I’ve been racing around with a project this week (yes, I do work, now and then), and I’ve not had a chance to settle down and read think about my reactions to Michael Derrick Hudson and his admission that he took a high school friend’s name and submitted his poetry under it, after having less success submitting under his own, obvious white-guy name. He came clean after having a poem included by Sherman Alexie in Best American Poetry. This is naturally irritating, with the usual outcry of “oh see political correctness can’t stand up to the superiorness of the white guy” and a good deal of criticism being leveled at Sherman Alexie for admitting that he gave the poem more consideration and heavier weight than he would have otherwise out of consideration for what he thought was the writer’s identity, as well as criticism from poets of color for Alexie’s response.
There are a few things I do think I can contribute to this discussion even though I am hardly an expert at poetry, as I want to talk about the writer’s process and being in these markets.
First, this is not like JK Rowling publishing under her initials so that boys will read her book because they would never, ever read a book by a woman. For one, she used her actual initials. And in that instance, she was advised to do so by an editor–aka somebody who had market experience. We don’t know what would have happened with Harry Potter if she had gone with her girlie name; we don’t have that counterfactual, but I suspect the editor was right. I have run my own experiments in class where I allow students to pick their own reading materials, and male students, with only a few exceptions, inevitably opt for full course of men, men, men, men and more men. After all, women don’t know anything worth knowing.
Similarly, I don’t think Hudson’s little gambit suggests a damn thing about being published as a white-guy poet versus being an “ethnic poet” other than people like Hudson can be jerks about the whole thing. I don’t know much about poetry, but I can’t believe it’s any different than most other crowded, elite fields in that you spend your early career getting rejected, period, unless you are very very lucky and very very talented, and the very very talented part is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, and you get luckier the more you stick with it.
My friend, Linsey Marr, is now a full professor, a highly respected environmental engineer and atmospheric scientist, and probably one of the most successful and most consistent NSF grant winners in her field. But I was with her when she started out, and it was one rejection after another. Now, in theory, she’s the same person at the beginning of her career as she is as she progresses. But she’s not the same scientist. The work teaches you, and rejection teaches you, and your work tends to get better. Sometimes it doesn’t, or so people tell me. There are some fields where people assume you are finished after 30, and thank heaven I’m not in one of them because I didn’t even start writing until my mid-thirties. (I think those assumptions are ageist bullshit, but I’m not a mathematician, so maybe I am wrong.)
So the fact that Hudson sent out his early poems under his name and his later poems under the Asian means we can’t identify the source of the variation. He might have gotten the same consideration that Alexie gave him from other editors, sure. But he also may have gotten better at matching submissions to potential outlets, which is something your early career teaches you, and the later poems may have, simply, been better. We don’t know.
We do that when we look at English departments and grad programs and Nobel laureates and publication counts that white guys are doing pretty darn ok, to say the least.
Finally, I don’t buy the idea that because Alexie gave more consideration to a poem he thought came from an Asian writer that that, somehow, proves that there are all these wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful white dude poets languishing in the reject pile because all these substandard Asians and Blacks and whatnot “get all the breaks.” I do think there are probably very talented poets out there who don’t get the recognition they deserve because it’s very likely that in any competitive field where labor is somewhat oversupplied and editors can pick and choose, that very good poets will not get their desert. Let’s put it this way: I doubt there’s a huge difference in talent and ambition between me and plenty of people who wound up adjuncting because that’s all that’s out there save for the very, very fortunate.
In the publishing/art/music world, we live with some subjectivity. No, it’s not entirely subjective: we can tell really bad writing from really good writing. What’s good and bad has some reasoned basis for it even it is not your personal taste. But it’s not the same as a mathematical proof, nor should it be: these are different endeavors in human life. The fact that an editor took the time to really think about a submission from somebody “ethnic” just means out of the oceans of very, very good submissions that deserve our attention but are going to get passed over anyway because of numbers, he wanted to include voices we don’t hear everywhere all the time.
I hardly think that his process is a harbinger of how political correctness is killing us all. I don’t think he’s right in the way he responded, but as somebody who has had to judge competitions and agonized over what to include and what not to include, and suddenly having to rationalize choices at the end, I do understand that it’s not easy. Yes, I guess he should have done the legwork and ferreted out the fact that Hudson was a liar, but honestly, I bet most of the rest of us wouldn’t have, either, because who does this shit? and thus who gets up in the morning thinking “Gee, I need to go out and ferret out the white guy submitting poems under his Asian high school classmate’s name?” and “Gee, I should do a background check on this Dolezal lady who wants a job in advocacy.”
Asian poets have responded, and it’s covered here in a blog entry from The Margins from Asian American Writers’ Workshop:
As AAWW Executive Director Ken Chen wrote for NPR, “In New York, where almost 70 percent of New Yorkers are people of color, all but 5 percent 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 color who’ve breached their quarantine.”
They have a collection of responses from Asian poets, as well, and those responses are well worth reading. My favorite comes from Kenji Liu:
Please find attached an invoice for $500. You recently admitted to using my name to submit a poem 10 times. This $500 is to cover all the submission fees you paid in my name, plus any others you have not yet declared.
Please be advised that you are to cease and desist using my name in any way. Any future use of my name will result in further invoices.
In the unlikely event that you win a prize or get a book published, you are to immediately redirect all income (after taxes) to an Asian Pacific American organization of my choice.
Please note that if you refuse, I have access to ninjas.
They also have a page of actual Asian poets you can read, and you should, because poetry is lovely.