The Unbearable (White) Maleness of US Poetry: And How We Can Enable a Structural Response to Literary Yellowface and Gender Inequity in Publishing
On Labor Day, news broke widely that White writer Michael Derrick Hudson’s poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” is included in the annual anthology, The Best American Poetry 2015. Hudson originally published this poem under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou, committing both an act of literary yellowface and identity theft of a real person’s name.
Explaining his use of an overtly-ethnicized pen name, Hudson nonchalantly explains, “after a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me.” Hudson relays the poem got rejected 40 times under his name and 9 times under the pen name before being accepted for publication on the 50th try. He unabashedly concludes, “If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”
Hudson’s comment makes me wonder, though: was he really persistent enough? Perhaps by the 50th time, this poem could have been published under his own name. His “strategy” makes clear he believes he is somehow jumping the line – and that people of color, particularly women of color, are somehow at the head of it (or at least ahead of him, a White male). This line is imaginary even as racism and sexism and colonialism are not. There is a larger order to publishing – and the data don’t support Hudson’s conclusions.
Folks have called out Hudson’s entitlement, White privilege, and fallacious (phallacious) sense of the benefits writers of color have simply by being who we are – a stance that relies upon the assumption that any success we earn isn’t connected to the diligent work of our crafts and talents.
For example, “nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers” in 2011 and 73% of the women published in Poetry in 2014 identify as White. What makes it possible then to believe literary “reverse racism”? Structural White supremacy – which beyond being a doctrine of White superiority fosters structures that make everyday racial inequity possible.
Many writing outlets have “had an overall ratio of 75 men to 25 women” writers. What makes it possible then to believe literary “reverse sexism”? Structural male supremacy – which beyond being a doctrine of male superiority fosters structures that make everyday gender inequity possible.
For Hudson, the following elements help constitute (White) excellence: detailed records, persistence, strategic subterfuge, and die-hard belief in the allure of the exotic (female) Oriental. These elements are also central to male supremacy and privilege.
It is not enough to call out Hudson’s literary yellowface: we must also lay bare the male privilege and entitlement at work here. When we do, we see the larger economic inequity that enables Hudson’s voice to rise even as women of color struggle to achieve publishing parity.
On the economy of male poetry & privilege
Alongside being a poet, I work as an advocate to end gender violence primarily in communities of color. My work connects issues of economic security for survivors of violence and the need for structural policy change to enable individual and community safety. My day-to-day work roots and seeds my analysis here – which weaves together analyses of economic access, gender, and race to spotlight the unbearable (White) maleness of U.S. poetry and literary publishing more broadly.
Because most poets know publication rarely pays, on Labor Day I had to ask: who in the world has time and resources enough to be able to send a piece of poetry out into the world 50 times? Even as a non-profit consultant with flexible hours, I feel grateful to the gods of time if I’m able to send out a handful of submissions a month. In part, I chose to become a consultant because when Terrain Tracks, my debut poetry collection won a national award for publication, I barely had time for readings and marketing given I was running a crisis response, community-based organization. Even so, I plumbed the time I had, running at all ends.
Hudson is a symptom of a larger structural disparity. In a country where, for the same work, women still earn 79 cents to a man’s dollar (resulting in $10,762 in lost earnings), economic disparity (including our access to time and resources) is a structural issue – one we need to fight with structural responses.
In the spectrum of U.S. economic inequity, the deepest gap is faced by Latina women who are paid 55% of what White men earn. Asian American women fare better than other women of color. Even so, as a group, we still earn 84% of what White men earn. Not only does this statistic not parse out the varied populations within Asian American (the range of U.S.-born to migrants to refugees with varying educational and economic access) but upon first glance, it also doesn’t reflect the gender disparity within Asian American communities – that an Asian American woman earns $10,840 less than Asian American male counterparts (and $11,354 less than White men). It pays to be a man – literally.
We know structural economic inequity is part of our nation’s fabric. How else does a gendered economic inequity appear? Male overconfidence – the kind that enables someone to send out a poem after it’s been rejected 49 times.
