A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a satire in Lumen about a cis white man who appropriates “exotic” pseudonyms in a conceptual poetry project. While the idea was absurdly racist/sexist on its own, I thought it was the outward, blatant institutional support for it that would clue people into the piece’s satire. What a shocking, sickening surprise to see those racist, wild imaginings alive, well, and supported in this year’s The Best American Poetry. This guy calls it a strategy. It’s actually called yellowface. -Yanyi Luo
Stan Stanley loves to make up names. “What about Chin Tray? Or Gus Plaid?” he whispers, as he leads me to his writing den for this interview. It’s 11am on a Saturday morning, the time of day when Stan keeps shirts like this one (turquoise, paisley) unbuttoned.
“I’ve discovered the wants and needs of every hair on my chest this way,” he explains.
Attention to detail comes as no surprise. Stan has won numerous awards and nominations for his poetry and fiction, though very few people knew his name until recently. That’s because several years ago, Stan embarked on a conceptual project to publish under minority names, many of whom went on to publish in notable journals and win prominent literature prizes devoted to diversities.
“People call me racist or sexist or selfist or whatever,” he shrugs, “but for me it’s about the art. And the feeling. When I write as Kate, for example, I become a woman. I really empathize, and I start to feel what it’d be like to be pregnant, single, and working a minimum-wage job full-time. I cry myself to sleep every night getting phantom cramps.”
Does he think that his real sexuality and manhood get in the way of writing as a woman? “The best route is to just ask. Once I chatted up a woman at a taco shop to ask about menstruation. I followed her for twenty minutes until she threw a tampon at me.” He gestures at the memorialized object on a desk in the room.
Stan’s writing den is a phantasmagoric cabinet of curiosities, with each exotic name having its own corner. He even maintains childhood toys for each pseudonym. “I made Ann Tan one of those riceboat hats from a Japanese newspaper,” he points out, nonchalantly, “but for Marquis it was a little harder. I don’t know what black boys are supposed to play with. I debated on giving him a toy gun but that’s a little dangerous,” he smiles wryly.
When we reach the kitchen, outfitted sparsely with only a long glass dining table, I ask him what he does at those moments of uncertainty. “When I don’t know, I google. The internet is a treasure trove of texts and experiences; you just have to work hard to take it all in. That’s how I fell in love with the name Marquis. There was an awesome list of ‘blackest names’ — it was the top third name, not the first. I didn’t want to go the easy route.”
Perhaps most importantly for Stan has been the way his names have made him more political. “I started writing as Marquis a lot more after Ferguson happened. I didn’t feel that many other poems were tackling police brutality in the way that Marquis could.” An email pops in on his Apple Watch while he says this. He smiles faintly. “Another editor soliciting me to write a #BlackLivesMatter poem.” As Marquis? “Nah, a lot of editors in the more reputable journals end up very interested in the project as a whole. I’ve been told that I can write as a Chinese woman even better than a Chinese or a woman can,” he says.
Having many minority personas keeps Stan versatile and nimble, able to give voice to any experience and to even pave ground for those to follow. “It’s brand new territory. Of Asia. Of feminism. Of blackness and gayness. Not of lot of people can understand the importance of the work.”
Certainly not his detractors. But there is a quiet community of new readers who are welcoming his work. In response to a petition to remove him from a conference’s panel for minority writers, a Stan fan created a counter-petition Kickstarter called “Stans for Artistic Free Speech” — it has since raised almost $5,000 in four days, a relative fortune in the literary world. “Of course I’d like to produce more, and faster,” Stan insists while he spits a couple of sunflower seeds over his stainless-steel balcony railing. “But I’m not in it for the money or the fame. I’m intubating.” I ask him he means by this. “Oh, I made it up just now. You know,” he stares thoughtfully into the reflected sky on the adjacent glass high-rise, “It’s that feeling of being effortlessly fed by the world.”
Yanyi Luo is a poet and critic. Her work has appeared in PANK, The Cortland Review, and Lumen. She is the recipient of a 2015 Poets House Emerging Poets Fellowship. For more, you can drop by yanyiluo.com.