An Open Letter to Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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Dear Aimee,

So the latest thing (why is there always a latest thing) is that a white man used a Chinese name to submit poems that were then chosen for Prairie Schooner and then included in Best American Poetry 2015 which of course has a lovely poem of yours in it too! Your first appearance, you said. The scandal no one is talking about (because they are talking about Michael Derrick Hudson’s appropriation of the name Yi-Fen Chou and judge Sherman Alexie’s ridiculous justification for including the poem) is that somehow this is your first time in that book? When you’ve been producing some of the most beautiful (and widely read) books of contemporary poetry now for more than ten years?

It calls into question of course, the notion of “best,” everyone knows that. Everyone knows these anthologies are subjective but you cannot argue with the general underrepresentation of women and people of color in all of these gatekeeping, canon-making structures. In a letter a long time ago, Annie Finch argued that women and people of color (and other marginalized writers) needed to participate in canon-making structures by reviewing, writing critically, curating events, translating, editing and publishing. I’ve taken that very much to heart and I know you have too. I think just looking at the landscape of contemporary writing the radically increased presence of Asian-American poets seems directly in relationship to Kundiman’s arrival on the scene ten years ago.

We have many such organizations now like VIDA and Cave Canem and VONA and the Lambda Literary Foundation. And yet organizations like AWPBest American Poetry, and other established national organizations have a long way to go. From the Undocupoets to the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, there has also been a new commitment on the part of younger and less established writers to definitive action at creating space for themselves in the literary world. That world—like most others—operates by a system of gatekeeping, curating and defining that purports to be based on the nebulous idea of “literary merit.” No one has really been able to define “good writing” since, well, ever. And the notion of “merit” is predicated on a system of privileges based on race, class, gender, physical and mental abilities, sexuality and other factors.

Students with access to the best secondary education receive opportunities and support to enroll in the best colleges. I haven’t seen the numbers but I will wager that students who enroll in the best colleges have a better than average chance of getting into the best graduate programs. Sure, there are probably exceptions to the rule, but the “exception” proves the rule, as they say. I know many writers (maybe the best ones, I don’t know) are not coming through the academic route but from my perspective (from inside said academy) I know the advantages that sustained study and time to focus can offer writers of color.

Whose books are getting published? Who is getting chosen to be on the committees and boards that set the agendas for professional conferences? Who is “curating?” Sherman Alexie disappointed me so much when he characterized his very correct instinct toward inclusivity as “racial nepotism.” He compounded that disappointment by arguing that “most” white writers who benefited from nepotism were good writers, so why complain? And then of course the worst part: even after discovering that Hudson has adopted a Chinese pseudonym he allowed the poem to be published, thus cinching for me the irrelevance of his particular kind of editorial acumen. There’s no such thing as reading “blind.” Context always matters.

Which hurts of course because he chose your poem also and I celebrate your work. Maybe we need a different approach. Maybe we don’t need a “Best,” especially not one published by a corporate publisher with guest editors chosen through some nebulous process. The most interesting volume of that series (in which I also appeared once) is the one from 1996 whose editor, Adrienne Rich, spent her introduction arguing precisely against the notion of “literary merit.” It was the only volume whose contents were excluded from the Best of the Best American Poetry edited by Harold Bloom. Which is enough to recommend it to me.

You and I are both poets who are experiencing a measure (a large measure, some would say) of success in publishing and “mainstream” (whatever in the world that could mean in relationship to poetry, but still–) exposure in the poetry world. We publish with established presses, in big journals, are tenured in academic institutions. Hey, we have both now been in Best American Poetry!

But you know something? This Yi-Fen Chou thing makes me wonder if to gatekeepers my life, my experiences, my writing are just decoration in the larger white narrative. Maybe the fact of what relative success I do enjoy means I am a “safe” writer, unthreatening. Did I get this far because I am a queer writer, a Muslim writer, a South Asian writer? Now I am filled with doubts because all of those things are precisely what made me feel marginalized.

Aimee, I’ve haven’t just been in American Poetry Review, I’ve been on its cover. So if someone like me, having been in that position, could be afflicted by this kind of doubt, imagine what it is like for our younger peers, the young Kazim and the young Aimee out there who are constantly being told that their kind of English, their kind of poetry isn’t right, plus their parents don’t want them to major in English or Creative Writing in the first place or they couldn’t go to college for economic or social reasons, plus even if they got in they were unable to get accepted into a Creative Writing workshop anyhow.

