Sunday, March 21, 2010
Q&A with Poet Ai
Several Poetry Center staff members collaborated to pose some questions to Ai, a poet (and a Tucson native) whose work will be on display in the Poetry Center Library through August 15th.
Your poems have been praised as "challenging." In each, an entire world―for lack of a better word―is created so that the reader is convinced that the way of thinking presented is the only way of thinking. Though the myriad voices in which your poems are written are one of their most arresting features, I don't think it is the voices alone that achieve this intellectually and philosophically challenging effect. Can you speak to how this is done?
Ai: I don't really know how to answer this question, I mean the part about "how this is done." I don't have a process that anyone else could follow and use to create their own monologues. The only method I use is THE METHOD. By that I mean that I admire Method acting/actors a lot. I think of my "voices" as characters. I think I am closer to a playwright in that way than a poet. When I write a monologue, I get to play all the parts, plus I am the writer and the director. I don't know why I never wrote plays instead of poems, but of course, my poems are dramatic monologues, and in a sense, they are mini-plays. The intellectual and philosophical effects are just part of my intelligence, I guess. I have a high IQ which has perhaps made it easier for me to incorporate such things into monologues. Of course, I am always trying to stay in character and not let my own personal feelings, etc. interfere with "the character." Some people think my monologues are masks for my own ideas and what not, but I disagree. They are not masks. That, I think, is a major distinction between what I am doing and simply writing personae poems. The dramatic monologue is a kind of bridge between poetry and drama. I am standing upon that bridge.
What physical aspect of Tucson has most influenced your writing? Or, if you prefer, have any physical aspects of Tucson influenced your writing?
Ai: I think the desert and the heat of Southern Arizona are almost characters in some of my early monologues. I am thinking of 'The Hitchhiker" which is in my first book, Cruelty. When that book came out, a lot of people thought I was writing about the Midwest, which surprised me as I always had Tucson in mind when I was writing. I also drew on my childhood on West Riverview and growing up Catholic, not to mention multiracial in Tucson, which used to have some Mexican/African American, Fillipino/African American and Native American/African American families with their own kinds of cultural identities that I don't think people know about, or remember, but I do as I am from one of those families. We also had Irish ancestry to go with Native American, African American and in my case Japanese. Tucson was an interesting place to live back then and in which to grow into an adult.
What do you like best in the poems you read?
Ai: I don't know that there is one thing I like best in the poems I read. I admire the skill the poets show in some poems, even if I don't like the poems that much. I remember a quote, "...my heart leaps up.." That's what I am looking for in a poem, something that says, "gotcha Ai."
How does your teaching inform your poetry?
Ai: I don't think teaching informs my poetry at all. They are pretty separate in my mind. I find teaching draining and don't do a lot of writing during the school year. I think real teaching takes all one's creative energy, although once in awhile, I am energized by a good workshop and re-inspired by what has gone on in the workshop. Just seeing how new and exciting everything is to my students makes me remember how it was for me when I was their age and makes me grateful I can still write a good poem/monologue.
Do you like watching films? Can you speak to any intersection between your work and the movies?
Ai: Yes, I love movies. I watch a lot of them and have a friend in Hollywood, who has been trying to break in for about ten years. I always talk to him about the latest movies. Sometimes, he gets to go to premieres and tells me all about the films before everyone else. Of course, now and then, his critiques ruin them for me. He'll just say, "don't bother going to that one." I was inspired to write my Aguirre poem after I saw the Herzog film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, but that only happened once. I just enjoy them, but of course, the method actors I admire were people I saw in movies, not in plays, that is except for Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, whom I did see Off Broadway in American Buffalo. That was great. I was sitting in a seat (that had been described to me as being awful and the last one) so close to the stage that I could see spit flying out of his mouth.