Let’s raise a big glass of curdled identity politics to Michael Derrick Hudson, whose poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” has made it into 2015’s Best American Poetry after only 40 rejections under his real name (Michael Derrick Hudson) and 9 under the assumed name to which it is attached in the anthology, which is the adorable “Yi-Fen Chou.”
Published by the University of Nebraska-affiliated literary journal Prairie Schooner, “The Bees…” made it into BAP 2015 under the authority of this year’s guest editor, the fluidly-genred Native American writer Sherman Alexie. Alexie is beloved for his sharp, raggedly good-humored treatments of minority identity in America, and for BAP he adopted an editorial stance of affirmative action, choosing a lineup of writers that ended up 40 percent non-white. He also picked the poem before knowing Yi-Fen Chou was a Rachel Dolezal-at-AWP situation, but we’ll get back to that later. First, some of the poem that’s causing so much of a fuss.
Which leads me to wonder what it is
I’m doing here, peering through a lens at the thigh-pouches/ stuffed with pollen and the baffling intricacies
of stamen and pistil. Am I supposed to say something, add/ a soundtrack and voiceover?
As with contemporary visual art, poetry is a medium whose unusual angles of subjectivity can be confounding; although Alexie picking it for Best American was part of an admittedly activist editorial stance, “The Bees...” only getting picked up on its 50th submission may just be its particular luck, changing byline aside. It’s not a great poem, is what I’m saying. (Another Hudson poem from this summer, titled, of all things, “Slave Cemetery,” falls similarly short.) That last sentence in particular flops like a line cut out of the Garden State screenplay; it’s a poet literally asking “Should I say something about the bees?”
Then it continues:
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/ and dabs of misinformation in fractured,
“Fractured/ not-quite-right English.” Yi-Fen Chou, what’s good?
This is a bit of a low, let’s acknowledge, not least for the very tiny pot of gold at the end of this small rainbow. Hudson is not trying to assume a new cultural identity (Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam) or to bridge a large knowledge gap with hubristic, clairvoyant fervor (the non-Chinese-speaking Ezra Pound “translating” Cathay) or to even play a long, weird, anonymous inhabitation game (Kent Johnson/Araki Yasusada). Michael Derrick Hudson is just a guy who wants this badly to be in print—a white man in possession of the belief that the poetry-publishing deck is stacked against white men, and who will likely take Sherman Alexie invoking compensatory diversity as a one-time guest editor to be proof that “Fewer White Men” is a rule and not an anomaly.
Identity politics, with the great rivers of well-meaning smarm and short-sightedness that run through it, is exhausting enough when leveraged for basic equality; when leveraged for a white man’s ability to get published, the whole thing feels unredeemable. But we can’t give up on the fact that the source of a thing matters. Rachel Dolezal is just not the owner you want for your weave salon; Jonathan Chait is just not the best voice to argue that political correctness has gotten out of hand. Ryder Ripps’s “Art Whore” project was banal with him behind it; with a sex worker as the artist, then we could talk. But, of course, a sex worker wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the amount of attention. And here we are, back at the boring old start.
Though the ratio of white to non-white writers published and reviewed in literary outlets appears to be holding strong around 9 to 1, there’s a decent contingent of white male writers who believe the “social justice movement” has put them at a real structural disadvantage. This perception can be induced by seeing just a few more non-white names and non-white faces, by hearing just a few people state that they’d like to publish some more diverse names. The fact that these white male writers are not the default anymore—that they can be named as white men and (sometimes unfairly) typified as pretentious—truly bothers them; this is not a demographic accustomed to being pre-judged.
But they’re wrong—they’re wrong to think this, and to be defensive; so are the people who lean hard into whatever “otherness” they’ve come in contact with in order to draw on the same imagined sea change. Michael Derrick Hudson is still a generally safer bet as a nom de plume than Yi-Fen Chou. You won’t find many equality-minded, representation-focused literary outlets that don’t also flash social justice like a neon sign. Sherman Alexie as a guest-editor within the flexible apparatus of Best American (full disclosure: I used to work as an assistant editor for the Nonrequired Reading series) is a rare situation—a mainstream collection prioritizing diversity without broadcasting in some way that it’s doing so.
Hudson, anyway, is unashamed in his bio section:
There’s no good solution available to an editor who receives this author’s note. Pull the piece and let Hudson act the aggrieved, post-racial martyr; keep it in and face the ire directed at BAP right now. Either way, the minority writers are once again tokenized (does it help when it’s from good intentions? From one of us?), and Sherman Alexie did not pull the piece. Many people think he should have, and Alexie wrote a considerate and good-humored and thoughtful response to that call, which Ben Smith described as “the most interesting, complex thing I’ve read on politics of identity for a long time” and I would describe as a rare instance of a man being so humble that he ends up being wrong.
In his post, Alexie acknowledges Hudson’s “subterfuge,” calls the poem’s submission “colonial theft,” and looks back on his own editorial attraction to the juxtaposition between the poem’s European classical imagery and the author’s Chinese name.
I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: 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.
That’s okay. It’s okay to like the line “I’m a runaway slave master” when Kendrick Lamar raps it and to cringe when Iggy Azalea tries. Alexie’s particular hermeneutics should not be causing anyone shame, and the numbers game he played to arrive at 60 percent women and 40 percent writers of color in the anthology is more than justifiable—you could over-represent both groups for decades without ever being able to reach any sort of parity for the white homogeneity of the past.
But this is his conclusion:
Hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.
Although I appreciate that he’s acknowledging his own power here, Alexie calling his desire to publish more writers of color “nepotism” is similar to someone invoking the bugbear of “reverse racism”—it implies that people of color are in possession of a certain amount of leverage that I’m really not sure we have.
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.
In another light, pulling the poem would be admitting the same—or, more specifically, having to weigh in on whether or not the race of any given speaker affects the meaning of the speaker’s words. (It does, of course; Alexie’s dodging. Elsewhere he notes he was originally intrigued by the fact that Yi-Fen Chou had chosen to write a poem without any signs of Chinese identity whatsoever in the text. That uncomfortable merit either stands, deceptions accounted for, or it does not.)
He goes on:
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.
Well, I admire his honesty. But it’s not being stated clearly here that Alexie is operating as an exception rather than by a rule.
A month ago, the writer Catherine Nichols tried a similar experiment, for the opposite reasons, and wrote about it here. She sent her novel out to agents under a white male pseudonym and got 8.5x the responses. (An important, integrity-marking difference: she didn’t then try to publish under the pseudonym; the case was closed.) Nichols’s piece showed the phenomenon that Michael Derrick Hudson probably believed had failed him—that it’s easier for white men to get published than anyone else. And, sure, it’s feasible (if I don’t believe it, personally) that women (Yi-Fen is a girl’s name, by the way) and people of color could theoretically be in possession of more power than white men at this literary point in time. But 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.
It’s troubling that the most fledgling attempts towards reaching equal representation could seem, to anyone, like evidence that the still-dominant class of white men has already lost the upper hand. They haven’t. A few, I guess, will find any way to keep it. This headache of identity politics is still miserably meaningful. It matters who said by any means necessary. “Yi-Fen Chou” isn’t counter-evidence to the ugliness of white dominance; it’s proof.
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