Thinking Through the Yi-Fen Chou Affair

N.B. This is me thinking through this mess. It's not perfect. I'm not perfect. This blog is a place to merely write semi-publicly in order to consider issues and hopefully open a dialogue (impossible when writing in a notebook, etc.). I would prefer you leave a comment taking me to task so that I can better understand these issues as well. 

Also: I say in the main body that I haven't read the poem. I have now read it. It is sectioned off under ***.

Is my work any good? Is this poem inaccessible to such a level as to be unpublishable?

Any artist worth their salt should consider these questions. Doesn't really matter what your answer is nor does it matter particularly what you decide to do based on your answers to these questions but it DOES MATTER if you choose to ask yourself these questions at all. And if instead of asking yourself these questions, your response is to invent a partial identity for yourself which allows that fake person access to something which was not meant for you to begin with, then perhaps you're part of a problem not just within pobiz or art communities but within society in general.

To me, part of the question that I have not yet seen addressed in this mess with Michael Derrick Hudson is what all he has exposed within the publishing industry. OK, you can judge him for his actions, but what does it say about Prairie Schooner or about Best American Poetry that a poem that was not publishable until it had the name of a Chinese woman on it not only got published but also is considered one of the best published poems of the last year? What does it say for the system in which we place our work, in which we seem to have some kind of investment that a poem (which no one is really discussing beyond saying it's "bad") and its author have been moved through a series of hurdles and come to rest on top of an arbitrary, though seemingly-well respected position? Being one of the 75 people published in Best American Poetry doesn't make you one of the 75 best poets in America, true, but there is prestige to it. There is a level of privilege which has now come to pass for those who are published within its pages and, I would argue, for the people who edit and guest edit it each year.

Sherman Alexie said he saw an opportunity, as a minority, to publish the work of another minority and he took it. This is not the problem. I think anyone arguing that brown nepotism is the real issue here is ignoring the fact that there's been plenty of white nepotism that no one has had any trouble with as long as anyone can remember. For Alexie, hope of publishing someone he saw as underprivileged at a point where he perfectly understood his own privilege does not seem beyond the bounds of what anyone else would do. Haven't older white males been publishing older white males without much thought in a variety of anthologies for the history of anthologies? That's basically what anthologies have been.

To say Alexie has been duped, however, might be too far. I am curious what he likes about this poem. From his breakdown on the Best American blog, it seems he has read a fair number of poems (though Brian Henry points out it's not THAT MANY poems). As is often the case, we're discussing the identity issues at play rather than the poem, which seems to be how we in pobiz tend to handle most crises. I wonder how many of us have read Yi-Fen Chou's contribution to Prairie Schooner/BAP. I wonder how many would argue that it does indeed belong, regardless of the identity issues surrounding it, because it is one of the best poems published in the last year (or whatever BAP's cut off is).

Back to my questions at the top: isn't this line of thinking normal for artistic types? Isn't rejection part of our job? I mean, for Michael Derrick Hudson, who has a fair amount of work published under his own name, to say "This poem keeps getting rejected—I should pretend to be a Chinese woman in order to get it published" seems ridiculous to me. Wouldn't you put that poem in a drawer? Did Hudson have in mind some idea of exposing our system of tokenism (the desire of the majority to include a minority for their own benefit, thus not really doing anything for that particular person or group at all)? I mean, that would be nice, but I'm guessing that's not it at all. He took advantage of a system not designed for him— rather, one designed to AVOID privileging people like him— in order to get a work only he seemed to believe in get published. What does that say about his ego? What does that say about older white male privilege in pobiz when he did not consider that perhaps the poem was just bad?

And what does it say that he had to out himself? That the collective "we" of pobiz had not noticed an issue until he chose to out himself? He could easily have continued with the charade but for something within his ego that needed us all to know that it was he who had written the poem that was now being listed as one of the best of the year? No one would have questioned Alexie's choice of Yi-Fen Chou's poem if there really were a woman named Yi-Fen Chou. Indeed- did anyone question Prairie Schooner?

Is the simple answer that no one really read the poem? I haven't read it but I don't subscribe to PS or ever purchase Best American anything. Maybe it got passed along because it fit some requirement, some desire by someone to include such a name in their table of contents. [I read the poem- see below]

It's interesting too: this wasn't someone who had zero access to publication. In fact, he had been published before, has his own page on the Poetry Foundation website, which is more than this grub of a poet can say. This is someone who is not necessarily "small potatoes" as it were, so quite literally for the sake of one poem, he invented what was brilliantly referred to as a Stepford version of a real person, in that she exists with zero characteristics of her own other than the ones absolutely necessary to further Hudson's goal of publishing the poem. What does it say when someone with means via traditional routes towards publication feels it within his power to game the system that is, again, not designed to make sure he is represented? He is already well-represented through various publications under his own name. What made this poem so special? Was it his denial over its quality that led him down this route? Hard to say.


So no one has really posted about the poem, other than the always funny Jim Behrle, so let's talk about the poem:

We have a poem here that seems to take as its direction that of a human's place within nature, an understanding of the relationship between living things while not really grasping how other objections function without the narrator's inclusion. In a way, the poem seems perfectly suited for the situation at hand: Hudson seems to have little understanding of what he has done by co-opting an invented identity which has no artifice beneath it. At least when Kent Johnson invented Araki Yasusada, he invented a life to go with it, a biography with some understanding of the cultural underpinnings. There was an attempt to create more than an outlet, more than an automaton who publishes poems that Johnson could not get published on his own. Here, though, Hudson only invents a front, a bystander who merely functions as a name on a page, bringing with it nothing other than what we as the reader want to read into it. My immediate feeling is that there is some connection between the persona of Yi-Fen Chou and nature, that the world of bees and flowers (signaling sex traditionally) means something to this person who is attempting to understand their place within this world.

In some ways, it falls into every pitfall that we talk to our students about: blue flowers, old engineer- the use of adjectives to prop up nouns which ought to function on their own. "Flowers" always feel a little lazy in a poem to me- as if somehow this is the first poem ever to use flowers either as metaphor or literal object. Is this a move made by Hudson himself or is he writing in a persona here? From all indications (I won't name sources), this would be identified as his own work, so seemingly there is no attempt here to write as someone else, just obfuscate his own identity.

"like Absolute Purpose incarnate." I'm not sure where this is going or, more importantly, where it has been that requires the use of capitalization as if a concrete concept. What is Absolute Purpose supposed to be and how are we, the readers, signaled towards its place in the poem? Is there some universal truth being portrayed in the poem that I am as yet unaware of? Hard to say, again.

I'm a little lost in the title as well. The role in life that we are discussing with bees and flowers seems to parallel Adam & Eve and, tangentially, Jesus, but I'm torn about how these concepts are introduced to me in the poem besides the title itself (or direct mention). What about them, besides a namecheck, does this poem attempt to say/do? Am I tying them together as a reader by design or am I not supposed to be doing so and Hudson's poem is failing in its an attempt to pull me in another direction?

In short, no doubt with some bias in my reading, the poem isn't working for me. What is it doing? Not that every poem must serve some greater purpose but I have to wonder, in context, what makes this better than the tens of thousands of other poems published in the last year. It's not hard to imagine it getting passed up without a biography behind it that draws in a reader. I can't help but feel the poem was rightly rejected all the other times it was submitted and would love to hear what a reader at Prairie Schooner or any initial reader at BAP or Alexie himself thinks of the poem.

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