Are you sick of the Michael Derrick Hudson issue of submitting poetry under the name of a Taiwanese immigrant, including one poem that Sherman Alexie selected for Best American Poetry (BAP)? The response to it has been fascinating, from pure outrage and vitriol in social media, to today's poem in Rattle by Sam Cha. The poem, entitled "i am michael derrick hudson," condemns both Hudson's choice to submit poetry under a different ethnicity, as well as his poetics. It's perfectly understandable for Cha and the rest of the poetry world to be pissed about cultural appropriation (I certainly am)--especially if it takes opportunities from underrepresented voices. It also makes sense for poets to respond in poetry, and I'm glad to see Cha and Rattle join the conversation.
I won't delve into the craft of Cha's poem, other than to say there is much to admire, because that's not what struck me most. What struck me was the Cha's apparent ad hominem attacks on Hudson in parallel with mocking his work. Again, the anger is understandable, but now what?
Call me naive, but I like to think of poets as leading the examined life. I like to think we're a thoughtful bunch who are less likely to react with vehemence than the rest of the population. I like to think that we seek understanding first. Ah, but then I'm reminded of Sayre's law, that was first stated about academia, but works just as well for poetry. He essentially said the intensity of politics in academia is high because the stakes are so low. Poetry has got to be about the lowest-paying profession on earth. Granted, a poem in BAP can have a tremendous domino effect for a person's poetry career, so the stakes, in this case, got a little bigger.
Nonetheless, what will it take for us to rise above our initial impulses of shock and anger? What will it take for us to seek understanding of Hudson's, Alexie's, and others' responses to inequity? In the last several years, we've seen horrifying evidence of how people of color are sometimes treated by the police and even individual vigilantes. Are our responses to the poem magnified because of these incidents? Is our anger an outgrowth of our fist-in-the-air response as we shout, "Black lives matter!" And, really, isn't our anger also an expression of a much deeper grief?
Still, I have to wonder, if others, including in some cases the family members of those who have been killed, can reach a point of seeking understanding and creating dialogue, can we as poets do the same? I don't mean to say that Sam Cha should not express his outrage, or that he shouldn't use his great powers of wit, which he does so very well. Nor am I letting Hudson off the hook. I'm asking what's next? How do we get past our angry reactions? How do we shift from condemnation to conversation without voicing the same "narcissism of difference" we've repeated for centuries?
Poets, can we set the example? Can we create a vision for equality, even as we call out the injustices? Incidentally,The Inflectionist Review, employs one possible strategy. Editors John Sibley Williams and A. Molotkov use a blind reading process to help prevent prejudice and preferential treatment. Of course, blind reading is not the only answer, but it's a start.
Added 9/15/2015: Lunch Ticket also uses blind submissions. If you know of any others, please let me know!
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.