An Artist Statement in 5 Questions

Recently, I visited Fordham University for the Poets Out Loud series and spoke with a creative writing class about my adventures in poetry. This is an artist statement that I presented, which is framed by five of the most commonly asked questions. Enjoy!

1. What brought you to poetry?

My path to poetry is and continues to be non-traditional but centered on experimental practice with the goal of broadening what it means to create poetic experiences in this exciting time. I do not have an MFA in writing, but come to poetry from a visual art practice with my MFA in Digital Media from the Rhode Island School of Design. I do not have a traditional teaching or writing job either. My professional work has been rooted in client-centered visual design and I currently serve as the User Experience Designer at the Yale Digital Humanities Lab. The digital toolkit that I’ve cultivated over the years has allowed me to inhabit a potent space between text and image, which found expression in several series of art installations that eventually became Silent Anatomies. One of the most important aspects of my practice is the idea that “form is the shape of content” which is championed by painters like Ben Shahn and influential poets like Claudia Rankine. The heart of my work is an ongoing interrogation of identity, gender, and silence, but its expressions can unfold as texts, objects, artist books, digital narratives, or letterpress broadsides.

2. What makes your work hybrid or experimental?

I seek to make work that challenges the conventions of reading. What distinguishes experimental text and image work from other genres that utilize words and images is that these elements do not necessarily echo each other, to explain or illustrate what the other one means. Rather, each element stands individually as a syntactical entity like constellations that mark spaces where poetic meaning can occur, always leaving room for the reader to make sense of the spaces in between.

At times it is that space on the page itself that stands in for silence, lack of translation, or the disappearance of memory.

3. What artists/writers inform your creative process?

Shirin Neshat: Rebellious Silence, 1994, RC print and ink

Shirin Neshat: Rebellious Silence, 1994, RC print and ink

I’ve always had an affinity for multi-disciplinary artists and writers. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee was my entry into a practice where I had to ask myself: What are the possibilities of fractured narratives as a way to represent multiplicity of language and identity?

I’m also greatly influences by many visual artists that use text in their art like Shirin Neshat, whose is well known for her photo series Women of Allah. This work poses the question of what text might signify in its legibility to the reader and also in how it is shaped. How might we be able to challenge binaries of gender and culture?

This is a poem diagram by Douglas Kearney called “Refugee” from Black Automaton. Both of us are also designers and I appreciate how his work is asking me: What is the role of typography in the a poems visual gesture or sound?

One of my literary heroes is none other than Claudia Rankine, currently celebrated for Citizen (2014) has been riveting many literary classrooms during the past year. I fell in love with her work when I read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in 2004. What she taught me is that there are some experiences that words sometimes cannot complete on their own. Particularly when we talk about race, these impulses begin as a visual experience that triggers perceived narratives. You see people framed by televisions, which also examines how perceptions are shaped by the media. Question: How is the body “read”? How does the visceral response override the factual? Be sure to check out the Situation videos from Citizen, which she created with artist John Lucas.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are best known for their audio walks that layer spoken narratives onto physical spaces. In her recent work, she created the Alter Bahnhoff video walk that invites viewers into the old Kassel train station in Germany. The working question here is how absence, memory, and sound participate in the poetics of place, especially as a site-specific installation where texts are sonically layered over the spaces?  It is perhaps because of their work that I practice poetry off the page, often incubating new poems as works in gallery spaces and I hope to explore how to push the boundaries of publishing in my new work by looking at the the mobile possibilities of digital publishing.

4. What do you hope to contribute to American literature?

While creating Silent Anatomies, I had two impulses. The first was to position poetry as a means to create dialogue about cultural silences in public health, by sharing stories about how conflicting beliefs, stigma, and shame can be barriers to the health-seeking habits of marginalized communities, in this context as an Asian-American family. As a physician’s daughter from a family with elders who upheld Chinese medicine and folklore, I bear witness to those struggling to navigate new spaces in search of belonging. “There are no fireworks when girls are born,” is one Chinese saying that haunts the narrator of my book. The second was to broaden and complicate notions of Chinese-American identity by sharing a narrative of Chinese diaspora that also claims the Philippines and the United States as home.

