Thank you for your open letter to Aimee Nezhukumatathil, which is gracious and expansive and kind in so many ways; in your reaching out to comfort and encourage her, a friend and fellow poet— especially in these days immediately after the turbulence generated by a white man’s appropriation of an Asian name under which he submitted poems that got him into the Best American Poetry 2015.
Like you, I echo the sentiment you shared when you wrote, “The scandal no one is talking about” is that it is the first time for someone like Aimee who has been “producing some of the most beautiful (and widely read) books of contemporary poetry now for more than ten years” to be included in a BAP volume. I am saddened and perplexed by the fact that there are many other poets whose works I also love, and who have likewise labored long and hard, but have never been included in any BAP book though I believe they too are deserving of such an honor.
And yes, the notion of “Best” is subjective and perennially subject to critical scrutiny. “Best” has a few other variations, perhaps not as visibly in the limelight, but just as contestable: for instance, that pair usually invoked in the same breath—“Emerging” and “Established.” If one has not been singled out as “Best,” is it better to be considered “Emerging,” or “Established?” Are the latter categories related to some combination of age and publishing experience? In our measurement-besotted society, what might be the numerical difference of points, if points were to be assigned on such and such a scale, to separate each of these conditions from the other? Is it like the IQ scale where there is a mere 1 point difference between “Dull” and “Average” as between “Average” and “Superior?” Similarly, all of the labels we use in our poetry conversations and practice are of course conventions. But they hinge on institutionalized hierarchies of “mainstream” values which in their turn determine areas of privilege, where certain individuals might or might not be allowed passage, mobility; or even longevity, status, and that most elusive of elusives, success.
You wrote, “Our lives are hard to ‘say’ properly;” and though “[w]e had some level of class privilege, we got educations; we also had the protection that our skin (i.e. not Black) afforded us in the larger world. But for all of that, we both know how hard it was to get everything we’ve gotten—how hard to get attention paid to us in a workshop, how difficult to beat the odds and get into a good graduate school to get the jobs we have, to be taken seriously by our colleagues in the jobs we have!”
All these recent conversations around the inclusion of “Yi-Fen Chou” in BAP 2015 have pained me more than I realized at the outset. They’ve brought boiling back to the surface every instance of challenge and difficulty in my efforts to build a life for myself and my family (in the process having to reinvent what family means, in the new spaces ordained by geographical, economic, and immigrant conditions); to thrive and grow as a writer and teacher in this society, since coming to live here permanently more than 16 years ago. In my personal and professional life, I experience the reality not only of being seen as a person/writer/woman of color—but also as someone (it seems, often too conveniently) easy to dismiss, even by those who are supposed to be my advocates or represent some of the communities closest to me.
Once, not too very long ago, I was asked how I could claim to have 4 National Book Awards on my bio (they were from the Manila Critics’ Circle, for single-authored books I had published before I came to the US), when no American writer that has won a similar accolade has only 1 to his or her name. Once, also not too very long ago, when I was coming up for tenure review, my full-length poetry publication which had been selected for an award by an independent poetry press came under scrutiny and similar skepticism, ostensibly because the publisher had then recently decided to use the print-on-demand model for producing books. Even more recently, a manuscript I’ve been sending around came back with a note from the editors saying they thought the poems were “so very (too?) American.”
I want to hope that there is truly more concerted work now being done to arrive at those goals of deep institutional and cultural transformation we seek— the kind of work that will support and recognize the efforts of and provide greater access and inclusivity for those so long relegated to the margins because they are seen as different in one way or another.
You wrote about being seized by doubt, big doubt: “…[I]magine what it is like for our younger peers, the young Kazim and the young Aimee out there who are constantly being told that their kind of English, their kind of poetry isn’t right…” I’m not young anymore, and I don’t think I would be able to call myself “hot.” But I know that same kind of doubt. And I know the kinds of microagressions that are experienced by POC/WOC on a daily basis. Even so, I also know that for more than thirty years now, I have brought my whole heart and self to writing and working and teaching. I know that it is one of the most awful kinds of pain to feel marginalized within the margins, and so I thank you for writing an open letter that made me feel even in some small measure addressed and included.
Luisa A. Igloria