‘The Yi-Fen Chou Problem’ and Sherman Alexie’s Response
A great deal of controversy has erupted in the wake of Sherman Alexie’s decisions as Guest Editor of Best American Poetry 2015.
As most already know, Alexie selected a poem written by Michael Derrick Hudson under the Chinese pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. Poetry readers responded with outrage, defensiveness and concern. Many called for the removal of Hudson’s poem, viewing the act as one of “cultural theft” and appropriation by a privileged white man. Others responded with extreme disappointment in Alexie. Some even placed at least partial blame on the Series Editor, David Lehman.
In the days following the breaking news, Alexie published a long response on the Best American Poetry website. In his response, Alexie states, “I take the publication of Best American Poetry very fucking seriously.” He admits that, at first, he questioned whether or not he wanted to be the year’s Guest Editor; however, he quickly determined that he would take on the challenge. Nevertheless, in order to ensure a certain level of comfort and autonomy throughout the process, Alexie says he constructed a set of rules to follow. These rules included measures to avoid nepotism and selecting a poem based on a poet’s past work.
Another of Alexie’s goals was to “pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past.” According to Alexie, this meant he must “look for great poems by women and people of color.” Alexie also vowed to remain as unbiased by Lehman’s suggestions as possible; he wanted to maintain full autonomy in the selection process. There were several other self-imposed restrictions that Alexie details in his response essay.
Finally, Alexie offers a breakdown of the results in a VIDA style count. He notes that “approximately 60% of the poets are female” and “40%…are people of color.” Alexie admits to extreme concern over the Yi-Fen Chou controversy; he worries that it will “overshadow every other critical examination” of the anthology.
Of his choice to publish the poem in question, Alexie writes:
I chose a strange and funny and rueful poem written by Yi-Fen Chou, which turns out to be a Chinese pseudonym used by a white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business.
I only learned that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym used by a white man after I’d already picked the poem and Hudson promptly wrote to reveal himself.
Of course, I was angry at the subterfuge and at myself for being fooled by this guy. I silently cursed him and wondered how I would deal with this colonial theft.
Read Alexie’s full response here.