vice, Dread, and the posthumously published No Surrender. She addressed celebrity as a two-faced theme and analyzed real-life individuals, politicians, and actors. She dedicated poems to Dafoe, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock, and Marion Barry, and peopled the pages of her writing with Franco and Stalin, the Kennedy brothers, LBJ, Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Jimmy Hoffa, Richard Nixon, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Jack Ruby, Roy Cohn, and John Wilkes Booth. She also referenced iconic women such as Eve and Salome. She imagined a girl hiding during the Tulsa Race Riot while her mother was killed in the street (“The Greenwood Cycle”); a woman named Carmen executed because of what she knew (“The Woman Who Knew Too Much”); the wife of George Armstrong Custer as she longed for motherhood, and faced the phenomenon of Native American infants left motherless by military massacres (“Libbie”); and a farmer who was forced off his property by arsonists when oil was discovered on his land (“White Man”). She had Walt Whitman speak through a dream to begin a poem about AIDS (“Visitation”). Many poems addressed the secret experiences and feelings of women related to their reproductive capacity and their gender. She told stories in voices not often heard, or from interior individual awareness seldom confessed aloud.

Handwrriten document on white lined paper.
Ai’s notes for a creative writing assignment, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, June 14, [1999]. Box 13, Folder 10, Ai Ogawa Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Ai’s 1976 marriage ended in divorce, and she did not remarry. She moved frequently between temporary academic positions and poetry fellowship appointments. In the last decade of her life, beginning in 1999—the year she received the National Book Award for Vice—she began teaching on the faculty at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, and continued to do so until her death. While at Oklahoma State University, she was a leader in the Association of Native American Faculty and Staff. Her creative writing teaching materials are part of her collection.

Ai died of complications from cancer in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on March 20, 2010. One of her last poems, published posthumously in No Surrender, was “The Cancer Chronicles,” a monologue poem about a woman experiencing and dying from breast cancer. Ai set the poem significantly in four “stages,” matching the progression of the disease and the woman’s evolving reaction to it. This last book of poetry included poems entitled “Motherhood,” “Sisterhood,” “Womanhood,” “Widowhood,” and “Brotherhood.”

Ai’s chosen pen name—which she always wanted to be used on its own—means “love” in Japanese. She was often accused of being overly harsh and hard-hitting in her poetry. But as fellow poet Yusef Komunyakaa surmised when introducing the collected edition of her poems, “The power in her poetry” —and indeed, of Ai’s life — “isn’t rancor, but the terrifying beauty of pure candor.”[4]

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[1] The Ai Ogawa Papers came to the Library of Congress as the generous gift of her sister Roslynn O’Carroll and were transferred to the Library from Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, through the stewardship of OSU associate dean of special collections Mary Larson. The papers were arranged and readied for research use at the Library of Congress by archivist Connie Cartledge.

[2] Margalit Fox, “Ai, a Steadfast Poetic Channel of Hard Lives, Dies at 62,” New York Times, March 28, 2010, A26; “Ai” biographical profile and select poems, The Poetry Foundation.

[3] Ai, “Chance,” in The Collected Poems of Ai (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 269-270. Earlier published in Vice: New and Selected Poems. See also “Arrival,” Memoirs file, Box 39, and “Vice” files, Box 46, Ai Ogawa Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Yusef Komunyakaa, “The Method of Ai,” introduction to The Collected Poems of Ai, 13.

Comments

  1. Ai was an amazing poet bred in the crucible of the female “confessionals”, particularly Sexton & Plath, yet very different as she writes through the lens of her characters as opposed to her own direct experience. With Plath, Sexton and Ai now gone, who do we have left to write power-poetry.

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