Pseudonyms for Poets

As a once-in-a-while (though never often enough) publishing poet, I’ve been more than a little fascinated by the recent kerfuffle/contretemps regarding Mr. Hudson’s subterfuge.

The normally unassuming world of poetry was rocked by a controversy set off by the inclusion of author Yi-Fen Chou into 2015’s edition of the Best American Poetry Anthology.

Yi-Fen Chou turned out to be the pseudonym of Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man who works as a genealogist for the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Read the article here in Christian Science Monitor: Why a white author used an Asian pseudonym for his poem

On the one hand, the act itself seems a little over-the-top, a move of some desperation by somebody for whom getting his work in print must mean an awful lot. On the other hand, in the current (perhaps always) situation, when it comes to the difficulty of getting ones work “out there” in the public –– even a public as severely limited and, dare I say, limiting, as those who read poetry –– no one should really be surprised that something like this has happened.

The general understanding these days is that serious poetry is being written BY academics FOR academics, and no matter how many essays are written about the ultimate worth of poetry, this isn’t likely to change. The contemporary poet, we’re given to believe, is a professor of writing at a legitimate university; he or she teaches because he or she can make a living doing so. The writing part of their life, which may well be more important to them than anything else they do, simply doesn’t pay the bills.

I’ve had, over the years, wonderful teachers, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student in a more or less respectable MFA program. That these teachers happen to have also been published and actively publishing poets is part and parcel of their bona fides, the things that add to their schools’ attractiveness to student X or Y. Why would (or should) the student think this is any different from anything else in our educational system?

But what about the individual who isn’t a professional academic? The person who writes, and writes well (say) for the pleasure of it, or the challenge? They’re not in a “publish or perish” situation and their daily bread doesn’t come from whatever they happen to write. And, sadly or otherwise, this would be the case with most of us. There comes a moment, in most writers’ lives, when they face the fact that they’re NOT going to win a Pulitzer, or a National Book Award, or have their novel, or memoir or book of poems chosen by Oprah Winfrey for a windfall of publicity.

Then what? One either keeps writing, hoping to get better (always hoping and working), for many mysterious reasons (perhaps because imprinting oneself on the world in some way is something we’ve always done, as humans), or one simply decides to call it quits, take up some other cudgel and push on with their life. Either decision may be considered legitimate; it’s up to the individual. But how often does one resort to something along the lines of what Mr. Hudson has done? More often than we think? More often than we know?

Some years back I began writing a series of third-person poems which had as their subject a fictitious WWII Red Army soldier I named Pavel Potopenko. I was born in 1953, and though I did serve in the US Army for four years after college (and was stationed in West Berlin for sixteen or so months, in the late seventies, as a German linguist) I think anyone could say I had no more right to write poems about such an individual and a time than I might have had a right to write poems about a priest in thirteenth century France.

But this is in a way another issue, isn’t it? How could Robert Browning write about Fra Lippo Lippi, for instance. Who is T.S. Eliot writing about in “The Waste Land?” How much could Wallace Stevens know about the (fictitious!) Shakespearean character of Peter Quince (“Peter Quince at the Clavier”)? Once you begin going down this road who knows where you stop? Will the avian kingdom eventually get up in arms (wings, excuse me) because Ted Hughes didn’t write accurately enough about his character, Crow?

Whatever one might think about these kinds of questions (and some of the commentary I’ve read on Mr. Hudson’s poem makes me think some are missing the point, and talking about the value of the voice vis-a-vis its legitimacy versus the value of the poem itself as a work of art ), I wonder who’s really at fault, here. I wonder if there is a fault. Might it be that since so few understand what contemporary poetry is really up to anyway, what difference does it make, and we’re as “angry” about this in the same way that people say they’re fed up with typical politicians and so Donald Trump seems to be a breath of fresh air. Oh. People seem to have nothing better to do with themselves than to get worked up, and fume and fuss about something that means relatively little in the long run.

It never occurred to me, for instance, to “pretend” that my Potopenko poems were anything more or less than what they were. At one point I thought to separate the sections of poems with “fake” letters to Pavel to his wife, and from her to him. I knew a Russian linguist whom I got so far as to talk with about translating some of these letters from my English to Russian, to add a sense of “realism” to the whole business. I can only imagine, now, the hew and cry such “creative license” might ultimately have generated, had such a book ended up being published and getting a little press. I have had a few of these poems appear in smaller literary journals, but I surely didn’t misrepresent myself in any way to the editors. I might have, though, were I more creative and devious than I obviously or evidently am.

The worse angels of our nature –– here, really, our contemporary culture –– tell us to win at any cost. How many of us even think along these lines, though, ultimately? I’ve worked in business for nearly all of my life and have found that most people, even there, are genuinely honest. Dishonesty is generally found out and winnowed out. The writers I’ve known throughout my life have been honest, too. The idea that we’re all out here “working an angle” seems false to me, and whatever Mr. Hudson has done he’s going to have to live with it.

His dishonesty is not, again, the end of the world, but still, but it’s something we shouldn’t not think about, no matter what we write and why we write it. It’s that why that’s essential, in the end. That’s what all this should prompt us to give a little consideration to, instead of screaming and yelling about the unfairness of it all.

I was trying to find a good quote about fairness, to end this, but the more I thought about it the more I realized I don’t need to. Any reader of this can fill that in for themselves. Or make one up. I bet you can.

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