Poetry News

Yi-Fen Chou Is a Real Person, & Everything Else Circling 'The Bees'

By Harriet Staff


Like a bee to some Venus-flower nectar, the Internet has taken to our poetry scandale du jour. But scandal doesn't cut it. These responses to Michael Derrick Hudson posing as Yi-Fen Chou are must-reads:

Turns out, it gets worse: "The family of a woman named Yi-Fen Chou, who attended the same high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., as Mr. Hudson, has stepped forward, demanding that he immediately stop using it."

Also up today, The New Yorker's "When White People Pretend to Be Asian."

More fun, however, would be the Asian American Writers' Workshop's #WhitePenName generator.

Then head to the Real Yi-Fen Chou Tumblr. "Bee’s Knees! Jesus! Ancient Chinese! Random Mythological Allusion(s)!"

Jenny Zhang contributed greatly to this Broadly/VICE feature, "White Male Poet Uses Chinese Pseudonym, Becomes Rachel Dolezal of Literature."

"When I was in graduate school for fiction writing, the most common thing my white cohorts would say to me was some version of, 'You're so lucky. You're going to have an easier time than any of us getting published,'" Jenny Zhang, a poet, fiction writer, and contributor to Rookie Magazine who graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 2009, tells me over email. "They were shameless about it, often explicitly mentioning that this was because of my race and my gender, because I exclusively write about Asian American characters in my fiction. [This] of course never actually meant they wished they could grow up as an immigrant in the United States, experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they live in the United States, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the incredibly high stakes of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/Native people? crawling up through the toilet and into our already pinched buttholes."

The New York Times has weighed in: "Michael Derrick Hudson Posed as a ‘Yi-Fen Chou’: Did the Name Sell His Poem?" They also ask: "In addition to being a chore to type, is “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” any good?"

Here's the poem, fwiw.

(We prefer the lectures.)

Amish Trivedi also writes about the poem on his blog,
but not before remarking on Hudson's sense of entitlement:

Did Hudson have in mind some idea of exposing our system of tokenism (the desire of the majority to include a minority for their own benefit, thus not really doing anything for that particular person or group at all)? I mean, that would be nice, but I'm guessing that's not it at all. He took advantage of a system not designed for him— rather, one designed to AVOID privileging people like him— in order to get a work only he seemed to believe in get published. What does that say about his ego? What does that say about older white male privilege in pobiz when he did not consider that perhaps the poem was just bad?

Also in the NYT, some smart words from poet and AAWW director Ken Chen: "'He believes that he’s being cheated, and things will only improve if writers of color are virtualized away,' Mr. Chen said in an interview. 'If only they didn’t really exist, and were just white guys with pseudonyms.'"

At The Stranger, "Two Phenomenal Asian American Poets Published in Best American Poetry 2015." Jane Wong and Monica Youn's poems are both explored here. Also pointed to: Kundiman.

At Drunken Boat blog, Lucas Klein has Ronald Reagan on his mind.

Yesterday, Kazim Ali wrote "An Open Letter to Aimee Nezhukumatathil." (Ali and Nezhukumatathil have both appeared in BAP). Ali calls for structural change:

But the transformation can’t just be curatorial within existing institutions; it has to be structural. Those institutions—academic programs, journals, presses, anthologies, associations, what Mark Nowak used to call “the neo-liberal language industry”—have to make real and concrete transformations toward serving writers of color, lower income writers and so on.

The issue of transforming the landscape of literature is huge and complicated. I get that. But I know a couple of things—writers and teachers of color who have access to broader platforms can contribute to structural changes that allow more diverse voices to develop and be heard. The notion of an unbiased concept “literary merit” is an inherently and inescapably racist principle. An institution that relies on it is by definition a white supremacist institution.

The institutions are racist because by not taking into account issues of cultural and national and sexual and other kinds of “difference,” they are proactively promoting types of poetry and writing that supports established political and economic systems. An organization like AWP can prove its relevance by seriously and structurally addressing issues of inclusion. Every publisher, every series like Best American Poetry, should be doing the same. And if organizations like these ones can’t change or refuse structural change (not just inviting or including more writers of color into their halls or pages) then they are actually doing harm and ought to be done away with.

On Tuesday, Timothy Yu was interviewed for NBC News:

According to Timothy Yu, Professor of English and Asian American Studies and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at University of Wisconsin - Madison, the controversy not only plays into the racist tradition of yellowface and a long history of appropriation in American poetry, but it also highlights white resentment of "political correctness" and the illogic of reverse racism, when in reality, many more white males are published than anybody else.

"That's the part that's the most insidious, because it's just not true that women and people of color have an easier time to publish," Yu told NBC News. "His cynical belief is actually false. I am a Chinese American writer and I can tell him he's wrong."