Poet's racial pen name creates 'mess'

Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie read hundreds, maybe thousands, of poems last year while editing the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry, an annual anthology that comes out this week. Just over six dozen of them made the final cut, including "The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve" by Yi-Fen Chou; 20 brief, cynical lines on the absurdity of desire.

But after Alexie chose the poem for the collection, he promptly got a note from the author, who turned out not to be the rueful, witty Chinese-American poet he'd imagined while reading the piece.

It was written by Michael Derrick Hudson of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Hudson, who is white, wrote in his bio for the anthology that he chose the Chinese-sounding nom de plume after "The Bees" was rejected by 40 different journals when submitted under his real name. He figured that the poem might have a better shot at publication if it was written by somebody else.

"If this indeed 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," his unabashed explanation reads.

Anecdotally, Hudson's calculation was correct. The Lincoln-based literary journal Prairie Schooner, one of nine places to receive a submission from "Yi-Fen Chou," accepted "The Bees" and three other poems for its Fall 2014 issue. The poem was referred to Best American Poetry, where Alexie came across it, and wound up in the collection, where Brooklyn-based writer and snarky Tumblr poetry-commentator Jim Behrle found it and posted it to his site.

Pen names, as some on Twitter pointed out, have long been a staple of the literary world. And there are plenty of cases in which initials or a pseudonym have worked in the opposite direction — most often for women like Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Joanne Rowling (J.K. Rowling), who all thought they would be taken more seriously or better reach their target demographic if they didn't appear to be female.

But Hudson's critics said the literary bait-and-switch was fraudulent, racist and fundamentally different.

"When you're doing this from a position of entitlement, you're appropriating an ethnic identity that's one, imaginary, and two, doesn't have access to the literary world," poet and Chapman University professor Victoria Chang told the Washington Post. "And it 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."

Things only got hairier when Alexie on Tuesday published a defense of his decision to keep the poem. In a blog post for the Best American Poetry Web site, Alexie explained that he read submissions blind, to the extent that he could.

And he acknowledged that he was "more amenable" to the poem because he thought its author was Chinese-American. There was nothing explicitly culturally Chinese about the poem — indeed, it seems obsessed with imagery from Western culture — but that only made it more interesting to Alexie. The award-winning Native American author, who has been involved in the "We Need Diverse Books" campaign, said that "Yi-Fen Chou" benefited from a form of minority writer nepotism, just as many white, male writers have long benefited from white, male writer nepotism.

"I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise," he wrote. "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."

Supporters called Alexie's response "thoughtful" and "remarkably honest." Others, including Chang, were unmoved.

"If someone is fraudulently pretending they're someone else to benefit from a system that traditionally benefits them, that is not ethical," she said. "I would have taken it out."

But, Alexie pointed out, the scandal had at least one positive takeaway:

"I'm exhausted by the Best American Poetry mess but, wow, how cool that so many people are crazy-passionate about poems."

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