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.). I am also proud that I've been in Best American Poetry (BAP) five times and even more proud that one of my poems was included in Best of the Best of American Poetry. But let me tell you a secret: I am also conflicted about my appearances in BAP because I don't love four of my five poems that have been chosen. I don't think those four poems are among my best work. In fact, I am rather embarrassed by my first poem to appear in BAP. But there was no way I was ever going to turn down the chance to be in BAP, no matter how I felt about the poems, then or now. I'm quite willing to accept that I might be wrong about the quality of my poems. I understand that I might be immune to their relative strengths and weaknesses. So, yes, like many poets, I am a bubbling mix of arrogance and selfdoubt. And, yes, 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?).
So, yeah, most basically stated, I take the publication of Best American Poetry very fucking seriously.
And because I take it so seriously and have been so critical in the past, my first instinct was to decline David Lehman's offer to guest edit Best American Poetry 2015. Then approximately one second after I pondered declining, I enthusiastically accepted the job. Of course, I had no idea that I would spend the next six or eight or ten months reading hundreds and hundreds of poems. Hell, it's quite probable that I read over 1,000 poems last year. I might have read over 2,000 poems. It could have been 3,000. Well, let me be honest: I carefully read hundreds of poems that immediately caught my eye while I skimmed hundreds of other poems that didn't quickly call out to me. It's possible that I read more poems last year than any other person on the planet. It was an intensive education in twenty-first century American poetry.
So what did I learn during this poetry siege? Well, none of us ever needs to write another poem about crocuses, or croci, or however you prefer to pluralize it. Trust me, we poets have exhausted the poetic potential of the crocus. If any of you can surprise me with a new kind of crocus poem then I will mail you one hundred dollars.
But, wait, I'm not ready to make sweeping pronouncements about the state of American poetry. I must first tell you that I established rules for myself before I even read one poem for potential inclusion in BAP 2015. And what were those rules?
Rule #1: I will not choose any poem written by a close friend.
Rule #2: I will be extremely wary of choosing any poem written by somebody I know, even if I have only met that person once twenty years ago and haven't talked to that person since.
Rule #3: I will also be hyper-judgmental of any poem written by a poet I already admire. I will not be a fan boy.
Rule #4: I will not choose any poem based on a poet's career. Each poem will stand or fall on its own merits. There will be no Honorary Oscars.
Rule #5: 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.
Rule #6: As part of the mission to represent the totality of American poetry, I will read as many Internet poems as I can find, whether published at popular sites or in obscure emagazines that have nine followers.
Rule #7: I will not ask for the opinion of any other human being when choosing poems. Oh, I know that David Lehman will make many suggestions—and I welcome the help in winnowing the pile of magazines—but I will ignore David's counsel as much as possible.
Rule #8: Unless David leads me to a great poem that I am compelled to choose, which he will most certainly do a few times.
Rule #9: I don't want to fill the damn book with poetry professors. I really want to choose some poets who work outside of academia. But I also don't want to bias myself against any poems because they happen to be written by poetry professors, so I will not read any biographies or contributor notes about any poets.
Rule #10: I don't want to know anything about any of the poets beyond what I already know or what is apparent in the poem itself. So I will not do Internet searches on anybody. I will do my best to treat every poem like it is a blind submission, even if some famous poet has written the poem I'm currently reading.
Rule #11: I know that these rules will inevitable result in contradictions, conflicts, hypocrisy, and stress rashes.
So, okay, as a result of these rules, what did I do with Best American Poetry 2015?
Approximately 60% of the poets are female.
Approximately 40% of the poets are people of color.
Approximately 20% of the poems employ strong to moderate formal elements.
Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.
Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.
I have never met or had any previous conversations or contact with 56 of the 75 poets.
There are 30 poets whom I'd never previously read. I didn't know anything about them when I chose their poems.
I am close friends with only one of the 75 poets.
Only three of the poets have ever invited me to speak at their colleges. And one of them was on sabbatical when I eventually visited her college.
In years past, before I was guest editor for BAP, I'd sent fan letters to nine of the poets and, as a result, have maintained semi-regular pen pal relationships with three of them. I have met in person only two of those pen pals and talked to them, separately, for a few minutes at AWP in Denver in 2010.
Only four of the poets have ever chosen any of my writing for publication. Two of the poets have rejected work of mine for publication.
