National Book Award
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner for poetry this year is known as Ai, a Japanese word meaning love. She won the award for “Vice,” a book of new and selected poems, many of them dramatic monologues. Born in 1947 in Albany, Texas, Ai published her first book in 1973. She currently teaches poetry and fiction at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Thanks for being with us, and congratulations.
AI, National Book Award, Poetry: Oh, thank you, and you’re welcome.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m struck by the tough topics you take on. You deal with child abuse, murder, necrophilia, torture. What draws you to these topics?
AI: Well, it’s really the characters, because I write monologues. So when I find an interesting character, I usually start that way. I’ll think of somebody who interests me, and then fill in the blanks, so to speak. So it’s sort of happenstance in a weird way, you know. It’s just sort of… I’m sort of constructing these lives. But I tend to like scoundrels. I like to write about scoundrels because they are more rounded characters in some respects than a really good person. You know, there’s a lot more to talk about, looking at your scoundrels.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, why the dramatic monologue form?
AI: I’m very comfortable in that form. My first poetry teacher said that when you wrote in the first person, that your work was often stronger. And I discovered over the years that that was… my poems that were written in the first person were the strongest. And I sort of kind of fell into that, so by grad school, that’s all I wrote. And I love it, because it’s so interesting. Every time I write a poem, I’m someone else without actually being that person, you know? It’s really great.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I may have missed something in looking at your poetry, but as far as I can tell, you’re almost always someone else. It’s not about yourself, even though it’s in the first person.
AI: There will be, like, little things in poems sometimes. But if I don’t tell you, you’d never know that I was dealing with something from my own life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right, let’s read one. Let’s read the one about Jimmy Hoffa.
AI: Okay. One night I was watching Johnny Carson, and he told this a joke. And he said “who did they find under Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup?” And the answer was Jimmy Hoffa. And it was just like that, snap my fingers, “I want to write about Jimmy Hoffa.” I usually read biographies when I write about historical figures, so I got a biography, and I was stuck for a while. I had a great opening and then was stuck. Then when I hit on Hoffa having been abducted by an alien, I had my poem. Unfortunately, we won’t hear that part of the poem. “Jimmy Hoffa’s Odyssey: I remember summers when the ice man used to come, a hunk of winter caught between his iron tongs and in the kitchen, my ma with the rag, wiping the floor when he’d gone. Sweet song of the vegetable man, like the music a million silver dollars make as they jingle-jangle in that big pocket of your dreams. Dreams, yes and lies. When I was a boy, I hauled ashes in a wagon pulled by a bony horse, not even good enough for soap. So later, when they called me a stocky little dock worker with my slicked-back black hair, my two-toned shoes, cheap suits and fat, smelly cigars, I didn’t care. I had my compensation. Bobby Kennedy didn’t want to understand. But to the Teamsters back in ’58, I had ‘em all in my pockets then: Statesmen, lawyers, movie stars, Joe Lewis for God’s sake. For a time, I won spin after spin on the ten-wheel of fate. But in the end, like those glory boys Jack and Bobby, I was only icing on the sucker cake.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you get into his head? You’ve been in Trotsky’s head and a lot of other people in your poems. How do you do it?
AI: Well, it’s almost as if, you know… I’m an actor. I feel all the roles. Like, I’m the actor, I’m the writer, the director and everything. Sort of like a method actor. Sort of like De Niro, but I don’t gain weight as De Niro did in “Raging Bull.” It’s all in my mind. I ally didn’t have the Hoffa character until I read that he always referred to himself in the third person. Once I had that and my alien abduction, I was on the road to completion, so to speak.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now about you personally just a little bit: How did you get the name Ai?
AI: Ai is my middle name. My father was Japanese. And my mother is Choctaw Indian, Cheyenne, black black, Dutch and Irish. They love the Irish part. They never talk much about the Dutch part. So I’m truly all American, you know.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did getting the book award surprise you?
AI: Yes, because I convinced myself I wasn’t going to win. And I was full of self-pity yesterday. I couldn’t get a taxi. I was down on West 17th. I couldn’t get a taxi. I said, “they’re torturing me. I’m not going to win this thing anyway.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why were you so sure you wouldn’t win?
AI: I don’t know – you know — because I had been optimistic the night before. But I think partly, when I’m realistic about my work, it’s rather edgy and very dark in many respects. And I was worried that someone whose work was a bit safer than mine might win.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think your work is so edgy and dark, aside from the fact you love scoundrels? You’re very interested in violence.
AI: Well, I think violence is an integral part of American culture, and I set out to deal with it, actually, you know. I felt that when I was an undergrad, I was not able to deal with violence in my work, so I made it a point to be able to do that. I’ve always preferred tragedies. For instance, Shakespeare’s tragedies are my favorites. I rarely go to comedies. But I do have a sense of humor. It’s warped, but it is a sense of humor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thank you very much. Congratulations again.
AI: Oh, thank you. Take care.