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« Tales of the Seventies: Old Johnny Herald [by Alan Ziegler] | Main | Lera Auerbach – excessive ease of aesthetic discovery [by Ilona Oltusk] »

September 07, 2015


Sincerely though, that he thinks white people consider him "the big Indian writer" is really the source of this issue, in all honesty most white people don't talk like that. We're the most self loathing non-proud group of people on the planet, a real white guy dialogue would go

"omg, should I stand up for myself? This Indian guy might call me a racist... oh shit, did I think Indian guy... am I a racist? I better just nod politely."

We encourage your comments. Note that we will remove those that resort to name-calling and do nothing to advance the civil discourse we value. Stacey

Couldn't this entire issue be avoided by selecting poems anonymously? Remove the names from the poems and assign them numbers, give them to reviewers who were not involved with removing the names, and enjoy an unbiased anthology based on merit. As a bonus, Mr. Alexie won't have to worry about 7 of his rules.

Mr. Alexie,

Did you consider that you could have decided to publish the poem for the reasons you did but NOT allow it to be published with the deceptive and offensive pseudonym? Although your reasons for publishing the poem MAY be defensible, the racist suggestion of the pseudonym is not.


Edward Dixon

I appreciate Sherman Alexi's post about the challenges he faced and the ethical dilemma he confronted. To share such a quandary takes a real sense of confidence in one's self and in one's audience. Although I agree with the decision he ultimately made, I respect the range of responses it has generated. Often such decisions are made between two challenging responses. The real mirror into which we all must look is that of being able to assert that a set of values has been supported by the decision. In this case, it seems that a poem of subjective "best" quality is being read. That's the purpose of this wonderful series.

FYI We don't call ourselves 'white guy', we're just normal.

Saying white is normal is racist. Please think before you speak.

If a Chinese person used a white American sounding pen name and got published, would that be racism? Would you even care or notice, probably not, I'm sure you'd applaud them for it. Maybe think on that.

"FYI We don't call ourselves 'chinese guy', we're just normal." Said the Chinese man, in China. I Somehow doubt you'd consider this racist, think on that.

That would make sense if the goal was simply to publish the best poetry, and I assume SA as editor could have chosen to do that and make that his rule instead of the ones he listed. However if your goal is to publish the best poetry by certain identity groups you would need to see their names and bios.

This is not an impossible situation. It's not a choice between "sweep this under the rug" and "let it go to press." The poet in question has no right to privacy or discretion about his ridiculous actions; letting him publish his stupid bio isn't the only way to uncover his deception. You can easily say "I love this poem, but you are awful and your inclusion has been rescinded." You can easily make that statement public, and you can easily shut down people who might continue to accuse you of choosing the poem solely because of the pseudonym. The choice made here was not one of two, but one Alexie constructed and chose badly.

I saw three features that drew Sherman Alexie to the poem--its long list-form title (he loves 'em!), the poet's name, and poems "compellingness." What this points to is personal taste and personal agenda. The whole process of determining literary merit is taste based, pure and simple. Is Jorie Graham, whose work is often so obscure as to be incomprehensible really a better poet than say, well, yours truly? Who knows? She is a celebrated poet, a recognized poet, a poet whose work is read and explored, a poet whose work reflects the taste of the times. Sure, we may all agree on the poetry that truly shows little merit, but trying to cull out (and justify) the excellent and the outstanding (or even what "deserves publication") is not unlike watching the Bachelorette, only with a better vocabulary in play.

Are there any who don't?

Because, 99%...

And what happens when "someone" hands you a list of his friends and colleagues?

It actually *is* that hard.

What do you mean "impossible situation?"

Select the best poems. Not poets, poems. The actual thing on the page. The title of this publication is BEST AMERICAN POETRY, not "The closest thing I could figure out to best represent American demographics based on their name and whatever I could glean from skimming some of the lines, by Sherman A."

This poem, first off, is not even good. It should not even approach the conversation of "best." Who *cares* who has the "institutional upper hand."

I say this as a woman of color. Being underrepresented is terrible, but this is NOT the solution to that problem. So with all respect, yes, Alexie SHOULD have to defend himself, because if this is an example of ethical editing, I would hate to see what America thinks hand-picking would be!

