I’ve noticed a certain amount controversy in your recent selection of a poem by my friend and colleague Michael D. Hudson for the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry. Allow me a moment to congratulate you on your integrity on choosing to leave him in the collection. Mike is a dedicated poet who not only works hard on his own materials but teaches a class at the Allen County Public Library where aspiring amateur poets can bring their poetry for public reads and workshopping.
I haven’t read much of his poetry myself, but then as near as I can gather Mike’s poetry isn’t really germane to the discussion at hand, is it? The controversy over his appearance in BAP comes entirely from his use of a pseudonym and what that supposedly says about his character.
So let me tell you what I hear about Michael’s character from his use of the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou.
What I hear is a profound respect for the literary traditions of China. Yes, Mike chose his pseudonym because it increased his chances of getting published in an industry dominated by identity politics. But we don’t assume Benjamin Franklin used the pen name Silence Dogood as an attempt to steal something from someone else, but in an attempt to make his point rather than being ignored. I find it highly unlikely that Mr. Franklin would have chosen to represent himself as he did if he had no respect for the insight and intellect of women – and I don’t think Mike would have chosen to represent himself by a Chinese pseudonym if he didn’t have a respect for the literary traditions of China.
Let’s face it, Mr. Alexie. China has a rich, powerful and four thousand year old literary tradition. Said tradition is deep and nuanced, literary and poetic, philosophical and mundane. It has enough depth to support three of its greatest philosophers squaring off against three of Europe’s greatest thinkers in one of the Epic Rap Battles of History, surely it can stand a few people representing themselves by Chinese names. Rather than saying Mike took something from the Chinese tradition shouldn’t you say that Mike is now a part of Chinese tradition and will enjoy twice the scrutiny – that of Chinese scholars as well as that of American scholars? For that matter, what would the opinion of a Chinese thinker be on the work of Mike Hudson?
There’s a story I’m fond of, probably apocryphal but quite illustrative. The details vary from telling to telling but the essentials go like this: There was a fairly inexperienced American sports reporter at the Olympics who wound up standing next to a fairly prominent Chinese Communist official while observing one of the events. Teams were shuffling from one place to the other and there was an awkward lull things. The reporter felt like he should says something to fill time but he didn’t want to give offense by bringing up anything relating to current events and the strained relations between America and China. Flailing about frantically, the cub reporter quickly decided to introduce himself and ask, “What do you think of the American Revolution?”
The Communist official thought for a moment and then answered, “It is too soon to tell.”
The point? Chinese philosophy very often takes a long view. They view current events like a man standing at the edge of a rushing river. Yes, they seem to be moving very quickly but in the end what people are seeing is actually a very small part of a huge cycle that is endless and unchanging. The water flows to the ocean, rises as rain, falls on the land, flows into the river and rushes by the man on the riverbank on the way to the ocean over and over and over again. Chinese thinkers view the past as a huge cycle, repeating over and over again and only those enlightened enough to break the cycle and transcend it are remembered. The value of any author or poet is not seen in the present day but many, many generations down the line.
(As an aside: I am speaking in fairly broad terms here Mr. Alexie. I am aware that there are numerous traditions of intellectual thought in China. In fact, China is a nation composed of many ethnic groups of wildly different languages, histories and schools of thought. Trying to lump them together into a convenient label like “Chinese” is like lumping all the ethnicities and histories of Americans into a single group. It’s silly.
I noticed you characterized your response to Mike’s pen name as that of one “brown” man to another. If you put my father, who was born in Taiwan and had two parents who immigrated from the mainland, up against any typical person of European descent you’d have a hard time telling their skin tone apart. His whiteness, or lack thereof, is immaterial to who he is, what experiences he can communicate and the impact those things have on other people. The only reason it would matter is if there was some kind of quota for how many Chinese people/people of a given color there could be in a given place/event/publication at any given time and surely we don’t want that.)
Now you can think what you will of the value of the Chinese way of thinking. But it seems to me that said way of thinking precludes us judging a person’s artistic merit during their own lifetime, or even the lifetime of the civilization that spawned it. In that respect, Mike is the same as all other poets that are weighed in the balance of time.
And that’s the other thing I hear from Mike’s decision to submit poems under a Chinese pseudonym: He’s saying he wants to walk with us on the way to the end of time. If using a different name is all that takes then so be it. Michael Hudson hasn’t taken anything from anyone. He’s offered to be a fellow traveler with us as we explore the full depths of the American Literary scene. And for accepting his offer in spite of all that drove you to reject it, I applaud you, Mr. Alexie.