{on poetry & integrity}

By now, everyone has heard of the absolute chaos that Michael Derrick Hudson unleashed on the poetic world when he used the pseudonym of Yi-Fen Chou. He claims he was just “placing” a poem, using the tactic to sell; others claim he was masquerading in yellow face and smugly revealed himself. The story has morphed further with the discovery that Yi-Fen Chou was a fellow student of Hudson’s, and remains a real person, living in Chicago…

Aaaand, before the anthology was published, editor Sherman Alexie knew at least the gist of this. And yet.

“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.”

I’ve used the word “masquerade” here, and though I’ve toned this post way, way, way down from when I first wrote it in anger, and though I love me some Mr. Alexie, I believe that this is nothing but smug privilege, masquerading as parity, and that Mr. Alexie has inadvertently participated in perpetuating further stupidity in the publishing process. Hudson, with his careful usage of the word “placement” seems to feel like he’s finally got his due: proved to himself that the world sees and treats him unfairly because he’s a dispossessed white poet. I believe that of good heart, Mr. Alexie did what he did – included this obvious lie of a poem – to continue the conversation — to further the exploration of our allegedly “post-racial” society, and to shine a light on who we as Americans sometimes are — but my problem with his action is that it’s not about the poem. At least, not for me.

I remember when the banks were going through all of this bailout nonsense because they’d jacked themselves up by making fraudulent mortgage loans to people who they knew couldn’t handle them, and the government was meant to rescue them because they were “too big to fail.” No institution, not even our grand old Best New American Poetry is too big to fail. Perhaps Mr. Alexie saying that he “loved” this poem feels like a fig leaf to cover himself; he didn’t want to pull down the edifice that has been over twenty-five years in the making. He didn’t want to delay the hotly anticipated autumn release, he didn’t want to jump off his horse mid-stream and recuse himself from the entire process, admitting that he was unsure, or no longer trusted himself. He took a personal hit because it won’t be permanent. It’s poetry and he’s speaking with humility and transparency, and, face it, we love him. We’ll forgive him, eventually.

But, today, at this moment, I think he should have said, “STOP EVERYTHING.”

I’d like to think that I would have. Because, to me, this has nothing to do with race, really, but integrity. And the truth. And in a world where a lie routinely runs around the whole world before the truth gets its boots on, I think we all have to do our best to at least help the truth get dressed.

Mostly, I’m sorry for the other poets. It’s been a year for this kind of thing, though – the shining moment and then the full eclipse. I think of Jacqueline Woodson, who probably will not be thought of without the looming specter of Daniel Handler for at least another few years. Dear Other Poets in the Anthology – I’m sorry. I’ll try to read you without prejudice. But, all in all, I think this anthology no longer represents the honor it should, and it may never again.

2 Replies to “{on poetry & integrity}”

  1. I need to read your blog more regularly, as I just came upon an article about this from another source. To say that I’m disappointed in Alexie is an understatement. While plenty of folks suggest they understand why he did, I don’t. And you are right … this is about truth and integrity. Is it terrible that I hope this poet has a difficult time getting published in the future?

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