Friday, September 11, 2015

Scandal and Shaming: Thoughts on "The Best American Poetry" Debacle

A novelist friend has asked me to comment on the poetry scandal du jour: to wit, the uproar over poet/trickster Michael Derrick Hudson's inclusion in the current edition of The Best American Poetry anthology series. You can read about the brouhaha in any number of newspapers and online forums, including this New York Times article, but here's the essence. Hudson tried many, many times to publish his poem "The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve." No luck. So he decided to try again, using the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou (which, according to recent reports, is the name of a girl he knew in high school). Fairly quickly, the prestigious journal Prairie Schooner accepted the poem, and then Sherman Alexie, guest editor of The Best American Poetry, chose it for inclusion. But no one knew that Hudson and Yi-Fen Chou were one and the same until Hudson sent Alexie his author bio, which includes a rambling explanation of the ruse.

I use the word ruse advisedly here. Literature has a long history of pseudonymity. In many cases, women have written under male names with the hope of being taken seriously as writers rather than authoresses (say, Currer Bell/Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot/Marian Evans). But men have also used pseudonyms: think of short-story writer Saki/H. H. Munro, whose pseudonym may refer to a cupbearer mentioned in The Rubayait of Omar Kayyam (itself an ambiguous work of cultural appropriation) or possibly to a small South American monkey. More lately, feminist literary sites have been agog over a writer named Catherine Nichols, who experimented with submitting a manuscript under both her own name and a male pseudonym. In the process, she discovered that agents were far more interested in her novel when they thought that "George" had written it.

Nichols's goal was to reveal ongoing gender inequities in publishing; Hudson's motives seem murkier and more self-serving. Yet both capers demonstrated that people with literary power are influenced by names. Sherman Alexie has written a candid and disarming response about his reasons for choosing Hudson's poem for the anthology:
Hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou's poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness. 
So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues. 
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.
Alexie's response is long and detailed, and it's worth reading in total. He's been caught in a humiliating situation, and I give him credit for trying to be as honest as possible about his role. As a Native American writer, he feels solidarity with non-white writers so was rightfully concerned about bringing their voices into the literary conversation. As an editor, he was deluged with poems and had to make quick subjective decisions about what to include and what to pass over. Hudson's ruse proves what every editor already knows: it's really, really hard to stay fair and pure when you're reading a several hundred manuscripts.

Nonetheless, poets and readers have every right to be confused and distressed by the many ambiguous overtones of Hudson's decision. He's put us all into a bad position. White poets perceive a conspiracy against their work. Men think women may have an easier time getting published. Women are sure that men have an easier time getting published. Poets of color are outraged by a white poet's minstrel antics. Poets of color are convinced that white poets have an easier time getting published. We all exist in a tangle of distrust and complicity.

In such an atmosphere, can I say that Nichols's submission goals were purer than Hudson's? My personal dealings with several publishers have led me to believe that she is right: yes, sexism is alive and well in the book business. Yet to make her point, Nichols, like Hudson, trafficked in deliberate falsification. Does my belief in her version of truth impel me to excuse her tactics?  I don't have good answers to these questions, and I suspect there aren't any. 

What concerns me as much as anything in this mess is what another writer friend calls "the shaming impulse." Invective has become an automatic reaction, to the point that I worry that people are having trouble distinguishing between situational entrapment and the enormities of racism and sexism. Believe me: I am not standing up for blanket niceness. I am not saying that I approve of Hudson's experiment, which as far as I can tell was cold-hearted and calculating. But why is Alexie being shamed? Why is Hudson's poem--an ordinary, reasonably well crafted contemporary poem; a poem that a thousand competent poets might have written--being ridiculed as complete and utter trash? You may or may not like the way in which poetry publication works in our age of careerism, but you can't blame a single guest editor for doing his best to negotiate it honestly. We'd do better to blame ourselves.

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