A recent study on crowdfunded projects indicates that the disproportionate number of male entrepreneurs is a result of male hubris or as the Business Insider headline states “A study finds men are overconfident and immodest – which may be why they’re more successful as entrepreneurs.” The NPR news piece states, “Analysis finds women are less likely to be arrogant about mistakes and more likely to be humble about their achievements. Men are more likely to disregard market signals that their ideas are flawed.”
NPR reporter Shankar Vedantam provides detail, explaining, “If you fail the first time, it’s actually a strong predictor that you’re going to fail the second time. So women who opt out are in some ways making a rational decision. But the thing is it isn’t always clear what’s going to work. So men fail more often than women reaching their goal, but because men are so overconfident, they try again and again and again. And, in fact, they try so often that at some point something sticks, they get funded, and they succeed…The researchers find that when the first projects of these entrepreneurs succeed, men are much more likely to take that as a vote of confidence and say, look, the market thinks I’m a genius…Women are much more likely to say, I just got lucky, or I had lots of friends. In other words, they’re much more likely to be humble.”
I’m sure you already see the echoes between our larger economic world and the infamous case of Hudson’s poem being published after 49 failures and then anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2015. Poetry – and all art-making – is entrepreneurship. You are constantly sharing your creations as innovations, inviting people’s attention and emotional (and monetary) investment, and striving to build a base of loyal supporters. You are also perpetually striving to find markets for publication, networks that can assist in getting your creations out into the world or support you (residencies, grants, etc.) in the work of being a writer. And as a writer of color, one is always seeking unequivocal community.
Based on my work on women’s economic security in our country, I want to make clear that men’s overconfidence and women’s humility is not simply a feeling or conditioned response (which it is) but a structural reality rooted in our unequal access to capital, networks, and capacities to take risk – and to appear aggressive as opposed to likable, learners as opposed to reckless fools, held in a community of support as opposed to having a community to support from our monetary and emotional labors.
Someone like Michael Derrick Hudson may have time and world enough to send out a poem 50 times for publication. But women’s lived realities are that we are rarely given 50 chances to succeed before someone calls not our work but us a failure.
Given the structural economic inequity we work in, I am curious to know: what percentage of women of color poets have time enough to send out a submission 50 times? How many women of color poets do not have competing day jobs, competing caretaking responsibilities? How many women of color poets have access to community support and to 50 different channels for publication? How many women of color get told, it didn’t work 49 times but the 50th may be a winner? (Admittedly, this sounds far-fetched for anyone but then we have the incredible case of Michael Derrick Hudson.)
In the collision of male hubris and female humility in the business world, the result is that women own only 30% of all U.S. enterprises. As the study authors note, women’s “decreased hubris” results in “23.2% fewer female-led foundings…than would have occurred if women were as immodest and overconfident as men.”
Publishing is a business. Publishing does not operate separate to the larger U.S. economy. For the first time, the 2014 Publishers Weekly salary survey asked questions on racial diversity in the industry. The immense disparity led them to make the following statement: “While it’s no surprise that the publishing sector is overwhelmingly white, the lack of diversity is a bit eye-opening: of the 630 respondents who identified their race, 89% described themselves as white/Caucasian, with 3% selecting Asian and another 3% indicating Hispanic. Only 1% said they are African-American.”
The survey summary goes on to express, “The dearth of minority employees directly affects the types of books that are published, industry members agreed, and for this issue to be addressed, there needs to be more advocates for books involving people of color throughout the business.”
This is true – and a necessary call for action. The survey summary also points to significant gender inequity: “Meanwhile, the pay gap between men and women–the other well-known imbalance in the industry–continued in 2013, even though women accounted for 74% of the publishing workforce and men only 26%.” Women have a numerical predominance in the business and yet men’s average compensation was $85,000 while women’s was $60,750.
We know the playing field of publishing is not equal. This Wikipedia list includes 23 women’s presses in operation – worldwide. The U.S. portion of these is 8 – though the list clearly has gaps as publishers like Belladonna* and Kore Press are missing.
As with the absence of female-led businesses, this means that, due to structural inequality, we are missing a bevy of female-owned publishing houses. We are missing a trove of books, poems, and art from women (particularly women of color) because the social, racial, and economic conditions around us are stacked against us. We should ask and want to know, given structural economic inequity including access to time, resources, and networks: how many women of color poets make it to a first book? How many publish a first book but never a second? How many years does it take for a woman of color’s first or second or third book to come out vs. a White male’s? What investment do presses make in published women of color in terms of fostering speaking engagements, book tours, and additional opportunities for publication?
