Over the weekend, news that a white male poet from Indiana used the pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou” to successfully enter a poem into the prestigious Best American Poetry anthology rankled the poetry world. The man’s civil-law name? Michael Derrick Hudson. He works at a library in Fort Wayne.
According to a statement from series co-editor Sherman Alexie, the ruse was discovered prior to publication, but the poem was allowed to stay in the anthology. And the submission of the poem under an Asian-sounding pseudonym was certainly a ruse, or at least it was a strategy meant to increase the likelihood that the poem would be published. As Hudson writes in the anthology’s notes:
The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) 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.
I realize that this isn’t a very ‘artistic’ explanation of using a pseudonym. Years ago I did briefly consider trying to make Yi-Fen into a ‘persona’ or ‘heteronym’ a la Fernando Pessoa, but nothing ever came of it.
Notice that Hudson is forthright about his opportunism: the assumption of a pseudonym, the adoption of an “Asian” identity is justified by his getting “into print,” and not at all by an appeal to artistic license.
One of the dangers here is that Hudson’s blatantly cynical tactic will be counterposed to the maneuvers of (perhaps) less obviously exploitative white conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith, who recently appropriated the autopsy of Michael Brown in a performance. Whatever their differences, both “events” abstract the material disadvantages of non-white life for the purposes of using identity as a conceptualist readymade.
But at this point, most of the outrage has centered on the knowing inclusion of the poem in the anthology; or, predictably, some are suggesting that a blind submission process would prevent such embarrassments in a satisfactory way. Alexie’s response, in my estimation, does away with both arguments. It’s worth reproducing a large part of it here:
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.
Alexie, if I’m reading him correctly, is simply stating that selection processes are never impartial or disinterested; a blind submission process, for example, reproduces already prevailing standards of literary “excellence” — it is partial to the norm. He’s also refusing to forfeit his right as an editor to choose the poems he prefers on the basis of their quality. The whole point of an editor is that he makes interested (not disinterested) choices.
Still, I think Hudson’s poetry is terrible. (Here is another of his poems, one strategically drained of sentimentality, where the speaker somehow can’t understand the historical meaning of a Nazi swastika). And I can’t help but wonder if he could have been excluded from the anthology on the grounds that he admits his opportunism in its notes. Either way, I doubt we’ll be reading Michael Derrick Hudson anytime soon. I wonder what pseudonym he’ll choose next.