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National Book Award winning poet Ai has died

March 24, 2010 |  8:08 am

Ai National Book Award winning poet Ai died unexpectedly of natural causes in Oklahoma on Saturday. She was 62.

Born Florence Anthony in Texas in 1947 of mixed racial heritage -- said to include Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, African-American, Irish, Southern Cheyenne and Comanche -- she legally changed her name to Ai, Japanese for "love." She was raised in Tuscon and earned an MFA in creative writing from UC Irvine in 1971.

She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and 1985, and the 1999 National Book Award for her poetry collection "Vice." She was a recipient of the $50,000 United States Artists grant in 2009. From 1999 until her death, she was a professor at Oklahoma State University.

In its bio of Ai, the Poetry Foundation writes:

Aiming her poetic barbs directly at prejudices and societal ills of all types, Ai has been outspoken on the subject of race, saying "People whose concept of themselves is largely dependent on their racial identity and superiority feel threatened by a multiracial person. The insistence that one must align oneself with this or that race is basically racist. And the notion that without a racial identity a person can’t have any identity perpetuates racism…I wish I could say that race isn’t important. But it is. More than ever, it is a medium of exchange, the coin of the realm with which one buys one’s share of jobs and social position. This is a fact which I have faced and must ultimately transcend. If this transcendence were less complex, less individual, it would lose its holiness."

A new collection of poetry by Ai, "No Surrender," is set to be published by W.W. Norton this fall. Today, friends and family are remembering Ai at the Palmer Marler Funeral Home in Stillwater, Oklahoma; an Oklahoma State University scholarship is being set up in her name.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Charlie M.P. Sirait, courtesy Oklahoma State University

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