5. A career strategies question: How do you support that poetry habit?

 I think this is worth discussing briefly because we all know the hard practical realities of being working artists. And I will tell you this, now is the time to be innovative, not only with our art but our careers. Since graduating school I have worked for years in design and currently serve as the user experience designer at the Yale Digital Humanities Lab, where I’m tasked with creating media-rich website and mobile experiences for humanities scholars who are using technology to explore new research perspectives.

I have this hypothesis that poets make great UX Designers because I think of great poetry as a concise form of content that asks readers to empathize beyond their own lived experiences, while user-centered design fundamentally begins with practicing empathy to design concise forms that tell compelling stories, both of which can invite meaningful action or change. It is as though my work and my art are a continual loop that feed each other.

UX is a field with a broad continuum from user research to content strategy to interaction design. I enjoy one-on-one client-designer relationship, and find myself learning a lot about the world through my clients’ projects. Design has provided me many opportunities to do freelance work in order to fundraise for writing workshops and residencies. I also want to point out for those of you with a humanities and technology bent that Digital Humanities is a booming area with high demand that is currently trying to digitize the vast human cultural production of our time and seeking innovative ways to facilitate how new audiences might navigate this corpus. Because leading libraries, museums, and institutions are in a digital arms race with this daunting but inevitable task, there are emerging career and funding opportunities in this area of academia. I love that it is an experimental but thriving career space, that it offers the kind of job security that allows me to concentrate on my family and my art. So whatever notion of “starving artist” you might have, please be careful not to allow yourself to inherit an oppressor’s narrative, and know that when you see yourself as an innovator, then you can navigate a career that reflects the story that you want to tell.

W. Todd Kaneko Reviews Silent Anatomies in the Waxwing Literary Journal

Recently, W. Todd Kaneko penned a breathtaking review of Silent Anatomies for Waxwing Literary Journal. I am deeply humbled but I want to draw attention to Todd's incredible insight and artful way of locating entry points into the book for readers.

"...Ong has built for Silent Anatomies a hybrid space in which paradox is sometimes the best answer, in which the simplest possible meanings contradict more than they provide insight. Or see the way Ong juxtaposes text and images in “The Onset” in ways that subvert our expectations not just of how poems work, but in how text and images work as we normally read a book."



The Rumpus reviews Silent Anatomies

I am so humbled and blown away by the insightful review of Silent Anatomies by poet Kenji Liu. He went beyond analysis of the formal qualities of the collection and really delved into the difficult questions of identity that I sought to explore. I appreciated his thoughtful inquiry, not only in terms of the personal, but in terms of how we contextualize ourselves socially, historically, and politically. How refreshing!


Reader's Guide now available!

Just in time for the fall semester! For those of you interested in teaching Silent Anatomies to your poetry, experimental literature, or medical courses, I have made a brand new Reader's Guide available!

It features discussion questions as well as some writing exercises and also a list of suggest reading featuring authors who have been influential to me. Follow the link to the form and download it today!



Summer Reading Challenge

Today, I made a list of books that I hope to dive into as part of the Summer Reading Challenge proposed by one of my favorite poets, Oliver de la Paz. Here's how it works:

  1. Pick 15 books that you would like to finish this summer--any genre, any size. This list doesn't have to be at 15 right from the start. It will grow as the summer continues.
  2. Of the 15 books, designate 3 that you recommend to co-participants. (After you've read them, of course).
  3. Of the 15 books, 3 of the books must be from recommendations by other participants.
  4. Post your 15 book list somewhere with a link so that co-participants can link you on their webpages, tumblr pages, or blogs.
  5. Hold yourself accountable by posting commentary about a book you've just read. Commentary can also take the form of something creative or artistic.
  6. The Challenge Ends August 31st. Have fun.


Monica's Summer Reading List

Poet's Playlist: Jam to the Soundtrack for Silent Antomies!

What music inspired me during the writing process for Silent Anatomies? Go to the Poet's Playlist hosted by Sharon Suzuki-Martinez to hear. And yes there is a Spotify link to my playlist so you can go head and jam at your desk to these sonic spaces that range from the orishas of Ibeyi to Swedish folk singer Sophie Zelmani, the brooding milongas of Piazzolla to the rise of Asian hip-hop artists like Awkwafina and George Yamazawa Jr.

