The summer was strange and wonderful, but since my return to the real world my mind's been full of American splinters, namely race matters, even race matters in the poetry community. Call me an observer.
The last time I wrote anything on this topic I think it was the Hoagland-Rankine thing at AWP, which I've since moved offline except for the initial post. Then last week I poked at the wall a little myself when I discovered the Poetry Foundation suffers from a certain obtuseness about European denigration of Africa and African-Americans. Other than that, I am essentially a nobody in the world of poetry, and let that admission serve as the excuse you need not to read this lonnnnng essay that I pecked out before I even realized I was writing.
On the blood trail of even more well-earned AWP drama about lack of diversity with blind push-back from a Kate Gale, the poetry community has been again upturned with Sherman Alexie's recent editorial for The Best American Poetry 2015 anthology in which he justifies his inclusion of a poem by a white man who used a Chinese woman's name. This white man was apparently in the middle of a WMT (white man tantrum) when he did this, the conniption some white men have when they perceive everything they say and write is no longer the Word of God.
He pretended to be Chinese because he wanted to prove that people of color are favored over white people in poetry publications these days or something like that. This attempt is akin to what Rachel Dolezal wanting to prove about Africana studies, I think. She did, after all, first sue Howard University for "reverse discrimination." And it's definitely what Mindy Kaling's brother wanted to prove about med school admissions except he did so because he believes black people are favored over Indian and Asian people. Even getting harassed more by the police and store clerks didn't turn his unethical ship around. The difference is the impostor poet targeted Asian people and did not change his speech or subject matter. He merely lied about his name.
That said, no matter what others may assert, the impostor's poem selected for BAP 15 was still published because of its white maleness and affection for the hegemony. Alexi admits he thought first about the oddity of such colonialist affection in what he thought was a Chinese mind when he first put the poem in the maybe pile:
"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."Identity always plays a role in the creative process and how we perceive the world. In the Alexi case the European aesthetic still won. Alexie was curious about the poem as banana and in that way he reveals something’s going on in his head regarding his own appleness. (Yes, I’m playing off the Oreo trope.)
When I worked at a black weekly back in the 90s, whenever we didn’t seem to be down 100% with “the struggle” the editor would say, “That’s 'cause you’re not black in your mind!” The statement always struck me first from the view of slavery as death of the self (Slaves are forced to take on the identities of the masters.) and later as the ways in which the colonized often suffer from Stockholm syndrome. Even when we resist, some thread of whiteness remains in us because it’s difficult to not be influenced by the culture that surrounds you with claims of superiority.
So, Alexie's published a poem that's not Chinese in its mind, so it is not "Chinese;" therefore it has no real validity as proving a point about people of color being more privileged in poetry publications (statistics prove they are not). The only thing it's proven is how Sherman Alexi's mind works.
Poems that show no evidence of the ethnic identity of a poet of color are not “ethnic” poems. If I write a poem about a love of nature in a way that has no relation to how I identify as a black woman, then I’ve written a nature poem, and unless people know I’m black, the assumption of authorship defaults to white poet. If I write a poem about my old life in the Jersey suburbs that reveals nothing of my identity other than frustrated housewife, then it’s a life poem also known as a white poem and it's assumed the speaker is the stereotypical frustrated white housewife.
Someone could publish an anthology of a hundred poems written by people of non-European descent, but if in reading them you get no inkling that any of the poets were written by black, brown, and yellow people, and none of the poems challenged the status quo of white supremacy, you would be reading a white anthology also known as vanilla. It would be an anthology with which even a conservative white male might be comfortable, and it too would probably be called something something American.
This doesn’t mean that POCs should only write poems that reveal their ethnic heritage or overtly protest the hegemony. It means that often publications produced by white publishers get to count having a representative publication when they actually don’t have any such a thing. What they have is another book that completely upholds the white perspective and Western-European aesthetic but happens to include some people known to have darker skin.
Think of my current governor Bobby Jindal and his position in the Grand Old Party. Think of the words that come out of his mouth. The GOP counts him as evidence that they’re open to everyone, but who is Piyush "Bobby" Jindal really? Is he saying anything different from his Duck Dynasty friends?
Alexie has over-analyzed himself away from the anger he could have maintained and convinced himself that he published that poem simply because it’s good, but he’ll never know the truth about the poem:
- He can’t un-think his first curiosity about what kind of Chinese person was that in love with European culture.
- He could not separate his ego from his initial decision to publish the poem and from his desire to prove that he was still objective when he learned of the deception. Nobody is that objective. In fact, it’s the Enlightenment Age mind that privileges white male notions of rationality that has Alexi thinking he could be objective at all. He fought with his own thread of whiteness and his own maleness and those aspects of himself won.
I noticed that he never discusses whether the poem moved him other than to a place of confusion and curiosity.
So, even if the impostor had actually been a Chinese poet, the poem itself added nothing to diversity in the anthology no matter what Alexie told himself when he accepted it and what he says now. The poem may be a good poem, but it was its perceived unique identity that drew him in. Would it have made the cut if the BAP used a panel of editors from different backgrounds? We'll never know.