The work of a writer is to write. But the work of an author is far more – networking, sending out submissions, cultivating contacts and audiences, constant marketing. In general, the publishing market is bleak. And yet, let us acknowledge even the bleakness is not equal. Let us acknowledge talent or persistence is not the deciding variable which prevents women of color poets from moving from writer to author. Let us acknowledge poets too work in a gendered racialized economy. Let us acknowledge women of color poets need an infinite persistence – and more – to make it in this landscape.
On the economy of Best American Poetry
One figure in Sherman Alexie’s breakdown of his 2015 anthology selections took my breath away: “Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.”
In this case, Hudson is part of the 1%. And yet, his work at the Allen County Public Library may also afford some part of the advantage gained by the 99% of working professors in the anthology – a steady income along with the opportunity to read and write, engage others about reading and writing, and network with readers and writers as part of one’s work and earned income.
Don’t get me wrong. I have taught myself and teaching is brutal – especially when it comes to one’s own writing. There are always papers to grade, students to mentor, and university committees or events to shepherd. I am not suggesting teaching in academia (with its own inequities) is a panacea. Nor am I commenting on the vitality and importance of the other 74 poems and poets in the anthology: I love the work of Aimee Nezhukumatathil to Rajiv Mohabir, Natalie Diaz to Evie Shockley, Saeed Jones to Monica Youn.
My concern is structural: what does is say about the state of U.S. poetry if 99% of the poets included in this anthology are professors? When we say poetry, do we really only mean the academy? What other versions of the best U.S. poetry should we be codifying, promoting, and sharing?
I’m not interested in Alexie’s choices alone. Yes, there has been a lot of criticism and support for Alexie’s decision to keep in Hudson’s poem. Yet, Alexie is one editor within the landscape of the Best American Poetry series – which has been around for nearly 30 years. I’m interested in how the anvil of this moment shows a larger arc of history.
What do we see when we examine an overarching history of Best American Poetry? Folks often speak to the contents of an anthology for representation. These contents are determined by the editors. And when we look at the series editors from 1988-2015, we discover a remarkable inequity of representation in this position of power.
Last weekend, I undertook the labor of tracking the 29 Best American Poetry anthology editors by identified categories such as education, profession, gender, race, sexual orientation, and age at time of editing as shared on public biographies primarily from online sites like The Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets. For gender identity, I utilized pronouns as markers. I noted when people were identified by specific race and sexual orientation. I also noted when biographies indicated a partner (same sex and/or heterosexual). I counted Harold Bloom due to his compilation anthology (the best of the best of) but did not include David Lehman as the series editor (though doing so would only buttress the case below). I am curious how self-reports may show multi-racial lineages, additional information on orientation and partnerships, and help fine-tune these numbers further.
After my data logging, here’s what I discovered. In the history of the Best American Poetry series:
- Only 1 woman of color has edited the anthology – Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Poet Laureate, Rita Dove;
- When broken down by gender, 72% of editors (21) are identified as male and 28% female (8);
- Only 5 of the 29 editors (17%) are identified as people of color and/or Native with 14% of editors identified as African American (4) and 3% Native (1) – leaving 83% of editors (24) as likely part of the dominant unmarked group: White. None of the 29 editors has been identified as Latin@ or Asian American. Furthermore, 3 of the 5 people of color served as editors in the last 5 years;
- 3 gay men and 1 lesbian woman are identified as serving as anthology editors (14%);
- 66% of the 6 editors who were identified as married had artist partners and all 6 were in heterosexual relationships;
- the average age of an anthology editor the year of its release was 59 and of the 5 anthology editors who served in their 40s, 80% were identified as people of color;
- professionally, 97% of the editors have been or are professors and 97% have college degrees with 75% of this group holding post-graduate degrees; and,
- the editor pool includes 12 Pulitzer Prize-winners and 8 Poet Laureates (often the same people).
