When a Poem by a White, Male Author Smells Less Sweet – The Atlantic

He began by laying out the ten admittedly contradictory rules of thumb he used when approaching the inherently subjective task of judging different poems against one another.


Then he turned to the controversial poem itself and replayed his reasons for selecting it: its title, the quality of the writing, and yes, the Chinese name at the top. “I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past,” he acknowledged. “Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.” He went on to claim that he could offer “many examples of white nepotism inside the literary community.”


Most of those white beneficiaries are good writers, he wrote, “and, hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness. So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues.”


He called his behavior “a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle.” So why, given his thinking, did he keep the poem in the collection?


Listen, I was so angry that I stormed and cursed around the room. I felt like punching the wall. And, of course, there was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym. But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. I would have pulled it because I didn’t want to hear people say, “Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy.”


I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity.


And I would have gotten away with it. I am a powerful literary figure and the pseudonym user is an unknown guy who has published maybe a dozen poems in his life. If I’d kicked him out … he might have tried to go public with that news. And he would have been vilified and ignored. And I would have been praised. Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now.


But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world. And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular. But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. But that’s not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.


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