A Field Guide to the Yi-Fen Chou Case and Identity Politics in the Arts

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I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s this guy running around claiming to be Chinese, and he happens to write poetry, and, right, he’s not Chinese. Also, it worked. This guy, Michael Derrick Hudson, writing under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou, now has himself a Best American Poetry badge. He’s an imposter, a charlatan, appropriating ethnicity as a tactic for getting an accolade, or maybe as an activist performance to highlight the injustices of reverse racism. A lot of people have been talking about it, passionately, personally, with anger and frustration, laying out an arsenal of theories and logics to establish or reinforce what we might call the proper ethics of artistic identity, of identity politics and the right to voice.

At this late hour in the news cycle of the Yi-Fen Chou debacle there has been enough conversation to offer a fairly coherent set of coordinates that map the proprieties of ethnic and racial identity in contemporary American poetry, in the immediate, and in American culture more broadly construed. If you want the news, you can read what Jennifer Schuessler has to report at the New York Times. If you want to hear it straight from the editor—Sherman Alexie—who has been wringing his hands over the affair, you can read his extraordinarily thoughtful response at the BAP blog. If you want a roundup of the conversation, the Poetry Foundation has it for you.

What follows here is a rough and succinct guide to the central issues that constitute this story, the ways we think about who we are and whether we can pretend to be someone else. A nota bene—you will no doubt notice my name as an Asian one. I have many personal feelings on this matter, but for the most part my aim is simply to break down the dialogue into the most meaningful and illuminating categories that I can.

So let’s get on with it. . . .

Read the guide at Michigan Quarterly Review

Interview at New Books in Poetry


I had a fabulous conversation with Jen Fitzgerald at New Books in Poetry about the Refusal of Suitors. It was so enriching to find myself having this conversation about my work in the context of American letters more largely conceived, to field her fascinating inquiries into form and continuity of voice, to talk about my childhood, the wilderness versus the urban, the virtues of listening to ska in different seasons, and of course, to read large swaths of the collection, which she expertly (and thankfully) curated.

Does form make the poem?

Robert Frost claimed that writing free verse poetry was ‘like playing tennis without a net.’ Ryo Yamaguchi‘s poetry challenges the notion of imposing our will and wonders after the permeability of content. This poet understands the subjectivity of perception and does not insist on form, but instead loosely allows the verse to be contained.

These are the experiences of a wandering poet–one who has known many containers, natural and man-made, who knows how little the natural world tolerates containment; how felled redwoods will sprout new life from up from their horizontal trunks and wisteria will climb and reach with the wide berth of the sun’s rays.

But Yamaguchi does not write rainforests and plains, he writes the internal life, the interactions, the ‘urban sublime’ and gives it the reach the natural world. He finds amazement in all versions of beauty.

Listen to the conversation at New Books In Poetry

Publishers Weekly Review of “The Refusal of Suitors”


I’m so thrilled to have my book reviewed at Publishers Weekly!

“Searching for precision in a poetic landscape, Yamaguchi’s debut collection displays a cerebral poetics steeped in a dualism of the urban (“I jumped your turnstiles// and married myself to your multiple darks”) and the idyllic (“a garden soaked/ in yeses”).The poems alternate between short, taut blocks and spacious, long-lined reflections. Yamaguchi’s principal preoccupation is naming and calculating; the solving of equations serves as an antidote to the shiftlessness that permeates the atmosphere. . . ”

You can read the whole review at Publishers Weekly.

Book Review: “Illocality,” by Joseph Massey


Joseph Massey mentions in the refreshingly spare notes of his fourth collection Illocalitythat he first encountered his title word in the Emily Dickinson poem “A nearness to Tremendousness.” Dickinson is an apt predecessor for a poet of such deliberate cerebralness. Yet, for his fine command of image, so is William Carlos Williams, or any number of Asian short-form poets. Indeed it is the relationship between logic and image, mind and world, that drives these poems so evenly through their inquiries, that most characterizes their productive tensions. “We think / ourselves here,” Massey writes to close the opening poem “Parse.”

Read the review at NewPages

Tomaž Šalamun: A Love List of Lines


Since Tomaž Šalamun’s death at the end of last year, I have been living with his poetry, walking around with it, running my hands back and forth across its lines, coming to find in its voice a friend, even though I never took a class with him, never spoke a word to him, and hardly even know about his life.

He is the kind of poet who has this effect. Many tributes were erected when he passed. . . .

I cannot offer here what others already have, but I can follow in Merrill’s footsteps and say that for a poet of such breadth, of such aggressive exploration, experimentation, absurdism—for a poet who will always surprise, and often haunt with dark themes—he is also one who leaves me feeling deeply welcomed. His intellect is warmed through with spirit and good will, a sense that kindness is the most important of all, because it can endure.

Šalamun leaves us the most incredible gift—many collections yet to be translated into English. I look forward to the first of these, Justice, due in October from Black Ocean.

In the meantime, I want to offer, as humbly as I can, this love list of lines, moments (all drawn from The Four Questions of Melancholy, which spans his work from 1966–1995) that have been with me these past nine months. . .

Read the feature at Michigan Quarterly Review

Review Essay: Thomas Hummel’s “Letters & Buildings” and the Pleasures of Difficult Poetry


I love difficult poetry. It challenges reading itself as an endeavor and, thereby, meaning-making, imagination, voice, mood, psyche, even politics. And it can do so in an astonishing diversity of ways. One might, in fact, offer a typology of difficult poetry. Maybe a poem sends you over and over to the library, like Pound’s Cantos. Maybe it evades with an arrhythmia of syntax, like Berryman’s Dream Songs. Maybe it sloughs its lines off with seemingly little regard for a coherent sentiment, a voice of impulse and erasure, something like what John Ashbery does. Or maybe it simply overwhelms with language, with sound and light, like the poems of the wonderful contemporary poet, Joyelle McSweeney. The point is, difficult poems aren’t simply difficult; they are difficult in different kinds of ways.

And I’d like to argue that the poems in Thomas Hummel’s Letters & Buildings are difficult in one of the best kinds of ways, one that can elucidate why we ought ever to twist our faces over challenging lines.

Read the review essay at The Hairsplitter

What is Inside?: An Interview with Carrie Olivia Adams



Carrie Olivia Adams is a poet as much of the line as what’s in-between them, and her newest book, Operating Theater, is no exception. A haunting drama of the liminality of the body, this dialogue-driven play-poem asks over and over one profound question:what is inside? Steeped in Victorian surgical manuals and medical X-rays, the voices here explore the tension between the mind and the body, between subject and other, asking how we can know, and from knowing, live together, in a house, or in a city.

I had a chance to ask Carrie a few questions about this book (and film her reading from a brief section). . .

Read the interview at Michigan Quarterly Review