If the phrase "once in a blue moon" applies to anything, it applies to poetry scandals. This week, we have a blue moon.
Yesterday, the annual Best American Poetry anthology announced its 2015 honorees to cries of the fuck? when one of its 75 contributors was revealed to have published his selected poem under a pen name. Authors have been using pen names for centuries, of course, but only recently has it become advantageous to go by something like "Yi-Fen Chou" instead of one's given name, Michael Derrick Hudson.
The fuck, indeed. What happened was: Last year, white man Hudson submitted a frustrated poem called "The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve" to 40 publications. After he received 40 rejections, he tried his patented appropriative approach to literary success, detailed in his Best American Poetry contributor's note. "After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen's name on it and send it out again." This, he says, was much more fruitful. He received only nine rejections before the poem was accepted for publication in the prestigious literary magazine Prairie Schooner. This publication qualified the poem for selection in the even more prestigious anthology, whose editor, the Native American writer Sherman Alexie, plucked it from hundreds of would-be poems. While many have criticized "outrage culture," this is truly outrageous.
But it's not uncommon. As affirmative action and diversity policies (as well as actual human goodness and slow societal progress) have translated to more space for female and minority writers in the historically extremely white male publishing industry, being a woman or minority writer has seemed, from certain lofty vantages, to be an asset.
"When I was in graduate school for fiction writing, the most common thing my white cohorts would say to me was some version of, 'You're so lucky. You're going to have an easier time than any of us getting published,'" Jenny Zhang, a poet, fiction writer, and contributor to Rookie Magazine who graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 2009, tells me over email. "They were shameless about it, often explicitly mentioning that this was because of my race and my gender, because I exclusively write about Asian American characters in my fiction. [This] of course never actually meant they wished they could grow up as an immigrant in the United States, experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they live in the United States, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the incredibly high stakes of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/Native people? crawling up through the toilet and into our already pinched buttholes."
Indeed, Michael Derrick Hudson is not the first privileged person to attempt to assume an underprivileged identity to promote his work in recent years; Rachel Dolezal's art school portfolio (consisting entirely of "African-American portraiture," according to Dolezal's mother) is a relatively low-stakes, albeit infamous, example. Earlier this summer, federal prosecutors charged the Missouri artist Terry Lee Whetstone with selling his "authentic Native American" artwork on the basis of a potentially false Cherokee heritage; Whetstone is not an official member of the Cherokee Nation, and misrepresenting Native-made goods or products is a misdemeanor that can get you up to one year in prison. And although books about women are less likely to win literary prizes and women find it much, much harder to get agents to look at their manuscripts than men do, in July the Guardian published an article detailing a trend of men publishing under female or gender-neutral pseudonyms. "[I]t arguably helps, these days, for fiction writers to be female, or at least not male," said thriller writer Sean Thomas (not one but two Very Male names), who goes by SK Tremayne. He told the Guardian that the switch "Grail-hunting drug cults to wistful tales of haunted twins" in the industry meant a switch from male perspectives to female perspectives, and he wanted to be taken seriously in his chosen medium.
The Hudson case is much more explicit, however, partially because his tone in his explanatory contributor's note is so matter-of-fact and partially because the poem remained after its author revealed he had had his mooncake and eaten it, too. In a let-me-explain-myself blog post essentially required after the controversy, Alexie admitted he had paid closer attention to the poem "because of the poet's Chinese name." Although he acknowledged that , he also argued that if he'd removed the poem, he "would have been denying that [he] gave the poem special attention because of the poet's Chinese pseudonym…[and] denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world."
Zhang acknowledges something similar. "I'm not that compelled by Hudson pretending to be Yi-Fen Chou," she wrote, "but I do want to know why I can, right now, name at least 10 brilliant, worthy, amazing Asian American poets who have published poems at least one million thousand pubes and rubies better than 'The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve' but didn't end up in the anthology because they were overlooked? Didn't even bother to submit in the first place? And I won't even get into the Asian American poets who have ceased to bother publishing their poems altogether, or the Asian Americans who gave up poetry altogether long ago."
When I asked Zhang if she had ever considered using a pseudonym herself, she replied, "I would not."