Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Third Option in Yellowfacegate

I have great respect and admiration for Sherman Alexie. He is a very intelligent, humorous, talented storyteller. We met as students at Washington State University in 1987 when my best friend, Yakama poet Arthur Tulee, introduced us in the cafeteria one day because of a complicated situation involving the university literary journal.

I have seen Sherman three times over the years giving his enlightening and entertaining readings. I saw his very first reading when he performed as Lester Falls-Apart at Powell's Books in Seattle in 1991, a bookstore in Denver in 1995 when I was a hitchhiking street musician, and a university bookstore in Anne Arbor, Michigan in 2005 when I was a graduate student in cartography.

Because I am acquainted with his personality and world view, detected from our few conversations and reading his stories and poems, I knew he would have an honest explanation of his thinking process for his decision to publish the poem in Best American Poetry when Yellowfacegate exploded several days ago. I waited for his justification while reading a vast array of responses from all sides of the issue.

Like many others, reading his justification only increased my admiration for his integrity. Though I trust that he felt he made the right decision to publish the poem, I disagree and feel he should have chosen one of the other dozens of poems he loved as much.

It is interesting that Sherman felt he had only two options, publish the poem and weather the expected storm of vilification from all his long-time allies and loyal readers, or don't publish it and feel guilty that he exercised his power of editorship to exclude a poem he loved because it was published under false pretenses of a European-American male appropriating the persona of a Chinese-American female.

If I had been in the same dilemma, I would have chosen a third option that I feel would have denied the poem publication in the famous anthology while at the same time publicly acknowledging the situation. Sherman could have written about the situation in the editor's introduction, presenting the same criteria and thoughts that he expressed in his letter of justification for his editorial decision.

The act of appropriation would not have been rewarded with publication, and yet at the same time the incident would have been publicly acknowledged in a paragraph where Sherman could have described in detail what happened, and presented the name of the poem he felt deserves recognition.

I have to admit, I do not care for the poem at the center of the controversy, and most of the poems in most editions of the Best American Poetry don't do much for me personally, but that is because I have always been completely outside the official academy of poetics.

Over the past 30 years, during which I have written around 8,000 poems, and a 122,000-line epic poem, I had never taken a class in poetry, nor attended any semester-long workshops, until the past five years when I attended two online classes, and attended the local Chattahoochee Valley Writers Conference two years in row. I have only managed to get 13 poems published, and am self-publishing my epic in seven volumes because no publisher, large, small, or university wanted to publish it.

I have developed my own poetics and sense of aesthetics over many years of writing based on long-established principles of narrative and lyrical techniques, and only recently have I begun to connect to living poets online and started getting a feel for a wider range and in some cases completely alternate set of principles for the composition of poetry.

Sherman, as all editors do, chose the poems he felt are the best, but I think he could have chosen the third option in Yellowfacegate, and that would have been to not publish the poem but discuss the incident in the introduction, which would have fostered a far less hostile and vituperative response while initiating the potentially productive conversations necessary to correct the institutional problems that plague PoBiz.

Sherman is an intelligent and caring human being, so I am confident that he and all the other poets singing together in this country will continue to grow from this situation into a chorus of shared American voices. 

Hermead Epic of Philosophers
865,000 words in 122,000 lines of blank verse
Editions for sale:

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