Michael Derrick Hudson is an American poet from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hudson’s poems have been published in several journals and literary magazines, including The Georgia Review, Washington Square and Fugue. Five of his poems were named co-winners of the 2014 Manchester Poetry Prize. Some of his poems have also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
All in all, Hudson is a moderately successful poet, perhaps not quite popular enough to justify quitting his day job, although as a poet that fact often has little to do with success in the industry. Hudson remains employed at the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne and writes poetry during his free time.
Recently, Hudson has received a great deal of attention from the media, but not for the reasons a working poet might hope for. Instead of being praised for his newest poem, Hudson is accused of being a racist and donning “yellow face” in order to get his work published.
Hudson’s poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” was included in the Best American Poetry anthology, so it might seem strange why Hudson is being criticized for a poem that some believe to be among the best in the country.
It’s not the contents of the poem that are garnering the bulk of the criticism—although people have criticized it for its lack of focus, as well as its use of definite articles in the title (i.e., there are only two “the’s” but multiple nouns)—it’s the way Hudson went about getting it published and the pseudonym he used to get published. Although Hudson is the author of the poem, his is not the name attributed to it in the anthology, but rather the Chinese name Yi-Fen Chou.
But using a pseudonym in the publishing industry is not uncommon and doesn’t usually have negative implications. Hundreds of authors and poets, from Stephen King to J.K. Rowling, have used pseudonyms during their literary career.
Reasons cited for using pseudonyms are as diverse as the people who use them and are anything from escaping biases within the publishing industry (such as men writing romance or women writing science fiction), as well as having the option to publish a piece with anonymity.
It becomes apparent from the myriad examples of pseudonyms in the publishing industry that all writers either choose a generic name or one similar to their own. However, it should also be noted that nowhere is it explicitly stated that a writer can’t choose a pseudonym different from their own in gender or ethnicity. Someone probably should have mentioned that to Hudson.
The problem isn’t the fact he chose to use a pseudonym. What is problematic is that Hudson used the pseudonym of a person who would be considered a minority in the publishing industry (and made it worse, seeing as women only make up a quarter of the writers in the industry) and was rewarded for the diversity he brought to the industry.
That doesn’t seem right, especially when the poem was celebrated for its unique tone.
Perhaps that says something about the publishing industry, something about how they only value the works of white writers or poets who sound like they are white. No matter the name attached to “The Bees,” the poem was the same every time it was submitted, as Michael Derrick Hudson and Yi-Fen Chou.
Or perhaps it says that the standards for poets of color are less than that of white poets, so “The Bees” seems like a better-written poem when juxtaposed next to a Chinese name.
Neither of those things are good things to say about writers or the publishing industry, but perhaps the worst thing about Hudson’s poem is the fact that its inclusion in the BAP anthology took the opportunity of recognition away from an actual poet of color.
If Hudson’s poem had been published under his own name, or even been largely ignored by critics, there wouldn’t be as much of a problem. People probably wouldn’t even be talking about the poet who decided to use a Chinese pseudonym, because nothing came of it.
But we are talking about him because there is a bigger issue at hand that needs to be addressed. Voices of minorities in the publishing industry are being repressed, silenced by white authors hiding behind pseudonyms for the sake of diversity or trying to copy a style in search of recognition.
The industry isn’t as diverse as we try to claim it is, because if one white poet hides behind a Chinese pseudonym in an attempt to get published, others have already tried or are going to try in the future. We can’t police the issue for fear of destroying anonymity for those who wish to write about difficult subjects or keep their identities secret from the public.
What we need to do is cherish the works of poets and writers of color for their content and not for the simple sake of diversity in the field. A white male poet shouldn’t be able to win any awards posing as a Chinese-American woman, because he doesn’t know what it’s like to be either of those things.
No one has ever stated that you can’t choose a pseudonym outside of your ethnicity, but after Hudson and the theft of diversity from the industry, we might want to pencil it in. We should be striving for actual diversity, not just pretending it exists.
A truly Chinese or Chinese-American author will be able to write a poem that no white author could, and that’s what we should be celebrating.
We should strive for diversity in the content of pieces read and celebrated in the publishing industry, pieces that represent the people who wrote them, not just the names attached to them. For all we know, the person behind the name might not be who we think, and we shouldn’t risk actual diversity for the sake of names.