I remember huddling up in the hotel bar with you at the last AWP, talking about how difficult it is to teach at all—that we have to turn away so many students you want to work with. And we talked about how we ourselves are seen as writers and teachers of color—that being Asian/Pacific does not help you that much when programs are looking to diversify their faculties because for the majority of them, there is a hierarchy of inclusion. I can tell you this: when you talked about how hard it is to walk through the world with the name “Nezhukumatathil” is struck a chord in me. Not just because our names are hard to “say” properly but because that is just a metaphor for our lives. Our lives are hard to “say” properly. That is what we do in literature. And you and I have comparatively easy. We had some level of class privilege, we got educations; we also had the protection that our skin (i.e. not Black) afforded us in the larger world. But for all of that, we both know how hard it was to get everything we’ve gotten—how hard to get attention paid to us in a workshop, how difficult to beat the odds and get into a good graduate school to get the jobs we have, to be taken seriously by our colleagues in the jobs we have! Our challenge continues.

I had a friend—a friend—tell me I was lucky because being a Muslim poet was “hot,” i.e. it would help me get published. Do you know how lovely it has been to be a Muslim, a gay one at that, in post-2001 America? So very lovely, let me tell you. And if there is an editor out there who is forward thinking and wants to pay a little more attention to my poems because that person thinks a Muslim perspective would be valuable and interesting then I’ll take it. Unapologetically.

But the transformation can’t just be curatorial within existing institutions; it has to be structural. Those institutions—academic programs, journals, presses, anthologies, associations, what Mark Nowak used to call “the neo-liberal language industry”—have to make real and concrete transformations toward serving writers of color, lower income writers and so on.

The issue of transforming the landscape of literature is huge and complicated. I get that. But I know a couple of things—writers and teachers of color who have access to broader platforms can contribute to structural changes that allow more diverse voices to develop and be heard. The notion of an unbiased concept “literary merit” is an inherently and inescapably racist principle. An institution that relies on it is by definition a white supremacist institution.

The institutions are racist because by not taking into account issues of cultural and national and sexual and other kinds of “difference,” they are proactively promoting types of poetry and writing that supports established political and economic systems. An organization like AWP can prove its relevance by seriously and structurally addressing issues of inclusion. Every publisher, every series like Best American Poetry, should be doing the same. And if organizations like these ones can’t change or refuse structural change (not just inviting or including more writers of color into their halls or pages) then they are actually doing harm and ought to be done away with.

In the meantime, I have to support and laud organizations like Kundiman and the Lambda Literary Foundation, both of whom I have taught for, for creating spaces in which writers from marginalized communities can develop and grow. Publishers like Alice James Books, who have done so much to bring emerging Asian-American poets to publication and Sibling Rivalry Press who have done the same for queer voices, also deserve praise and support. The model’s not perfect and there are still access issues to work through but these are the kinds of organizations that are doing the work in poetry I want to be involved with and support.

I know a lot of your friends are sending you notes of support on social media telling you how much your poem in Best American Poetry deserves the attention it gets there and that they (we) hope that the Yi-Fen Chou thing doesn’t detract from that. But what I really want to tell you is that your poetry has always been the best of American poetry to me. And you’ve been an incredible teacher and role model for many younger poets, including (especially?) Asian/Pacific diaspora poets. Your worth was neither validated nor compromised by your appearance in the Best American Poetry anthology.

We are all working toward making contact with our readers who are out there, no matter many or few they are. These kinds of anthologies and institutions can help us reach more of them and so I do advocate the building and supporting of literary institutions. I believe in a broad and comprehensive contextual understanding of poetic “craft;” I believe in editing and curating but not the kind that relies on old and unquestioned ideas. I believe in creative writing workshops but not the kind that exclude students based on outdated notions of “talent” or “skill.” I am looking forward to a different and more inclusive future.

And in the meantime I want to tell you that I honor your work so much. And you—everything about you: your poetry, your way of presenting yourself in the community, your kindness, your STYLE, your life as a teacher and mother and mentor, your role in Kundiman—have always been a major source of inspiration to me. I want to be more like you, devoted to the human and devoted to poetry. And the way you exist as a poet is a comfort to me because you make space in the world for me, you make it safe for me to be the kind of human and poet I want and need to be.

Your friend and supporter and reader,
Kazim Ali

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Editor’s Note: Tupelo Press, which publishes Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s books and also published Kazim Ali’s Fasting for Ramadan, has now taken over the project of publishing the winners of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, a book prize for emerging Asian American poets.


Kazim Ali teaches at Oberlin College and his most recent book of poetry is Sky Ward. He appeared in Best American Poetry 2007. More from this author →