In Defense of Sherman Alexie

 

Copper Canyon Press Logo

 

I read yesterday with something more than dismay but less than horror of a literary scam. Perhaps I should say “more than dismay” means keen disapprobation; “less than horror” means (as far as I know) no animals or people have been harmed. (At least so far.)

Of the scam it’s enough to say a very fine American poet, Sherman Alexie, who served this year as the annual guest editor of a widely respected and venerable anthology called “The Best American Poetry” was victimized by a white poet who submitted work under an assumed Chinese name. Because the anthology reprints poems which have appeared in literary journals in the US over the course of the preceding year, the ersatz Chinese writer’s work had already appeared elsewhere under his false name.

The anthology is much beloved by poets and poetry lovers and for good reason, for though it’s difficult to prove “the best” in any arena, (the “best” is so entirely THE American hook—the “best” nonfat dairy substitute; the “best” of the “Lovin’ Spoonful”, etc.) the book always brings together remarkable poets and showcases their work in a highly readable volume.

The scam tricked Mr. Alexie and everyone else. The trickster whose poem was selected revealed himself in his contributors note, asserting he’s not of Chinese origin at all, but, golly gee, said he, isn’t it interesting his poems get rejected all the time unless he adopts a foreign name?

One should hardly think this is a probative question. As a poet myself, I can attest my rejection to acceptance rate is steep. I might be well known as a writer but my rejection rate remains high. This is the customary reception all artists receive, even those of us who’ve had some success.

The put upon, faux Chinese poet argued his poems are only evaluated if he uses a tricked out exotic nom de plume. For my money this is meretricious. Moreover it’s a cynical ruse, one that cuts two ways. It says: I won’t do the work of publication and reception under my own name; I will adopt a multicultural identity and prove that in the age of diversity respect, I too can earn respect by engaging in a sleight of hand. The first is a sin of omission, the second is a colonizing con, one that insults all artists who hail from historically marginalized positions.

Mr. Alexie, who is an award winning Native-American poet, learning of this misrepresentation, decided to keep the offending poem in the anthology, arguing con or not, the man wrote a poem. The poem can stand for itself. I admire Alexie’s liberality in defense of the poem. I also appreciate his dilemma. If he’d removed the poem he would effectively start an argument about poetry itself—who gets to write it, who doesn’t; what is freedom of speech; what is the relationship between “intentionality” in literature and “reception” by readers and editors; who, ultimately is the colonizer and who is colonized? It’s a long list of apprehensions certainly.

Me? I’m angry on behalf of Sherman Alexie who was misled and then felt he needed to stand up for art alone. I think he did the right thing.

But here is one more way to look at the this. My poetry publisher is Copper Canyon Press.

Their “logo” consists of two Chinese written figures. One represents “word” and the other “temple”. When they are placed side by side, they signify poetry in Chinese.

The ersatz Chinese poet fouled the temple. That will be his punishment. The temple will survive. No animals or people were harmed.

 

4 thoughts on “In Defense of Sherman Alexie

  1. I think the scam brings up some valid issues. Yes, some poems, essays, and other works probably get more attention and chances of publication when the name, identity and background of the author fits certain profiles. Should a piece of writing be judged in context of its writer? Sometime, I believe, yes, it should. Sometimes not. Whether the anthology under discussion was one that should have been taking this into account, whether it even did, is something to be discussed.

    With women who published back in the day using men’s names, there were overt policies that gate kept women writers out of the running . These days, it’s not quite that case, though the Citadel would have never accepted Shannon Faulkner had she IDed her self as female nor would students get the National Merit Achievement awards if they are not in the ethnic groups so specified.

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  2. Hi Elizabeth: I think differences of intention matter. For instance, George Eliot (who remains one of my heroes) published with a masculine nom de plume because it was necessary. Necessity in her time meant finding a way to resist and overcome the oppression of women.
    As far as I know, there is no contemporary oppression against white men. The ersatz Chinese poet was conflating his erroneous sense that people of color occupy a place of literary privilege (a falsehood) and his wounded sense of entitlement. That’s my take.

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  3. What strikes me about the poet who conned his way into the “Best Poetry” collection is the visible collapse of his integrity, his willingness to jump overboard in a self-serving act of cowardice and self-aggrandizement. Now he will live his “Lord Jim” moment, as Conrad describes, for the rest of his life. Someone asked in a Facebook comment: Wonder what he’ll do after this, become a Fox News commentator? The true horror behind this appalling situation will be the poet’s loss of his own sense of competence and superiority. The anthology editors made the right decision in standing aside while Michael Derrick Hudson abandoned the ship of his own authority.

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  4. I had heard about this, but you’ve covered it so beautifully and concisely. Thank you. That being said, I’m curious what you think of the women who published back in the day using men’s names. Are they subject to the same criticism?

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