Chinese nomdeplume sets off firestorm of ‘poetic injustice’
No ink is bad ink, the saying goes. When it comes to publishing, scandals help sales, even in the rarified world of modern American poetry.
The latest flak to get the literary establishment’s knickers in a twist started last week when it came out that a white man from Fort Wayne, Indiana, by the name of Michael Derrick Hudson got a poem published — and selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2015 anthology — under the Chinese pen name of Yi-Fen Chou.
In the volume’s biographical notes, Hudson admits that he called himself Yi-Fen Chou because the poem had been rejected 40 times under his own name (and nine times under Yi-Fen Chou before finally being accepted). The 20-line poem, which is only slightly longer than its title — The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve — first appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of the Prairie Schooner, a literary quarterly out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, along with three other poems by “Yi-Fen Chou.”
It was selected for inclusion in the anthology by guest editor Sherman Alexie, a poet and fiction writer himself, even after Hudson alerted him to the pseudonym.
The ruse has set off a cyberdebate, with accusations of racism, political correctness and even “affirmative action” flying. “Folks, if there is such a thing as employing yellowface in poetry, this has to be it,” Phil Yu wrote on his blog Angry Asian Man.
Alexie, who is of Native American descent, defended his decision to go ahead with publishing the poem, saying that if he had cut it, the only reason would have been to avoid personal embarrassment.
“I would have pulled it because I didn’t want to hear people say, ‘Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy.’ I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity.
“If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym,” Alexie continued on the volume’s blog. “If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”
Injustices in the world of poetry. Is no ivory safe?
On the blog entry, which goes on and on, Alexie says that he took the guest editorship “very [expletive]-ly seriously” and during the year leading up to publication possibly read more poems than any other person on the planet, upwards of 3,000. He said he set out “to pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past.”
“As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading,” he writes. “I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.”
Poet and Chapman University professor Victoria Chang told the Washington Post that the very act of “appropriating an ethnic identity… diminishes categorically all of our accomplishments. He sort of implies that minorities are published because we’re minorities, not because of our work. That’s just insulting because it strips everything we’ve worked so hard for.”
The Asian American Writers’ Workshop created the hashtag #ActualAsianPoets and has been tweeting the names and works of “Real Asian poets to know,” the London newspaper the Guardian reports, naming the likes of Jane Wong and Monic Youn, whose poems also made it into the anthology.
Ken Chen, the executive director of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop went on National Public Radio with some of the most blistering comments, saying Hudson’s use of a Chinese pen name was “clear-eyed” calculation. “He wanted power, the capital of multicultural difference.”
“American literature isn’t just an art form,” Chen said, “it’s a segregated labor market. In New York, where almost 70 percent of New Yorkers are people of color, all but 5 percent of writers reviewed in the New York Times are white. Hudson saw these crumbs and asked why they weren’t his. Rather than being a savvy opportunist, he’s another hysterical white man, envious of the few people of color who’ve breached their quarantine.”
Simple solution: from now on, make all poetry submissions completely blind — no names, bios, backgrounds (nearly 99 percent of the 70 poets chosen are professors), connections, awards, grants; nothing, just a randomly assigned number, then pick the best from that.
The furor has laid bare one thing that might surprise many. As Alexie said in a tweet: “I’m exhausted by the Best American Poetry mess but, wow, how cool that so many people are crazy-passionate about poems.”
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.