Fellow poets and lovers of poetry, take heart—our art is relevant again! Though not necessarily for the right reasons.
The 2015 edition of the Best American Poetry series, recently published by Scribner and edited by the Native-American writer Sherman Alexie, includes a work by Yi-Fen Chou. When Alexie selected the poem, he believed that Yi-Fen Chou was, as he put it, “a brown-skinned poet.” But Yi-Fen Chou is actually Michael Derrick Hudson, a white dude from Indiana.
You no doubt remember Hudson’s poems, published under his real name, from the March issue of Poetry, and were especially impressed by the subject matter of “End of Days Advice from an Ex-zombie.” In the biographical note at the end of Best American Poetry, Hudson explains that he used the pen name because he was having too much trouble being published as a white man. When he submitted the poem under his real name, it was rejected by 40 journals; when he submitted it under his pen name, it was only rejected by nine.
Readers will have two responses to this number of rejections: 1) What tenacity! 2) There are 50 poetry journals?
Hudson’s critics have pointed out that his choice of pseudonyms insults living, breathing Asian writers, who have struggled to have their work recognized. One poet claims that his action “categorically diminished all of our accomplishments as Asian Americans.”
Alexie, too, has come under fire for including the poem even after he learned the truth about this act of “yellowface” (as one Twitter user put it.) In a long blog post, Alexie admits that he “was more amenable to the poem because [he] thought the author was Chinese American.” He thought he was practicing “racial nepotism” (which is apparently different from racial prejudice) and “literary justice.” But although Alexie was angry to learn of the “colonial theft,” he kept the poem because he did not want to submit to his “own sense of embarrassment.”
Although it’s tempting to embrace anyone who exposes the absurdities of the literary establishment, Hudson is far from a sympathetic figure. This isn’t like the Sokal Hoax of 1996, in which a physicist snuck a parody of a post-modern argument into the esteemed journal Social Text, revealing the excessiveness of academic fads in the process. Hudson was not trying to prove a point about the arbitrary nature of editorial decisions or political correctness; he was just trying to get his poem published.
And Hudson’s cultural cluelessness is astonishing. Surely he knew that his poetic peers would see this as an act of white privilege and cultural appropriation. The terms may be overwrought, but the critics have a good point. Granted, it’s not quite cheap labor on the railroad. But he did assume an Asian identity to overcome the supposed disadvantage of being white.
As a white man whose poetry has been rejected more often than the Roxbury Guys, even I have to say that Hudson’s pseudonym was a dirty trick and that his complaints about publication sound a lot like whining. True, things aren’t what they used to be for white male poets. But it’s not as if female and minority bards are eating caviar in the back of their limos as pale scribblers of the patriarchy are scrounging for adjunct positions. Besides, it is an un-written rule that no white man should ever complain about the burdens of being a white man (except to other white men in sound-proof rooms).
If Hudson wanted to disguise his identity, he had standard literary conventions at his disposal that would not have so grossly misled editors and readers. The most obvious one is to simply use initials. Think T.S. Eliot, H.D., P.K. Page, and T.J. Hooker. W.S. (William Stanley) Merwin does it now. So does A.E. (Alicia Elsbeth) Stallings. M.D. Hudson could be a white man or a black woman. This ambiguity is preferable to the intentionally deceptive specificity that Hudson chose.
All of this controversy raises a classic question about poetic identity: How much does a poet’s personal life and identity affect our understanding of his or her poems? The classic test case is Ezra Pound, who made treasonous broadcasts during World War II and was imprisoned by the U.S. Army, but was awarded a major prize by the Library of Congress in 1948. His poetry was deemed a thing apart, to be judged on its own terms.