As Frizzelle implied yesterday morning, there's a storm of righteous anger brewing over this year's The Best American Poetry, guest-edited by rightly beloved literary polymath Sherman Alexie.
Basically what happened is that a mediocre, white, male, middle-aged poet, Michael Derrick Hudson, used the Chinese woman's name "Yi-Fen Chou" as his pen name. Alexie chose the poem for the prestigious Best American Poetry anthology, in part because he wanted to ensure that writers of color were well-represented in the book. When Alexie found out that Chou was actually Hudson, he flipped out but still decided to keep the poem. In the book's contributors' notes, Hudson explains why he decided to use a pen name in the first place.
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. As a strategy for 'placing' poems this has been quite successful for me. 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.
I've been submitting poems to journals for several years. I've also been a poetry editor for a literary journal, a reader for several literary journals, and a judger of writing contests. So let me just weigh in on the poetry business side of this before I get to Hudson's implied critique of it and Alexie's response.
First of all, if Hudson's running a submission system wherein he's sending the same poem to forty (40) magazines, it wouldn't take much more of his time and effort to send the same poem out to ten (10) or twenty (20) more. I have to assume he's got a master list of magazines to which he sends, a form letter with his name, bio, and credentials, and browser with autofill. Once those materials are in place, all that's left for a writer to do is Google the submission pages for the magazines on the list, fill out the online submission forms, and bingo bango an hour later you've got the same batch of poems—the ones with your name on them, the ones that may outlast you—out to 60 publications instead of 40.
Being rejected 40 times is not unheard of. Being rejected 60 times is not unheard of. In fact, it's common. For every issue, editors sift through hundreds of submissions, each containing about four or five poems. They do so, in most cases, with little or no compensation. As a result, poems are rejected for several intellectual, spiritual, and physical reasons, most of which are known to writers, especially those who send stuff out as much as Hudson claims he does. Here's a short list of reasons why an editor might reject a poem, none of which include "this one was written by a white guy and we're full up on white guys."
• I'm five lines into this poem and it already bores me. I don't want my readers to be bored. Next.
• This poem would be more interesting if they cut the last half, but then it wouldn't be much of a poem. Next.
• This is the 35th poem about a mermaid and even if this is the greatest poem about a mermaid I just can't see it right now. I'm mermaid blind. Next.
• I read this poem but I don't remember reading this poem, but, whatever, I have to feed my child. Next. (That's right. Editors are human beings bound by the constraints of time and biological functions. Sometimes a poem just slips through the cracks.)
• The poem adds nothing to the aesthetic in which it's working—it's merely competent. (Judging from the poem in BAP, my guess is lots of Hudson's poems fall into this category.) Next.
These are only SOME. If you've ever judged / edited any literature, feel free to add more in the comments.
In any case, if Hudson's looking at 40 rejections on a batch of poems, chances are he's not really considering the needs / aesthetics of the journals to which he's sending his work. In their submission guidelines, most journals say that they're only looking to publish "good work," but anyone who actually reads them knows that every journal favors certain kinds of poetry. If Hudson wanted to reduce the amount of rejections he's receiving without wearing a racist costume in order to do so, he simply could have been more careful about the kinds of poems he was sending to specific journals. If Hudson is, as he claims in his contributors note, "nothing if not persistent," then surely he has the time and energy to do that.
He might also take 40 rejections as a hint and consider revising the poem. The piece in question, "The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve," is a pretty standard, postmodern lyric poem that uses classic poetic devices such as fancy imagery to critique the whole act of using fancy devices such as fancy imagery to praise natural wonders. It also participates in the ol' sexist trope of blaming Eve for the fall of humanity. I'll summarize the poem using three passages from it:
"Huh! That bumblebee looks ridiculous staggering its way / across those blue flowers"
"Am I supposed to say something, add / a soundtrack and voiceover? My life's spent // running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation // until every goddamned thing's reduced to botched captions"
"There, probably, // atop yonder scraggly hillock, Adam should've said no to Eve."
