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.