A suggestion for Sherman Alexie and the Best American series (and publishers in general)

For those unfamiliar with the controversy, here is a short recap, as I understand it:

In the 2015 edition of the Best American Poetry anthology, this year’s editor, Sherman Alexie, unwittingly included a poem by “Yi-Fen Chou,” a person whose name I put in quotes because he doesn’t exist — “Yi-Fen Chou” is, in fact, a pen name for Michael Derrick Hudson. As Hudson explains in his bio at the end of the BAP anthology (and I’m paraphrasing here), he sometimes uses the fake-Chinese pen name when his poems haven’t got very far under his own name — the implication being that a non-white, gender-ambiguous (to Western eyes) name stands a better chance of publication than his own white male-sounding name. As Alexie himself extrapolates in a lengthy apologia on the BAP blog (and again, I’m paraphrasing), Hudson seems to be pulling this manipulative ruse in order to combat some kind of perceived bias against white men in the poetry world (which — and these are my words here — is ridiculous). Or, to put it another way — as Alexie as well as many of his critics have been saying recently — Hudson is engaged in a gross kind of racist poetic colonialism.

I am a white cis male fiction writer who can’t write a poem on a birthday card, let alone for publication. As such, I haven’t much reason to comment on any of this except for my general interest in and advocacy for more inclusive practices in all the arts, especially in literature, and for my particular admiration of poetry as an art form. For fuller, more thought-provoking accounts of the controversy, I point you to the UK Independent article “Yi-Fen Chou: White author under fire after using Asian pen name to be published more often,” to Brian Spears’s Rumpus piece “Yellowface in Poetry,” to Katy Waldman’s Slate op-ed “The White Poet Who Used an Asian Pseudonym to Get Published Is a Cheater, Not a Crusader,” to my friend Olivia Olivia’s blog post “Sherman Alexie must have lost his goddamn mind,” and to Alexie’s own post at the BAP blog.

I can’t honestly say what I would have done in Alexie’s place. I certainly would have been angry at being duped (as Alexie says he was), and I would have been doubly furious at the racially fraught and politically motivated reasons for the duping. I admire Alexie for owning to his gullability and his flawed selection process, though I find his decision to ultimately include the Hudson poem problematic and his reasoning behind that decision dubious. (I do find Alexie’s post fascinating, from a professional perspective, but click all the links in that previous paragraph and I think you’ll see where my sympathies generally lie.)

I do, however, have three suggestions, one for Alexie himself, one for the folks running the BAP series, and one for publishers everywhere:

  1. If Alexie wants to make amends for falling prey to Hudson’s con and then for publishing Hudson’s poem after all, he can begin by publicly vowing to read — and comment on and share and celebrate — poems by Asian-American and/or Asian poets, exclusively, for the rest of year. It’s just a symbolic gesture, perhaps, and in fairness Alexie is an advocate for greater diversty in literature already, or, at least (the Hudson issue notwithstanding) his work on this year’s BAP reflects that. But as Alexie himself states in his blog post, he is “a powerful literary figure” with a wide following, and such an additional gesture could do a great deal of good. At the end of his post, he calls on us all to set aside this single item of controversy and “take the time to be celebratory or jealous or disdainful or challenged by the other 74 poets in Best American Poetry 2015“; I think that’s a fine idea, but I also think it would be equally wise for Alexie to take the time to publicly celebrate poems by the kinds of poets he thought he was selecting.
  2. Similarly, the BAP series committee could commit to selecting an Asian-American poet or a relatively unknown poet (or, ideally, both) to curate the next anthology. That, too, seems like a small, isolated consolation, but I would hope it would open the doors to something greater, something more inclusive and less like what Brian Spears calls the “Poems From 2015 Our Guest Editor Really Liked,” or what I like to think of as the “New Best of the Old Canon.” Back in 2013, for example, Cheryl Strayed, who was editing that year’s Best American Essays anthology, fought the editorial committee for the right to consider small, independent, and/or online magazines when looking for the best essays of the year, and several of the essays in that anthology are from online and indie publications. And while in many ways the subsequent essays antholgies have reverted to tradition, Alexie borrowed the idea for this year’s poetry anthology and, as he says in his blog post, “Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.” So things can change, and I think this is a good time for BAP to reconsider who it invites to curate an anthology and how that editorial process works.
  3. Finally, I have a suggestion I hesitate to make: I think poetry publishers everywhere should think long and hard before they ever publish Michael Derrick Hudson again. I’m not saying we should all band together and bar the gates, that Hudson should be banned outright (though I’m tempted). And I’m certainly not suggesting that pseudonyms are off the table — I love pseudonyms and understand a whole range of legitimate reasons people use them. In fact, contrary to Hudson’s implication of anti white-male bias, I know several writers who use pseudonyms in order to combat the very real bias against women and writers of color. So the deceit behind Hudson’s ruse is disturbingly misguided at best, and in my view, it’s flat-out dangerous, the literary equivalent of yellowface. And he should not be rewarded for that. At the very least, I think publishers should refuse to publish anything under the “Yi-Fen Chou” pseudonym, though of course all Hudson has to do is choose another name. But honestly, I’d much rather that man simply keep submitting under his own name and let the chips fall where they may, because as Spears points out (and Hudson himself seems to accidentally concede in his BAP bio note; “it took quite a bit of effort to get into print,” he writes, “but I’m nothing if not persistent”), the fact that his poems get published at all probably has a lot less to do with his fake name and a lot more to do with those poems’ quality and the same dogged persistence we all must use when submitting and facing rejection. If that long, grueling process is good enough for us, it should be good enough for him, and enough with the subterfuge and shortcuts.
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3 thoughts on “A suggestion for Sherman Alexie and the Best American series (and publishers in general)

  1. Interesting…I write under a pen name (maiden name is Blanco), but I don’t misrepresent my race. When I submit my work anywhere, I include my real name on the submission. I thought that was pretty standard practice. Is that not standard for poetry submissions. How did his identify remain secret for so long? He’d have to have lied at some point.

    1. For a brief period following my marriage (when my wife and I both changed our last names to “Snoek-Brown”), I thought I would continue publishing under my bachelor name, “Snoek,” just for the continuity of it. I ditched that idea pretty quickly because it just didn’t feel authentic to me, because I’d only published a few things before my marriage anyway, and — pertinent to this discussion — because I grew tired of the rigamarole of sorting out my real name and my publishing name in my cover letters. All of which is to say, yeah, like you, I’ve always worked under the assumption that being up front about pseudonyms was good form and standard professional practice.

      In Alexie’s mea culpa post, he writes, “I only learned that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym used by a white man after I’d already picked the poem and Hudson promptly wrote to reveal himself.” That suggests that Hudson was willfully hiding his identity — which is to say, he was lying, and it seems he’s been doing so for quite some time.

      I should add that while Alexie deserves a lot of the criticism that’s being shoveled onto him for this decision, the Hudson poem he selected was originally in Prairie Schooner, and his bio lists journals like Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review, and other such prestigious magazines, though which of them published “Michael Derrick Hudson” and which published “Yi-Fen Chou” I couldn’t say. Still, as to your question about how this scam remained secret for so long, I think our piling on Alexie is perhaps misguided — surely at some point Hudson must have also revealed himself to these other publications. What is their role in perpetuating his con? It’s possible, of course, that he never revealed his motives to those magazines, so maybe they aren’t at fault. Ultimately, it’s Hudson who is to blame for all of this, but this is also one reason I (hesitantly) added that third item to my suggestions, because now that the cat is forever out of the bag, surely we should hold accountable any future publications that let Hudson play this game.

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