Upon learning his poem had been selected for the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology, Yi-Fen Chou made a stunning confession. The poet’s moniker was a pseudonym; his real name was Michael Derrick Hudson.
His poem to be immortalized in the prestigious annual collection —“The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, and Adam and Eve”—had by his count been rejected 40 times when submitted under his own name, but as Yi-Fen only nine times before being published by the Prairie Schooner. In the short bio he submitted to BAP, Hudson boasted that this “strategy for ‘placing’ poems has been quite successful for me,” adding: “it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”
Hudson’s blithe explanation indicates he did not fully appreciate the consequences of his admission, as it forever ended the prospect of any further use of the pseudonym (apparently appropriated from a woman he went to high school with, whose family demanded he cease and apologize).
One can only speculate on Hudson’s motivation for making what he admits “isn’t a very ‘artistic’ explanation for using a pseudonym”—as he has made no apology or any public statement at all in the two-and-a-half years since his greatest poetic publishing success, which also made his given name immediately infamous among the creative community in which he so desired acceptance. (Multiple requests for comment went unanswered by Hudson.)
The outrage was swift and severe. Hudson had engaged in “yellowface.” He had colonized the publishing real estate of another Asian-American or person of color. He was poetry’s Rachel Dolezal—but worse, as his race-posing was for personal career enrichment, not because of any idealistic (if delusional) intent.
But wait a second. If Hudson confessed prior to BAP’s publication, how did the poem even make it to the presses? That’s a question for celebrated Native American poet, author, and filmmaker Sherman Alexie, who was the guest editor of that year’s BAP.
In a long, thoughtful essay, Alexie defended his decision to publish Hudson’s poem, and also took responsibility for a number of his own failures to establish a consistent, coherent set of criteria.
(Alexie himself has since faced multiple allegations that he abused his stature and influence by luring young female admirers into unwanted sexual situations, some of which he admitted to in a statement posted to his website this February where he apologized “to the people I have hurt” but rejected accusations of physical or verbally threatening behavior [PDF]. Multiple attempts to reach Alexie for comment through his representatives were unsuccessful.)
In Alexie’s estimation, he had considered anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 poems for the 2015 anthology, with the intent to “pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past,” especially “women and people of color” as well as “less established poets.” Alexie hoped to make submissions as close to blind as possible, pointedly avoiding internet searches of poets’ names.
Of the 75 poems Alexie chose, he described one in particular as “strange and funny and rueful”—that was Hudson’s poem.
After reading Hudson’s bio/confession, Alexie was enraged by what he saw as “colonial theft” and a white man’s attempt to subvert “a politically correct poetry business.” But Alexie didn’t let himself off the hook, he went back to the poem hoping to deconstruct his own complicity in Hudson’s ruse. In doing so, Alexie was forced to rectify his attraction to the poem, which had been influenced in part by the poet’s Chinese-sounding surname combined with the lack of Asian imagery in the poem itself. In fact, with its numerous references to Christian, Roman, and Greek mythology, Alexie found the poem “inherently obsessed with European culture,” which itself presented a cross-cultural curiosity that intrigued the guest editor—compelling Alexie to upgrade the poem from the “maybe” to the “yes” pile.
In sum, identity mattered.
While noting how often white writers benefit from “nepotism” (of which Alexie contorts the definition to include friends and colleagues of the same hue), Alexie says he had practiced his own “racial nepotism,” which he calls “a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle.”
Ultimately, Alexie says he chose to keep the poem in the anthology even after learning of Hudson’s “deceitful pseudonym” because he believed that doing so would be he best way to mitigate his own embarrassment—over allowing himself to be hoodwinked, over ham-fistedly shoehorning inclusivity, and even enabling the possibility of making Hudson an affirmative-action martyr.
Moreover, Alexie elected to keep the poem in the 2015 BAP because he loved it, as he loved all 75 poems he chose, and while conceding that keeping the poem in the anthology was itself an “injustice against poets of color…Chinese and Asian poets in particular,” Alexie believed that removing it would be a greater injustice, an implication that every poet of color’s poem was merely an affirmative-action inclusion.
Not everyone was moved by Alexie’s explanation.
In a widely read piece for BuzzFeed, Jenny Zhang wrote that she too would love to see more writing by Chinese-Americans that is not defined by its “Chinese-ness,” but she didn’t buy the idea that adopting a white pseudonym would help her get published. Conversely, Zhang argues, a white man “can certainly slap a Chinese name on his poetry and pass it off as something to be marveled.”
An argument in favor of blind submissions—if there is no name attached to the poem, the poem can only be judged on the merit of the art itself—was also met with skepticism by The Rumpus’ poetry editor Brian Spears, who called blind submissions “a fig leaf, an exercise in deniability used by people who don’t want to do the hard work of having a diverse journal.”
