An Open Letter From One Of The Other 74 Poets in Best American Poetry

A few days ago, I watched as the new students stepped up on the stage of our school’s Center for the Performing Arts and signed a pledge to uphold the honor code. As a new faculty member, I signed along with them. During the assembly and the rest of the day, I listened to what these young students said about honor. There were the usual, literal interpretations of what it means to act honorably, like not lying, cheating, or stealing. But there were more subtle, more complex versions of honor. I heard my students talk about using our words and our actions to help others, about taking responsibility for the great gift that is one’s language, that is one’s life itself, and using it to help others, to prevent others from being hurt, and to help others not hurt. We talked about living together as a community and working together to make the community better, not just as members of the same school but as people on the same planet, as human beings living with other human beings, whose lives and livelihoods we are bound by honor to protect every bit as much as we protect our own. And I heard an idea that I first came across in a book that I read when I was the same age as the students I currently teach — Sophocles’ Antigone — the text that at that young and tender age led me to a very important realization: silence is acquiescence, and not speaking up against hatred is every bit as damaging as speaking words of hate.

Perhaps it is already implied that I was all the time thinking about the hideous act of hatred that appears in Michael Derrick Hudson’s (I refuse to call him by his so-called pseudonym) contributor’s note in this year’s edition of Best American Poetry:

After a poem of mine has been rejected 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 … 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.

What Hudson has done is reprehensible. It’s disgusting. It’s nauseating. It’s colonialism. It’s a racist manifestation of white privilege in a medium meant to dissolve the distances between human beings rather than to destroy human beings through a complete and total disrespect of the differences in our experiences.

And I wish that I could say that I am shocked, but I’m not. In fact, it’s the type of thing I have almost come to expect from the literary community, especially lately. Lately, I’ve watched my newsfeeds fill with tail after tale of shockingly racist, sexist, homophobic, and dangerous behavior and language coming from the writing world.

Hudson’s note comes on the heels of a series of events in the academic creative writing world that showed a complete lack of tolerance and teetered perilously close to — and even, arguably, crossed — the line into censorship, which feels especially egregious when it comes from writers, who should protest against censorship (Laura Mullen provides a thorough timeline of events in this blog post, and I highly suggest that you read it).

Hudson’s actions are extensions of conversations I’ve heard and actions I’ve seen, over and over again. This time, however, the arena is different. The conversation has followed the field of creative writing itself in an exit from the establishment and the academy (the proliferation of off-site events at the annual AWP conference illustrates this shift), which means a new audience with new ears — and new voices that will not wait idly and silently by.

It also means that there are more writers working outside of the academy, which means there are more writers whose lives and livelihoods do not depend upon their silence.

I am now one of them.

There’s a pervasive suggestion in academic writing programs that writers of color, writers who are differently abled, writers who are women, writers on the LGTBQIA spectrum, writers who don’t look like the often-overwhelmingly white cisgendered men whose presence is often-overwhelmingly present in academia, are published not on their own merit but because of their own adjectives. Through this lens, I can almost understand Alexie’s decision to include the poem, as it stresses the idea that the poems were chosen on their own merit, that the identity of the poet didn’t change that.
But.
That is not enough.
I believe that the literature of a nation is best represented when ALL voices are represented, a task that requires careful curation (which shouldn’t be derided as “racial nepotism”).

It is essential, as writers and editors, that we seek to create opportunities for voices to be heard, stories to be told, for the experience of all human beings to be transferred into language so that we as human beings may collectively be transformed.

So that we may know each other in the hopes that we understand each other, and as human beings with human rights equal to our own.

So that we may act as an honorable community in which such acts of hatred are not venerated, are not tolerated, and do not happen in the first place — in print or in private, behind the ivory walls of the academy or in the public spaces of the Internet.

Poetry is not an art that often finds itself in swimming in the mainstreams of American culture, and contemporary poetry very rarely finds a place on the shelves of American book stores. When I was growing up in Alabama, I went to the book store every September, excited to pick up my copy of that year’s anthology, as it was the only way I had to paddle into the waters of contemporary poetry. To see that space poisoned by Hudson’s act is both heartbreaking and frightening.

I do not agree with the decision to publish the poem. I do not agree with the decision to validate this man’s act, which some have labeled as a “crusade” — a label fitting only in the sense that this small-scale act was fueled by the same vile and vicious ideas about difference that fueled the large-scale Crusades.

However, while I don’t agree with Alexie’s decision to publish the poem, I do appreciate the way he has written about it. He’s been open and honest about his confusion and anger, about his struggles, internal and external. He’s been transparent about his process. He has grappled with the issues at hand and he has let the other poets in the anthology know that he understands our anger, and our need to speak out, in private and in public, about the situation. He has, hopefully, started a conversation about the cracks in the writing culture – and in American culture – that will be difficult and painful but is absolutely, vitally necessary for us to move forward — both in the writing world and in the world at large.

Fixing an anthology is just one step; we must strive — no matter how difficult and painful it may be — to fix the cultural, social, and economic structures that bring forth those kind of actions.

I’ve been writing this since I first read about Hudson’s pseudonym on Labor Day. I’ve written. I’ve erased. I’ve rewritten. I’ve decided not to write at all. I’ve scrapped this entire post and I’ve taken it out of the trash. I’ve felt like I shouldn’t be writing it, like I shouldn’t post it. I felt as if I didn’t have the right, as if I am and continue to be part of the problem. I’ve wanted to apologize. I still want to apologize, but I’m not sure how.

I decided to post this, finally, because I decided it might be the best way to apologize, as it’s a step — at least, for this one person in this large world — towards speaking up and out. It’s a way of participating in this painful and difficult but absolutely, vitally necessary conversation.

I recognize that having the conversation isn’t enough, that real and actual change has to happen, and fast.

If you’ve read my contributor’s note in Best American, you know that I will never have children of my own. But while I watched the bright, beautiful spirits I have the absolute privilege of teaching pledge to act honorably and to speak honorably against injustice, I realized that I have a very real responsibility to these children, one that we all share: the responsibility to leave a better world for them to act and speak and live and love in, no matter how painful the process may be.

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