This isn’t what I’d planned on writing about this week, but sometimes current events overtake us!
If you’re a submitting writer (especially if you’re a submitting poet) you’ve probably heard about the recent literary kerfluffle wherein the very white Michael Derrick Hudson got a poem published in Best American Poetry using his literary pseudonym, Yi-Fen Chou. Quote Mr. Hudson: “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful … The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”
The Atlantic has a thoughtful musing on this whole situation here, including the viewpoint of Sherman Alexie, the guest editor of the anthology who decided to leave it in even after discovering the subterfuge. Therein, he talks about his own bias. This has kicked off a lively online dialogue among the current and past poetry editors of The Mud Season Review. This has taken part in a series on online postings, but I wanted to collect a few of my thoughts from that dialogue here.
First off, a truly blind submission process obviously eliminates this, beyond what might be gleaned, correctly or not, from the content of the poems themselves. For MSR, I pointedly do not read the bio, or any of the other reviewer’s comments, before doing my first read, precisely because I don’t want to be swayed by anything beyond the poem itself. The one thing I can’t help but see in Submittable, though, is the poet’s name.
And honestly, if the name indicates that the writer is a woman, or a person of color, sometimes my “ears” do perk up. I am more sympathetic to/interested in seeing what may be coming from an underrepresented viewpoint, not to mention a viewpoint different than my own. When the push comes to the shove of final selection, I don’t think this interest overcomes quality standards. And I won’t ever say I think a poem is good that I don’t really think is good, no matter what outside consideration. But it definitely can make me a little more open on a first read.
Interestingly, as far as the “nepotism” theory goes, this makes me more of an anti-nespot. But that’s a bias in itself. Despite being a straightish middle-class culturally Christian white man, my whole life I’ve felt more comfortable around, and in sympathy with, people who are on the contra side of many of those identities. We could go into the psychology and personal history of that, but, like I said, it’s there, and it’s a bias.
Now for true confession: I also have some understanding for the poet who did this! In despairing moments, I have sometimes thought, “Getting publisher’s attention would be easier if I were telling these stories as____.” Different things pop in to the ____ depending on the moment: an immigrant, a woman, a gay person, etc. However, I recognize that as a “despairing moment” thought, and am rather suspicious of its accuracy, given all the many, many ways I benefit from my class, my race, my sexuality and my gender.
Despite my understanding of motive, I don’t care for this kind of personal misrepresentation when anybody does it. Think James Frey (passing off fiction as memoir), JT Leroy (not an actual person with an actual biography), Vanilla Ice (never heard shells dropping and got out of there fast), etc. On the other hand, it wasn’t unheard of for female authors to create male pseudonyms in the 20th century to break through the power structure. And I feel much more okay with that. I think this must have something to do with power relations between who’s doing it, and what structure they’re doing it in. Mr. Hudson is not on the side of the angels in this regard.
Meanwhile, in one of the better responses I’ve seen, my friend (and fantastic writer) Caille Millner Twitter-posted a link to the Poetry Foundation’s overview of actual Asian American poets. It’s a great list, which further delighted me by including one of my favorite contemporary poets, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She’s gotten in to the Twitter scrum on this story herself:
That’s a fitting last word here. But I am interested in hearing your thoughts!