These numbers can be deepened and nuanced – and should be. In fact, we should be enabling such ongoing counts to lay transparent both the arc of inequity and a path for progress. Like publishing generally, the Best American Poetry series has a long way to go before it can demonstrate gender, racial, and economic access in its editorial body.
Moreover, it is shocking to put these two facts together: 1) in his language, Hudson used an Asian American woman’s name to place his poems; 2) there has been only 1 identifiable woman of color editor and 0 Asian American editors of the Best American Poetry series. It is abysmal when poetry, which could be the most democratic of art forms, is reinforced as the locus of the privileged White male.
A structural problem requires a structural response
The Best American Poetry series is not alone in its limited representation. It too operates in a structural dynamic of publishing markets and houses.
And yet, we don’t have to be satisfied with inequity. These chasms in access show we must foster a structural response. Here are a few ideas to further equity:
- At the 9/24 anthology launch, Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman can speak directly to the inclusion of Michael Derrick Hudson’s work and how this controversy will alter future anthologies from the selection process to contents to editing to promotion;
- The next editors of the anthology could be a collective of women of color poets across diverse communities and be given the latitude to set criteria for their poem selection including expanding the definition of “publication” to contemporary, community-based formats. Excellence can – and should – be reframed to include working in partnership, in community, and having each other’s backs in the editing process – because it is too easy to throw stones at one editor from an historically-oppressed community. Indeed, there should be a long line of people of color and indigenous collective editors in the years to come;
- Poets from the anthology – especially White poets – can plumb the 9/24 launch to speak to gender, racial, and economic inequity in the U.S. by referencing laws, publishing statistics, etc. Participating poets can also celebrate voices and poetry community by sharing the poems of women of color and Asian American poets – their own and ones from folks who are not able to be at the launch. Or, share poems beyond the pages of the anthology by your own definition of what is best American poetry. We need not sacrifice critique nor celebration: our lives show that every day we live in such multiple spaces simultaneously;
- Online journals and sites with Hudson’s poems can link to articles on his use of yellowface and add a line to his bio with his own words: this poem was published with a pen name “as a strategy for ‘placing’ poems”;
- Teach this historical moment and how it is possible, in 2015, to have literary yellowface. Alongside this incident, teach the larger structures of violence and exclusion that made this moment possible;
- Monitor publishing houses and demand they strive for annual progress in workplace diversity, pay equity, books published, and author compensation and promotion;
- Support women and people of color presses, residencies, grants, special publication issues, and organizations such as Canto Mundo, Cave Canem, Kundiman, VIDA, and VONA;
- Continue – White people and people of color alike – to show solidarity for writers of color. The recent #ActualAsianPoet movement and the Racial Nepotism Does Not Mean What You Think It Means site are among the brilliant responses that have emerged; and,
- For writers of color, nurture your inner genius, resilience, networks, self-love, and each other.
It’s not enough for us to bemoan Hudson’s literary manspreading. Beyond a strategy for placing poems, we need strategies for fostering equity. I’d love to hear your ideas for challenging structural inequity with structural responses: my hope is this list jumps off conversations and actions to reshape publishing structures over the long haul.
As a writer of color, I’m not interested in the politics of inclusion alone. I’m invested in the project of equity. I’m invested in the difficult truths of our nation, the wide-ranging stories from our varied communities, the fragile affirmations and fierce resistances arced in our lines, stanzas, and sentences, the joy and mischief of being who we are. I am interested in the world beyond the gaze of who is in power. I am interested in re-shaping the structures that mitigate our lives. I am moved by the world as we write it, as we live it, as we continue to re-create it to honor our fullest selves.
Purvi Shah inspires change as a non-profit consultant, anti-violence advocate, and arts activist. In 2008, during her tenure as Executive Director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, she won the inaugural SONY Social Service Excellence Award for her leadership fighting violence against women. In 2011, she served as the Artistic Director for Together We Are New York: Asian Americans Remember and Re-Vision 9/11, a community-based poetry project to highlight the voices of Asian Americans during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She has taught underserved youth, organized social justice convenings, and spearheaded policy change around language access. She is the author of Terrain Tracks and Dark Lip of the Beloved: Sound Your Fiery God-Praise. She is known for her sparkly eyeshadow and raucous laughter. Discover her work at http://purvipoets.net or @PurviPoets.