The literary journal Prairie Schooner published “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” by Yi-Fen Chou in its Fall 2014 issue, and the poem was referred to the Best American Poetry 2015 anthology, which accepted it and published it this fall. Then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire, because “Yi-Fen Chou” was actually a cynically chosen pen name for Michael Derrick Hudson, a white male poet from Indiana.
After his acceptance, Hudson confessed his white male identity to anthology editor Sherman Alexie, who decided to include the poem anyway.
Poetry is a subjective business. But Hudson’s revelation that “The Bees….” was rejected 40 times under his real name is revealing: “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….”
Alexie blogged about his selection process with refreshing frankness, and confessed to a kind of “racial nepotism.”
…most white writers who benefit from white nepotism are good writers. That feels like a contradiction. But it’s not. And, hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness. So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues. Nepotism is as common as oxygen.
The middlebrow media and other poets were not in similar good humor—the unpoetic term “yellowface” being a common rondeau. But Hudson’s supporters (mostly in the comments section of disapproving articles) pondered how much advantage being white truly was in the poetry world, given that Hudson’s poem only got published and eventually anthologized when editors assumed it was by a Chinese writer.
Is It a Pen Name or Appropriation?
From my exalted status as a published poet, I found Hudson’s work…um, neat? It has a wry, ironically “poetic” voice that feels just disassociated enough to let you know the writer is in on the joke. It’s relatively accessible, as these things go. Perhaps the only slightly questionable set of lines is this false hint that the author (or at least the poem’s narrator) is not a native speaker:
New York Times poetry editor David Orr confessed to finding the poem “perfectly fine”:
The poem weighs in at around 20 lines, and its action might be summarized as follows: Guy looks at a bee through the lens of a camera and reflects on the perfection of the bee’s relationship with flowers (which seems so natural as to need no embroidery), which in turn makes him wonder about his own compulsion to add necessarily incomplete narratives to the almost random facts and memories that seem to constitute his own existence. It’s a poem about consciousness, in other words, as so many poems these days tend to be.
Also worth remembering is that pen names are neither new nor old. Joanne Rowling submitted the first Harry Potter novel as J.K. Rowling, and Charlotte Bronte published as Currer Bell at a time when it was far harder for women to be taken seriously as writers. Perhaps more to the point, Jason Pargin, the editor of Cracked, writes articles and novels under the pen name David Wong.
Most depressing is the inherent rejection of the very possibility of cross-cultural empathy, that it’s “appropriation” or some other buzzword to dare even try and tell a story from the view of someone different than your actual self—as if it’s not a supreme talent for a writer to slip convincingly into another skin.
The whole incident begs the question: Does true diversity reside in a poem’s stylistic originality or subject matter, or simply how “ethnic” the name at the top of the page looks?