Throughout history, published poets have been three things: white, male, and (for the most part) rich. Only recently have more women, people of color, and those of lower socio-economic status been able to gain recognition as contributors to the art. Now, more literary journals are actively prioritizing female submissions and submissions from people of color in their issues, and the poor white males have begun to feel persecuted.
A scandal resulted a few years ago, when Michael Derrick Hudson, a little-known white male poet submitted his work under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. He claimed the poem was rejected 40 times under his given name but when submitted as Yi-Fen Chou, it only received nine rejections before its acceptance and subsequent publication. “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me,” wrote Hudson (1). The backlash was tremendous, especially when Hudson confessed that Yi-Fen Chou was not just a convenient pseudonym but a real person – one of his high school classmates.
Some famous (dead white male) poets!
I couldn’t help but rethink this instance in the context of bell hooks’ “Eating the Other,” since Hudson literally steals Yi-Fen Chou’s identity, using it to spice up the otherwise bland poem. Hudson enjoyed total freedom to assume Yi-Fen’s identity whenever he couldn’t get a poem published under his own name and then discard it when no longer convenient. In hooks’ words, “the seductive promise of this encounter [with the other] is that it will counter the terrorizing force of the status quo that makes identity fixed, static, a condition of containment and death” (2). Hudson feared the death of his career and that his fixed identity as a white male poet might make his work obsolete. He turned to yellowface because of his entitled belief that the reason his poems weren’t being published was not due to their merit (or lack thereof), but because of favoritism towards poets of color. He “desires contact with the Other even as [he] wishes boundaries to remain intact,” or in this case because he wishes to maintain those boundaries (3).
In his book The Hatred of Poetry Ben Lerner writes, “the capacity to transcend history has historically been ascribed to white men of a certain class while denied to individuals marked by difference (whether race or gender)” (4). The poetry of white men “transcends” history only because it exemplifies how history has always been: a continuous system that elevates their art at the expense of minority groups. Additionally it plays into the discourse of white innocence through its ability to be read as a “timeless” (read: neutral) text while the work of poets of color is automatically tagged as “political”.
Sherman Alexie selected “Yi-Fen Chou”‘s poem for the 2015 Edition of Best American Poetry, unaware of Hudson’s deception. The reveal generated gossip and accusations that Alexie “chose poems based only on identity” (5). This played off ever-present anxieties among poets of color about tokenization, and the drama surrounding Hudson’s poem eclipsed the good press and acclaim that the other poets should have received for their outstanding work. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, however, it’s that the world of poetry is bringing poets of color to the forefront. Hudson’s threatened ego demonstrates that representation is on the rise.
If you want to read the poem (although imho: meh), you can find it here.
(1) David Lehman. “The Best American Poetry.” edited by Sherman Alexie, 2015 ed. New York: Scribner, 2015. (Michael Derrick Hudson, Contributor’s Note).
(2) bell hooks. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. pp. 22.
(3) bell hooks. “Eating the Other.” pp. 29.
(4) Ben Lerner. The Hatred of Poetry. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2016. Excerpt published online by The Poetry Foundation.
(5) Jennifer Schuessler. “A White Poet Borrows a Chinese Name and Sets Off Fireworks.” The New York Times, September 8, 2015.