A prestigious poetry anthology is under fire for including a poem by a white author who published some of his work under a Chinese pen name in order to gain editors’ attention.
The poem, called “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was published under the name Yi-Fen Chou, a nom de plume for poet and genealogist Michael Derrick Hudson, who is white.
Poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, the guest editor of “The Best American Poetry 2015,” has come under fire for selecting the poem, which was originally published in the prestigious literary magazine Prairie Schooner.
Hudson revealed his identity to Alexie after he was notified that the poem would be included in the anthology. In his author biography in the book, Hudson wrote: "[A]fter 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.”
Hudson has said his poem had been rejected 40 times under his real name and nine times under his pseudonym before Prairie Schooner published it. Hudson has found success as a poet without using a Chinese pseudonym, including publishing two poems in Poetry Magazine.
In a long essay published on the Best American Poetry blog, Alexie, who is Native American, said he was infuriated by Hudson’s “colonial theft” but defended his decision to include Hudson’s poem in the anthology.
“I’d been drawn to the poem because of its long list title ... and, yes, because of the poet’s Chinese name,” Alexie wrote. “As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work.”
Alexie, who said he read hundreds or thousands of poems as guest editor, admitted that Hudson’s pen name did influence his decision to include the poem: “I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.”
Alexie wrote that he considered pulling the poem from the anthology but decided against it. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
Not everyone was convinced by Alexie’s explanation. On Twitter, writer Mikki Kendall posted: “That Alexie essay reads like a half assed attempt to justify to himself what happened in this anthology.” And novelist Alexander Chee tweeted: “This is essentially Alexie and [Best American Poetry] saying ‘Way to go. Congratulations on the yellow face.’”
Others defended Alexie’s post. BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith called it “the most interesting, complex thing I’ve read on politics of identity for a long time,” while writer S. Tremaine Nelson wrote that Alexie’s response was “amazing and perfect.”
Hudson’s use of a Chinese pen name has been greeted with near-unanimous disdain by other writers. The poet Victoria Chang tweeted: “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.” And horror author Nick Mamatas wrote: “Michael Derrick Hudson self-yellowfacing as Yi-Fen Chou is shocking until you remember how many poets are just awful people.”
“The Best American Poetry 2015,” published by Scribner, was released Tuesday.