What Happens Next: self and other
As one of the poets in Best American Poetry 2015, I have been following the Hudson Chinese pseudonym debate closely, but was hesitant to weigh in publicly for a couple of reasons, both personal. One is that this is the first time I have had a poem selected for BAP, and I was so astonished and thrilled that it makes me deeply sad to see the entire volume tarnished; the other is that as the editor of an anthology out earlier this year, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry & Race, from University of Georgia Press, I might be seen as trying to jump into the talk to promote the book.
Since Walter Biggins, Senior Acquisitions Editor at UGP issued a statement about this today, I feel compelled to make clear my thinking on the matter while also supporting the poets and scholars who wrote for this project or who had their essays reprinted in it, because, indeed, as Walter Biggins points out, they do individually, as well in confluence, speak to the multiplicities that have been raised by this false identity revelation.
First, I have great empathy for Sherman Alexie’s undertaking as he has explained it.
As an indigenous American writer who has faced issues of white mainstream power culture, he was working toward including a diversity of many of the identity lenses that the various writers in A Sense of Regard represent. I, too, faced issues of rejecting or accepting work into the project—a project specifically trying to exfoliate issues of race and ethnicity in conjunction with other identity markers (religion, gender, class, sexuality, intergenerational wounds, politics, embodiment, etc.) in relation to poetry and poetics. The process of reviewing and considering: breaking down numbers, how many men and women (and how binary and restricted is that?) and sexualities were being represented? How many races, and what about multi-racial identifying writers? What about class? How many contributors where writing across the borders to consider poets or poetics different from their own? These were just some of the concerns in the process of putting together the anthology.
Walter Biggins in his statement today mentioned a crucial essay by David Mura in it, “Asian Americans: The Front and Back of the Bus” and excerpted it. It is an amazing and humbling read, as is the one by Garrett Hongo I chose to open the anthology with, “America Singing: An Address to the Newly Arrived Peoples”. Not much, it seems, has changed, though the “peoples” are no longer newly arrived. What has changed, however, is our collective willingness, indeed, our collective sense of shared obligation to talk about these matters, and the anthology is meant to give space for thoughtful examination of race in and around poetry in such a way that it might, as I hope good poetry does, change our “sense of regard” from one position to another. Many of the essays are deeply introspective such as Tim Liu’s essay, for example, exploring his own work: why he had privileged writing about his sexuality over his Mormon heritage or being Asian American up until then. Matthew Lippman explores being a white Jewish teacher and his relationship with a young male black student while teaching Black writers. Other contributors, such as Ravi Shankar, of Pan Asian Indian heritage, wrote over borders and outside his own identify markers and examined female indigenous Indian poets. Other poets looked at ethnicity and race from their particular angles but where they intersect gendered and or political landscapes such as Lucy Beiderman writing about Jewish women writers and Philip Metres writing about poet 911 Arab American poetry. Perhaps particularly germane here are Sara Ortiz’s and Travis Hedgecoke’s essays on Native American, indigenous writers and the terrible struggles within those artistic communities. Fighting and in-fighting are in every community it seems, even the marginalized.
In a word, I don’t think I am being self-serving when I champion the work of these and another 30 essayists who worked hard to make sense of the nexus of poetry and race in the anthology and that the this it is to the point in my response about Hudson’s deception and also about Alexie’s choice to keep the poem, as well as about how writers are responding, the Po-biz community, if you will, and academia.
I wanted, because of my tendency to consider all sides, to be empathetic, as I tried to be in editing A Sense of Regard, to find a way to at least have some sympathy for Hudson, but I have none. It was a filthy thing to do. His explanation is banal and disingenuous at best. He’s had plenty of poems in fine journals, was in POETRY this year, not one, but two poems, and frankly it sounds as if he had sent out the poem in question just a few more times under his own name, it would likely have landed. He specifically says using a culturally and racially appropriated name was his “strategy for ‘placing’ poems” yet he was clearly doing well without lying about who he was.
