There’s a disturbing scandal gripping the world of poetry, and no, it’s not the one you think.
First of all, is it really a surprise to anyone that Best American Poetry was caught with its hand in the “racists-only” cookie jar? You know, the one that your mom keeps way up on the highest shelf because she cares about you turning out to be a decent person?
In fact, if Best American Poetry hadn’t had a racist bent this year, it would have been the first time in the history of David Lehman’s life that the anthology wasn’t somehow discriminatory or outright racist (I see you, Tony Hoagland.).
Even still, Michael Derrick Hudson pretending to be Yi-Fen Chou is not the real scandal.
The real scandal is the fact that anyone at all still cares about what’s being published in Best American Poetry. It is embarrassing and downright shameful that us lovers of poetry haven’t already boycotted the venture and forced it to abdicate its grimly ironic title.
The real scandal is that no one cares that the state of poetry is a Kafkaesque Cirque du Soleil of tightrope academics, nepotist acrobats, and desperate clowns; they just want to be able to shame a racist from the rafters.
The real scandal is that Sherman Alexie thought that Michael Derrick Hudson’s formulaic MFA-calibre poem was good enough to be included among the “best american poetry” of 2015. Ultimately, this act alone is proof that every artistic impulse that Alexie has ever had has been fundamentally flawed. If you think that’s extreme to say, please go read the poem.
The real scandal is that we have created, and continue to sustain, a culture where name and identity are given more value and attention than art and the truth of language.
Now, would you believe that Michael Derrick Hudson and I aren’t so different after all? You might even say we’ve got a lot in common; well, that is if you don’t consider gender, race, orientation, class, economic status, desire to impress Sherman Alexie, desire to be published by Prairie Schooner, desire to use the term “oriental” in daily life, lifetime publication record, industry connections, 100% of our aesthetic sensibilities, and highest degree earned (unless I’m mistaken, and Hudson also has a PhD).
Racism notwithstanding, Hudson scammed a system that deserves to be scammed and scammed over and again: the poetry oligarchy. And for that, and that alone, I can commend the effort. However, because Hudson was seeking to advance himself at the expense of others, he is no more than a measly Street Troll in my eyes, and a slightly racist one at that, ignorant of his white male privilege.
Although, like Hudson, I’m no stranger to adopting a pseudonym or two to try to get published. And that’s what this is all about.
Long before Yi-Fen Chou was even a twinkle in the Internet outrage machine’s bionic eye, old Ted here was literally ankles-deep in acceptance letters from editors of journals that Hudson would pretend to be a transgender Syrian refugee just to receive a non-form rejection from.
How did I do it, you ask? Easy. I thought of a name so unique and provocative that no editor could possibly resist its allure, a name that reminded of the old East in times of yore. That name: John Ashbery. Three years before Yi-fen Chou sparked an outrage, “John Ashbery” was firing up a little scam of his own.
For the first time, dear reader, I am choosing to open Ted’s fabled Vault of Gimmicks, and pull from its orchard a fruit from my Long Con tree before it has reached full maturation. Behold:
What you see may at first glance be mistaken for an e-mail sent from America’s most famous living poet, John Ashbery. As you will see, the poetry editor of Ploughshares—one of the most revered literary journals of today—made that very mistake.
I did not know how John Skoyles and my other marks would react to an e-mail from Ashbery, but I assumed in this case it would go something like this: He would feel a rush of joy and anticipation upon receiving an e-mail from one of his living heroes, and immediately thereafter, hundreds of spotlit flaming red flags would flood his field of vision and quickly cut off all sensation but the sound of the air raid siren blaring outwardly toward him from this unquestionably phony piece of shit e-mail.
To my surprise, exactly the opposite happened. This is the e-mail “John Ashbery” received back from John Skoyles but two weeks later:
That’s right. John Skoyles wanted so badly to believe that his hero would submit to him, he ended up convincing himself that two poems I wrote in an afternoon were definitely and unequivocally authored by John Ashbery.
On top of that, he had to have ended up performing an olympic-level mental gymnastics routine to convince himself that an 85-year old man—a man who only knows what “the internet” is because it’s an entry in his leatherbound copy of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary—created the way too on-the-nose firstname.lastname@example.org, just so he could respond digitally to a solicitation from Ploughshares that their records should have shown had never existed in the first place.
And that’s not even taking into account the fact that one of the poems I sent him was actually titled “Lawn Gnoam Chomsky.” The poem that was accepted, “Significant Hill,” ended up making the final cut in my poetry demo, Soft Opening. I didn’t realize how daring, inventive, and provocative it was until Skoyles helped boost my confidence.
Ultimately, I decided not to pursue publication of the poem. After a handful more back and forth correspondences with the editors, I abandoned the lie. I had no interest in the money. I had no desire to risk harming anyone’s career. I didn’t care that I could have had my poetry published in a nationally renowned outlet. I just wanted to prove to myself that my quest to restore poetry’s corrupted soul was justified. I wanted to remind myself why I was here and how there is still much work to be done.
Honestly, I don’t fault Skoyles or Alexie or any other victim of the lure of “big success.” Any editor could be duped at any time. The identity of an author, one’s journal’s reputation, these are obstructions that keep us from truth, the only source from which poetry draws breath.
I must keep saying it until someone listens: So long as the power a name holds is more preciously held than the power of real poetry, then real poetry will not have life. We must open our eyes and see that if identity is allowed to trump truth, we are courting our own small death.
Oh, and by the way, remember our friend “John Ashbery” from before? Well, I’m not going to say where, and I’m not going to say how, but I will say that one of “his” poems is out there, published and in the public sphere for the world to read. I guess some tales must remain untold.