Chi­nese nomde­plume sets off firestorm of ‘poetic in­jus­tice’

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS -

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 chris­davis@chi­nadai­lyusa.com.

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