Lyric Essentials is back this week with writer, artist, and PEN America’s Prison & Justice Writing Director, Caits Meissner who reads work from the poet Ai and takes us deep into the human experience through conversation about writing and justice work.
Note: the content of this interview, and Ai’s work, might be triggering for some. It discusses, in part, difficult acts of violence.
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read the poet Ai for Lyric Essentials?
Caits Meissner: When I reread Ai’s work in preparation for this feature, the gutting poem “Abortion” drew up the memory of a teenage student on Rikers Island. Years ago now, the student defended a newly incarcerated peer who had been beaten by other girls in the jail, and soaked in their piss. They’d read the paper, which stated the following facts: the new arrival was seventeen and charged with asphyxiating her newborn child after giving birth in a friend’s bathroom. She was caught while shoplifting at Victoria’s Secret. The dead baby was in her bag.
But she loved that baby, even though it was dead, that’s why she carried it with her, so she could stay close to it, my student said.
The paper said otherwise.
This story sat on my heart for weeks—both the girl’s devastating acts, the muddled question of her motivations, and her subsequent treatment. As often required when working in spaces of incarceration, the central activity of my daily life, one is forced to hold conflicting truths that can dizzy the moral compass. Below the sociopolitical conversation I engage in around mass incarceration—my own is ultimately an abolitionist orientation—lives a landmine of the most difficult, generations-long questions of our species. Sometimes, I drown in them.
The newspaper, of course, doesn’t tell us what led the teen to this wrenching act, or who she’ll become after long term incarceration. No—that information might trouble our distance from the act of “monsters,” “convicts” and animals.” It might force us to admit that this horrifying act, too, is not separate from, but squarely a part of the spectrum of human behavior, which is a hard reality to own. And with that knowledge, how do we contend with it and create the proper mechanisms of accountability? With more retribution? With more violence? How do we, then, redeem ourselves?
Ai is often referred to as a poet who works in dramatic monologue, which seems to me an imprecise term. You’ll notice that her poems don’t even bother an attempt at approximating another’s language. Instead, Ai’s characters always sound like Ai. This creates a jarring form of universal consciousness, increasing the terror of each reading, a sense that these characters, in part, might lurk somewhere buried in myself. We are all cut from the same cloth, most of us seeking redemption, even when through profoundly misguided actions—I think this is what the poems are getting at.
In truth, I tried not to choose Ai for this feature—her work is so heavy, and challenging to parse. It felt risky and maybe even unfair to tug readers into my whirlwind of emotional response. But a voice inside me kept pulling me back again and again. For this series, which “pays homage to the poets that have guided us and transformed our work,” it’s the most honest choice of this moment. Ai has transformed me. Her work helps me think through what is most confounding about humanity by facing it, head on, without flinching.
EH: Do you have a personal connection to “Cuba, 1962” or “Conversation” that led you to read these particular poems for us?
CM: Frankly speaking, I chose these poems because they are among her least gratuitously violent—a slightly easier entry point, even with their own robust weight. Perhaps I should have been more brave in my selections. Still, the two examples prove Ai’s attention to craft and the emotional life of her subjects are as much guiding forces as the often shocking and tough-to-stomach stories she chooses to enter.
“Cuba, 1962” is a daring, masterful short poem of witness through the voice of a grieving husband. The piece reveals the exploitation of Cuban fieldworkers in the demand for consumerist production—in this case sugarcane—by the United States and Russia during the 1960s.
“Conversation” has always moved me with its rendering of talking to a dead loved one, poet Robert Lowell. Her metaphors are razor sharp in this poem. Ai brings us into the realm of the unimaginable. Having lost my mother this year, I have lots of conversations with the dead, and the poem takes on another layer of personal meaning.
EH: In what way has Ai’s work influenced your own as a creator, writer, and educator?
CM: Though clearly concerned with the social conditions that lead to extreme marginalization, I don’t think Ai was explicitly out for social justice. Many of her subjects are perpetrators of unspeakable cruelty and violence themselves. Ai’s work can sometimes feel closer to the true crime genre than to protest poetry. She takes on the internal landscape of individuals—either living nearly anonymously in assumed poverty or, conversely, infamous historical/celebrity figures—who are the warped human shrapnel of a hyper-capitalist, celebrity-obsessed, violence-obsessed American culture tethered to an origin story of genocide and racial subjugation.
And then, on another level, put plainly, Ai was looking for interesting characters to creatively mine—“scoundrels,” as she called them. She was curious about people who did bad things.
These mixed impulses towards creation, some noble, some sociopolitical, some perhaps even romantic in their curiosity, add up what I find to be a rigorous, polarizing, challenging, and yes, at times sensational body of work. Her approach was honest and brave and flawed and human and layered, as are her subjects. I’ve read as many interviews with Ai as I could find (there aren’t many) and nowhere does she qualify her work as intending to offer any particular service to the world. All of this is what makes her poems cut to the bone with the harrowing, chilling truths of human consequence.
Ai’s approach directly influences a project I’ve been working on for the past 4 years. This series of “ghosted voices” borrow Ai’s hallowed monologue form. For example, “Loving the Enemy” is a poem in the voice of a woman married to a man who commits serial rape, and chooses to remain in love with him.“Trapping” is a poem about a woman who locks herself in the bathroom to mirror the experience of her partner’s solitary confinement. I am also often trying to understand how “good people do bad things,” and her form has given me a route in.
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working right now on that you’d like to share with our readers?
CM: Despite the intensity of the poems I just pointed to, and my choosing Ai to share, I also take much softer creative approaches! Among those are two recent projects that use illustration as part of the storytelling method.
Returning to the medium of my youth, the self-published, DIY 80+ page Pep Talks For Broke(n) People arrived this past February. The comix-poetry zine chronicles, through short visual narratives, encouraging words exchanged between friends and lovers (and sometimes within my own head) that have helped me to cope with the bizarre and trying act of living.
And throughout 2020, I am publishing a monthly comix vignette series, New York Strange, in Hobart journal that captures unexpected encounters—comical, tender, emotional, sobering—during my 18 year tenure in this wild city.
Ai Ogawa was born Florence Anthony in 1947, adopting the legal name Ai–the Japanese word for “love”–as a way to reshape her personal narrative. She is of mixed race heritage, including Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche; her feminist politics and identity shaped the dramatic persona poetry and ability, as the Poetry Foundation describes, to “give voice to marginalized, poor and abused speakers” that she is most known for. Before her death due to pneumonia complications and undiagnosed cancer in 2010, she published seven books of poetry, receiving the National Book Award for her book Vice (1999), an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, for Sin (1986), and the Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets for Killing Floor (1979). She was a tenured professor and the vice president of the Native American Faculty and Staff Association at Oklahoma State University until the time of her death.
Purchase The Collected Poems of Ai from W.W. Norton.
Read an interview with Ai from Tomas Q. Morin in AWP Magazine.
Learn more about Ai’s poetry and life in poets.org’s feature “Assuming the Mask: Persona and Identity in Ai’s Poetry”
Caits Meissner is the author of the illustrated hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry (The Operating System, 2016). Her latest projects include the DIY comix poetry zine Pep Talks For Broke(n) People and a comix vignette series, New York Strange, publishing monthly in Hobart journal throughout 2020. She currently is the inaugural Palette Poetry Second Book Fellow and spends her days as the Prison and Justice Writing Program Director at PEN America.
Follow Meissner’s monthly comix vignette series New York Strange in Hobart.
Purchase Meissner’s debut hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry.
Read an interview with Meissner about her justice work in Teachers & Writers Magazine.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/