On Names

I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
--from "Facing It," Yusef Komunyakaa

Last month when the Best American Poetry 2015/Michael Derrick Hudson scandal broke (Hudson, who had been included in the anthology, admitted that he employed the pen name Yi-Fen Chou “as a strategy for ‘placing’ poems”), the Asian American Writers’ Workshop launched, in a parodic move, a White Pen Name generator. I just used the generator and got the name “Richard Anderson.”

But I was recently reminded that we don’t always need to deliberately generate a white-sounding name; sometimes it gets generated for us:


Seeing the above typo from the New Directions website made me mentally chuckle as I considered how having a white pen name could be a great strategy for “placing blurbs.” I also remembered that when I was in grade school, my last name would routinely be confused for “Delong,” which, from what I can gather, is a surname of French derivation.

The Best Am Po 2015 controversy makes me think of another public controversy–the one surrounding the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The now iconic Memorial Wall was designed by Maya Lin, who won, through anonymous entry, the 1981 design competition as an undergraduate. According to Lin,

The memorial’s starkness, its being below grade, being black, and how much my age, gender, and race played a part in the controversy, we’ll never quite know. I think it is actually a miracle that the piece ever got built. From the very beginning I often wondered, if it had not been an anonymous entry 1026 but rather an entry by Maya Lin, would I have been selected?

I remember at the very first press conference a reporter asking me if I did not find it ironic that the memorial was for the Vietnam War and that I was of Asian descent. I was righteous in my response that my race was completely irrelevant. It took me almost nine months to ask the VVMF, in charge of building the memorial, if my race was at all an issue. It had never occurred to me that it would be, and I think they had taken all the measures they could to shield me from such comments about a ‘gook’ designing the memorial.

Had Michael Derrick Hudson been an architect, would he have submitted to such a competition (that was non-anonymous) with the name “Yi-Fen Chou”?

Of course not.

19 thoughts on “On Names

  1. This somewhat confuses me—“Had Michael Derrick Hudson been an architect, would he have submitted to such a competition (that was non-anonymous) with the name “Yi-Fen Chou”?

    Of course not.”

    Is the point here, largely, that one can/will do things in the poetry world that one wouldn’t dare in a more major sphere? If this is what was meant–I agree. But I’m not sure the comparison gets one much: designing a public monument–which will presumably receive decent if not significant payment–strikes me as ways away from having one poem in a journal (even one that is well-known). Hmm, maybe this conclusion’s of course not isn’t insinuating MDH is just a class-a shithead, and that he did something that while not in the clear, is far likelier in a medium which lends itself to recklessness/wanton skirling of propriety, a dynamic which can but is by no means guaranteed to be thrilling.

    • Hi, Adam — Yes, I wanted to set up the comparison for some of the reasons you start to articulate. The Maya Lin case relates to issues of artistic vision and integrity in the face of intense discrimination–and it, of course, is about public memory and historical trauma. Much more is on the line. On the other hand, the MDH case, in my mind, is so petty. As you say, the stakes are so low: “one poem in a journal.” So, for me, thinking about this juxtaposition makes him seem even more of “a class-a shithead”!

    • They are. I can’t say I agree with Komunyakaa’s sensibility as a whole (I’m thinking now of his attack on certain experimental practices in Best Am Po 2003) but “Facing It” is a very powerful piece, indeed.

