Best American Poetry Pseudonyms

Every time some clever white person puts on yellow-face or uses a black name (or any variation thereof) in order to benefit from some real or imagined affirmative action benefit, the thing they haven’t done is demonstrate that the system is skewed against white people. If anything, they’ve shown that adding a situational advantages of non-whiteness to the structural advantages of whiteness can lead to success. But it’s the ability to pick and choose, depending on the situation, which makes whiteness the real advantage. Only white people can play this “card,” the ethnicity that’s there when you need it, but disappears when you don’t.

When a white guy named Michael Derrick Hudson was revealed to have published a poem under the name Yi-Fen Chou—explicitly because he thought an Asian name would give him an advantage—and when it was selected by Sherman Alexie for the Best American Poetry anthology this year, it was a big mess. It’s embarrassing for Alexie, and painful, as he describes here; Elizabeth McCracken sympathized, tweeting yesterday that she’d “never read anything about editing so honest about the process, the impossibility of finding mere Literary Merit but how you gotta try”:

“The essay is about editorial imperfection: indeed how there is no such thing as editorial perfection. It is all an ordeal in the brain, as he puts it. An anthology whose contents are finally chosen by one person is always edited by one person, despite the phrase Best American.”

It’s a sympathetic reading. But if you follow the thread of McCracken’s “despites” and “impossibilities” and “buts,” you start to get caught on the knots in which Alexie has caught himself, the need to strive for perfection and select for merit, even as the process makes achieving it impossible. How can one person read thousands of poems (a fraction of the total theoretically under consideration) and produce a few dozen of them as the best? You can try, but you can’t have much confidence in the outcome. Indeed, his essay very nicely shows how a good faith effort—with the emphasis on effort—must also engage with the impossibility of really accomplishing the task. Strive for merit, don’t expect to get there.

This is why I don’t think his explanation is effective, ultimately, why I think he made the wrong decision. Everyone thinks he made the wrong decision, pretty much; even he seems to think he made the wrong decision. But he couldn’t find a way to make the right one. Which is why the problem is not that a cynical and dishonest person gamed the system. The problem is that the system is already rigged, and there’s no fixing it.

At best, all canons are a necessary evil. They serve a purpose, and sometimes it’s a good one; most of the time, I would suggest, they do more harm than good. But even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that they are sometimes necessary, any list of “best of X literature” is always going to be a better device for exclusion than for adequately representing anything but the preferences of the gatekeepers. “Representation” is always subjective and arbitrary, because it’s always, also, a synonym for simplification. The map is not the territory, and the Best is not American poetry. You can aspire to produce a list that doesn’t radically misrepresent the field of whatever it is you’re trying to survey, and this is what Alexie tried very hard to do; at best, your omissions and failures might not be glaring. But that’s it, that’s the best case scenario, to fail not so badly. There’s no target to hit, here: “representation” is a mirage, because all representations are, in crucial ways, also un-representative.

It’s a huge problem that “best of” lists are mostly white males, of course, and any variation thereof. It’s a form of violence. But that’s precisely why we should not take such lists seriously. Majority groups tend to dominate “best of list,” because that’s what “best of” lists are good for. They are excellent instruments for naturalizing exclusion. It’s no surprise, then, that white males tend to really be invested in those lists, and in shibboleths like “maintaining standards.” A “best of” list creates the appearance of level playing field, by investing in the conceit that everyone’s work could be judged by the same standard—that such a thing is even possible—and, so, the entire enterprise gives ideological cover to those who would like to believe their work has been praised on its merits (and that those who have been excluded, in some sense, deserved it). But a representative “best of” list is not something to strive for, because it’s a contradiction in terms. There is no level playing field, and never has been. Because canons of all kinds presume one, they tend to make the problem worse.

In short, the fact that canons are instruments for exclusion is not a reason to try to fix them: it is a reason to abandon them.

