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."Brown" is an interesting word choice.
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....
I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa....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?)?
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....
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....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.
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....