And this isn’t just a pseudonym for good reason (a female writing in a period when no females could be published; because of political danger; writing outside one’s genre; etc.). Hudson is clear that he was trying to prey upon who editors who are trying to be conscientious in widening the publishing net and making sure they are embracing more voices than those at the center, which have been historically white and male. I’ve thought about how he could be so cruel, so colonial, so stupid, and one thing I have arrived at is that he is not, in fact, in Po-biz, not part of academia, and those of us who do worry about the insularity of that community might take some small comfort in the idea that perhaps had this man been part of the community, he would be more involved in the discourse that has been taking place, and would, perhaps, have evolved his thinking to a point—through the many discussions and debates in the poetry world—that he would never have done such a thing. Well, I am afraid I hope for too much. But I do hope. What he did, and did multiple times, is, simply, inexcusable. No empathy, no sympathy, and my guess is the man will need a really great pseudonym after this, one he will never be able to drop if he ever hopes to “place” a poem again. As if that is the whole point of this endeavor we all share anyway.
That I think, frankly, is what hurts the most: poetry to me should be the most ethical of endeavors; even if truth is mutable, we who struggle in this are all trying to refine our own aesthetic rendering of what is true through the unique lens of us, identities and all. And I understand everyone’s anger, and the anger is not specific to Asian American poets; all of us are affronted.
Not least of which is Sherman Alexie. He had a decision to make when he found out. While I can only speculate about what I would have done in his place—we, after the fact, have the benefit of listening to each other as we debate this—I understand his difficult position, especially after editing A Sense of Regard, and whether I agree or not with his choice, the acrimony with which people are speaking about him and about the BAP in general is astonishing. And ugly.
The very community that I wish Hudson might have learned from is also excoriating a fine writer who has championed issues of race and otherness in his life, in his work, and as an editor.
In the end, it sounds as if everyone wants the “crumbs” as Ken Chen (who is a contributor to A Sense of Regard) referred to what he thought Hudson wanted. Chen said to NPR as reported in The Guardian: “American literature isn’t just an art form – it’s a segregated labour market. In New York, where almost 70% of New Yorkers are people of colour, all but 5% of writers reviewed in the New York Times are white. Hudson saw these crumbs and asked why they weren’t his. Rather than being a savvy opportunist, he’s another hysterical white man, envious of the few people of colour who’ve breached their quarantine.”
The fact is that screeds against Alexie or listing name of poets not included in this year’s BAP do not address the issues that allow someone like Hudson, who seems to be a poet in isolation—a white presumably middle class male—to still have such a limited view of the world he lives and breathes in. Let’s talk about that. Let’s figure out how to change people’s sense of regard toward others. Have some empathy for the quandary Alexie found himself facing, even if you think you might have decided differently from him. And don’t throw poetry out with the bathwater. I’ve never been in BAP before, but I don’t begrudge its existence or other poets who have been in it before me. I’ve never been published in POETRY, though Hudson has. I don’t resent my friends who have been published there. There’s an awful lot of hysteria and perhaps even rhetorical opportunism going on. Which is why I didn’t blog about this until now.
The truth is, there isn’t a truth here. There is complexity, and poetry, of all the arts, in my view, should be trying to hold the mysteriousness of that, trying to move in an around it using what each of us has: the singular combination of identify lenses we are all made up of. None of us, however, has a lock on the best or rightest or truthiest approach. It is an approximation, every time, as is the BAP, each year, an approximation curated by one mind, one that is considered, though not perfect. And for that, I have great empathy.
For the man who could not or would not do that, who cloaked himself hoping for cultural cache and planning to trap and editor, who couldn’t write honestly as who he is and stand by it? Well, he does not have my empathy, and I said he didn’t have my sympathy, but because I can’t imagine the smallness of mind and the truncated view of the world and sorry sense of one’s place in it that he must have to do such a thing, he does have some small sympathy from me; it must be awful to live in his head, and I would wish that on no one.
NOTE: I TOOK A BREAK OVER THE SUMMER POSTING EXCERPTS FROM A SENSE OF REGARD: ESSAYS ON POETRY AND RACE BUT WILL RESUME SHORTLY.