If there is no "norm," then what exactly do you think affirmative action is trying to correct?

To admit that there is a normative majority that pretty much runs this country and says what's what is not racist; it is honest.

(Woman of color here.)

I completely agree with this! But there is basically a cottage industry around this stupid (in my opinion) yearly anthology, that clouds people's minds with jealousy and makes them more focused on accolades than poetry.

Quite frankly, it's garbage, but the name looks like a good fit!

More symphonies now conduct "blind auditions", where the candidate sites behind a curtain and judges don't know the candidate's race/gender. And it seems to work well.

A very thoughtful analysis by Mr. Alexie of an interesting situation. The fact is Yi-Fen Chou was right: a Chinese name helped him get published. Just like male names helped get George Eliot and George Sand get published in their time. Shall we burn their books because of their deception? I congratulate Yi-Fen Chou on his strategy, and also on his fine poem. Perhaps future judges should read submissions with the authors' names redacted. Or perhaps we should just concede that if race matters in such decisions when we, as good liberals, wish it didn't, then Yi-Fen Chou taught us a valuable lesson by tweaking the system.

Eliot died in 1880; Sand in 1876. Hardly good modern precedents for this fraud.

I don't understand why the poems can't be judged without names attached. That seems so obvious as to be almost a willful blind spot.

For the last few years I have judged a contest for the Arizona Poetry Society. It is anonymous and honestly I prefer it that way.

The US Constitution was written in 1787 and is still used as a precedent for the country's law. Age does not invalidate a precedent. Eliot and Sand changed their identities to help their chances of being published just like Ti-Fen Chou.

It's striking that, although Alexie announced beforehand that he would favor work by people of color, he still ended up with 60% white poets who were 40% male (by his own admission). A person could, conceivably, accuse him of insufficiently favoring nonwhite nonmales.

I was inclined to believe this incident represented a harsh indictment of poetry publishing culture. After all, regardless of skin color, one should seek to read great poetry. It's for the soul. It's not for the eyes, or for your personal politics.

But we're at a place in publishing where we think it's a good idea to neutralize white bias with nonwhite bias. But bias itself should be eliminated, of course. Readers and poets must pay attention to the art. One can easily imagine an equally stuffy editor at a multicultural poetry magazine turning away truly stunning poetry (as rare as it is, despite Alexie's belief that we are "awash" in it) based on something as arbitrary and impermanent as ethnicity, just as, in fact, their white male forebears judged poetry for centuries (deriding the likes of Phyllis Wheatley and Emily Dickenson) in favor of white poets. It was a tragedy. Let’s not repeat it, eh?

Despite crusades in the opposite direction, there actually is something called "good poetry" and something called "bad poetry."

I'll let you guess which the following is an example of:

"The Colosseum sprouts and blooms with leftover seeds
pooped by ancient tigers. Poseidon diddled

Philomel in the warm slap of this ankle-deep surf to the dying
stings of a thousand jellyfish. There, probably,

atop yonder scraggly hillock, Adam should’ve said no to Eve.

Oh fat whale with the flatulent spout! Musclehead marbled
to the bone. How many times must this cold fish

get gaffed, flensed, and rendered? Avast!"

The answer? Bad. Very bad, in fact. Not just bad. Amateurish. One of the most laughably pieces of dreck I've ever read. I don't know what to say. This will feature in a Best American Poetry collection. I'm stunned.

It's from Hudson's (Yi-Fen Chou's) poem, of course. The one Alexie liked so much, he kept it twice.

I think all of this should tell us one thing and one thing only: Sherman Alexie doesn't know anything about great poetry. And that's very sad, that he should be judging an entire book of it, in the name of the entire nation. We should all be ashamed, including the asshole Hudson who sent his crap in under a bum name.

I’ll leave you with Aristotle:

“When storytelling goes bad in society, the result is decadence.”

Likely not, but Chinese Americans are habitually compelled to use American sounding names, as a means of making it more comfortable for those in the dominant culture to address them. Apples to oranges.

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