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This item is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

The outrage surrounding the inclusion of a poem by Yi-Fen Chou in Best American Poetry earlier this year continues. Theanthology editor, Sherman Alexie, wrote a 4308 word blog [1] explaining why he chose the poem and why, when he discovered the author was not Yi-Fen Chou but Michael Derrick Hudson, he decided to retain it.

The poem is distinguished by a long title and little else. It is in no way orientalising. Hudson’s crime was to choose a nom de plume suggesting an exotic ethnicity to get by the politically correct guardians of some editorial departments. Once a poem has been widely rejected, he goes the pseudonym route. As a poet Hudson has a track record of publication in propria persona in a number of established journals, including Poetry. Like most poets he craves greater exposure for his work and injudiciously adopted this strategy.

In his blog, Sherman Alexie shared the editorial rules he devised for selecting poems for the anthology he abbreviates as BAP. First: ‘I will not choose any poem written by a close friend.’ Why not?

Poets have close poet friends. Eliot would not have excluded Pound on such grounds, or Jarrell Lowell. A disabused editorial eye will not be clouded by friendship. The second rule echoes the first: ‘I will be extremely wary of choosing any poem written by somebody I know, even if I have only met that person once twenty years ago and haven’t talked to that person since.’ Again, why not? Third, still in the same zone: ‘I will also be hyper-judgmental of any poem written by a poet I already admire. I will not be a fan boy.’ But surely the editor will be ‘hyper-judgmental’ – not a happy phrase – of every poem that tempts him. These rules smack of a self-distrust that might have led the editor to think twice before accepting the commission. Rule four: ‘I will not choose any poem based on a poet’s career. Each poem will stand or fall on its own merits. There will be no Honorary Oscars.’ I wonder if he wrote these rules down, to remind himself, like a driver inscribing the speed limit on the wing mirror.

With rule five Yi-Fen Chou pricks up his ears: ‘I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color. And for great poems by younger, less established poets. And for great poems by older poets who haven’t been previously lauded. And for great poems that use rhyme, meter, and traditional forms.’ Despite the non sequiturs, the sentiment is clear.

Further rules commit Alexie to read Internet poems, not to consult other readers but trust his own judgment, unless (rule eight) David Lehman, the commissioning editor, rubs his nose in something really fragrant, ‘which he will most certainly do a few times’. Rule nine expresses a prejudice against professors and a refusal to read biographical notes before selecting poems. Rule ten restates rule nine: ‘I don’t want to know anything about any of the poets beyond what I already know or what is apparent in the poem itself. […] I will do my best to treat every poem like it is a blind submission, even if some famous poet has written the poem I’m currently reading.’

By these rules, it hardly matters that Yi-Fen Chou is Michael Derrick Hudson. Except it does matter to Alexie’s statistics because he is ‘diversity led’. Of the seventy five poets included, he says,

Approximately 60% of the poets are female.
Approximately 40% of the poets are people of color.
Approximately 20% of the poems employ strong to moderate formal elements.
Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.
Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.
He did not do too well, by his own rules.

But in the small world of poetry his rules are unrealistic. Without anonymising, it is impossible to depersonalize the editorial process. ‘I have never met or had any previous conversations or contact with 56 of the 75 poets […] There are 30 poets whom I’d never previously read. I didn’t know anything about them when I chose their poems.’ Then Alexie admits: ‘I am close friends with only one of the 75 poets. Only three of the poets have ever invited me to speak at their colleges. And one of them was on sabbatical when I eventually visited her college. In years past, before I was guest editor for BAP, I’d sent fan letters to nine of the poets and, as a result, have maintained semi-regular pen pal relationships with three of them. I have met in person only two of those pen pals and talked to them, separately, for a few minutes at AWP in Denver in 2010. Only four of the poets have ever chosen any of my writing for publication. Two of the poets have rejected work of mine for publication.’ The word ‘only’ does overtime and adds up. The confession, the list of connections, continues: he shares a publisher (Hanging Loose Press) with three of the poets chosen, and two work with him on the MFA programme where he teaches. Six further paragraphs are required to complete his tour of the inevitable web of relationship.

Yi-Fen Chou is a poet Alexie had not heard of, worked with, shared readings or publishers with, etc. He says that Michael Derrick Hudson used the Chinese pseudonym ‘as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business’. There is nothing wrong with political correctness, even in the editorial process. An unusual name is arresting. If the poem under that name brings with it an attendant set of cultural referents, if it is formally and thematically suggestive, so much the better. Hudson’s poem was conventional, the sort one might expect from a poet trained in the tricks of creative writing, a poem taking no risks, and without oriental glaze. The name itself Alexie describes as a ‘colonial theft’; the poem was not stolen. An alert editor might have spotted the distance between the name and the product that accompanied it. ‘I hadn’t been fooled by its “Chinese-ness” because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian.’ Had Yi-fen actually been of Chinese origin, then he would have been well and truly colonized, with no shred of Asian cultural content in his poem, a triumph for the very forces Alexie declared against in his rule book. Inherent in some politically correct posturing is a colonial spirit every bit as reductive as the ones against which political correctness has defined itself. New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.


This item is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

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