Humans and the language they use to describe their experiences are flawed (thanks, Eve!) and, therefore, poetry is useless. However, since Hudson has written all of this in a poem, we're supposed to "get" that poetry is so great and so essential to human existence that we will continue on writing it despite ourselves. You know who wrote this poem better? To name just a few: Marianne Moore. C.P. Cavafy. Walt Whitman. This sort of poem is seductive to poets who are feeling cynical about poetry, and so I can see why an editor might publish it, but the easy bit of sexism at the end sours me on the poem.
But, okay, taking a step back: given that Hudson is, as he claims, such a pro submitter, we have to take his tone at face value and assume that his point is really just that old white honkeys can't catch a break, which means that his decision to use a nom de plume isn't part of a desperate attempt to get published by any means necessary, but rather a shallow critique of the literary publishing industry, a common one that people who support Affirmative Action bat away every day of their lives. He's implying that he donned yellowface in an effort to prove that it's easier for people of color to get published in the current literary climate than it is for white guys. Editors are passing on good poems by white people for the sake of publishing any poems by writers of color. He's got numbers to prove it, "detailed submissions records," facts.
Even the stoned guy at the back of the Stat 101 class could raise his hand and point out the obvious sample size error here. He could probably also point out that Hudson's attempt to reveal backroom "literary justice," as Alexie puts it in his response to the controversy, only reveals that Hudson fears that his whiteness and maleness render him irrelevant as a writer, fears that editors are picking other poems over his just because those editors are interested in publishing a diverse group of writers.
If only Hudson put as much effort into Googling as he did taking each rejection as an affirmation of his solipsistic worldview, he would see that his fears are unsubstantiated by fact. As Jezebel points out, writers of color are still overwhelmingly underrepresented among literary tastemakers. Alternatively, Hudson could have simply talked to any writer of color and listened to their stories of being discouraged to enter the field in the first place, rejected for bullshit racist reasons along the way, questioned along way, and accused of "taking advantage of the system" after every success.
Here's where Alexie comes in. As he says in his response to the scandal, upon discovering Chou's true identity, he flipped shit and considered removing the poem from the anthology. However, he decided to include the poem, despite his anger, for the sake of transparency and honesty. He wrote that though he was aware that publishing Hudson's poem would amount to an act of "injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular," pulling the poem would imply that Alexie wasn't "consciously and deliberately" participating in something he called "racial nepotism" by paying special attention to people of color. Getting rid of the poem, he wrote, would "cast doubt on every poem [he'd] chosen for BAP," suggesting that he was only selecting poems based on the assumed identity of the poet and not because he liked them. Because he's a "powerful literary figure," he knew that dumping the poem would glorify him and vilify Hudson, and so he was worried that vanity was driving his impulse to rip up the poem and throw it in the garbage.
I, like Frizzelle, respond positively to the transparency here, but I can't see how this is the right move. Including Hudson's fake Asian American name in BAP means that a real writer of color may have been excluded. You have to understand that, for a poet, getting published in a Best American Poetry anthology is a pretty big fucking deal. Not on its own, really—I look back at older anthologies and realize that I haven't heard of half the people listed in the TOC—but publications beget other publications, rewards beget rewards, and so a publication in such a well-respected anthology at the right time in one's writing career can help lead to—lead to, not immediately acquire—jobs in academia and book contracts. Getting published in BAP is one of the maybe 15 informal major big-deal-poet-goals you need to achieve in order to gain the sweet, sweet prestige that you use to eat. Remember: fiction writers get paid money for books. Poets get paid in leaves.
So, even though Hudson is going in with an asterisk, he's still taking up valuable space that could have helped another poet along their way, one who's also been rejected a lot, probably for reasons related to institutionalized racism, but who had the courage, fortitude, and self-respect to keep trying under her own name.