Was Sherman Alexie Acting, "Twice As Good?"
Ah, the furor! I'm sure for much of the world, this isn't even on their radar, but we all care about the things we care about the most. And if you care about poetry, you probably do have a few shits to give on this recent controversy involving Sherman Alexie and his guest editing stint for "The Best American Poetry 2015." (BAP)
The Washington Post put out an article this morning called, "A white guy named Michael couldn’t get his poem published. Then he became Yi-Fen Chou," the title of which sums up what is going on. In essence, Michael Derrick Hudson of Fort Wayne, Indiana submitted his poem forty times to journals under his true name. After receiving forty rejections, he then submitted it nine more times under the psuedonym of Yi-Fen Chou, and it was chosen for publication by Prairie Schooner in their Fall 2014 issue. This is something Hudson has done previously and he notes: "As a strategy for 'placing' poems this has been quite successful for me." I know I'm not the only person out there who has an issue with Hudson's technique for successfully placing poems.
Yesterday a post was published on the BAP blog titled, "Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on The Best American Poetry 2015." As it says, Alexie talks about what went into his selection process and, of course, touches on the furor over Michael Derrick Hudson/Yi-Fen Chou's poem being included in BAP 2015. I personally can't imagine that this was an easy job of editing, even before factoring in the decision whether to include Hudson's poem once Alexie knew the author's true ethnic background. And I think Alexie is very frank in his blog post about his reasoning for still including the poem. I appreciate his honesty. I can see his points. And yet I still disagree with his position and wish he had chosen to not include the poem.
All of Alexie's grand talk about committing a "larger injustice by dumping the poem," falls flat when you consider that one of his initial eleven self-imposed rules for judging was: "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. And for great poems by younger, less established poets. And for great poems by older poets who haven't been previously lauded. And for great poems that use rhyme, meter, and traditional forms."
(Of course Alexie gave himself an easy out from his previous rules with his eleventh rule: "I know that these rules will inevitable [sic] result in contradictions, conflicts, hypocrisy, and stress rashes." Gotta love having rules to follow when you are the one writing your own rules!)
He initially was going to drop the poem: "And I would have gotten away with it. I am a powerful literary figure and the pseudonymuser [sic] 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. Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now."
But, just because Alexie is also on the receiving end of the current vilification, does not mean that he has spared the poem's author from any sort of backlash. I think Hudson will still end up being vilified and ignored in the future, primarily because of his questionable "placing" strategy. Alexie's argument makes no sense to me. I think he could have dropped the poem in favor of another and then still--as a self-professed "powerful literary figure"--found a way to honestly address the conondrum he found himself in. For Alexie to go on and on about his own realization of his own nepotism seems pointless when one of his own self-imposed rules was to "carefully look for great poems by women and people of color."
I can't help feeling that this is an example of where Alexie is acting on "twice as good" logic in order to stay in the good graces of the white literary establishment. For him to say that this was his only viable option seems ridiculous--unless his goal was specifically to be on the receiving end of criticism in an attempt to assuage his conscience because of his self-perceived dishonesty.
I generally enjoy Alexie's writing, especially his work since he published "Flight." He's a resident of my hometown of Seattle and I appreciate that he is a Native (Spokane) author of merit out there writing about being Indian. I've gone to a couple of his local readings over the years and have shaken his hand and had him autograph one of my books. This little fiasco doesn't really alter my appreciation for his writing. But I do sure wish he had chosen to make a different stand in this case, one that would send a wider-reaching message about the ethics of adopting different racial characteristics in order to get ahead. The stand Alexie ended up taking was personal, and while I respect his choice, it really applies only to his own ego and his own conscience. It does nothing for anyone else, including Michael Derrick Hudson.