On the Controversy Over A White Poet Submitting as “Yi-Fen Chou” and Being Chosen By Sherman Alexie for the Best American Poetry Anthology

As editor of the 2015 Best American Poetry, Sherman Alexie chose a poem written by what seemed to be a Chinese American poet named Yi-Fen Chou. But then Alexie found out the poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was actually written by a white male, Michael Derrick Hudson. Hudson reported that his poem had been rejected forty times under his own name and then nine times under the pseudonym before being accepted by the Prairie Schooner.

In a long and convoluted essay on the Best American Poetry Blog, Alexie said he was angered by Hudson’s “colonial theft” but ultimately decided to stay with his choice of Hudson’s poem for the anthology. Alexie explains his thought process in making his decision like this:

        “So I went back and reread the poem to figure out exactly how I had been fooled and to consider my potential actions and reactions. And I realized that I hadn’t been fooled by anything obvious. I’d been drawn to the poem because of its long list title (check my bibliography and you’ll see how much I love long titles) and, yes, because of the poet’s Chinese name. Of course, I am no expert on Chinese names so I’d only assumed the name was Chinese. As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work. In rereading the poem, I still found it to be compelling. And most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its “Chinese-ness” because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don’t see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou’s public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.

        Do you see what happened?

        I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.

         ….Nepotism is as common as oxygen.

         But, in putting Yi-Fen Chou in the “maybe” and “yes” piles, I did something amorphous. I helped a total stranger because of racial nepotism.

         I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.

         And, of course, 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.”

As Alexie predicted, he’s been criticized for rewarding a “poetry colonist” and for not rejecting what many call poetic “yellow face” (more on this in a note below).  At the same time, Alexie has been praised by some for being so honest about his own biases and for his “nuanced” response. Beyond this, some commentators and the news coverage seem to imply that the white poet couldn’t get his poem published as a white poet but that he could posing as an Asian/Asian American poet (Washington Post headline: A White Guy Named Michael Couldn’t Get His Poem Published. Then He Changed His Name to Yi-Fen Chou), i.e., Yes, Virginia, there is reverse racism in the poetry world. There’s so many things wrong with this implication but to get into it, I’d have to write an entire dissection of the ways race plays out in the literary world. So I’ll just stick to something more literary:

I don’t think Sherman Alexie should have published the poem once he found out the ruse. For one thing, I think it’s an ethical violation, and that could have been a reason not to include the poem.  Beyond this, Alexie could have made the case that the poem reads differently if you know it’s been written by a white male, rather than an Asian or an Asian American. Indeed, part of his initial take on the poem and what attracted him to it stems from his believing the poet to be Asian American: “When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.”

I think, though, that Alexie was so afraid of appearing to himself as fraudulent that he didn’t investigate his initial response to the poem—or perhaps he wasn’t able to articulate to himself how certain poems are actually read in part with a knowledge and a context provided by knowing who the author is.

This is a complicated literary issue, and given in part our generally limited understanding of the ways racial readings affect our understanding of poetry, it’s not that surprising that Alexie doesn’t trust his initial reading. He seems to believe, as some maintain, that the words should be judged only as they appear on the page and nothing else matters. But this is not actually the way we read and interpret poems. As with standup comics, the person delivering the words is part of the way we hear and interpret the words. Tig Notaro’s jokes about cancer are funny in part because we know she has had cancer. Similarly, if someone writes a poem about dying from cancer and they’re not dying from cancer, that’s a different poem than one from a person who is actually dying of cancer. That’s why so many poems on mortality by poets in old age mean something to us.

The same principle also applies at times in terms of race, but often in a more complicated way. When Patricia Smith writes a poem in the voice of a racist skinhead, we read that poem knowing the poet who wrote it is a black woman and that is part of the accomplishment of the poem–how she is able to enter the mind and feelings of someone who hates who she is. If the poem were by a white poet, we would generally assume it’s a persona poem but we wouldn’t read it as the poet having to travel as great a psychic distance to get to the space to write the poem since the white poet would not be the object of the skinhead’s hate. But if the poem were written by an actual racist skinhead, we would read the poem quite differently. The words would not be distanced as those of another person, as imagined; they would simply be meant to be taken literally.

