Ai was the assumed name of a beautiful poet whose work I first encountered around 1970 and who I immediately had a crush on, for both her beauty and her poetry.
She liked to talk about all the various ethnicities she inherited as part of her "racial" makeup. The only other poet with a comparable ethnic mix that made them at least in terms of ancestory the most representative "Americans" we have in our literary history, was Bob Kaufman. But unlike Bob, she came of age at a time when her genes made her more attractive to a wider audience than just the handful of fans Kaufman's work managed to attract back in the 1950s and early '60s.
Ai's poetry garnered praise almost as soon as she arrived on the scene. Her first publications coincided with the growth of the feminist movement (the second wave of feminism as it was sometimes labeled) and the emergences of The Black Arts movement as a publishing phenomenon (the movement was several years old by the time her work had an impact, but new anthologies and publishing ventures were making it more visible and accessible to those outside the movement).
She was famous for fierce yet lyrical poetic monologues that cast her as an outsider's outsider. An appealing image anytime but particularly in a time as eruptive and "countercultural" as the late 1960s and early '70s.
I was dismayed to learn of her death only yesterday through Ron Silliman's blog (she passed last Friday, the 19th) and my condolences go out to her family and friends and legions of fans.