I grew up in a very small town. This town had little to recommend it, but it had one thing: There was another, slightly bigger town, next door. This slightly bigger town had a SUNY. This particularly SUNY had a really good set of poets, and an excellent writing program.
The high school I attended had a program where the understimulated could spend half of their senior year taking classes at the SUNY. I signed up to take an introductory creative writing class, taught by a Well Known Poet. As the program required, I set up a meeting with the poet to ask him if this was okay.
It was, he said. But not quite. As luck would have had it, he had heard me read the year before that at a student reading-- a little poem about a shy girl who would rather dance with a broom than a boy. He thought I belonged in the advanced poetry seminar instead of the introductory course.
I was flattered. Of course I was flattered. I was seventeen, and allowed to participate in a largely graduate poetry seminar. The next youngest person in the class was 21, and a senior. He's the main character in my story about Ai.
The next part of the story was predictable-- the next-younger-poet and I became lovers. I was flattered. Of course I was flattered.
For the sake of background, it's important to know more or less all the writers in this environment were Deep Imagists and Transcendentalists. It was all Whitman around a bonfire and Robert Bly and Wendell Berry and William Carlos Williams and Galway Kinnell. We only read the confessional poets in order to talk about what a shame it was they didn't go beyond their limitations.
I lent my lover my treasured copy of Ariel and he handed it back to me defaced with a note questioning her value. He'd copied that damned Williams poem about the wheelbarrow and the chickens onto the book's title page.
Anyhow. I got older. I won a scholarship that let me attend a prestigious women's college. The relationship with the poet ended, as relationships do-- although we swore to keep our poetic connection alive. It was all very writerly.
At college, I discovered feminism. And not just political feminism. Suddenly I was reading Marianne Moore, Dickinson, Margaret Fuller's letters to Emerson. The writers I studied with there were not as quick to dismiss my Sexton and Plath. Culture and Agriculture was no longer holy writ. I also bought my first book by Ai, Sin.
When I went back to my home town for the summer, I decided to live in a student house in the slightly bigger town with my ex-lover. We would write poems together, bake bread, drink wine on the Erie Canal.
As you can imagine, it was a disaster. I was no longer looking up to my ex, and it permanently changed the dynamics. He would probably say I had gotten abrasive. I would argue I had stopped being easily influenced.
Anyhow.it all finally exploded in one horrible argument. Kind of a funny argument, looking back now. He argued there was no need for female writers as such because if a man was sufficiently open to the universal in his nature then gender was irrelevant. I was furious, and argued that I preferred Ai's poems to Robert Lowell.(*) Which was heresy, of course.
This fight led to several days of sulking. He pointedly baked bread without me. There was something about gladiolas. When I finally tried to get him to talk, he exploded and slapped me hard across the face. I moved out.(**)
The Well Known Poet who had chosen me for his class asked me what had caused the fight. I told him I thought "Ai was a better writer than Robert Lowell".
The Well Known Poet looked at me with gentle bemusement. "But that's a good thing," he said. "You should be confident about your own work."
"I am," I said. "But I mean 'Ai' and not 'I'."
The truth is, I didn't know much about Ai. I had only really started to explore a few of her pieces when I had the fight in the first place. None of what I just wrote was really about her, or her work. It was more about the fight for my own voice.
I went on to really explore her work. I spent a lot of time poring over her poetry. She became a kind of guiding spirit-- leading me to trust my own voice, my own identity. Sin became a totem-- one I still have, by the way-- carried with me to Amsterdam.
Even if I hadn't known it when I made it, Ai was a really good choice as a poet of identity-- particularly the struggle for self. Even though I don't read her now as much as I did, I'm still so impressed with the way she wrote to characters and to points of view-- always questioning the bias inside our ideas of identification and identity.
So even though I never met her and never heard her read she was one of my personal heroes. And this story is the story of why.
(*)The man in question tells me that the fight couldn't have been about Lowell, since he doesn't like Lowell either. I'm deferring to my own memory, but it could have been Bly-- I really enjoyed needling him about Bly.
(**)I turned the incident into a poem, and it was the first poem I ever had accepted into a national venue. It also was the only piece I ever had published which generated fan mail. And so it goes.