Yi-Fen Chou, Or How a White Male Poet Gamed the System
Michael Derrick Hudson, a genealogist (*) at the Allen County Public Library in Indiana, is one of a handful of poets to have a work published in this year’s Best American Poetry anthology, only he didn’t get on his own merits. Instead, he got in on the strength of a pen name.
Hudson had previously been unsuccessful in publishing the poem under his own name (it was rejected forty times, so he chose a Chinese pen name. Hudson says it was rejected nine more times before being accepted for publication by the literary journal Prairie Schooner. It was subsequently recommended for this year’s anthology.
A total of 75 works were chosen for this year’s anthology by guest editor Sherman Alexie, out of a field of at least one thousand poets. Alexie confirmed in a blog post that the pen name played a role in his decisions.
Alexie set eleven rules for himself when he accepted the role as guest editor, including one where he promised to give special attention to those poets who had been overlooked.
Or as Alexie put it:
I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color. And for great poems by younger, less established poets. And for great poems by older poets who haven’t been previously lauded. And for great poems that use rhyme, meter, and traditional forms.
The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eves, by Yi-Fen Chou, was one of the 75, and it stayed in the anthology even after Hudson revealed the ruse. (You really should read Alexie’s post if you want to know why he kept it).
Naturally, this sordid tale has upset many people online. Slate, Jezebel, and other sites have criticized Hudson for his subterfuge, suggesting that if he couldn’t get published then he should take the hint.
One problem with that snark was that Hudson had published numerous poems in the past. That makes this blogger wonder why a published poet would engage in this type of deception.
There is a very short answer for my use of a nom de plume: after a poem of mine has been rejected a a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy for 'placing' poems this has been quite successful for me. The poem in question, 'The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,' was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.
I realize that this isn’t a very 'artistic' explanation of using a pseudonym. Years ago I did briefly consider trying to make Yi-Fen into a 'persona' or 'heteronym' a la Fernando Pessoa, but nothing ever came of it.
Say what you will about his motivations, this trick will prove to be a strategic error in the long run. Hudson has now been labeled as the guy who cheated his way into this year’s Best American Poetry collection, and that’s going to doom his chances of publishing future poems under his own name.
image by chinnian