Sunday, March 21, 2010
Remembering Ai: Tucson, 1970, blue satin dress
One day in my first poetry workshop -- I was seventeen, and a student in Richard Shelton's poetry workshop at the University of Arizona -- Dick told us that we'd have a special guest for class. Her name was Florence Anthony, and she'd also been a student at the U of A, and now her first book was forthcoming from Houghton-Mifflin, chosen by Galway Kinnell for a poetry series. She had chosen another name for herself, Ai, and when she entered the room I think there must have been a kind of psychic ripple that passed through our collective awareness. She was a slender, poised African-American woman with a decidedly glamorous aspect; she was wearing a tight sky blue satin sheath dress, though it was a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon in Tucson, and the rest of us were wearing -- oh, cut off jeans, Indian-print shirts, beads. She sat on the edge of one of the classroom chairs, both forthright and a bit shy at once, and Dick asked her questions, and then she read some poems from her book, CRUELTY. Harrowing, heart-reading, violent poems, face to face with the brutal struggles of her characters, relentless. I'd still say it was her best book. I can feel the sear and shock of those poems now, the world she opened before us, this calm and elegant young woman -- she was all of 23 at the time -- reading her ferocious lines.