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.

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."


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...."



Miscegeny Rules

Did you know that prior to 1967, my marriage to my husband would have been a FELONY in this country? Pretty ridiculous, right? But sadly enough, there were firm laws in place that made marriage between white persons and non-white persons a felony. And did you know that this kind of legalized race discrimination had been in place in America longer than even slavery or segregation? Yup, from 1664 to 1967!

These laws were introduce by eugenics-supporting legilators, who basically wanted to maintain white supremecy and actively enforced these statutes in one state or another throughout our history until the U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. the State of Virginia in 1967. (Well, Alabama waited until 2000 to remove anti-miscegenation language from it's state constitution!)

American Heroes: Mildred and Richard Perry Loving

It was due to the courage of Mildred Loving, who was part African-American and Native-American, and her husband Richard Perry Loving, a Causcasian-American, that these unjusts laws were challenged. They were invaded in their home in Virginia by police who arrested them for co-habitation. Even though Mr. Loving showed them a marriage license, they were charged with violiating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended for 25 years on condition that the couple leave the state of Virginia. The trial judge in the case, Leon Bazile, echoing Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's 18th-century interpretation of race, proclaimed that

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

As historian Peggy Pascoe points out, the arguments against interracial marriage are eerily similar to the ludicrous arguments made by the opponents of same-sex marriage:

As Reconstruction collapsed in the late 1870s, legislators, policymakers, and, above all, judges began to marshal the arguments they needed to justify the reinstatement--and subsequent expansion--of miscegenation law.

Here are four of the arguments they used:

1) First, judges claimed that marriage belonged under the control of the states rather than the federal government.

2) Second, they began to define and label all interracial relationships (even longstanding, deeply committed ones) as illicit sex rather than marriage.

3) Third, they insisted that interracial marriage was contrary to God's will, and

4) Fourth, they declared, over and over again, that interracial marriage was somehow "unnatural."

States that specifically banned marriage to Asians include Arizona, California, Idaho, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

According to this logic, my marriage would be considered "unnatural" and contrary to the will of one cultural group's agreed-upon deity (often referred to as "god"). As the debate about same-sex marriage equality continues, you'll notice many conservative groups using this same reasoning. If I were that deity, I'd be pretty insulted that people would me make out to be so narrow-minded and stupid. If anything, this thing called "god" that these interest groups refer to is nothing more than a mirror of their own laziness, ignorance, and fear of change. She'd be wagging her finger at these groups yelling "Shame!"

The word "unnatural" is actually a term to describe conservative fear of the unknown, the fear of having to actually do the inner work of expanding their experiences and using their brain cells to adapt to new things. It shakes up their simplistic cosmology of a world that is more comfortable to inhabit if things are categorized in "right" and "wrong" or "good and "bad." It is *easier* or more "natural" to be passive and lazy, to stay the same and not have to think. It actually takes effort to learn how to evolve and adapt to the complexities of our changing society, evaluating unique situations with nuance and an open mind. It takes faith in the unknown and a trust in one's potential to try a new path and learn how to embrace others, even if their lifestyle choices differ from one's own. It also requires honest self-evaluation to recognize irrelevant ideologies and have the courage to scrap the ones that just don't make sense anymore.

While the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia finally made it clear that banning interracial marriage is unconstitutional, this human right to marry is still denied to millions of people in the United States today. I think that Asian-Americans should remember that it is because of this court case, these two brave souls who stood up, that we have the right to marry whomever we choose today. I hope that we can show support our fellow Americans by supporting the final act of extending marriage equality to everyone within our lifetime. It just doesn't make sense to me that we can enjoy these hard-won rights and yet still deny it to others.

To learn more on marriage equality check out the Human Rights Campaign.