Cultural Appropriation and Fair Use

When the 2015 collection of Best American Poetry came out this September, the poetry world erupted into controversy. At the crux of the matter was a poem titled “The Bees, the Flowers, Ancient Tigers, Poseiden, Adam and Eve” by Michael Derrick Hudson. Why all the fuss? Because Hudson, a white man, published his poem under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson claimed that he was unable to find a publisher for his poem until he began sending it out under an Asian pen name (1). Asian poets and writers were understandably upset when the anthology came out and it’s sparked a discussion among academics and poets about the nature of cultural appropriation and the myth of reverse racism. Editor Sherman Alexie responded to the controversy in an article posted on the Best American Poetry blog. His thoughtful essay addresses the tension between the literary world’s desire to showcase diverse voices and the necessity of remaining faithful to aesthetic principles:

“If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.

And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.

But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. (2)”

My own experiences as a queer woman and my friendships with people of a variety of races and nationalities have sensitized me to the issue of cultural appropriation. So what is cultural appropriation? It’s overwriting the voices of the voiceless with narrative constructed outside of the lived experience of a person who is a member of an oppressed class. Since there are many kinds of oppressed classes and since one person can belong to more than one of them, the issue can become complicated. The litmus test for me goes back to the question of lived experience. Does the person telling the story have the right to tell it? Is it his story to tell? As with many questions, there is no one right answer, but there are definitely some wrong ones.

Mark Doty read a poem at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in the late 1990s that has stayed with me for almost 20 years. While Doty made a name for himself chronicling his lived experience as a gay man living through the AIDS crisis, the poem in question had a very different subject matter. In it he recounted graphic details of the experiences of children in a mental institution where he was working – stories of trauma and abuse. As an abuse survivor myself, I’m intimately familiar with how difficult it can be to claim this kind of story: to believe that the abuse really happened, and to walk through the fire as one retells it. The glib way in which Doty claimed them and juxtaposed them with a field trip to a sunlit meadow seemed a violation and a theft to me.

At some level, all oppressed peoples have a history of trauma. So I can identify with the rage and disbelief with which members of the Asian community responded to Hudson’s implicit claim of reverse racism. Reverse racism is not a thing. The power differential is what makes it not a thing. When you have been oppressed, abused, and silenced, it is not cool for someone else to come along and claim your experience as their own.

I brought this question to my workshop students in the days following the Yi-Fen Chou/Hudson controversy. Because I didn’t yet have a copy of Hudson’s poem, we did a close reading of “After Alaska,” by contemporary poet Therese Halscheid. After we made note of the skillful way in which Halscheid invokes earth, ocean, wind, and sky, I put this question to them: By writing about Eskimo experience – indeed by using the word Eskimo itself – is Halscheid committing cultural appropriation? We looked at the text. “After Alaska” is dedicated to a woman named Lisa, and the speaker of the poem refers to “this white woman” and “the tribe she roamed with.” The speaker’s experience of the native experience itself is therefore twice removed, but the text itself makes note of that fact. The poem describes an internal landscape informed by this white woman’s experience with a native tribe who then passes on this information to the speaker. Clearly, the information had a powerful effect. “She lives in me now, in the north of my chest, where it is all dark, all winter,” she says, and later “she was arranging my ribs, arching them, same as the shelters she spoke of … where they shape whalebone over driftwood…” (3).

The white woman in the poem draws her knees to her chest, “as in the ways of the Eskimo.” That she uses this term is in itself problematic. Sources vary on whether the term “Eskimo” is derogatory. According to Wikipedia, it’s considered pejorative in Canada and Greenland but still used commonly in Alaska where it refers to more than one native tribe (4). Problematic nomenclature aside, the larger question here is whether this internalization of a landscape not experienced directly by the speaker of the poem – and transmitted to her by another white woman – constitutes cultural appropriation. According to one of my students, it does not because the line of communication is clearly stated as coming from the “Eskimo” themselves – rather like a properly attributed source in an academic article. But does it pass the smell test?

Let’s compare Halscheid’s poem to “Songline of Dawn” by Joy Harjo, an enrolled member of the Muscogee tribe and well-known poet (the Academy of American poets just awarded her the Wallace Stevens Prize for lifetime achievement). Harjo’s poem also inhabits a landscape, however it is one both internal and external at once. She says she can see her children’s house, “a refuge in the dark near the university,” which places it squarely in the physical world. Yet both the speaker and her children “fly over the valley of monster bones / left scattered in the dirty that remind us that breathing / is rooted somewhere other than the lungs.” With her invocation of “the gods of scarlet light” and the sun, which “leans on one elbow after making love / savoring the wetlands just off the freeway,” she places divinity squarely at the crux of the physical and the spiritual (5). This notion of divinity as immanent rather than transcendent is common in pre-Abrahamic religions. One finds evidence of it in the religious practices of native peoples in the Americas and Africa, as well as in the modern neopagan movement which attempts to reconstruct European religions that existed before the rise of Christianity.

Harjo’s relationship to her landscape is very different than Halscheid’s, whose “north of the chest, where it is all dark, all winter” (6) comes to her twice removed, recounted by her friend who lived among its native people. The difference in the lived experience of the two poets informs the way they write about these landscapes.

While a close reading of Halscheid’s poem may disprove the idea that it’s appropriating native Alaskan culture, it remains a problematic example of the pitfalls of creative expression in post-colonial society.

Works Cited

  • Harjo, Joy. “Songline of Dawn.” A Map to the Next World: Poems & Tales. Harjo, Joy. New York: Norton, 2000. p. 13. Print.
  • Halscheid, Therese. “After Alaska.” Ibid.


Additional Reading

“A White Poet Borrows a Chinese Name and Sets Off Fireworks.” New York Times, September 9, 2014. Web. September 14, 2015.

Thomas, Dexter. “Actual Asian Poets Use #WhitePenName to Respond to Poetry Controversy.” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2015. Web. September 14, 2015.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Family Protests White Poet’s Use of Chinese Pen Name.” New York Times, September 10, 2015. Web. September 14, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: