Ai, who described herself as half Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche, was born in Albany, Texas, on October 21, 1947. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona.
She legally changed her name to "Ai," which means "love" in Japanese. Ai received a BA in Japanese from the University of Arizona and an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.
Ai is the author of eight collections, including Vice: New and Selected Poems (W. W. Norton, 1999), winner of the National Book Award for Poetry; Sin (W. W. Norton, 1986), which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; and Killing Floor (Houghton, 1979), the 1978 Lamont Poetry Award winner from the Academy of American Poets.
She also received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bunting Fellowship Program at Radcliffe College. She taught at Oklahoma State University and lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Ai died on March 20, 2010.