That isn’t exactly giving a platform to talented but excluded or disadvantaged voices, one thing that some supporters of racial preferences hope they will achieve.
Michael Derrick Hudson, the poet who pretended to be of Chinese background, “lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he works at the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library.” That presumably means he’s the rare poet who wasn’t a professor. In a country filled with young men, many black and Hispanic, who never even attend college but spend hours filling notebooks with verse––and occasionally break through to an audience of millions––a case can be made that a poetry anthology that was 85 percent black, Hispanic, and Asian writers, but 100 percent college professors, would be a failure of diversity masquerading as a triumph.
That isn’t really a criticism of Sherman Alexie.
With limited resources, he did the best he could to put together a great book of poems and to run what he regarded as a just process for doing so. Anyone in his position would have failures, and his successes surpassed what most would manage.
I nevertheless think that his approach will encourage other white poets who aren’t college professors to falsify their identities when submitting poetry in the future. I’d urge them against dishonesty. But I also couldn’t blame them for dismissing claims like, “If you’re a straight white male, to adopt the name of a marginalized minority is crass and offensive. To do so and think it gives you an advantage in publishing is stupid and insulting to the editors who are mostly doing this work for nothing or for very little pay.”
Of course many will conclude that it gives them an advantage, taking the submissions stage in isolation, when an editor of The Best American Poetry declares as much. And few will be dissuaded by writers like Slate’s Katy Waldman, who asserts that, “BAP stunts aside, it’s still much more difficult for woman writers and writers of color to get published than for white men,” if the link purporting to prove that claim actually addresses a distinct question.
Contempt for such responses will not eliminate them or the way that they shape the racial climate in the U.S. Pursuing racial justice within race-neutral frameworks, on the other hand, is a powerful way to neutralize those attitudes, amass broader support for important remedies and avoid empowering opponents strong enough to block them. That’s my current thinking, anyway. I welcome your emailed thoughts, dissents especially.
Sherman Alexie’s 10 rules of thumb:
- I will not choose any poem written by a close friend.
- I will be extremely wary of choosing any poem written by somebody I know, even if I have only met that person once twenty years ago and haven't talked to that person since.
- I will also be hyper-judgmental of any poem written by a poet I already admire. I will not be a fan boy.
- I will not choose any poem based on a poet's career. Each poem will stand or fall on its own merits. There will be no Honorary Oscars.
- I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color. And for great poems by younger, less established poets. And for great poems by older poets who haven't been previously lauded. And for great poems that use rhyme, meter, and traditional forms.
- As part of the mission to represent the totality of American poetry, I will read as many Internet poems as I can find, whether published at popular sites or in obscure emagazines that have nine followers.
- I will not ask for the opinion of any other human being when choosing poems. Oh, I know that David Lehman will make many suggestions—and I welcome the help in winnowing the pile of magazines—but I will ignore David's counsel as much as possible.
- Unless David leads me to a great poem that I am compelled to choose, which he will most certainly do a few times.
- I don't want to fill the damn book with poetry professors. I really want to choose some poets who work outside of academia. But I also don't want to bias myself against any poems because they happen to be written by poetry professors, so I will not read any biographies or contributor notes about any poets.
- I don't want to know anything about any of the poets beyond what I already know or what is apparent in the poem itself. So I will not do Internet searches on anybody. I will do my best to treat every poem like it is a blind submission, even if some famous poet has written the poem I'm currently reading.