The reaction to Hudson himself was a potpourri of satire, opprobrium, and in rare cases, pity.
A number of Asian-American poets published their own lyrical and performative responses to Hudson’s transgression, including 19 in the Asian American Writer’s Workshop (AAWW)—which also created a #WhitePenName generator.
Sam Cha’s entry struck directly at both Hudson and the content of his celebrated poem, “I am no flower, nor was meant to bumblebee… I should have been a woman, or Chinese,” and writing in Guernica, Thomas Dai reflected on his choice to Anglicize his own name, arguing empathetically that both choices “reflect a kind of brutal pragmatism, a hankering for results.”
During the height of the controversy in 2015, AAWW’s executive director Ken Chen told The New York Times that Hudson was indulging a “reactionary fantasy” by believing that his publishing success rate would improve “if writers of color are virtualized away.”
In a March 2018 interview with The Daily Beast, Chen said that Hudson’s “cynical, careerist” ruse reminded him of Richard Spencer and other white nationalists’ worldview—that “America is for white citizens, success is a zero-sum game,” and a minority’s success necessarily means a white person suffers. Chen clarified that he has no reason to believe Hudson is an overt racist, but that he suspects Hudson’s use of a Chinese pseudonym might have reflected some deeply held doubts about his abilities as an artist.
When asked if he thought Hudson understood the consequences of outing himself in his BAP bio, Chen replied, “If you read [Hudson’s] poetry, there’s this element of ruefulness, self-loathing, and fatalism that he’s in a rigged game where a person of color is going to get ahead,” adding, “Outing himself is part of that sense of fatalism.”
Regarding Alexie’s decision to not remove Hudson’s poem from the 2015 BAP, Chen says, “At the time I thought [Alexie] got it wrong, but we should be deferential” due to his status as a “very important writer of color.” In hindsight Chen says he finds it both interesting and disappointing that Alexie was so surprised that a supposed Asian-American writer would write about Christian themes, when most Asian-Americans are in fact, Christian.
Echoes of the Hudson controversy reverberated in late 2017, when C.B. Cebulski was named the new editor in chief of Marvel Comics. After a decade of denying persistent rumors, Cebulski admitted he had written numerous comics for Marvel in the mid-2000s under the pseudonym Akira Yoshida. Cebulski—who speaks Japanese and spent years living in Japan—was apparently trying to circumvent a Marvel policy that forbade editors (which was his role at the time, and his specialty was working with Japanese writers) from writing for the company.
But Cebulski didn’t just use a pseudonym, he disseminated an entirely fictitious biography for “Yoshida.” Though there is reportedly no evidence he was paid above his editor rate for the year or so he wrote as Yoshida, the controversy nearly derailed Cebulski’s editor in chief hiring and compelled him to issue a public apology.
As with Hudson, Cebulski’s use of an Asian pseudonym stoked anger over “cultural colonialism” as well as accusations of denying opportunities for underrepresented voices. But Cebulski also had his defenders, which included comics industry veterans of color, who vouched for his efforts to elevate Asian writers and artists, and who also sympathized with the plight of a young writer for whom accruing experience and getting published is more important than anything, even money or proper credit.
As Sherman Alexie noted in his essay, Michael Derrick Hudson was in some ways himself an underrepresented voice—unlike most poets selected for BAP, he was not a professional writer, nor was he a professor. As Hudson wrote in his bio, changing his name proved “quite successful” in getting his poetry placed and recognized.
Identity politics—among the most stridently contested arenas of present times—are not exclusively the domain of aggrieved minorities or the progressive left, as the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency demonstrated just how deep a resentment exists among whites who believe they are systematically discriminated against in America. Whether or not a perception of “reverse racism” motivated Hudson’s use of a Chinese pseudonym, his critics have noted that white poets have little to fear of being underrepresented in their chosen business. As of 2013 they were published over non-whites by a factor of 9 to 1 by Poetry magazine.
So what to make of Michael Derrick Hudson’s co-opting of a minority cultural identity for the express purpose of exploiting an editor’s desire to include more “diverse” identities?
In the last public statement he made almost three years ago, Hudson made it clear that it wasn’t artistic license, but professional ambition that motivated his ruse. But what remains confounding is the “aw, shucks” sentiment inherent in his BAP biography-cum-confession.
If afforded the gift of hindsight, would he have continued to submit poems under the name Yi-Fen Chou, instead of issuing a confession that was widely read as a ham-fisted plea for sympathy for how his given name was supposedly hindering the appreciation of his work?
White poets still unquestionably dominate the medium, but there’s a reason we’re discussing “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, and Adam and Eve” at all: identity—which was both the life and death of the poem.