Gather around, boys and girls. It’s time to learn about a poetry scandal! No, really. Stop laughing. This is serious! This week marks the release of the twenty-eighth edition of Simon and Schuster’s Best American Poetry series, an annual anthology showcasing one guest editor’s take on the previous year’s highlights. This year the editor in question is Sherman Alexie, poet and author. His 2007 novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is taught in middle schools across the country, making the news every few years when some prudish parent wants it banned from a school library.
Mr. Alexie selected work by 75 poets for this issue, including twenty lines of words entitled “’The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” by a woman named Yi-Fen Chou. One might assume that someone named Yi-Fen Chou would be a Chinese American. Here is what happens when you do a Google image search for the name Yi-Fen.
Hey, wait a sec! Who’s that white man in the corner? That, my friends, is Yi-Fen Chou.
Yi-Fen Chou is, according to the bio included in the poetry anthology, the alias of a man named Michael Derrick Hudson who was born in Wabash, Indiana in 1963. In his own foolish words:
There is a very short answer for my use of a nom de plume: after a poem of mine has been rejected a 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.
Prairie Schooner is a journal of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and they have since announced that they will no longed publish work by Mr. Hudson, whatever name he’s using. He has previously been published in well-known literary journals including Columbia, Fugue, and The Iowa Review (although under which name the bio doesn’t say).
As you can probably imagine, the internet was not amused. Poets, Asians, and especially Asian poets got mad at Hudson for basically donning yellowface to get ahead. By painting himself as a victim of reverse racism (which doesn’t exist, by the way) Hudson is demeaning writers of color who were selected for the quality of their work and not because they were picked to meet some quota.
It’s a little reminiscent of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, when the white male artist Joe Scanlon was featured under the name Donelle Woolford. Scanlon actually hired black women to play the part of Woolford, which is different, and also his work engages with race in a way that Hudson’s poetry doesn’t at all. But the general idea is similar. In response to the Whitney Biennial’s curatorial stubbornness, the African-American collective HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? pulled their work from the show and there was a big to-do.
Alexie explained in a lengthy post on the Best American Poetry website that yes, overall he was specifically looking for works by writers who are frequently marginalized in the largely white, largely male poetry world: women, writers of color, and young poets who aren’t yet household names (in those select households whose residents can name contemporary poets). Over half of the selected writers in the book are women, and about forty percent are writers of color, which is a good ratio, considering that roughly thirty-six percent of Americans are non-white.
Realistically, there’s no way to objectively determine what the best poems of the year are, and Alexie had literally thousands of submissions to choose from. So it’s not a bad thing that he wanted a book of American poetry with his name on it to demographically reflect the United States. (Alexie is Native American, and his own work deals largely with issues of representation). But then some jerk had to make up a Chinese name and ruin everything. The moral here: don’t be a jerk.
In the end, it seems that publishing the poem did more good than harm. Hudson has been put in his place (and probably blacklisted from more than one journal), Alexie has drawn outside attention to the real world problems of race and representation plaguing academia and literature, and Best American Poetry has gotten more mainstream press than it otherwise would have. And unlike nearly every other writer in the anthology, Hudson has a second career to fall back on.