With the poem in question in the BAP anthology, “The Bees…,” there’s a tone of complaint which to my mind reads differently if you know the author is a white male rather than an Asian or Asian American. If I read it as being written by an Asian or Asian American, that tone of complaint takes on a level of irony which is not there if I know the poem was written by a white male: “My life’s spent/ running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation/ until every goddamned thing’s reduced to botched captions/ and dabs of misinformation in fractured, / not-quite-right English.” Among other things, my speaking English–that is from my body–is never received in the same way as the exact same words spoken by a white male (the white male never gets questions which imply that he is not American or that he comes from somewhere else). So when a white male poet writes “not-quite-right English” I read that differently than if an Asian/Asian American wrote those exact same words. If English is not the first language of the Asian or Asian American poet, the phrase refers in part to that; but even if English is the first language of the Asian American poet, the lines would refer to an uncertainty about the poet’s relationship to the language and the ways the poet’s English is received by others. If the poet is a white male, all the phrase means is that he’s fooling around with the language. There’s no racial/social meaning, no irony, and the language reads flatter, with less resonance. I think Alexie responded originally to the poem with this racial/social reading and perceived an irony in it as written by an Asian/Asian American, but couldn’t quite see how the poem was transformed once he knew the poet was a white male.

What this controversy points to is how still, within the poetry world, many do not understand the myriad ways we make meaning of and interpret a poem. In an essay of mine published in the anthology A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, I argue that often poems by poets of color must be read as racial allegories, though many readers, especially white readers, can miss this allegorical reading. In other words, poetry does not take place in a Platonic realm where there is no social context and where race and ethnicity don’t ever affect how we understand language. We often read through a racial lens–sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly–far more than most people, even poets (and sometimes especially poets), realize.

Endnote 1:  It turns out that Hudson’s act of “poetic colonialism” and “yellow face” has not only offended many in the poetry world.  He apparently took the name from a high school classmate, and she and her family are also angered by Hudson’s appropriation.  Yi-Fen’s sister, Ellen, views this as an act of misplaced racial resentment and insensitivity.  The New York Times article reads:

Now it turns out that pseudonym may have come from a real person.  The family of a woman named Yi-Fen Chou, who attended the same high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., as Mr. Hudson, has stepped forward, demanding that he immediately stop using it.

“I’m just aghast,”  Ellen Y. Chou, the sister of Yi-Fen Chou, said in an interview. Mr. Hudson’s use of the name, she added, showed a “lack of honesty” and “careless disregard for Chinese people and for Asians.”

…Ellen Chou said that Yi-Fen Chou, a nuclear engineer in Chicago who goes by a married name, did not want to be identified or interviewed. The family, she said, wanted Mr. Hudson to immediately stop using the name, which had a “unique spelling” and had been given to her sister by their paternal grandfather.

Ms. Chou questioned Mr. Hudson’s seeming assumption that Asian-Americans have an advantage.  “He seems to think we have it easy, but we don’t,” she said. “We all worked very hard to achieve our own success. I’m just appalled by his actions.””  http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/family-protests-white-poets-use-of-chinese-pen-name/?_r=0

I cannot help but wonder how much of Ellen Chou’s anger here has to do with how she, her sister and her family were regarded and treated as Chinese Americans in Fort Wayne, Indiana, particularly in high school.  Her remarks imply that Yi-Fen Chou and Hudson were never friends.  Did Ellen and Yi-Fen experience what many Asian American kids experience going to high schools where they are a small minority and are seen as foreigners and through the lens of Asian stereotypes?  My guess is that these are issues Hudson never considered; Yi-Fen Chou was just a name; there wasn’t a real person attached to it.  But then that’s the basis of colonialism, isn’t it?  “These people we are colonizing aren’t people like us.  We don’t have to pay attention to their rights or property, much less their feelings.  They are there for us to use.  That’s why they’re the colonized and we’re the colonizers.”  The tropes and practices of history continue on into the present.

Endnote 2:  More on the ways “my not-quite-right English” and the use of European references could be read differently if the poet were Asian American:  I’ve always been struck by this passage in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen, the Irish colonial, is talking with the English Dean of his school.  Stephen, who can be read as a Joyce’s fictional self, thinks: “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine.  How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine!  I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit.  His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech.”  Another gloss on this point would be two quotations from James Baldwin.  The first is on Baldwin’s relationship to the American language:  “You see, whites want black artists to mostly deliver something as if it were the official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won’t hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based.”  The second quotation is on Baldwin’s relationship to European culture: “I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.  And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude.  These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history….I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.”  Of course, all these references are Baldwin’s heritage in another sense; that is why he can write about them the way he does, in sentences that often echo the cadences of the King James Bible, which is not surprising from a man who grew up as a child preacher.

Both in the case of Stephen/Joyce and Baldwin, these quotations don’t stem from their lack of linguistic skills or familiarity with English, but in the ways the one, a colonial, and the other, a black man in a racist society, must contend with their marginalization and their relationship to the works and tools of the colonist, of the master.  The relationship I as an Asian American have to American English or to the European heritage of the culture is different from that of a white male like Hudson, but even in the world of poetry, many don’t actually understand the nature and complexity of this difference and its myriad causes.

Endnote 3:  I know of at least two Asian American poets who have been asked by audience members to read their poem in its “original language.”