A rather strange tale comes across the transom to us today from the rough and tumble world of competitive poetry publishing. (Okay… I confess. I really just wanted to type that sentence.) But putting all snark aside, the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan did come up with a rather enlightening news item about the annual publication of the anthology, Best American Poetry.
No! Wait! Come back! I promise, the story gets better.
There is one beleaguered individual, Sherman Alexie, who is responsible for reading thousands of submissions each year and determining which bits of verse should make it into the august publication. This year he was perusing all of the hopefuls when he came across one with the rather odd sounding title, The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve. I don’t know why that would jump out and catch anyone’s eye, but then I’m not that kind of writer. (Ahem.) The poem was authored by someone named Yi-Fen Chou and – long story short – it was included in the anthology.
But after Alexie had chosen the poem for the collection, he promptly got a note from the author, who turned out not to be the rueful, witty Chinese American poet he’d imagined while reading the piece.
It was written by Michael Derrick Hudson of Fort Wayne, Indiana, a genealogist at the Allen County Public Library who, given his field of expertise, could probably easily explain that he is not of Asian descent.
Hudson, who is white, wrote in his bio for the anthology that he chose the Chinese-sounding nom de plume after “The Bees” was rejected by 40 different journals when submitted under his real name. He figured that the poem might have a better shot at publication if it was written by somebody else.
“If this indeed is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent,” reads his unabashed explanation.
This still wouldn’t make for much of a story if word of the “deception” hadn’t leaked out and caused a storm to erupt on social media.
In a matter of about a day, the scandal was all over “Poetry Twitter,” which can be just as rancorous and swift to outrage as regular Twitter, but with a wider vocabulary. And, perhaps because of its Rachel Dolezal-esque tangle of questions about identity, authenticity, political correctness and “affirmative action,” it didn’t take much longer for the wider world to notice.
Wait… there’s Poetry Twitter? And here I thought political Twitter was bad. But then, upon reflection, I suppose we can fall back on Rule 34 for this one. Twitter has grown so vast that it now encompasses more users than the population of most countries. If there’s a topic for people to discuss I suppose there’s a community for it out there already. (To test that theory I just looked across the table for the first random object to catch my eye and did a search on Twitter for the hashtag #saltshaker. I got tired of scrolling after a few pages looking for an end to the hits.)
But back to our story… yes, people were upset. There were accusation of the author engaging in “yellowface” to get his work published. The publisher of the book was under assault. It was, in short, a mess, but in the end they decided to keep the poem in the book. What all of this said to me, though, is that the liberal arts community really is just as much of a mess outside the world of politics as it is in the areas where it intersects with our realm. A free market conservative might ask why the poem doesn’t stand on its own merits no matter what the demographic profile of the author. It’s either good or it’s not, right? Not so in the liberal arts world. The guy couldn’t get the time of day out of publishers when he sounded too white. But when he suddenly became “ethnic” in the mind of the reviewer, he was a hit. And keep in mind that he never actually told anyone he was Asian… he just assumed a pen name as so many before him have done. But now he’s being crucified in the reviews.
So what was all the fuss over? This must have been one heck of a poem. Let’s take a look at a little bit of it.
Huh! That bumblebee looks ridiculous staggering its way
across those blue flowers, the ones I can never
remember the name of. Do you know the old engineer’s
joke: that, theoretically, bees can’t fly? But they look so
perfect together, like Absolute Purpose incarnate: one bee
plus one blue flower equals about a billion
years of symbiosis. Which leads me to wonder what it is
I’m doing here, peering through a lens at the thigh-pouches
stuffed with pollen and the baffling intricacies
of stamen and pistil. Am I supposed to say something, add
a soundtrack and voiceover?
So… okay then. That’s what qualifies as award winning poetry, is it? Is there any money in that business? Because I have to confess, writing about politics and government can be pretty hard some days. This looks like something even a dunce like myself could pull off. Let’s see if I can do any better.
What’s up with the remote control is
what I’d like to know. Can you tell me? There
are easily five times as many buttons
as I actually use. Couldn’t this really be
a lot smaller and still do the job? Maybe
I should start pulling off some of the buttons.
Not bad if I do say so myself. Any of you poetry publishers want to buy it? Oh, by the way… my official publishing name is now Vihaan Gill Dhawan.