September 7, 2015

Sherman Alexie explains why he didn't oust a poem from The Best American Poetry 2015 after he found the author, a white man, had used a Chinese pseudonym.

As the guest editor of the annual volume, Alexie (a Native American) had some rules for himself in choosing the poems, including:
Rule #5: 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....
Most of the rules — please read the whole thing — were about neutrality and not showing favoritism.  60% of the poems he chose were written by women, 40% by "people of color." One poem Alexie chose turned out to have been written by a white male, Michael Derrick Hudson, who'd adopted the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou — in Alexie's words — "as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business." Alexie only learned of the ruse after he picked the poem, and he was "angry at the subterfuge," but he decided to keep the poem in the anthology and to share his soul-searching over what to do about "this colonial theft." (The boldface below is mine.)
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.

Here, I could offer you many examples of white nepotism inside the literary community.... 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....
"Brown" is an interesting word choice.
I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa....

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.

And I would have gotten away with it. I am a powerful literary figure and the pseudonymuser is an unknown guy who has published maybe a dozen poems in his life. If I'd kicked him out of BAP 2015 then he might have tried to go public with that news.

And he would have been vilified and ignored. And I would have been praised....
Is that prediction correct or is it presented in search of the praise one may get for taking the more difficult path? Did Alexie forswear vanity, as he claims? And would Michael Derrick Hudson have been "vilified and ignored" (can you be both vilified and ignored?)?
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....

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....
Of course he didn't choose the poems "based only on identity," but he chose them in part based on identity. If that was a valid factor, then Michael Derrick Hudson cheated... at least from Alexie's point of view. If it was not a valid factor, the whole selection process was tainted. It seems that Alexie calculated the pros and cons carefully, but what was the determining factor in the decision to keep the poem in the anthology? Alexie would have us think that he overcame the pull of vanity, but there was vanity all around.

70 comments:

fivewheels said...

I predict a lot of John Roberts in this thread.

Bill said...

"Brown" is an interesting word choice.

Richard Rodriguez wrote a book about it.

rhhardin said...

There's an essay on picking a good name to get ahead in the academic world already:

Principle 4: Contrary to Principle 2, it may be desireable to appear not as confrontational but as the friendly native informant. Let us imagine that, in an ethnological experiment, camcorders are distributed to a tribe of Bushmen. Then a journal devotes a thematic issue to the experiment, and on its cover appear such names and titles as:

N!ai, ``The First Tribal Cinema''

Bayly Spawforth-Jones, ``Can Tribal Cinema Stabilize San Culture?''

Marie Desséchée, ``The Male Gaze in Tribal Cinema''

N!ai is the native informant. The exclamation point is one of the ways of representing the clicks in the Bushman tongues. In future articles on the same subject, ``N!ai'' could call him- or herself ``Chum!Kwe'' or ``!Khu'' or ``Hei//om.'' The sandwiching of the Anglosonic name is a device already observed ... The name has, however, its own integrity here. It is, in a word, confrontational, since it suggests an unsympathetic Brit anthropologist...


Kothar Wa-Khasis, ``Choosing Your Names,'' _Raritan_ XI:3, p22, Winter 1992

mccullough said...

All poets are underrepresented. It's a fairly arcane art form. 99.99% of any subgroup are not poets. Most black men aren't in a he NBA either.

fivewheels said...

I have to say, I love "hoaxes" like this and the Sokal affair. Back in college in the '80s, I submitted poems to a shitty little literary magazine that were intentionally bad and pretentious, written in under five minutes, and yes, two got published.

It was kind of like discovering Poe's Law decades before internet comments. Parodying bad college poetry is basically indistinguishable from sincere bad college poetry.

Grackle said...

Fuck God's mother's butt.

Wei Ping Long

False Grackle

fivewheels said...

In retrospect, it's not impossible that my joke poems got through because of my Chinese last name. "He's really coming from an Eastern matrix of metaphysics!"

Ken B said...

You forgot the tag "cognitive dissonance".

David said...

I too have decided to self identify as some other kind of human. 72 years as a white male protestant is enough. Suggestions, please, and try not to make me feel bad.

YoungHegelian said...

Look at it this way, Mr. Alexie --- it could have been much worse. You could have picked a poem generated by computer.

LarsPorsena said...

The editor sounds like he got kicked in the balls by Hwan Hung Low.

rcocean said...

Just more evidence that "Culture" in the USA is a joke - like modern painting or atonal music. Political Junk.

tim maguire said...

The whole notion of affirmative action is built around the philosophy that it is good to punish those who have never discriminated in order to reward those who have never been discrimnated against. It is as tribal as any jungle savages. But you knew that.

sane_voter said...

The quality of ideas are independent of the identity of the author. It is a shame the left values identity over quality.

