Imagine, if you will, that you’re an aspiring poet—not just a scribbler of doggerel, but a wannabe epic versifier, who hopes to someday be renowned across the land for your intimate relationship with the Muses. Now imagine that your talent, God-given, well-honed, is being largely ignored because of a tiny deficit in your physical makeup: A hereditary absence of melanin.
Yes, you, Michael Derrick Hudson, are a white man, born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and in today’s era of rampant misandry and widespread reverse racism, this flaw in your complexion apparently represents a career-destroying disability. And so you do what, by your calculation, the literary world demands of you: You go full Rachel Dolezal, crafting a fictitious Chinese American identity, Yi-Fen Chou, under which you submit your much-rejected works. After many more rejections this version of yourself finally finds success—it is vindication at last, of a sort!
Then comes a bittersweet turn to your race fraud: Sherman Alexie, the brilliant and much-acclaimed Native American poet, selects one of your works for inclusion in 2015’s anthology of “Best American Poetry.” You always knew you were one of the best American poets! Unfortunately, your ethno-deception means that no one else will realize it. Unless…
There’s nothing else for it: Destiny demands that you wipe off your yellow face to reveal yourself in true as the thrice-named Bard of Fort Wayne, Michael Derrick Hudson. The revelation unleashes a hellstorm of controversy, with enraged people of color to the left of you and cackling white conservatives to the right of you. This brings us to where we are now, with Twitter in full eruption and the literary establishment in disarray.
Hudson and his defenders have pointed to the acceptance of his work under his false identity (and its prior rejections under his true one) as proof that there is a stark unfairness in the way poetry is evaluated today; that the urge toward cultural inclusion means that white male writers of merit are being disadvantaged and discriminated against.
But literature has in fact always been evaluated based in part on who’s written it (why, otherwise, would we care if Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays?). And indeed, Alexie read Hudson’s slight work—slight because the best that Alexie can do in defending his decision is to call it “strange and funny and rueful”—as more interesting because he believed its author was Chinese American. “I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity,” he notes in the blogpost. “Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.”
I’m honestly not sure why Alexie is so weirdly apologetic about giving weight to Yifen Faux’s identity in selecting his work. He shouldn’t be. In his detailed rundown of his editorial process, Alexie touts the fact that 40% of poems featured in this year’s The Best American Poetry were written by poets of color, or at least poets he assumed were of color. That’s almost exactly the percentage of America that is nonwhite—hardly a coincidence. Alexie set out to bend the aesthetic curve toward schools and aesthetics and populations that have been deeply underrepresented. In the larger arc of this series and its highly subjective curation process, which has only had a handful of nonwhite guest editors since its creation in 1988, this volume represents just a slight pushback against a canon that is now and always has been unapologetically overweighted towards white men.
If Hudson and his fellow white poets have indeed felt a “backlash” against their work, the backlash to the backlash has been even more profound. And if Hudson and his fellow white poets have indeed felt the sting of a “backlash” against their work, the backlash to the backlash has been even sharper and more profound, as seen in the forward of last year’s Best American Poetry anthology, written by (white, male) series editor David Lehman. Lehman favorably quoted an article by Heather MacDonald complaining about how the “contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.”
That’s a flabbergasting quote to place at the front of a poetry anthology. The gonads and melanin (and class and sexuality and citizenship and age and disability) of poets aren’t “reductive definitions”; these things are the critical infrastructure of their art, and essential to how it is interpreted.
What would the Romantic poets be without their gonads? How could we interpret Yeats without the lens of his Irish nationalism? Does it make sense—or do justice—to read Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” without considering his identity as a gay man? Of course the Romantics, Yeats and Whitman were all white men, with the license to write obsessively about their identity without being “reductively defined” by it. (Oddly, only when nonwhite and female poets use their worldview as a scaffold for inspiration are they dismissed as being “obsessed with victimization” or “studiers of oppression.”)
That’s what ultimately makes Hudson’s name-scam such a hilarious study in privilege. Unlike literary racefakery of the past—for instance, Klansman and George Wallace speechwriter Asa Earl Carter’s adoption of a pseudo-Native American identity to author acclaimed young adult “memoir” The Education of Little Tree—Hudson did nothing to disguise himself beyond changing his name. He didn’t claim to be Chinese; he didn’t alter his bio at all. Nor did he rewrite his accepted poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” which makes no explicit reference to being Asian. He slapped on his new name like a gimme cap, assuming in classic anti-Affirmative Action fashion that having the right or wrong name makes all the difference in whether you’re accepted or rejected.
The Romantics were all white men, with the license to write obsessively about their identity without being “reductively defined” by it. In a sense, he’s right. Because reading the poem as having a Chinese American author adds layers of intriguing complexity to it—how did a descendent of immigrants with a resolutely unassimilated name end up growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, writing poems about Greek gods and biblical forebears? Are the references to the engineering impossibility of the bumblebee and “botched captions” and “not quite right English” sly digs at aspects of the Asian American condition?
Those spinning bits of plausible context draw us into the poem and allow us to project more onto it than is perhaps actually there. Because, read as the work of Michael Derrick Hudson, it comes off as nonsensical twaddle.
And yet there are plenty of places where having a solidly Caucasian literary tri-name from the heartland is an asset. There’s never been an Asian American guest editor for the Best American Poems series, for instance. Which is why the sole silver lining of this absurd chapter in our nation’s history of letters has been watching my Asian writer friends generate ridiculous Angloid pen names under which they intend to submit their crappiest work in the future. “Chad Michael Murray Bush Cheney Bieber Pat Sajak.” “Bradwick Saddlesaurus The Third Haberdaschund.” “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” “Walter White.” I’ve decided that my own nom de blanc will be Byron (anglicized from “Bai Ren”) Whitford Paley. Watch for the byline soon!