It's America's funniest poetry story.
A white guy named Derrick Hudson writes a poem called "The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve." I'm laughing already, but it gets better when you actually read the poem. Here are some sample deathless lines:
Which leads me to wonder what it is
I’m doing here, peering through a lens at the thigh-pouches/ stuffed with pollen and the baffling intricacies
of stamen and pistil. Am I supposed to say something, add/ a soundtrack and voiceover?
I think he's talking about a bee–although it could be Jesus. Love those "thigh-pouches." They sound kind of sexy. You can read the whole poem here.
At any rate, Hudson sends his bees 'n' Jesus magnum opus to 40 different magazines. Turns out that even poetry editors don't have their heads in the clouds all the time, so all 40 magazines turn the poem down. So the ever-inventive Hudson decides he's having bad luck as a white male, so he decides to resubmit the poem as a Chinese woman, taking the pen name Yi Fen-Chou, which apparently belonged to a female high-school classmate of his back home in Indiana.
This time only nine magazines turn down "The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve." Even a fake Chinese woman-author didn't seem to cut it for Hudson's hapless lyrics.
But then, suddenly, Prairie Schooner accepts the poem! No, not the Prairie Schooner Steakhouse in Ogden, Utah, but Prairie Schooner, the ultra-prestigious literary magazine affiliated with the University of Nebraska whose contributors have included the likes of Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, and Raymond Carver. Not only that, but the Schooner includes "The Bees, the Flowers" in its The Best American Poems 2015! You can't beat that for a poetical honor.
Turns out that Prairie Schooner, wanting to be oh-so racially diverse, inducted as a guest editor for the volume, American Indian writer Sherman Alexie, author of Reservation Blues and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Alexie used as one of his criteria for selecting poems for the volume…you guessed it: affirmative action:
I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color.
Well "Yi Fen-Chou" sure was a two-fer in that respect! And sure enough, 40 percent of the poems in the Alexie-edited volume are by "women and people of color."
So now, Alexie, with a certain amount of poetical egg on his face, had some 'splainin' to do:
So I went back and reread the poem to figure out exactly how I had been fooled and to consider my potential actions and reactions. And I realized that I hadn't been fooled by anything obvious. I'd been drawn to the poem because of its long list title (check my bibliography and you'll see how much I love long titles) and, yes, because of the poet's Chinese name. Of course, I am no expert on Chinese names so I'd only assumed the name was Chinese. As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I'd never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work. In rereading the poem, I still found it to be compelling. And most important, it didn't contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn't been fooled by its "Chinese-ness" because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don't see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou's public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I'd argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I'd briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the "maybe" pile that eventually became a "yes" pile.
Ha ha! He picked the poem because it had a "long title"!
And of course:
I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.
The fact that an editor chose a lousy poem for designation as one of America's "best" just because he thought its author was "people of color" is only part of the story. The most interesting part of the story to me, though, is this: The editors of a top American literary magazine couldn't tell the difference between a lousy poem and a good one. So I'm submitting my own poem to Prairie Schooner:
There once was a mag, Prairie Schooner,
That got taken by a clever buffooner.
The worst ot the fraud
It got taken later rather than sooner.
Best American poem of 2016!