Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Here’s another example of what’s wrong with Big Literature. And by Big Literature, I really mean Big Publishing, because like certain political candidates, Big Publishing is always trying to game the system, hedge its bets, manipulate, and above all sell something.
Maybe you’ve heard that a white guy got his poem included in the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology because he used a pseudonym that sounded Chinese: Yi-Fen Chou. It does indeed sound Chinese, and the title of the selected poem sounds like it comes from the Mysterious East too: “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve.”
Where do you stand on the use of pseudonyms to improve your chances of publication? Because that’s what this boils down to. (Let’s not forget that one Mary Ann Evans did quite well as some guy named George Eliot.)
Michael Derrick Hudson, the white dude, used his real name for his first 40 attempts to get the poem published, then switched to Chou for nine more. The ninth was the charm, and TBTFJATAAE got into the well-known lit mag, Prairie Schooner.
Now everyone’s going Ming Dynasty on Hudson, calling what he did “yellowface” and implying that his evil plan was to use whatever cachet an Asian name might have to get his substandard honky verse into a prestigious anthology. As one who once used a female pseudonym in a contest (Janet Hyde) and snagged third runner-up (whoop de doo), I have to admit I understand where Hudson was coming from. He was frustrated, man! Forty rejections, but he believed in that poem and knew it was good enough for one of our esteemed literary journals with all of two thousand subscribers.
Just to set the record straight, Sherman Alexie, guest editor of the anthology, kept Hudson’s poem in the book even after learning of Chou’s real identity. He says the poem holds up even if a white “colonialist” wrote it (boy, do I love that phrasing…) and recognizes that he had practiced a kind of nepotism in falling for the Chinese name. We’re all wearing blinders of one kind or another.
But more is going on than critics of Hudson want to admit, I think. What likely happened in the course of TBTFJATAAE’s submission to Prairie Schooner is that the poetry editor thought, like Alexie, that a Chinese writer had penned this exquisite orchid of a poem. After acceptance, Hudson probably turned in his copyright form with his real name and SSN (even small mags require it), and the editors went, “Crap, we got gamed!” But they kept the poem because it’s damn good.
Or, less likely, Hudson submitted the poem with a note that said, Yi-Fen Chou is the pseudonym of Michael Derrick Hudson, out of Indiana.
Either way, Prairie Schooner knew at some point before publication that a white guy had written this poem. You’d have to dig up the issue to see whether they noted such in his bio that accompanied the work.
Something of a tempest in a teapot, though I do understand why some people are upset. They’re the ones who think the literary selection process is fair and legitimate, the ones who think previously ignored groups ought to get a leg up, the ones who think the work speaks for itself even when, time and again, we see that our built-in biases and preferences are governing our editorial decisions.
One interesting side-effect of all this is that the Best American Poetry 2015 will probably sell like gangbusters.