Wednesday, September 23, 2015

on S. Alexie's inclusion of that bad poem by that one guy

A journal I used to co-edit made a concerted effort to seek out and publish outstanding poetry by female poets--we sought to achieve or strive for gender parity in our editorial choices and we made no bones about it. Come to think of it, I don't recall any of us issuing any formal public statements about it, but it was a principle by which we operated.

Does this mean we gave perhaps more attention to work of female writers? Sure. Is this a good or bad thing? Was the editorial staff all female? No. Had it been, would someone have said of us that we were practicing "gender nepotism" or some nonsense? Of course not.
Some have expressed disappointment in Sherman Alexie's use of the term "racial nepotism" in the statement he issued yesterday concerning the process he used in determining which poems would end up in BAP 2015. I, for one, have no problem with the term, though I understand those who may claim that it gives ammunition to angry white males who can say "see! I told you so!" and so on.

The truth is, the truth that we ALL KNOW and IMPLICITLY (at least) accept is that the editorial process is rarely or ever completely blind, that is governed by taste and not some objective notion of what "good" or "best" is or should be. As tastes and personal aesthetics differ, so do criteria for determining what may land in a particular editor's "zone," that is to say, that which he or she finds more interesting or more valuable than other work on the basis, at least partway, of values and identifiers outside the work itself. Will a certain editor pay more attention to POC or a particular ethnic background based on his or her own personal experiences, preferences, and agenda? Sure. Will some editors strive for parity in gender representation? Of course. Will some editors find more to like in the poetry of their friends and former students than in the slushpile of unknown? Absolutely.

I've never found anything wrong with this. At all. These are all instances of an editorial preference being played out in actual editorial process.

I think what Alexie did was brave because I think many of us, though we know editing is subective, like to pretend that publishing is a meritocracy--ideally--and that admitting to what Alexie calls "racial nepotism" is to admit that maybe angry white literary America might feel chuffed about the "fact" that the non-white editor "admits" that he looks for and gives special consideration to poems he believes to be by non-white writers. This is not wrong to admit. This is how taste works. This is how editing works. To claim that we sit down at our editor's desk without prejudice, preference, or bias is disingenuous at best, and outright bullshit at worst.

I know nothing about the middle-aged white hoosier poet who pretended to be a fake, possibly female, possibly Chinese-American poet, other than what I've read in these comment boxes. I know nothing of his motivation, nor whether or to what degree there is truth to his story of 50 rejections, his "detailed records" or what-have-you. My gut feeling is that he's an entitled douche playing a game that he thinks is funny. I don't think he really believes that it's "hard out there for the white man." I think he's just a dick. (Will his parlor game give ammunition to other angry white men? I doubt it--they don't need ammunition, they're not losing. Yet.)

Here's what else--he wrote a poem that an editor, in this case, Alexie, liked well enough to include in a smallish anthology. Out of thousands he read, he liked this poem and decided to include it--he had the agency, the sound mind, the aesthetic acumen to make a decision. Now he is standing by that decision. I see nothing at all wrong with that. To those who believe Alexie should have pulled the poem, so be it.
In the long run, in the annals of recent poetic history, in our FB news cycle, this incident will probably not be remembered (if it's remembered at all past, oh, the end of this month) as the time a white guy committed a racist act and was handled inappropriately by an editor or editors. If remembered at all, it'll be, oh, yeah, that one time that that white guy did that one thing that pissed a lot of people off during a slow news weekend. Yi-Fen Chou is not Ern Malley is not Ossian is not Yasusada is not Alvaro de Campos is not I could go on. Not even close. And Sherman Alexie is doing just fine, as I imagine that White Hoosier Poet is as well.

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