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.
The Washington Post and the National Post report that Hudson made the cut because he chose to publish his poem under the name Yi-Fen Chou.
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
fjtorres September 8, 2015 um 5:12 pm
I’m pretty sure KDP won’t mind.
Nate Hoffelder September 8, 2015 um 8:33 pm
Yes, but there’s no money in poetry, only recognition and kudos. And now Hudson is labeled as that guy who scammed his way into poetry’s equivalent of the hall of fame.
Geoffrey Kidd September 8, 2015 um 5:30 pm
His chances already appeared quite grim, since chances can’t drop below zero. Blame Alexie for this one. He publicly stated that he would bring a particular bias to his choices. Publicly stating a bias is the equivalent of publishing an unpatched security vulnerability in a computer system. When that happens, if it’s your system, you WILL be pwn3d.
Nate Hoffelder September 8, 2015 um 8:31 pm
@Geoffrey I don’t think Alexie admitted to the bias until afterward. And I don’t know that one could have assumed that he was biased; I would have expected a double blind set up where Alexie would be handed poems with serial numbers, but no other identifying info attached.
Daniel Vian September 8, 2015 um 10:09 pm
It’s really no scam at all. Many famous poets have published under pseudonyms. The notoriety will attach to the editor/judge who allowed other factors than the poem itself to bias his judgment. What the hell kind of a contest is that? Do you take an athlete’s or actor’s nationality into account in judging his performance. If that’s the way the current poetry establishment is running itself, it should be close down pronto. It’s bad enough the money-grubbing gatekeepers in New York trade publishing behave that way. But literary poetry? Art needs to be judged independent of the name of the creator. Only after a judgment does the name of the artist become relevant.
EB September 9, 2015 um 6:47 am
Sooo… Sharon Kava shouldn’t have used Alex Kava? Benjamin Franklin shouldn’t have used Alice Addertongue? Dean Koontz shouldn’t have used Deanna Dwyer? Amandine Lucie Aurore Dupin shouldn’t have used George Sand?
There is a long history of pen names.. the work should stand on its own.
This SJW crap demeans you all.
Nate Hoffelder September 9, 2015 um 8:09 am
I was so careful in leaving my opinion out of the post that you think I am on the other side.
More on the poet who should never have been named | Samuel Snoek-Brown September 9, 2015 um 4:13 pm
[…] Yi-Fen Chou, Or How a White Male Poet Gamed the System […]
Razvan T. Coloja October 25, 2015 um 8:45 am
I find this story to be hilarious. Good for the man. Good for him.
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