Sherman Alexie is deeply invested in the Best American Poetry anthology, which he edited this year. In his words, “I take the publication of Best American Poetry very fucking seriously.” It’s worth hearing him out. But it’s also worth remembering how much time and energy he has invested in this process, and thus, how hard it would be for him to admit that it’s all a ludicrous farce, and of course, it could be gamed by an unscrupulous shit-bag. This is why he makes such a solid case for not taking the list so seriously, whether he’ll admit it or not:

Like most every poet, I have viewed the publication of each year's Best American Poetry with happiness (I love that poem), jealousy (That poet has been chosen for seventy-three years straight.), disdain (Oh, look, another middling poem from one of the greats.) and hope (Maybe they'll choose one of my poems next year.)…like many poets, I carefully studied each year's edition of BAP and was highly critical of the aesthetic range (Okay, there had to be more than two great poems published last year written in meter and/or rhyme.), cultural and racial representation (I can't believe there are only 8 poets of color in this edition.), gender equality (What is this? The Golf Club at Augusta?), and nepotism (Did those guest editors really choose, like, sixty-six of their former students?).

Is it the job of poets to state things “basically”? Is “like most poets” a particularly useful grouping? Does consistent criticism of the anthology’s aesthetic range, cultural and racial representation, gender equality, and nepotism (or the fact that one’s response to its publication is so basically subjective) inspire particular confidence that the right judge will be able to fix the problem?

I don’t think so, but really, it’s just a mess. “Objectivity” is a mirage, as Alexie’s account of his own process—which is admirable in its honesty—demonstrates quite effectively. He did the best he could, but he is, ultimately, like every human being, subjective, partial, and particular. We all are.

We should, then, embrace it. It’s a feature of being human, not a bug. Exclusion is violence when the gatekeepers pretend they aren’t choosing the Best American White Male Poets, when they pretend that their list is something other than a grab bag of biases and personal preferences. Which is why it’s Alexie’s adherence to that ideal, his aspiration for objective quality, that forces him into an impossible position by the end of that essay. He writes:

“If I'd pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world. And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular. But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.”

I actually think he could have chosen differently; I think he could have said something along the lines of:

“Dear Sir! Your poem was pretty great, and I really liked it. The fact that you lied to your readers, however, and in such a nakedly careerist, crass, and racist manner, prompts me to say: fuck you! You are not what represents the best in American poetry. Fuck off.”

This is what embracing your subjectivity would allow you to do, to step outside of the rigged system that forces even affirmative action to become a tool for white advancement. But beyond what Alexie should have, or could have done, the more important point is the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position he finds himself in, precisely because he’s accepted objective evaluation as the gold standard. Such “objectivity” radically narrows the kinds of evaluative judgments you allow yourself to make; it forces you to privilege a highly subjective notion of poetic quality (one which three poets would have four different opinions about) while simultaneously bracketing off the ethical quality of work as irrelevant. Some kinds of truth become beauty; others, somehow, do not. But since when has ethics become something off-limits to poetry?

Most importantly, and this is the bottom line: if you know the whole story about “Yi-Fen Chou”’s poem, it tastes and feels pretty foul. Why is “poetry” a place where taste and feeling are irrelevant? Is “best” something we have to calculate by rigorously discounting anything of the sort? If you think any of the judgments by which his poem was selected as good were any less based in feelings and subconscious affect, well, I’m not sure how much poetry you read.

Here’s an alternative: what if we’re going about this all wrong? Maybe the best way to get to the promised land of objective judgement is a data-driven statistical accounting of each poem’s strengths and weaknesses, rigorously compiled by a standardized methodology. We need solid models—so a great deal of study is called for—and we need to think hard about how to find more accurate methods of evaluation. Crowd sourcing is a start, but it won’t be enough; feelings and emotions might creep in there, along with the pesky notion that cynicism and dishonesty are somehow incompatible with poetic beauty. Only will truly high-powered computing be able to sort through such noise, I think. So bring on the algorithms. Big Data will save poetry.