Reactions have been echoing across the internet to Michael Derrick Hudson using a Taiwanese immigrant's name to place his poem in Prairie Schooner and eventually Best American Poetry (BAP). Responses have ranged from outright condemnation of an act seen as appropriating identity to advance his own work, to condemnation of BAP's editor this year, Sherman Alexie, for racism after he admitted he gave the poem closer attention because he believed the author to be a person of color. While the furor has raised quite the online froth, it occurs to me that instead of condemning Alexie and Hudson, I feel a little sorry for them both. And, in truth, I have been drawn into both lines of reasoning in my own life as a poet and editor.
A year ago, I jokingly told a fellow poet I was tempted to reach far back in my family tree for a name that didn't sound quite so northern European as McCabe Johnson (don't get me started on whether the Irish have been colonized, and oppressed in both Ireland and the Americas, or whether Swedes have been particularly oppressive, either). I didn't submit under a different family name, but I entertained the idea. But then I thought about how generations of many demographic groups have found it difficult to get their words in print, and how important it is to give voice to those underrepresented groups. Besides, how despicable would it be to steal the opportunities from them when they finally do have a shot at getting published (especially since my name and skin color give me white privilege every day), when instead I should seek out those underrepresented voices and perspectives. And here's where I leaned toward Alexie's thinking.
As I was editing the anthology Being: What Makes a Man, essays and poems responding to the imperative "Be a man," I realized I had a high percentage of straight, white voices. Not 100%, but probably more than the general U.S. population. Like Alexie, I wanted a fair representation of a range of demographics. I wanted to ensure important voices were heard. So I looked for works by writers I admire whose demographics were not well represented with writing that would add something new and significant to the anthology. Those pieces are now among my favorites. Was seeking work from underrepresented voices a form of prejudice? No doubt. But we're back to the old Affirmative Action question. When groups have been denied opportunities, is it unfair to seek to balance the scales?
Of course, there's a big difference between selecting works for an anthology, and selecting works for BAP. Being published in BAP, especially for the first time, gives a huge boost to any poet's career. Their work is celebrated as among the "best" that year. Well, we all know how misleading that is since inclusion is terribly subjective according to the current editor's aesthetic. There really is no such thing as "best."
In their own ways, both Hudson and Alexie (and possibly Kwame Dawes, when first selecting Hudson's poetry for Prairie Schooner) acted in response to what they saw as an uneven playing field when it comes to being published. I'm not condoning these actions, especially Hudson's cultural appropriation, but I think I understand the fear behind the impulse. Ultimately, though, what will make a level playing field in publishing will be for we writers to be honest in our self-representations, and for we editors to judge work on its own merits. Personal and professional integrity. Imagine that.
Jill McCabe Johnson's research and writing practice follow the tradition of the French Medieval poetic form, the "chanson d'aventure" or song of adventure, where a writer walks into a new environment for enlightenment and inspiration.