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.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.