When a Poem by a White, Male Author Smells Less Sweet

A poet using a Chinese pseudonym confounds the editor of The Best American Poetry 2015.

Martin Cathrae / Flickr

The Best American Poetry, an annual anthology of verse, contains an unusual contributor’s note this year. It’s written by Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet who writes under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. “After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again,” he wrote. “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful ... The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”

The revelation sparked outrage, prompting  acclaimed writer Sherman Alexie, guest editor of the anthology, to explain how he selected the works that were featured and why he included a poem even after discovering its author’s misrepresentation of his identity.

He began by laying out the ten admittedly contradictory rules of thumb he used when approaching the inherently subjective task of judging different poems against one another.

Then he turned to the controversial poem itself and replayed his reasons for selecting it: its title, the quality of the writing, and yes, the Chinese name at the top. “I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past,” he acknowledged. “Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.” He went on to claim that he could offer “many examples of white nepotism inside the literary community.”

Most of those white beneficiaries are good writers, he wrote, “and, hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou's poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness. So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues.”

He called his behavior “a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle.” So why, given his thinking, did he keep the poem in the collection?

Listen, I was so angry that I stormed and cursed around the room. I felt like punching the wall. And, of course, there was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym. But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of 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.

And I would have gotten away with it. I am a powerful literary figure and the pseudonym user is an unknown guy who has published maybe a dozen poems in his life. If I'd kicked him out … he might have tried to go public with that news. And he would have been vilified and ignored. And I would have been praised. Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now.

But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise. 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. 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. And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular. But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. But that's not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.

* * *

Sherman Alexie’s post offers a refreshing degree of candor. It is blessedly free of euphemism, jargon, or evasions. I alternately agree and disagree with some of his specific actions and rationales. But there is an internally consistent integrity to his actions, and anyone engaging his ideas couldn’t ask for a more forthright interlocutor. That’s key on a subject that’s difficult to hash out in public discourse in part because forthrightness on this subject has a high cost: a subset of people on the ideological left and right who heap vicious abuse on those with whom they disagree, as if normal rules of civility do not apply and there is no room for people of goodwill to reach different or opposite conclusions.

Too often, the debate is framed in maximally uncharitable terms that add more heat than light. Alexie tried his best while treading in a sensitive area, in which defining justice is hard. That doesn’t place him beyond criticism. But he shouldn’t be vilified or personally attacked. Stepping back, it ought to be obvious that if he’s hit upon the ideal method to judge what is effectively a big poetry contest, that doesn’t make him a good person; and if he’s chosen a wrongheaded method, that doesn’t make him a bad person.

At the very worst, he did the wrong thing. Who among us hasn’t?

Alexie started from the position that race should be one of many factors considered to remedy historic injustices and to increase racial diversity in publishing. Some of his critics insist that poems should be selected on merit alone. Their critics counter that white poets have unfair advantages in a colorblind system––or that beyond a certain threshold it’s impossible to say which poem is better. In many ways, this maps onto the long-running  debate about affirmative action in college admissions, except that applying to colleges that practice affirmative action with a Chinese American identity would more likely harm than help an applicant. (I wonder whether diversity efforts in the poetry world will always benefit Asian Americans, or whether they will eventually follow college-admissions trends. As best I can tell, none of the poetry folks discussing this has any specific numbers on the actual representation of Chinese Americans or Asian Americans in poetry.)

This story caught my eye in part because I’ve been writing a lot about “colorblindness” and its critics. Last week, I argued that while the “colorblind” philosophy that a lot of millennials were raised with has serious shortcomings––flaws that the academic left did a service by pointing out––the backlash against race-neutral solutions to injustice and colorblindness as an aspiration has gone too far. It may be clarifying to apply the approach I hoped to suggest to a specific controversy.

At The Rumpus, Brian Spears writes that “many in these conversations have asked about blind submissions, as though these allow the editor to put their focus on the work and not on the author bios. Blind submissions are a fig leaf, an exercise in deniability used by people who don’t want to do the hard work of having a diverse journal.”

I’d put it differently.

If forced to select all works for a Best of 2016 poetry anthology (and magically vested with the qualifications to do so) I’d want to judge the poems without bylines. But I wouldn’t imagine––as proponents of colorblindness are historically prone to do––that blind submissions alone are sufficient to bringing about a just selection process or to broaden the talent pool. They’re not sufficient: Today, race is one of many factors that matter. So I’d seek submissions from people of all economic classes, regions of America, and ages; and with regard to race and ethnicity in particular, I’d solicit recommendations from as racially diverse a group of poetry lovers as I could find; aggressively seek submissions from underrepresented groups; tout the inclusiveness of the process to communities that might doubt it; and select lovers of diverse styles to help me narrow submissions.

That’s a tentative, incomplete list––I haven’t done the work of thinking through every structural obstacle to poetry submissions in America––but the basic approach is clear. I’d do lots of race-conscious work to understand all the ways that members of various racial groups might be unjustly excluded or disadvantaged by a given process. I’d solicit input on remedies and expend effort and resources to achieve them. And only then, having avoided the flaws of historic, head-in-the-sand colorblindness, would I run the byline-free, color-blind process, which offers its own significant benefits.

Some advantages of the race-neutral approach:

  • In an increasingly diverse America, it avoids creating situations in which people of different racial groups are pitted against one another in zero-sum competition. This is not just a “white versus people-of-color” issue, unless one presumes that all “people of color” are now and always will be underrepresented in ways so similar to one another as to obviate contrasts.
  • It is the strongest, most widely persuasive premise from which to declare white nepotism immoral and intra-white solidarity irrational and unnecessary. That should be a particularly attractive selling point to anyone who believes that white supremacy remains a powerful force in American life.
  • It undermines anyone who attributes the success of other racial groups to special treatment, and quiets the doubts of anyone––white or black or Asian or Hispanic or Native American––who worries that they didn’t succeed on their own merits.
  • It guards against bias regardless of who is judging the anthology. Advocates of the the “nepotism for select groups” approach, by contrast, would seem to depend upon judges of anthologies always sharing very specific ideological  beliefs on race.

Those strike me as significant benefits. Like many critics of colorblindness, I wish that racial preferences never created inter-group rivalries; I wish that white identity politics didn’t exist; and I wish that those who discount the achievements of minorities due to affirmative action recognized the many unfair advantages enjoyed by majority groups and the huge obstacles many beneficiaries of affirmative action overcame. But wishing those problems and attitudes away does not make them vanish. Hence the wisdom of marrying a consciousness of racial injustice both to remedies tailored to address them and to a race-neutral approach when practical.

Isn’t it practical here? If a race-conscious groundwork was well-implemented and the race-neutral judging well-run, I see no reason to think that the resulting anthology would be less diverse than the actual Best American Poetry anthologies that are now published.

It might well be more diverse.

Consider the ways in which the race-conscious approach used by Sherman Alexie can be used as a fig leaf for failures of diversity. In his post on this year’s effort, he wrote of his approach, “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.” The result of his approach: “Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.”

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:

  1. I will not choose any poem written by a close friend.
  2. 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.
  3. I will also be hyper-judgmental of any poem written by a poet I already admire. I will not be a fan boy.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Unless David leads me to a great poem that I am compelled to choose, which he will most certainly do a few times.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.