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 Tuesday. 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 had chosen 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, Ind., a genealogist at the Allen County Public Library who, given his field of expertise, could probably easily explain that he is not of Asian descent.
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,” reads his unabashed explanation.
Anecdotally, Hudson’s calculation was correct. The 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.
In a matter of about a day, the scandal was all over “Poetry Twitter,” which can be just as rancorous and swift to outrage as regular Twitter, but with a wider vocabulary. And, perhaps because of its Rachel Dolezal-esque tangle of questions about identity, authenticity, political correctness and “affirmative action,” it didn’t take much longer for the wider world to notice.
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 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 from Charlotte Bronte publishing “Jane Eyre” under the name Currer Bell.
“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.”
Phil Yu, the blogger better known as Angry Asian Man, wrote “if there is such a thing as employing yellowface in poetry, this has to be it.”
Things only got hairier when Alexie published a defense of his decision to keep the poem on Tuesday. In a blog post for the Best American Poetry Web site, Alexie explained that he read submissions blind, to the extent that he could. He didn’t look up authors to learn more about them or their past work.
“Each poem will stand or fall on its own merits,” went one of his 11 rules for reading.
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.”
And, most importantly, Alexie wrote, if he pulled 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,” he continued. “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.”
“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.”
Eve Ewing, a writer, teacher and editor studying race and education at Harvard, wrote a long series of tweets disputing Alexie’s point. Promoting people who are usually marginalized is not the same kind of “nepotism” that white writers benefit from, she said. And including a poem whose origins were racist, as Ewing put it, defeats Alexie’s stated goal of making the Best American collection more diverse.
The controversy, like most controversies, is partly outrage and bluster. Chang acknowledged poetry scandals can feel like a bunch of starved, overlooked authors “sniping” over what meager morsels of fame are afforded to poets.
But it also raises hard questions for editors, writers and readers: How important is an author to the meaning of a poem? When seeking out diversity, are we looking at names or at content? Is selecting the 75 “best American poems” a fool’s errand? (There seems to be consensus on that last one.)
And, 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.
— Sherman Alexie (@Sherman_Alexie) September 8, 2015