(1947 - 2010)
Ai Ogawa, born Florence Anthony, was born in the town of Albany in North Texas and raised in Tucson, Arizona. The product of an affair between her mother and a Japanese man, she self-identified as Japanese, Black, Irish, and of Native American descent including Choctaw-Chickasaw, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche backgrounds. Ai grew up in poverty, which influenced her later poetry’s depiction of personal struggles. At 12, she wrote her first poem, written from the perspective of a Catholic martyr, for a class assignment, foreshadowing what would become a focus on persona poems.
Ai attended the University of Arizona, majoring in English and Oriental studies with a concentration in Japanese and a minor in creative writing. By the end of college, she knew she wanted to become a poet. She earned her MFA from the University of California at Irvine, where she studied under poets such as Donald Justice and Charles Wright. Soon after completing the program, she changed her name to Pelorhankhe Ai L’Heah Ogawa and established the pen name “Ai,” the Japanese word for “love.”
In 1973, Ai published Cruelty (Perseus), the first of eight books published over her career. Her second collection, Killing Floor (Houghton, 1979), won the 1978 Lamont Poetry Award winner from the Academy of American Poets. Subsequent works by Ai include Sin (W. W. Norton, 1986), winner of an American Book Award; Fate (1991); Greed (1993); Vice: New and Selected Poems (1999), winner of the National Book Award for Poetry; Dread (2003); and the posthumous No Surrender (2010).
Ai’s work, often depicting the disenfranchised or disadvantaged, has been described by Margalit Fox as “known for its raw power, jagged edges, and unflinching examination of violence and despair.” She frequently wrote in the form of dramatic monologues, taking on both narrators of her own invention and historical personalities from Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to Jimmy Hoffa and John Wilkes Booth. Ai was the recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bunting Fellowship Program at Radcliffe College. From 1999 onward, she was a professor and vice president of the Native American Faculty and Staff Association at Oklahoma State University. She worked there and lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, until her death of pneumonia in 2010.
Photo is licensed under CC BY 3.0.