The Cracker Emcee said...

The quote Althouse excerpts reads like parody from the early '70's National Lampoon. Which merely emphasizes how tired this guy's schtick is.

Scott said...

I like Alexie's style, and I keep hoping he will break out of the stuffy little ghetto of Native American fiction.

amielalune said...


Like many other racists, he is not intelligent enough to understand that favoring women and minorities now does NOTHING for all of those individuals who were overlooked in the past. It doesn't compensate for them; it doesn't "make it up" to them. They are people, not official race representatives.

Treating everyone fairly is one thing, favoring minorities is just stupid and racist (and lowers the quality and to many people, the reputation of the compilation/organization in general).

But, let's face it, he probably wouldn't be editing it if he weren't a self-referencing "brown" person.

Pete said...

The only way to make sure good poems make it to BAP is to submit the poems to the judges without the names of the poets. Problem solved.

JohnJEnright said...

Instead of just calling it "Best"
let's try "Injustice Redressed".

Scott said...

With all those rules, they could have chosen the winners with an algorithm. That would have been the most just way of doing it.

madAsHell said...

I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness....

Wait...I thought Native Americans were red, and Asians were yellow. Is redskins no longer racist??

I'm gonna need a scorecard to keep up.

policraticus said...

One must wonder what Mr. Alexie makes of Saki, George Eliot, or George Sand.

sean said...

Althouse would have shut down the whole anthology. "Open it up or shut it down."

traditionalguy said...

Poets' privilege is strong among the northern Europeans. So what. The object is poetry that we like. ..not rewarding the oppressed people of color. That is another goal.

Terry said...

Perhaps Alexie will next realize that he has internalized the White Man's norms by making white ideas about "diversity" -- a very peculiar quality and an obsession only of white people -- a basis for judging art.

BN said...

Please start tagging "signs". Cause this is another one.

kcom said...

"The quality of ideas are independent of the identity of the author. It is a shame the left values identity over quality."

Yes, so very true. Which is why the ideas of the Founding Fathers are worthy of admiration and emulation in any time and place. Those ideas transcend whatever human weaknesses or negatives those "old white men" (although some were not so old at the time) who codified them had. The beauty and truth of those concepts stand on firmly on their own.

kcom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kcom said...

This whole "brown" concept blows. It's so transparently stupid I wonder why people bother. If you want to say non-Caucasian just say it. "Brown people" is just victim-gathering. Unless, of course, you're George Zimmerman. Then you're a brown, white, Hispanic person of color who's an honorary Caucasian at least some of the time.

Michael said...

If only we had had this level of discernment a few centuries ago. While we were reading Dante and Augustine, Chaucer, Blake, Tennyson, et al we were missing who knows what wonders from the peoples of color. And in music we could have forsworn Bach and Hyden and Mozart and in art those white Devils Michelangelo and Cranach. God only knows what architecture we would behold, what machines would haul us about, what dwellings would shelter us.

This guy, by the way, is a shitty poet.

kcom said...

"Brown" is an interesting word choice.

Yes, and from my personal (limited) experience with Chinese people (not Chinese-Americans), not a term they would take to very readily. In fact, it's my impression that many or most would be highly offended.

clint said...

"as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business."

Really? "what he believes to be..."

The editor is openly admitting that race of authors was a factor in his choice.

He can criticize the poet for thinking that's an invalid factor, but not for believing that it was a factor at all.

kcom said...

Oh, and by the way, I think Alexie did the right thing. Including the discussion of his thought process. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't, but I think, of the options, he chose the most rightest one. :)

Kieth Nissen said...

"Pete" nailed it. Why are the names available to the judges in the first place? it is an invitation to racial and other discrimination.

Pete said...

Thanks, Keith Nissen.

richard mcenroe said...

Nevertheless, he behaved better than Virago Press in the same situation. (They pulled a book completely off the shelves of bookstores and I think have yet to revert the rights to the author.)

rhhardin said...

Detective: What's going on?
Cop: Looks like you got a 187 and a possible 927D.
Detective: Thanks a lot.
Cop: You bet.
Dectective: He says we have a body and a half with some pieces missing. An Easter Egg hunt.

There's a poem right in the last line.

averagejoe said...

"Rule #5: 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...."

"a white male, Michael Derrick Hudson, who'd adopted the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou — in Alexie's words — "as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business."

LOL! Michael Derrick Hudson, I mean, Yi-Fen Chou identifies politically-correct prejudice in the "poetry business" because literary hoo-haws, like self-described "powerful literary figure" Sherman Alexie, are boldly upfront about his own prejudice and bigotry in favor of non-whites. And racist bigot Alexie is pissed because he chose a white man's work because he thought it was good when he thought it was written by a non-white. Pretty clear that had Yi-Fen Chou signed that poem Mike Hudson, then it would have been dismissed out of hand as being Not Good Enough- because a white man wrote it.

