When Michael Derrick Hudson had his poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” rejected 40 times, he decided to try a different approach. He submitted it under the name “Yi-Fen Chou.”
The poem was rejected nine more times. But then it ended up in front of Native American writer Sherman Alexie, the editor of this year’s “The Best American Poetry” anthology. Among the hundreds of poems Alexie read, Hudson’s poem stood out to him for its unique title and the fact that a Chinese poet had written a poem with “affectionate European classical and Christian imagery,” he wrote.
When Hudson received word that his poem had been chosen, he contacted Alexie to tell him he is not, in fact, the Chinese woman that his pseudonym seemed to suggest. Instead, he is a white poet based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, working at the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library.
At this point, Alexie faced a difficult choice, he wrote in a lengthy blog post. On one hand, the poem was submitted under false pretenses; Alexie could have left it out of the anthology and avoided embarrassment and criticism.
But to do so would have implied that Alexie “only chose poems based on identity,” he wrote. Ultimately, he considered it the most “honest” choice to include the poem with a full disclosure of what had happened. 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, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular. But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping 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.
An outpouring of criticism followed on Twitter:
Michael Derrick Hudson submits poems as Yi-fen Chou because he thinks it’s easier to get published. He’s wrong on so many levels.
— Victoria Chang (@VChangPoet) September 7, 2015
White male poet who used a Chinese pseudonym should apologize. Not just to Chinese American writers, or to writers of color. To all writers.
— Jean Ho (@jeanho) September 8, 2015
This is essentially Alexie and @BestAmPo saying “Way to go. Congratulations on the yellow face.”
— Alexander Chee (@alexanderchee) September 8, 2015
Hudson has published under the name “Yi-Fen Chou” before, notably whenever he has trouble getting a poem published under his own name. “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me,” he wrote in a bio for the anthology.
If the strategy works, it is because of an effort on the part of editors to correct an imbalance in publishing female poets and poets of color. Alexie recognized this effort in his statement, which listed this among the rules he followed while picking poems: “I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color.”
In the past, that imbalance has also compelled many such poets to use white, male pseudonyms in an effort to get published, including George Eliot, George Sand, and J.K. Rowling, whose publisher urged her to use initials because young boys might “be wary of a book written by a woman.”
Now, Hudson’s move assumes the opposite: that the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that white men are now at a distinct disadvantage in publishing. But according to the numbers, this just isn’t true, Jia Tolentino pointed out at Jezebel:
Look at the last names on the bestseller lists, the table of contents of lit journals, the VIDA count, the New York Times reviewing 90 percent white authors, the 86 percent whiteness of the newspaper industry, the status quo in literary fiction that ensures that even in the best, most inventive novels of the year, white people are still described as just people, and people of color are described as such.
These imbalances often originate in the submission process itself, before poems even reach a judge, agent or slush pile. Many journals and contests require submission fees, which are a deterrent to low-income poets, and that participants be legal residents of the U.S., making undocumented poets unlikely to participate. And in spite of groups that support the work of poets of color, including Kundiman, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and the Undocupoets movement, those policies continue to exist at a number of institutions.
This is not the first time that a white poet has used a pseudonym to assume another racial identity. Poet David Dwyer in the 1970s had work published in the feminist journal “Aphra” under the guise of Ariana Olisvos. When “Aphra” discovered that there was no such poet, they demanded Dwyer buy back the rights to his work. Dwyer has said he created the character to see if he was “getting it right, whether it was convincing” and attributed the move to “arrogance.”
In another instance, the poet Araki Yasusada, an alleged Hiroshima survivor whose work garnered praise in the 1990s, was later discovered to be a hoax. Many people attribute the work to Kent Johnson, a professor at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, though he has never claimed credit.
These poets, like Hudson, assumed that racial identity is a “strategy” white writers can employ at will. For Hudson at least, the strategy seems to be fading. “Prairie Schooner,” the journal that first published his poem, has said it will never again publish work by Hudson under a pseudonym. Alexie himself came to a positive conclusion:
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