  2. I know this is just about the dumbest thing to write–given that everyone seems to agree–: I think what MDH did is more interesting than only being “shitty” which is not to flip it into healthsome vitamin (simultaneous needn’t mean cancellation). Someone–I forget who–wrote well if MDH was consciously trying to call attention to the politics of names in a large-scale politically progressive way, that would have been one thing. I agree that the theory behind the move was not sophisticated; but I’m not sure that, entirely, matters–rather I’m not sure it invalidates the potential interest of unintended effects. I guess what I mean is what he did is so banal, yes; it’s so not to be done and he did it and got rewarded and I think there is interest there (potentially), in literalizing an idea so easily proven bad. I read the offending poem and actually think it’s not bad–not great, but no worse than many other not great poems–and I do think the false name attached adds interest–it’s so basic but the trouble it stirs is so complete, which engages me. And, and this interest me too, it’s a really flimsy aesthetic strategy, as it does not lend itself to endless adaptation; unlike, say, the prosody of N Mackey, which could become the vector for work which is quite different from his, what MDH did is the one-off type; its very minorness, to a degree, constitutes why it’s so majorly appropriately deemed crap; this seems to me to be an amazing aporia (with neither aporia nor amazing automatically implying anything good). It may be what MDH did interests me because I’m interested in don’ts which far more than less have consensus. I cringe whenever I read a writer state that nothing should be off-limits in writing; I think this is totally naïve/obfuscating bullshit. I can’t fathom an act of writing not produced under the conditions of a web of un-spoken don’ts–major don’ts, not Pound’s don’ts. And then, and this is likely the most interesting element–people have pointed out that what MDH did does not really work in reverse, that Asian-American poets are unlikely to feel able to adopt an ostensibly white pen-name. Although what ends up being made apparent is quite terrible, I am fascinated by how such a simple writing act so thoroughly wrecks/reveals the gross intactness of some subject positions such that they themselves aren’t wrecked. Conversely, I am glad that so many have given the bird to this wreckage.

    For weeks I took the stance that I had best not try and write regards this event; I hope I haven’t completely proved myself a dumbass by doing so.

    • I think I see what you’re saying, Adam. My sense is that the Araki Yasusada affair accomplished similar things–or created similar effects–but it was, of course, coming from a much more sophisticated theoretical background. And it seems to me that publishing the Yasusada materials was riskier, more gutsy–more was on the line. In contrast, MDH’s gesture seems so lazy since he was only interested in appropriating the name and not fictionalizing a persona (and appropriating a particular history).

  3. Bit more: I find it interesting how the actual lines of the poem, essentially, don’t matter; the name is the crucial issue–it’s almost like MDH inadvertently wrote a conceptual poem. Too, it engages me that in some ways the problem is that he abandoned his fraud–chose self-serving instead of honoring the practice selected for that piece; like those who are, rightfully, angry about his disregard for the importance of names/naming, he too agrees names matter, that they are not–ultimately–primarily the domain of play.

  4. There is a concern of the literary world to seem/be more inclusive of minorities and women. I read an article in Poets and Writers where they broke down the gender discrepancy between men and women being placed in High Culture periodicals such as the Paris Review. The implication of course was a lack of gender parity. I think the interesting question is whether his poem was accepted because of the name or the quality of the poem: an answer which is, of course, impossible to determine. Regardless, this antic smacks of White Male “meritocracy” push-back, meritocracy being the incantation used by White Males when they feel a decision has been made in order to put a brown/yellow/black/female face into a high place. I say ‘they’ because I don’t necessarily agree that meritocracy is at stake in such a dynamic. Thanks for bringing my attention to this issue.

    • I tend to agree that this smacks of a (white male) move to pit meritocracy against diversity. Or as Charles Bernstein wrote of Araki Yasusada–“the apotheosis of the poetics of resentment …resentment against the apparent new entitlements to those often invisible or inaudible in previous representations of contemporary literature.” But, in this case, resentment has given way to another sense of entitlement.

  5. OH I agree the “Yasusada” experiment was/is far more sophisticated–both in intent and execution. For me, that work really works, to the degree that I have yet to read an argument against it that strikes me as stronger than ones which deem it positively/productively engaging (not to be mistaken for finding its subject cheering; the bombing of Hiroshima is thoroughly upsetting); that said, I have not read the anthology of responses published three or so years ago–though I am pretty sure I have read individual pieces. The Bernstein quotation does not strike me as all that impressive/to underestimate how dynamic the Yasusada text can be deemed. His quotation could apply to just about any work with uncomfortable/questionable politics.