Yeah, where does Hudson get off assuming some kind of politically-correct agenda driven prejudice in the "poetry business"?

Jason said...

When Emmanuel Kant wrote the Parable of the Nightingale, it was supposed to be an exercise in absurdity.

Alas, there is no absurdity beyond the earnest grasp of the modern libtard.

CWJ said...

It would appear that Sherman Alexie would reject a poem submitted by Sherman Alexie.

Larvell said...

Let me make sure I've got the rules straight. You get to select your own pronouns, and everybody has to respect that, but your name is etched in stone? No, that can't be right -- I mean, look at Caitlyn. If I was struggling for a rule, I would have to guess that straight white males have to have straight white male names, but anyone else gets to do what they want. But surely that can't be it.

rhhardin said...

I don't believe in [God]; he's just a comfortable acquaintance, a close
associate with whom I can be myself. To believe in him would place
him in the center of the universe when he's more secure in the
fringes, the farthest corner so that he doesn't have to look over his
shoulder to nab the backstabbers who want promotions but are tired
of waiting for him to die and set in motion the natural evolution.
God doesn't want to evolve. Has been against evolution from its
creation. He doesn't figure many possibilities are open to him. I
think he's just wise to bide his time although he pales in the moonlight
to just a glow, just the warmth of hot chocolate spreading through
the body like a subcutaneous halo. But to trust him implicitly would
be a mistake for he then would not have to maintain his worthiness
to be God. Even the thinnest, flyweight modicum of doubt gives
God the necessity to prove he's worthy of the implicit trust I can
never give because I protect him from corruption, from the compla-
cence that rises within him sometimes, a shadowy ever-descending
brother.

-- Thylias Moss, a black woman and 80s Oberlin graduate, who has probably advanced to writing complete nonsense by now but had a nice poem back in the day too.

Terry said...

Consider the case of Daniel Lewis James. Midwest, upper middle-class background, Andover, Yale, became a radical in college (where else?), and wrote a series of stories and books as "Danny Santiago", a poor Hispanic kid from LA ("Famous All over Town" is one of his better known stories). The stories of "Danny Santiago" were praised for their authenticity, even by Latino literary types. They won awards.
James wasn't protesting PC. He was frustrated because Hispanic youths weren't writing about what he wanted them to write about with the style he wanted them to use. James' fraud wasn't discovered for years. When it was discovered, literary types, anglo and Hispanic, could have asked themselves if it was possible that their desires to see the authentic Hispanic experience presented in lit was as deeply fraudulent as James' "Danny Santiago"; that what they really wanted was to see the image of the world peculiar to their own social class reflected back at them.
But of course they did not. To the literary and ethnic study elites, introspection is only valid if it serves to reinforce their idea that they, alone, see the world as it really is.

Richard Dolan said...

His "rules" for picking poems are a contradictory mess. Most of them are aimed at preventing any kind of favoritism, with the explicit goal of judging each poem's merit rather than its author's fame, connections, etc. Reading through them, you'd expect to find some version of the 'blind submission' standard discussed up thread, and it's there (more or less).

Then you get this identity stuff. That thumb on the scale devalues the very poets it's supposed to help, especially given the focus of all the other rules. In any context other than contemporary American academia, none of this would make any sense.

Rob McLean said...

a white male, Michael Derrick Hudson, who'd adopted the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou

Sum Ting Wong.

Terry said...

CWJ wrote:
"It would appear that Sherman Alexie would reject a poem submitted by Sherman Alexie."
Nah. He would signal his NA background in his author bio. Alexie said the poem he chose did not have any overt Chinese references (he looked really hard), so Alexie probably figured that the Chinese name was an intentional signal that he was not a white male.
Alexie does not write literature, he writes explicitly Native American literature. I doubt that he realizes that he is getting paid to perform in the white man's theater for a white audience.

Michael K said...

I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness....

Just hilarious. The poor dope who could not get something published if he called himself Robinson Jeffers.

JCC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
clint said...

" Kieth Nissen said...
"Pete" nailed it. Why are the names available to the judges in the first place? it is an invitation to racial and other discrimination."

They were explicit about their intent to discriminate racially -- of course the names and bios were made available.

Char Char Binks said...

I'm angry at Alexie's subterfuge of appropriating written language, the printed page, the internet, and the brain surgery that kept him from becoming retarded. These are the white man's things, and they don't belong to brown people like him.

ELC said...

The last time I even glanced at a volume in "The Best American Poetry" series was probably about 20 years ago, and I thought the best use for the book would be as a doorstop. Has anybody actually read any of the recent volumes in the series? I am wondering if they could actually be as horrific as I suppose they are........

averagejoe said...

