Am pleased to share that a selection of new work from my current series is up over at Waxwing Literary Journal (Spring 2018). This new series engages in explorations of astronomy, the visual language of scientific diagrams, as well as lesser known histories of the cosmos. The three works are "Syzygy," "Woman's Place in the Universe," and "Feather," which I worked on during my stay in Provincetown last summer. I'm very grateful for Elizabeth Bradfield who gave me effective guidance on the revision process.
A new exhibition title + The Art of Collaboration recently opened at the Yale Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which explores a range of works and archives that reveal the play and process of collaboration in arts and letters. I was so pleased to be part of the exhibition as a contributing artist in Asian American Tarot: A Mental Health Project, "a new deck of tarot cards, featuring original art and text, revealing the hidden contours of our Asian American lives" which was directed by the amazing editors of the Asian American Literary Review.
To my pleasant surprise, it was also neat to a photo from my father's archives on display in the lobby alongside such incredible company. Special thanks to the amazing curators: Nancy Kuhl, Melissa Barton, and Elizabeth Frengel. The exhibition will be on display through April 15, 2018 so come by if you are nearby!
Feast your eyes on this!
Writer and photographer Anita Olivia Koester recently reviewed Silent Anatomies for Fork & Page, a fantastic destination for poetry book reviews embedded in lush visual tablescapes. Her insightful reviews are engaging and accessible, making it easy to fall in love with what makes poetry so vital in this day and age. On Silent Anatomies:
These multidimensional poems look at the layers of complexity in, specifically, an immigrant’s tongue: What words have been lost? What flavors have been retained? What feelings go untranslated in silence? Ong brings her reader into her search for heritage, for origins of dialect, her search for her own tongue which not only turns backwards but forwards into future generations. (excerpt from Fork & Page)
Whenever I visit Fork & Page, I feel like I'm enjoying poetry at a Sunday Brunch with someone who loves books and food as much as I do. Her weekly poetry picks are delightful and I often come away with both my eyes and soul wonderfully nourished.
I've left most of social media (except for Pinterest) in order to consider more deliberate ways to stay in touch w/ friends and readers that also allows me to protect my time and mental space. So I'm very excited to announce Text & Image, a small newsletter where I'll be sharing personal updates twice a month on what excites me in poetry+art+life.
Each issue will feature one Text+Image piece that explores visual poetry, text-based art, or the aesthetics of data visualizations and most of all, that gets me excited and creatively curious. But I'll also be sharing what's new in my life and obsessions, hopefully in a way that is fun, useful, and simple. It will always feature an experiment that I challenge myself with that you can also play with too.
It's a delight to be part of the January 2017 issue of the Asian American Literary Review, which is bold in its re-imagining of medical texts, brochures, and tarot cards, all entirely dedicated to the subject of Asian American mental health.
I designed six photo illustrations for the tarot card set based on what I learned about each writer who created the accompanying texts. Some sent images and personal documents, others had interesting anecdotes. All in all, those details helped me to create digital collages that capture the archetypes of the Adoptee, Survivor, Ancestor, Lecher, Patient, and Deportee for the card designs.
From AALR: "Novel in form and approach, Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health rethinks Asian American un/wellness with particular attention to:
- adopting a broader vocabulary of vulnerability and woundedness;
- locating un/wellness in the context of social structures and systems of violence;
- reconsidering existing, predominantly medicalized, understandings of mental health as fundamentally part of the crisis; and
- centering alternate understandings of un/wellness emerging from Asian American communities."
I'm very excited to be taking poetry off the page in a city-wide public installation called UnSilencing Anatomies with kick-off events October 1–7 in Tucson, Arizona. This isn't just an extraordinary week of readings, talks, performances, and exhibits hosted by Kore Press. What makes this unique is that we created a GeoMap with over 20 sites across Tucson in a public "tour" of spaces where the poetry, cultural centers, and health resources for cultural silences are made visible. Each site is hosting an excerpt of "Silent Anatomies" and invites visitors to share the silenced histories of their body by texting a photo and story to a crowdsourced map called Digital Milagros. Beyond this exhilarating week, a digital archive of stories and resources will emerge, that I hope will become tools for more open conversations about the body in a variety of communities and settings.
Artwork from Silent Anatomies will be exhibited at the following venues:
Oct 1 | Sat | 5:30-7 pm
Reception & Meet-N-Greet with Author Monica Ong, Sosa-Carrillo- Freemont House, 151 S Granada.
Oct 3 | Mon | 2-4 pm
University class visits, Honor's College and College of Public Health (Health Disparities in Minority Populations) classes.
Oct 3 | Mon | 5:30 pm
Art Opening Reception, Monica Ong and Dr. Howard Eng will be at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, which is hosting artwork from Silent Anatomies, October 1–November 30.
Oct 5 | Wed | 6 pm
Author Talk/Scholar’s Panel, Drachman Hall, College of Pharmacy, University of Arizona. Join authors, professors and scholars for a panel discussion and talks investigating the nuances surrounding “client-provider” relations.
