Katy Waldman’s irresistibly inept putdown of Yi-Fen Chou

And who is Yi-Fen Chou? Yi-Fen Chou is the opportunistically chosen pen name of  Michael Derrick Hudson.  And who is Michael Derrick Hudson? Hudson is a poet whose poem was chosen for inclusion in the Best American Poetry anthology for 2015—an anthology which will itself be anthologized as among the most inconsequential anthologies ever published. Only it wasn’t Hudson’s poem that was chosen, but Chou’s. Here is Hudson explaining how this came about:

After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me. The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this 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.

Working in the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library, I can believe that he keeps—minutely—detailed records of his rejections. Lo and behold, Hudson decided to reveal his inner Chou, and his poem was picked as one of America’s Best Poems. And I guess that says something for those other 40 editors—and what, exactly, depends on your opinion of the poem.

But what makes this kerfuffle so irresistible is what a circular firing squad it turned into. Take Katy Waldman’s first quoted tweet:

When I need the benefits of white male privilege, I send work out with the nom de plume Michael Derrick Hudson. #writingtips #writingadvice

— Emily Paige Wilson

Right, because white male privilege means getting rejected 40 times. Irony anyone? And as far as I know, Emily Paige Wilson has never availed herself of “white male privilege”. With critics like Emily Wilson, who needs friends?

Timothy Yu, English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (who should therefore know better), made much the same quip. “Like every poet, from time to time I write poems of which I am somewhat embarrassed. Once these poems have been rejected a multitude of times, I send them out again under the name of Michael Derrick Hudson of Fort Wayne, Indiana.”

Right, and how did that go? Did Yu’s poem make it into America’s Best?

But it only gets better, Katy Waldman, like Wilson and Yu, doesn’t waste any time shooting herself in the foot. She writes: “Hudson’s attempt to game the poetry submissions system is, of course, unethical.” The very assertion that Hudson’s Chou is unethical, naturally (and with a sweeping irony she seems blissfully unaware of) implies that the whole system is unethical.  Why? Because you can’t game a system that isn’t gamed. If the poetry were selected on the basis of merit, then it wouldn’t matter who wrote it. Secondly, it wasn’t a so-called “attempt”.  He succeeded. Hudson’s poem is now one of America’s Best Poems.

But Waldman isn’t done. In the very next sentence she essentially tells us that poetry is a commodity or currency:

“He lied to reap the benefits of affirmative action, a set of practices designed to ease the effects of ingrained injustice. “

First of all, there’s no question but that racism continues to effect all of us adversely—and I do mean all of us. However, here’s the thing, David Lehman’s anthology is called the Best American Poetry anthology, not the Best American Affirmative Action Anthology.  But here’s how Sherman Alexie, the anthology’s guest editor for 2015 put it:

“If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”

In other words, he clearly states that he chose the poem based on the author’s assumed race and/or ethnicity. So, its more than fair to ask who is really being unethical, dishonest and misleading. Clearly, the name of the anthology doest not represent what the anthology is trying to achieve.

But the second aspect to Waldman’s assertion concerns poetry as a sort of commodity. In other words, is poetry valued for its intrinsic merit or is its value based on some external property—is poetry a kind of currency modern poets trade-in and among themselves for career placement and advancement? I’d say it’s the latter. This is the sad state of modern poetry. What the public gets to read is not the poetry of merit but the currency of  the self-selected. The modern anthology is poetry’s Dow Jones Industrial Average and the included poems are nothing more than a tally of who’s up and who’s down—who’s in and who’s out.

Before the final paragraph, Waldman seems to realize she can’t continue to dodge the question. She asks:

On the other hand, has Hudson’s immoral gambit exposed a flaw in the literary ecosystem? Why should a poem be rejected under one name and accepted under another?

Hudson’s “immoral gambit”? Never mind that, by Waldman’s standards, the anthology’s own misrepresentation is an “immoral gambit”. But how is Waldman going to glide over this little wrench? Well, with one of the glibbest rationalizations of  2015:

The world is awash in great poems. Any selection of the best ones will necessarily rely on extra-literary factors.

That’s right. There are so many best American poems that the anthology “Best American Poetry” would simply have too many choices if it didn’t apply exogenous criteria. And that must be why contemporary poetry is so popular in America. That must be why poetry sections in nearly all book stores are shrinking, wilting and even disappearing. There are just too many great American poets out there. Americans can’t decide which book to buy first—and so they don’t buy any of them.

Clearly, all Americans need to learn how to “rely on extra-literary factors”, to quote Waldman.

But Ms. Waldman isn’t satisfied with only shooting one foot. She closes her article with the rhetorical question:

Perhaps what Hudson’s feat demonstrates is that, without some kind of extradiegetic edge, his poems don’t quite cut it. Is that really the statement he wants to make?

Which implies, of course, that only poems with “extradiegetic edges” cut it. Is that really the statement that Waldman wants to make?

3 responses

  1. The joke is on Alexie Sherman as far as I’m concerned, and I have to admit I’m enjoying it. It’s also amusing to me that a poet who found his way onto the Poetry Foundation’s roster (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/michael-hudson) felt desperate enough to co-opt what was once called ‘radical chic.’ Finally, the funniest part of this whole kerfluffle is that it has, I hope, delivered an iron baton to the knee of BPA, which has long been a tedious showcase for the lowest-common-denominator poems for friends-of-that-year’s-editor’s-friends. Sherman was right about that; he just didn’t realize how his strategy (publish Jamaal, reject Judy) was, in a different way, exactly the same thing.

    • I’m familiar enough with Sherman Alixie’s work that I give him the benefit of the doubt. There’s always been a special place in my heart for native American culture–and maybe that clouds my judgement. I’ve always loved it. My heart breaks for what the culture suffered and continues to suffer. And knowing how Arizona politicians have treated his work almost makes me want to defend him regardless. But I do wish he had resisted the urge, in this instance, to evaluate based on race and ethnicity. In Alexie’s favor is his straightforward admission. That is, unlike BPA, he’s not pretending to be something he’s not. In that sense, he’s got more integrity than any of the other players. My irritation with Waldman is that if she’s going to hold Hudson’s feet to the fire, then she should apply the same standards to BPA. And I take your point concerning Hudson. Guess being on the PF roster just ain’t enough.

  2. I think you’re being completely unfair to the poets involved in this business. If poets can’t justify their work as literature, surely you can’t blame them for trying to do it via extra-literary concerns. And after all, what’s “La Muse vénale” supposed to do when there aren’t any buyers? ; )

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