Rob McLean said...
a white male, Michael Derrick Hudson, who'd adopted the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou

Sum Ting Wong.

9/7/15, 8:43 PM

Yu So Fa-Ni ;)

Carnifex said...

The Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies should employ this subterfuge next year for the Hugo's.

LTMG said...

Is Sherman Alexie admitting that he engaged in racial profiling?

Sebastian said...

So, umm, "Sherman" is "Native American"? Sherman, as in William Tecumseh?

I think Alan Sokal is at it again.

Yi-Fen Choually, all diversity-mongering turns into simulacra of a hoax.

JAORE said...

Keep slicing and dicing us up by factors like gender and race, eventually you'll nick yourself pretty severely.

Chanie said...

"two wrongs don't make a right." -Mom

rcommal said...

As if anyone gives a damn, much less two shits, more about poetry than politics.

damikesc said...

It's always funny seeing how racist Progressives are.

"I'll pay special attention to minority applicants" means "Dark-skinned folks can't write poetry for shit and I'll have to protect them and put a few in there".

Bush's "soft bigotry of low expectations" is part and parcel of the Progressive mindset.

roundeye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JSD said...

Let’s not forget the Eddie Murphy Saturday Night Live “Prose and Cons” skit.

Dark and lonely on the summer night
Kill my landlord, kill my landlord
Watchdog barking — do he bite?
Kill my landlord, kill my landlord

mikee said...

I was a co-editor (one male, one female, both of us very white) of my high school literary publication back when Eddy Murphy was dropping his rhymes - well before rap!

Our publication included a 5-minute composition, penned in front of our class by the Tennis Coach / Driver's Ed teacher, an immensely popular figure in out school. It also included a few anonymous submissions, which irritated the selection committee because they had to judge the merit of the writing, rather than the popularity of the author.

Our publication also included a pencil drawing of drowned Ophelia from Hamlet on the cover. This picture, our HS Principal told us, after we chose it, reminded him of the bodies on the Normandy Beaches three days after D-Day. He was a black soldier in WWII, doing Graves duty, collecting and burying the dead across Europe. Other than telling us that, he said nothing about our choice of cover art.

Amy said...

I can't believe no one reference the Seinfeld episode that dealt with this exact thing:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsKpShq2X6s

Fernandinande said...

Using racism to get some poetry in the news is a clever idea.

EMD said...

If Alexie had pulled the poem, some might have protested that he was an, um, ... nevermind.

EMD said...

Somehow I don't think the "Washington Brownskins" would fare any better in the court of public opinion.

Peter said...

"I was practicing a form of literary justice ...

If you truly wanted a "best of" collection and were obsessively worried about bias, perhaps you'd have someone remove the authors' names from the works before you evaluated them?

Affirmative action intended to correct biases of the past assumes you can apply a bias that is precisely opposite the original bias and of precisely equal strength, so as to exactly neutralize the original bias.

BUT assuming you can do that requires a hubris similar to that of a central planner's belief that planning can replace markets, in that it assumes a god-like omniscience. With due respect, neither you nor anyone else ever has been or will ever be good enough to pull that off.

Fernandinande said...

A poem by Sherman Alexie & the 4th Order Eddington Monkey.


Grief Calls Us to Blue Telephones.

Hey, Ma,
I wonder whom I should call?

A plumber answers.
I made him a cup of days.

And haul us, prey and praise, to the bathroom telephone.
They slap our souls with their cold wings of instant coffee.

I wonder who forgot forgetfulness
At this five-star hotel.

mikee said...

A poem by me, a married, overweight, heterosexual, white male:

My dog likes to sleep on the bed with us.
I never forget to give him his flea pills.
Not after that one time.
Black Labs hide fleas real well,
until the fleas hit my frog belly skin.
My white guilt arose from the itching.

eddie willers said...

Unless, of course, you're George Zimmerman. Then you're a brown, white, Hispanic person of color who's an honorary Caucasian at least some of the time.

Since we now have bad poetry and George Zimmerman on the same thread, I would like to present a parody of a Maya Angelou poem I copied from a the poster dead who I've read for many years at Free Republic. He ranks with Lazlo and
David "Iowahawk" Burge as interneters who make me laugh:

********************************************************

Trayvon
by Maya Angelou

I sing of thee Trayvon
Lamented burnt umber crayon
Shoud of stayed at home
and got your lay-on
But you heard the siren song of wet grass
and headed for Seven Elevon.

Zimmerman the triggerman
Big game hunter lay in wait
White hispanic in a panic
Rubberheaded, held your fate.

By punching him, you tried to reason
You cant of known - was black-boy season
Stand your ground, ground and pound,
Frito Bandito shot you down.