From left: George Yamazawa Jr., Susana Baca, and Ibeyi are among the artists featured on Monica Ong's playlist for Silent Anatomies.

From left: George Yamazawa Jr., Susana Baca, and Ibeyi are among the artists featured on Monica Ong's playlist for Silent Anatomies.

"This playlist outlines the spaces I go to turn my silences into expression, movement, visibility, pride. I think I’ve spent my life searching for these places, out in the world, in the company of poets and artists, in the footsteps of family, and in the darkness within. It’s music that reminds me that everyone’s path winds long and beautiful, that we are making it all up as we go along, but in the effort to uncover a voice that is truly our own, we will eventually be able to come home."


Writing like an Asian: Five Questions with Monica

Recently, Jee Yoon Lee interviewed me about Silent Anatomies for her blog Writing like an Asian:

(Q1) Your debut collection of poetry, Silent Anatomies, opens with "The Glass Larynx." How did you come to choose this poem to be the first one in the book?
"The Glass Larynx" is a contrapuntal poem between Medica, the narrator, and the philosopher Chuang Tzu. She is challenging the idea of silence as the Way. Chuang Tzu's lines are from "Action and Non-Action," where he posits silence and stillness as the "root of all things." Perhaps that is nice if one lives alone on a mountain. Yet we live in an age where "our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter," as Dr. Martin Luther King said.

What if attaining the Way is not silence but in our refusal to be silenced? "The Glass Larynx" is Medica's invitation to the reader.


Poets & Writers Magazine: What Inspires?

Recently, Poets & Writers Magazine asked me to share thoughts about what inspires me as a writer and helps me cultivate my creativity. Learn about my Golden Hour, my obsession with choreo vids, and the one thing that keeps me from being deadlocked:

“My reality consists of full-time work, parenting, family, friends, and a laptop full of clients. When to write? One shift I made was to identify my ‘golden hour,’ the most conducive time of day for creative risk-taking, making, and doing. My husband is a night owl, but for me, it’s 4:00 AM to 6:00 AM. Everyone’s asleep, I’m freshly energized and not yet cluttered with the day’s noise...."



For the Love of Letterpress

Join me for a behind the scenes peek into the studio of Dexterity Press, where the broadsides for Silent Anatomies were made. Producing these poems with this unique process was an enjoyable collaboration made possible by Jeff Mueller who patiently fielded my ideas and was willing to go the extra mile to translate those ideas into one-of-a-kind art pieces.

GALLERY: Each broadside is printed on a Vandercook Universal 1 proof press using wood-mounted 16g magnesium dies on luscious archival paper, 100lb Mohawk Superfine softwhite, eggshell finish. The other press that you see above is used to do blind embossing.

Collaboration is key to the success to making a design distinct for letterpress. I learned that it is not at all like the digital prepress work that I'm so used to doing. Rather, even when at press, there is a bit of improvisation and resourcefulness that goes on to make all the visual elements and text work together. For example, my original images of the poems are layered on scans of pages of vintage medical books. We wanted something that felt more tactile so Jeff suggested using natural woodblocks that feature beautiful grain textures. We also experimented with background colors that were different than the off white of the originals. The results were astounding. Below is "The Glass Larynx" which has a robin egg blue background, evoking a kind of fragility and translucence.

When planning these it's important to consider what the final context will be. In this case, I wanted something that readers and art lovers could collect and easily bring home from book signings. I also wanted these to display well together in gallery spaces. Even though each work was created individually at different times, when presented together, they will visually talk to each other and therefore it's important to make choices that allow them to harmonize.

We discussed choices that would make each work distinct, such as using complementary hues for each background. To unify them typographically as a series Jeff also shifted some type to have similar placement across all three pieces. Having two people with a real appreciation for type and design definitely made this more than just printing a page, it's actually more about translating a poem into the realm of precious object.

With patience and the ability to make room for surprise, we are then able to feel the joy of astonishment.