Oklahoma State University doctoral student Karen Sisk took a break from cataloging writing and research at her late-professor’s Stillwater home Tuesday to reflect about how her mentor has inspired her.
Students and faculty are mourning the loss of a brilliant artist and a beloved friend, Ai Ogawa, who died unexpectedly Saturday. Ogawa was a prominent figure in contemporary poetry. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the American Book Award, the National Book Award and several National Endowment for the Arts Awards.
'She was a force of nature,'” Sisk said. "She was probably one of the strongest, most stubborn, funniest and sweetest women I’ve known.”
Ogawa was admitted to the Stillwater Medical Center on Wednesday for pneumonia. While there, doctors discovered she was in the late stages of breast cancer, said Carol Moder, associate professor and head of the Department of English at OSU. Ogawa died Saturday morning, Moder said.
Friends and family still are shocked.
Ogawa came to Oklahoma State as a visiting professor in 1996.
She was hired as a tenure professor at OSU after she won the National Book Award in 1999.
Moder remembers Ogawa as being insightful, witty, sometimes acerbic and always observant.
"Ai was a fine poet and an extraordinary colleague,” Moder said. "Her national prominence as a writer greatly enriched the literary experiences of our students and of her colleagues.”
Jeff Simpson, a former student of Ogawa’s, said she was direct and unflinching. He said Ogawa challenged her students to see difficult situations as a force of power to influence their writing.
"She was committed to making you produce the most fearless work you could,” Simpson said.
During an interview with PBS in 1999, Ogawa described her work as "rather edgy and very dark.”
Ogawa was working on several projects, including a memoir. A new volume of her poems called "No Surrender,” is scheduled to publish in September.
Simpson said Ogawa will live on through her words.
"To me the biggest loss is the work we’re not going to get to see from her, because it is so fierce and direct and honest and fearless,” Simpson said.
"That’s the kind of work that stands the test of time. Ai’s the kind of writer that you really can’t ignore.”
One of Ogawa’s wishes was that her papers would go to the Library of Congress, Moder said. Students and faculty have been taking turns helping to sort through books and papers at Ogawa’s home.
Looking at her work makes the loss real, Sisk said, but it also feels like the best thing she can do.
The opportunity to work with Ogawa was one of the reasons Sisk decided to apply for graduate school at Oklahoma State.
"It’s a big void,” Sisk said. "She was a big personality and it would take a lot to fill that.”
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