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A white poet posing as Asian sparks controversy, conversation

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Best American Poetry 2015
The 'Best American Poetry 2015' anthology is at the center of a maelstrom.
Courtesy of Scribner

Every week, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: What sparked the controversy surrounding the Best American Poetry 2015 anthology?

Poetry doesn't usually stir up controversy, but this year's Best American Poetry anthology is at the center of one of the most heated literary conversations of the year.

The anthology, published in early September, features 75 poems selected by this year's guest editor, Sherman Alexie, an award-winning novelist, screenwriter and poet in his own right.

Author Sherman Alexie
Author Sherman Alexie
Courtesy of Chase Jarvis

One of the poems, "The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve," is attributed to Yi-Fen Chou. But that's just a pseudonym. The poet's real name is Michael Derrick Hudson, and he's a white man who lives in Fort Wayne, Ind. 

When notified that his poem would be included in the anthology, Hudson revealed his identity to Alexie. He said "The Bees" had been rejected 40 times under his own name, and another 9 times under the Chou pseudonym, before it was published in the literary journal Prairie Schooner.

Alexie, who is Native American, said Hudson used the pseudonym "as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business." Essentially, he thought he'd have a better chance at being published if he used a minority pseudonym — and he was right.

"Bluntly stated," Alexie wrote in a statement after the controversy erupted. "I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese-American."

Hudson's revelation left Alexie angry and torn, he said. Should he include the poem in the anthology, in light of Hudson's real identity? Or should he remove it? In the end, he decided it should be published, along with an explanation of the Yi-Fen Chou pseudonym in the anthology's notes.

When news of the poem's inclusion broke, many questioned the decision.

Saeed Jones, one of the other poets included in the collection, admitted Alexie was in a difficult position. "I can't say what Sherman Alexie should have done," he wrote on Facebook. But the controversy marred what had been a celebration for Jones. "I've gone from being elated about being included in Best American Poetry 2015 to wishing I'd never heard of it. Racism ruins literally everything."

While some questioned what harm there was in a pen name, Korean-American poet Franny Choi  explained that from her point of view, "the difference between J.K. Rowling and Yi-Fen Chou is the difference between theater and yellowface." (J.K. Rowling is the pseudonym of "Harry Potter" author Joanne Rowling.)

Choi has since written a poem about the controversy, titled "regarding the yellowface poet." The hashtag #ActualAsianPoet has started spreading on Twitter, highlighting the work of Choi and other Asian-American authors.

For those who claim that Hudson's exercise proves minority poets have an advantage in publishing, Alexie openly states that in this instance, that was true. Every anthology reflects the tastes and values of its curator. For Best American Poetry 2015, Alexie acknowledged — after the fact — that he was looking for "poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past."

"Nepotism," Alexie said, "is as common as oxygen."

The ire toward Hudson continued to grow after it was revealed that he likely borrowed the name Yi-Fen Chou from a real woman. It's the name of a woman he likely attended high school with, who emigrated to the United States from Taiwan in the 1970s. (Hudson has not spoken to reporters following the controversy, so his biographical details have not been confirmed.)

While Chou has remained quiet on the subject, her sister has protested Hudson's use of the name, saying it showed "a lack of honesty" and "careless disregard for Chinese people and for Asians."

It remains to be seen if the controversy will push sales of the anthology one way or the other. If sales increase amid the maelstrom, more people will be exposed to the work of a truly diverse group of poets. If people boycott the inclusion of Hudson, a fleet of great poems will not get the appreciation they deserve.