How a Con Man Shook Up the Poetry World
Sherman Alexie could have crushed the white writer who landed a spot in a top poetry anthology by using an Asian pseudonym. Here’s why he didn’t.
Why do people like to laugh at poets? Why do we take pleasure in their foolishness? Why, instead, do we not praise them for their passion, for caring so much about what they do, and how it’s done, especially when you consider that what poets do harms no one and sometimes makes the world, if not a better place, then certainly one seen with a little more clarity?
In the past week or so, there has been chuckling aplenty after the news broke that a white male poet pretending to be an Asian poet had one of his poems selected for inclusion in the Best American Poetry of 2015.
It was, in fact, more complicated than that, since Sherman Alexie, this year’s editor of the poetry anthology, got wind of the deception before the anthology was published and then decided to include the poem anyway. And that’s when poets on both sides of the aisle—well, that’s when they decided there was an aisle, and you were either for or against Alexie, and there wasn’t any middle ground.
I haven’t seen too many people standing up for Michael Derrick Hudson, the poet who passed himself off as Yi-Fen Chou. In a statement included in the biographical section at the back of The Best American Poetry 2015, Hudson writes that “after 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.” The closest Hudson gets to apologizing is to say, “I realize that this isn’t a very ‘artistic’ explanation for using a pseudonym.”
So Hudson is a cynical opportunist. So not all poets, even good ones, are good people (Yeah, Robert Frost, looking at you). So the only question is, why would someone go to such lengths to get his poetry into print? Go figure.
As for Sherman Alexie, the editor who kept Hudson’s poem in the anthology even after it came out that Hudson had lied about his identity, all I can say is, he’s a bigger man than I am.
If any good has come out of this mess, it’s Alexie’s long essay published on the Best American Poetry’s online blog, in which he explains not only his decision to publish Hudson’s poem but his whole ethos for judging the hundreds, perhaps thousands of poems he had to read to assemble the anthology.
I might not call the essay elegant but it’s a beautiful thing, a plainspoken “how I did it” full of humor and humility, the likes of which ought to accompany every such anthology. Editors do have an obligation to explain how and why they make their choices and selections, whether they hew to an “art for art’s sake” rationale or, as Alexie did, bend over backward to make room for as much ethnic and sexual diversity as possible.
The best part of Alexie’s essay is his implicit argument that none of us is without prejudice. We may think that minority writers need a leg up. We may think they don’t deserve the parsley off our fish. But we are all prisoners of who we are and where we came from, and when you deny that is when the trouble starts.
Alexie is also particularly good at revealing his process, even when his decision-making got clouded by emotion—he is good, in other words, at taking fallibility into account and then showing you how he wound up where he did.
Here’s a taste:
I know many of you poets are pissed at me. I know many of you are screaming out a simple question: “Sherman, why did you keep that poetry colonist in the anthology even after you learned of his deception?”
Listen, I was so angry that I stormed and cursed around the room. I felt like punching the wall.
And, of course, there was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym.
But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. I would have pulled it because I didn’t want to hear people say, “Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy.” I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity.
And I would have gotten away with it. I am a powerful literary figure and the pseudonymuser is an unknown guy who has published maybe a dozen poems in his life. If I’d kicked him out of BAP 2015 then he might have tried to go public with that news.
And he would have been vilified and ignored. And I would have been praised.
Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now.
But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise.
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.
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.
But 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.
But that’s not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.
It doesn’t matter whether you agree with Alexie’s choices or his reasons for them. What matters is the transparency of his process. Even if you hide behind some idiotic “I choose poems on the basis of excellence alone” claim, you ought to say how you made up your mind. As Brian Spears says in a sharp essay on The Rumpus, we’re deep into subjectivity here: “We’re not talking about scientific articles which (should) go through rigorous peer review here and can be judged by some empirical standard—there’s no yardstick by which we can measure poems and say ‘this poem measures 74 Frosts while this one is 89 Frosts and so we should pick the second one for publication.’”
As Jean Renoir says in Rules of the Game, “Everyone has his reasons.” But how you got those reasons, that’s what you’ve got to tell us, and that’s what Alexie did so beautifully.