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Indiana poet laureate offers thoughts on poetry pen name controversy

<p>Courtesy photo</p><p>Indiana Poet Laureate George Kalamaras, who also is a professor of English at IPFW.</p>

Courtesy photo

Indiana Poet Laureate George Kalamaras, who also is a professor of English at IPFW.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 09, 2015 09:01 pm

We asked Indiana Poet Laureate George Kalamaras for his thoughts on the controversy involving Fort Wayne poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who used a Chinese pen name in a successful attempt to have one of his poems picked for inclusion in the 2015 edition of the poetry anthology "The Best American Poetry."Kalamaras, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, provided these answers via email:

Q: What are your thoughts on a poet or writer using a pen name, especially one that suggests he or she is from an ethnic or cultural group other than one to which he or she belongs?

A: I think it’s problematic for a writer to adopt a pen name that suggests he or she is from a marginalized culture. It can have negative ramifications for those groups, setting back progress in opening publishing doors to those without as much access. 

Q: How do you think this controversy will affect people's attitudes about writing and reading poetry?

A: Sadly, I suspect people might become more suspicious of publishing in general, feeding a non-generative us-against-them mentality, fueling paranoia about the so-called big, bad publishing world.

Q: Does bias exist in the selection process for poetry publication, awards and contests? What can be done to prevent or reduce it?

A: It exists less so in awards and contests, as submissions for those are normally read anonymously. For magazines, though, everyone knows, or should know, any editing is partially subjective — once you reach a certain level of expertise. Editorial decisions carry with them some degree of subjectivity because they are done by humans through a particular lens. Even discoveries in the new physics reveal that the observer actually changes the thing being observed.

People seem to be missing an important point about the controversy. In addition to the problematic nature of deception, the issue is that a person who adopts the pen name of someone from a marginalized group is a product of a culture that tends to think that more is better.

Poetry is an act of love, not an act of accumulation. The important thing is to do the work, what poet Gary Snyder calls “the real work,” as an attentiveness practice. It’s the practice itself that develops one’s consciousness. If a poet gains an audience as a result, that’s a bonus.

Q: Will there be a need for new safeguards to prevent people from using ethnic or cultural pen names to get poetry selected for publication, awards and contests? What form will those safeguards or that process take?

A: I doubt there will be new safeguards, though I imagine editors will become increasingly watchful about the possibility of the use of such pen names.


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