I share a publisher, Hanging Loose Press, with three of the poets, though I haven't had contact with one of those guys in 20 years and share maybe one email a year with the other two.
I work in the Low Residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Art with two of the poets.
I have done public readings with only two of the poets.
Of the four poets with Seattle roots and connections, I know two of them. I had coffee with one of them eight years ago and briefly met the other last year at a book awards party in Seattle.
I have only provided publicity blurbs for two of the poets.
I could easily replace at least thirty of the great poems I chose with thirty other great poem I almost chose.
I suspect I will eventually regret choosing a few of the poems and omitting others. In fact, right now, I can think of one particular poem that haunts me. I am sick to know that it is absent from BAP 2015. And, no, I will never tell anybody which poems I almost chose.
So did I pick the best 75 poems published last year? Of course not. I picked 75 poems that survived a literary ordeal that happened only in my brain. I think BAP 2015 contains a handful of incredible poems and dozens of good to great poems.
I am very proud of what the Best American team and I have accomplished. And I wish I could end this statement with that sentence.
But, of course, I must now address the controversy that threatens to overshadow every other critical examination of Best American Poetry 2015.
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.
So I went back and reread the poem to figure out exactly how I had been fooled and to consider my potential actions and reactions. And I realized that I hadn't been fooled by anything obvious. I'd been drawn to the poem because of its long list title (check my bibliography and you'll see how much I love long titles) and, yes, because of the poet's Chinese name. Of course, I am no expert on Chinese names so I'd only assumed the name was Chinese. As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I'd never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work. In rereading the poem, I still found it to be compelling. And most important, it didn't contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn't been fooled by its "Chinese-ness" because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don't see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou's public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I'd argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I'd briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the "maybe" pile that eventually became a "yes" pile.
Do you see what happened?
I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet's identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.
Here, I could offer you many examples of white nepotism inside the literary community. I could detail entire writing careers that have been one long series of handshakes and hugs among white friends and colleagues. I could list the white poets who have been selected by their white friends for each of the previous editions of Best American Poetry. But that would be just grandstanding. It's also grandstanding for me to accuse white folks of nepotism without offering any real evidence. This whole damn essay is grandstanding.
So what's the real reason why I'm not naming names? It's because most white writers who benefit from white nepotism are good writers. That feels like a contradiction. But it's not.
And, hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou's poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.
So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues.
Nepotism is as common as oxygen.
But, in putting Yi-Fen Chou in the "maybe" and "yes" piles, I did something amorphous. I helped a total stranger because of racial nepotism.
I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.
And, of course, I know many of you poets are pissed at me. I know many of you are screaming out a simple question: "Sherman, why did you keep that poetry colonist in the anthology even after you learned of his deception?"
Listen, I was so angry that I stormed and cursed around the room. I felt like punching the wall.
And, of course, there was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym.
But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. I would have pulled it because I didn't want to hear people say, "Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy." I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity.
And I would have gotten away with it. I am a powerful literary figure and the pseudonymuser is an unknown guy who has published maybe a dozen poems in his life. If I'd kicked him out of BAP 2015 then he might have tried to go public with that news.
And he would have been vilified and ignored. And I would have been praised.
Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now.
But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise.
If I'd pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet's Chinese pseudonym.
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.
But that's not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.
In choosing what I think is the most diverse set of poems in Best American Poetry's history, I also rejected hundreds of poems written by a vast and diverse world of poets. I rejected a bunch of old white guys. And, hey, I rejected a bunch of old brown people, too. I rejected hundreds of young white poets. And I rejected hundreds of young brown poets, including some of the superstars who are most loudly insulting me. I rejected formalists and free-versers. I rejected dear friends and old enemies. I rejected poems I love and poems I hate.
I rejected at least one thousand poets in pursuit of the 75 who are in the anthology. It was an exhilarating and exhausting task. And now I am being rewarded and punished. And I am pondering what all of this reveals about my identity—perceived, actual, and imaginary. And I hope that you, as readers and writers, continue to debate The Yi-Fen Chou Problem and my decision to keep the poem in the anthology. But in the midst of all this controversy and wild name-calling, I also hope that you take the time to be celebratory or jealous or disdainful or challenged by the other 74 poets in Best American Poetry 2015.