    I hope someone writes a really thorough analysis of why it is that “Asian” names seem to lend themselves to these forgeries (this issue has been touched on, yes). This “trend” strikes me as a really potentially engaging lens for examining attitudes towards race and/or ethnicity, and specifically how the blanket category “non-white” and thus the general dichotomy “white”/”non-white” is likely to elide how within that “non-whiteness” there’s an uneven field of relations to the white hegemon and vice-versa. White-Privilege/White Supremacist dynamics are simply irritating as fuck, yes; so even as I am I guess making stuff complicated, I also get that there’s a case to be made that it’s simply shit. Hmm maybe this is a general problem of discoursing about social issues, and particularly in an “intellectual” manner.

    • Well, to put it simply–I think that orientalism explains “why it is that ‘Asian’ names seem to lend themselves to these forgeries.”

  6. I’d argue that Doubled Flowering needs Yasusada as the author not so its white writer can get published–the actual poetry is good enough, or better than that depending–but because it really is integral: the subject of the book, to a great degree, is forgery. As Marjorie Perloff has astutely pointed out, KJ frequently includes clues demonstrating that AY is fictive. Without AY as author, does Doubled Flowering make sense? That even now, when everyone knows AY is not real, Yasusada is still named and not only Kent Johnson, if Johnson is named at-all (as with Michael’s response to me), suggests that a bizarre alchemy has occurred and Yasusada does exist. Hmm, let me, to a degree, revise–KJ does need Yasusada to get published; the name is too integral to the book’s meaning; it doesn’t make much sense otherwise, and could easily become more offensive–it would need to be a different book. But then, too, it needs to be exposed as falsification to do its full work–the forgery and the undoing create the complete circuit for identifying its significance. The MDH poem would, on the contrary, I’d argue, work way better with the false name intact.

  7. Uncomfortable in earlier comment should be nixed–all wrong in its timbres/connotations. I largely mean, the CB quotation, for example, seems to me like it could apply to many paragraphs of Harold Bloom at his worst–his “School of Resentment” diatribe is not much of a point/seriously underestimates how smart the crème de la crème of “resentment” (that very word choice is ultra reductive) is–which is too bad because when he’s being smart it can be engaging but he’s created a dumb avatar for himself.

    • Sure–Bernstein seems to be deliberately turning Bloom’s phrase around to highlight the resentment of those who resent the school of resentment.

      But MDH seems to be not so much invested in any culture war but using the battle lines of the culture war for his own individual advantage. Ultimately, he is very much of his own time–an internet era of catfishing, in which, as Kenneth Goldsmith has claimed, identity “is up for grabs.”

  8. “but using the battle lines of the culture war for his own individual advantage.”–I agree; and although its not noble, I think it’s refreshing to read someone revealing that they did something for ostensible material/careerist benefit–that artistic integrity was not the motive. In various guises, my hunch is this dynamic (within poetry) is far from rare, but rarely willingly bared. I could be way off, but integrity does strike me as a core value of poetry/poets, even those who practice integrating error, etc. The intersection of “art”-making and
    “art” marketing interests me, and how the latter may easily eviscerate any utopian hopes of the former.

    But I think I need to stop this conversation, and recognize that my interest in these things don’t matter here. Or sufficiently matter.

    I do thank you for your responses.

    • Maybe it’s not the fact that your interest doesn’t matter–I guess I still don’t quite *get* what your interest is in MDH. I suppose it’s because I think careerism, aided and abetted by the so-called program era, is rampant in literary culture and has thoroughly saturated the various institutions of conferences, publications, lit agencies, and MFA/PhD programs–so no one really *needs* to bare it. MDH is just a small cog in that massive machinery. Certainly the tense relationship between making and marketing is interesting–and a larger cultural problem. And the commodification/appropriation of racial/racialized signifiers is a larger cultural problem as well (to me, using “Yi-Fen Chou” as a “brand” is of a piece with the Redskins being the name of a football team).

      Yes, Adam–thanks for the conversation as well.

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