Race, Gender, & The Best American Poetry
by Aaminah Shakur
This has been an exceptionally controversial year in the world of poetry, pretty much all revolving around racist misbehavior by white poets, editors and organizations, and defense of them as “not racist” by other poets. The latest “scandal” is, again, a white man, Michael Derrick Hudson, who used a Chinese woman’s name to send poetry out for publication that had already been turned down by publishers who viewed it under his real name. One such poem was included in the just-released this week annual Best American Poetry anthology, for which he wrote a biographical note telling about this “strategy” and strongly implied that white men struggle more to get published.
Earlier in 2015 there was Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of Michael Brown’s autopsy report and disrespectful lingering on Brown’s genitals, as some weird kind of memorium to a child killed by police and the community response. Then there was Vanessa Place’s Gone With The Wind Twitter project, which came to light because of her appointment by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) to a committee to review proposed panel discussions for the 2016 AWP Conference. In both cases, social media has been used, and manipulated, by the poets and their defenders to decry “censorship” that has never actually happened. What has happened is coordinated action to critique the work and the systems in which it too comfortably resides. Efforts have been made by students and faculty at universities that pay these poets to speak, to have them uninvited. In the case of Vanessa Place, for example, it was noted that her performance at one university campus consisted of her standing before the audience gratuitously repeating the N-word, prompting other universities to decide she might not be the most appropriate guest.
Once again, cries of “censorship” are being heard in defense of Derrick Hudson, and many white writers in social media conversations have attempted to simplify the issue to a matter of his detractors being against the use of pseudonyms. Let me be clear here: I use a pseudonym. It is my chosen name that reflects my cultures in a way the name given by my adoptive parents does not. It is my chosen name that protects me and grants me some distance and safety from abusers from my past who I would prefer never find me. And yes, as a writer and artist, I chose a name I thought would make clear my “status” as a member of marginalized groups. But my writing and artist biographies all tell the truth about who I am, I do not claim to be anyone I am not, and I genuinely identify as a member of several marginalized communities (LGBTQ, Indigenous, Muslim and Yoruban spiritual practitioner, multi-racial, Disabled, etc.). Use of a pseudonym is not the problem.
As to whether censorship is happening, that too is a moot point. Derrick Hudson has dozens of publications under his real name and several under the appropriated name as well. The poem that is central to this discussion was originally published by Prairie Schooner, who has issued a statement saying they will no longer publish poetry that Derrick Hudson submits under a pseudonym. They stopped one step short from saying they would no longer publish him, period. The poem was included in the Best American Poetry even after the poet’s statement was sent in, as Alexie cites the poem as being a great poem regardless of the controversy. In the anthology it is published under the false name despite (and with) the biographical note from Derrick Hudson thumbing his nose at us all. He has hardly been censored, and it is reasonable to assume he will continue publishing fiction and poetry one way or another.
Alexie himself is drawing fire as well, not only for retaining the poem but for his explanation of “racial nepotism,” a term designed to imply that the rare editor of color who seeks to find and promote more writers of color is somehow engaging in the same behavior as white editors that have long ignored writers of color in favor of their white friends. Poets and others have expressed outrage that Alexie would compare the systemic gatekeeping of a white literary world with his decision to give the poem a more careful consideration because he assumed it was written by a Chinese woman. If anything, he implies that Derrick Hudson’s assertion is somehow true, that the politically correct police have made it harder for white men to get published because of a concern with diversity.
One issue no one has discussed or disclosed is when people knew of Derrick Hudson’s deception. Prairie Schooner states they did not know at the time of publication but did know, “a few months ago”. There may be some questions about why they kept that knowledge to themselves, such that editors of Best American Poetry did not know of the name issue until the poet himself revealed it in his biographical note. More pertinent would be how many other publications have known about the subterfuge and for how long. Freelance writers and poets who are paid for publication are required to provide their legal name and contact information for payment purposes. It’s difficult to believe Derrick Hudson wasn’t paid for any of the poems he published under the pseudonym. It is much easier to believe editors chose to let the issue slide for a long while.
Furthermore, information has now come out the pseudonym was not a random made up name, but the name of an actual high school classmate. The classmate is alive, and her family is shocked by the disrespect and theft. Lest anyone think it could be a coincidence, the family states her name has a “unique spelling” created by her grandfather for her. This moves well beyond the previous charges of “literary yellow-face” and into a more obvious area of even more overt appropriation of an identity. That Derrick Hudson says he has been doing this for some time and had considered creating an entire persona some years ago is quite telling. He claims to have been more successful in placing poetry under this assumed name, even as East Asian-American women writers have stopped submitting their work for publication following treatment while in classrooms and MFA programs that police their work heavily or dealing with editors who ask them to “write something more ethnic”.
Poet Jenny Zhang sums up the feelings of many, especially those who have read the poem and found it less-than-stellar, saying:
“I won’t be scandalized by a white man who hasn’t considered that perhaps what helped his poem finally get published was less the fake Chinese woman he pretended to be, and more the robust, unflappable confidence bordering on delusion that he and many privileged white men possess: the capacity to be rejected forty (40) times and not give up, to be told, ‘no we don’t want you’ again and again and think, I got this. I know what will get me in. What may be persistence to him is unfathomable to me.”
In another month we will have yet another disgraceful event in the poetry world and a lot of people will have forgotten the name Yi-Fen Chou all together. Unfortunately, most of us haven’t even heard the names of the other 74 poets included in The Best American Poetry 2015 anthology, Given that it is a banner year in which 40% of poets included are not white men, an astounding achievement, it’s particularly sad that we aren’t talking about their poems instead of a mediocre poem written by Hudson. If you’re a white poet, here’s some great advice for you to consider, so you’re not next month’s scandal.