Do You Use a Pseudonym to Write?

December 1st, 2015 | Posted by Steve in The Writing Life

Do You Use a Pseudonym to Write?

Have you ever used a pseudonym? And if so, why? Just curious. Having a nom de plume used to be de rigueur, back when we spoke French to sound snooty and used plumes to write. More recently, writers, like actors, seem to get along fine with their own names.

Only time I ever had a pseudonym, it was made up for me by an editor to put onto a wine column I wrote for a singles magazine — that was mocking myself, the author of a wine column in a local city magazine. I became Phil Caraff for that one article. I mean, how often do you get to write a parody of your own writing?

On a more serious note, and what impelled this question, here’s a story about a poet, Michael Derrick Hudson, whose poem was rejected 40 times under his given name but accepted when he used the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. Not only accepted but featured in 2015’s edition of the Best American Poetry Anthology.

Why white author used an Asian pseudonym for his poem
Michael Derrick Hudson says that his poem was rejected 40 times under his given name but accepted when he used the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou.

Other poets went ballistic. Read the article. They ranted about how Hudson had cheated or had broken some rule or had done this bad or that bad. Even the person who accepted the poem into the anthology admitted that he probably did so at least in part because of the Chinese name associated with it. Hudson did violate one rule: he didn’t tell the editor that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym, as is the custom (and a good one, normally).

No one, in the entire article, faced the ugly truth: that a poem written by someone with a fake Chinese name got published and given accolades when it was rejected under the man’s true name. No one seemed to think poetry should be judged on the basis of the poem itself.

But the editor did ‘fess up, writing, in the Best American Poetry 2015 blog :

I chose a strange and funny and rueful poem written by Yi-Fen Chou, which turns out to be a Chinese pseudonym used by a white poetry2015male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business. I only learned that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym used by a white man after I’d already picked the poem and Hudson promptly wrote to reveal himself.

Of course, I was angry at the subterfuge and at myself for being fooled by this guy. I silently cursed him and wondered how I would deal with this colonial theft.

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.

Do you see what happened?

I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.

So, what about you? Have you used a pseudonym for any reason?

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