Yellowface in Poetry


There’s a storm in the poetry world, this one set off by the bio in Best American Poetry 2015 of Michael Derrick Hudson, who has been publishing under the name Yi-Fen Chou. I’m not here to talk about the poem, or about how (at least) silly the notion of collecting some poems from the previous year and calling them the “best” of anything is. (An honest title for the anthology would be “Poems From 2015 Our Guest Editor Really Liked,” but that probably wouldn’t sell as well.) Here’s an image of the bio in question:

Hudson Bio

Some on social media have suggested that this makes the editors of the magazine the poem originally appeared in look bad, as though they were willing to take a poem by an apparently Asian writer that they had previously rejected from a white writer, the implication being that the writer’s lack of whiteness was, in this case, a help rather than a hindrance to getting the work noticed. I am here to say that Hudson and his defenders are full of it.

First of all, there’s no indication outside of Hudson’s narrative that the yellowface he adopted had anything to do with the acceptance of his poem. He sent the poem out, he claims, 50 times, 40 times as Hudson, 10 times as Chou. Isn’t it more likely that his persistence had more to do with the poem finding a home than his choice of an Asian name? The more readers/editors see a poem, the better the chances that one of those people will see something they like in it. We’re not talking about scientific articles which (should) go through rigorous peer review here and can be judged by some empirical standard—there’s no yardstick by which we can measure poems and say “this poem measures 74 Frosts while this one is 89 Frosts and so we should pick the second one for publication.”

But lets turn this into a thought experiment for a moment and assume Hudson had sent the same poem to the same journal under two names, the “white” name rejected and the Asian one accepted. Would that prove the insinuation that this editor was more interested in the writer’s bio than the poems, and that this is a “problem” in the poetry world? Not really. Here are some alternative explanations for how such a thing could happen (and anyone who’s been the poetry editor of a journal can easily add to these).

1. There’s a shifting group of first readers, and while one first reader rejected the submission, a second one felt it was worth passing along to the editors for a second look.

2. Editors are human beings subject to changes in moods and affected by the pressures of the day. A poem that didn’t hit them one day might gut punch them at another time. And given the sheer number of poems most editors read while trying to put together an issue of a journal, it’s easy to imagine reading the same poem twice many months (if not years) apart and not remembering it.

3. An editor with a conscious desire to have a diverse set of authors represented in the journal might have given the work presented by a person claiming to be an Asian author a closer look.

Editors and readers, feel free to add your own scenarios in the comments.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding this conversation echoes the uglier arguments I’ve heard all my life about Affirmative Action: that less qualified people/poorer poems are getting slots that should have gone to more qualified/better poems; that editors have quotas they want to fill with poems by “certain people” so they can feel hip and liberal and assuage some of their white guilt (or if the editors are POC, they’re just publishing their friends). We’re not far from hearing “the straight white male poet is the true minority”—I assume it’s been said and I’ve just been lucky enough to miss it.

Many in these conversations have asked about blind submissions, as though these allow the editor to put their focus on the work and not on the author bios. Blind submissions are a fig leaf, an exercise in deniability used by people who don’t want to do the hard work of having a diverse journal. I think the theory behind them came from a good place, but they don’t work the same way as say, blind auditions for orchestras do, because writing is not performance the way playing a trumpet is. And they can do some good in book contests where money is at stake, though I think strict rules about who can enter such contests are a much better way to deal with those potential conflicts.

In poetry, as in pretty much every other walk of life, there is no greater advantage to publication and all that follows from it than being a straight white male. Yes, even in the creative world, for all our reputation as an open liberal stronghold, straight white male is the default against which all other writing is contrasted. Straight white males are “literature,” while women and writers of color and gay writers are all shunted off into their own subsections, with a token few allowed into the large category as a way of pushing back charges of sexism or racism or homophobia. If you’re a straight white male, to adopt the name of a marginalized minority is crass and offensive. To do so and think it gives you an advantage in publishing is stupid and insulting to the editors who are mostly doing this work for nothing or for very little pay.

If I sound impatient with Hudson and those who defend him, that’s because I am. I would rather be writing poems or reading submissions, grading papers or changing diapers. You read that right—I would rather be elbow deep in baby shit than even thinking about this nonsense—I have too much to do in this life without having to point out to my fellow straight white males that we’re not as clever as we think we are, and we certainly aren’t oppressed in any way by political correctness. But I and people like me have to stand up and say this stuff, because the clever straight white males who are howling so loudly won’t listen to the women or people of color or members of the LGBT community. They might not listen to me either, but I can’t be as easily dismissed as others can, because I’m a straight white male. I’d rather not have that privilege, but as long as I do, I’m going to use it for stuff like this.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →