A poet who slaved away for years but received nothing but rejection letters from publishers decided to change his name to an ethnic Asian-sounding name to see if that would turn the trick to get him published. The ethnic pseudonym worked, but once poetry fans found out about the name change, controversy ensued.
Indiana genealogist Michael Derrick Hudson has been writing poetry for some time but without much publishing success. One of his latest poems, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was rejected by at least 40 different poetry journals and magazines, he said. So Hudson lighted on a different tactic to get published. Hudson changed his name to Yi-Fen Chou.
The name change did not work right away, Hudson noted. But on the ninth submission, the poem was published by the journal Prairie Schooner, which then referred it to be included in The Best American Poetry 2015. Even as the poem was published, Hudson noted his pseudonym in the bio section at the end of the 2015 anthology; the poet was definitely not hiding behind the false name.
Once the name change was noticed, though, some in both the poetry and Asian American communities began to accuse Hudson of “appropriating an ethnic identity traditionally underrepresented in American literature.” Many were suitably outraged on “Poetry Twitter.” Some, like blogger Phil Yu–also known as “Angry Asian Man”–began to accuse Hudson of putting on “yellowface.”
Despite that pen names have a long history, Hudson was essentially called a racist for using an Asian pseudonym.
Chapman University Professor Victoria Chang’s criticism was typical of the charges of “white privilege.”
“When you’re doing this from a position of entitlement, you’re appropriating an ethnic identity that’s one, imaginary, and two, doesn’t have access to the literary world,” Chang told The Washington Post. “And it diminishes categorically all of our accomplishments. He sort of implies that minorities are published because we’re minorities, not because of our work. That’s just insulting because it strips everything we’ve worked so hard for,” she continued.
But the editor of the 2015 anthology, Sherman Alexie, defended his decision to publish the poem, saying that it would not be honest to suddenly pull the verse because some were angry.
“In the end,”Alexie said, “I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.”
Ultimately, because Hudson was quite upfront with his pseudonym, Alexie did not believe fraud was committed.
So what has all this fuss been about? Here is the big poem:
The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve
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? My life’s spent
running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation
until every goddamned thing’s reduced to botched captions
and dabs of misinformation in fractured,
not-quite-right English: Here sir, that’s the very place Jesus
wept. The Colosseum sprouts and blooms with leftover seeds
pooped by ancient tigers. Poseidon diddled
Philomel in the warm slap of this ankle-deep surf to the dying
stings of a thousand jellyfish. There, probably,
atop yonder scraggly hillock, Adam should’ve said no to Eve.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.