Talk: Poetry as a Partner in Public Health: Monica Ong, author of Silent Anatomies, gives a multi-media reading and talk about how communities can turn to poetry to expand cultural competence in public health.
Panel, with Ken McAllister, Monica Ong, Monica Casper, Deanna Lewis, Ron Grant, and TC Tolbert. In-depth examination of the power differentials, communication barriers, fears, and cultural assumptions that shape public health and public safety and potentially perpetuate silences, and/or aggression and misunderstanding.
Oct 7 | Fri | 12:30 pm
Reading and Story-Gathering: Kore Press at Tucson Meet Yourself, Tucson Meet Yourself. Author Monica Ong will read from her work at the “Kitchen Stadium,” and Kore Press will gather community stories about “taste memories” in the “Gastronomy Exhibit," 11-1pm.
Oct 7 | Fri | 4 pm
Artist Talk: UA Poetry Center. Design Thinking & Poetry: New Literacies of the Body.
Oct 7 | Fri | 5:30 pm
Streetcar performance with Poets TC Tolbert and Kristen Nelson, Bio 5 Terminus, near UA Poetry Center. Ride the street car with poets TC Tolbert and Kristen Nelson who will perform their works and other’s. A group reading will be presented at our final destination, La Pilita Cultural Center.
Oct 7 | Fri | 6 pm
UnSilencing Anatomies group reading, curated by TC Tolbert and Kristen Nelson. La Pilita Cultural Center (next to El Tiradito shrine) 420 S. Main Ave., Tucson, AZ 85701
Official Press Release Info from Kore Press:
Kore Press and the University of Arizona have joined forces to create a city-wide series of events exploring the impact of personal stories on public health and safety. Kick-off events for “UnSilencing Anatomies” run from October 1 -7, and will include a streetcar journey/performance, story-gathering, readings, a panel, and exhibits. This series offers opportunities to connect diverse communities with university and health care academics and professionals to promote critical thinking about the medical humanities and related questions of access/justice and racial/gender equity.
Kore Press, Tucson publisher of innovative women's writings since 1993, is a leader in activism for a holistic community. UnSilencing Anatomies is a city-wide collaboration between Kore Press and her partners, including the University of Arizona, Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, La Pilita and other cultural and justice centers. The series will focus on how the role of art and story-telling impact disparities in public health and safety, providing space for community conversation about the relationship of culture and medicine. Series collaborators will aim to provide individuals of diverse backgrounds with the opportunity to engage candidly with one another, and presenters will explore such issues as cultural assumptions, and silences that impede health and health education.
For the past couple weeks, I've been hiding out in the woods at the Millay Colony for the Arts. It's an idyllic space with barnhouse studios nestled within the trees and gardens where legendary poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once lived.
Her spirit has been wandering the grounds as the air has been balmy and creative. In residency with me were writers Erica Cavanagh, Adrian Shirk, Miranda Mellis, painter Tricia Keightley, photographer Isa Leshko, and new music composer Michael Harrison—their company warm and welcoming, and our dinner conversations completely engrossing me in wonder and laughter. We had luscious meals prepared by the incredible chef Donna Wenzel, who brought fresh local flavors each evening to the colony table. While most of the time was spent in monastic silence working, some of us managed to hike up Harvey Mountain together. After long days in the studio, I found myself walking the poetry trails that sprawl from Millay's lovely garden and fields.
It was a much needed break from the "busy" of life for diving deep into a new body of work, discovering new processes, and most importantly self-care. It has just felt like the world has been a burning house, the hostility of our times weighing down on my chest. To be around a constellation of creative minds with kinds hearts, who come together to make this world more livable, more beautiful, more compassionate in their own ways is a rare treasure. It was a reminder that what we are making here is much more durable.
Halfway through the residency, my family did come up for a short visit and while eating brunch at the Prairie Whale, we noticed that we were sitting only one table away from Garrison Keillor! We walked the main street of that Berkshire town, strolling around the shops and eating ice cream.
One night during open studios, we gathered together to listen to a new piece of music by Michael Harrison. Walking round the room different chords would resonate in different ears, through the body and out of each hair and finger. It felt like a meditation in deep space and through time. It was also incredibly healing.
During the time here, I discovered new ways of entering / shaping / mapping poetry on the page, thanks to Sol Lewitt, Jen Bervin, and Fred Thomaselli whose works are up at Mass MoCA. I came to find a new process and to spend time with poems I'd been meaning to read all year. After our last dinner we all stood in the middle of a night time field and stared at the fireflies flickering like stars over the grass and between the trees. There was gratitude and there was a gifting of something I am not sure how to name but that enlarged our worlds nonetheless.
I was also able to combat some of the guilt and stress from the narrative roles that can sometimes monopolize my energy. To be a mother, to be a poet, to be a designer, to be a visual artist, not to mention a friend, a bodhisattva, a sister, and daughter — the demands are endless. What I realize is that it is important to have a framework of experimentation rather than to see myself at the mercy of shame traps. Under stress it's easy to feel like we are fucking up all the time. But when carving out time for self-care, for centering myself, for rest (yes!) and being creative, then I can live these roles on my terms, with my own truth, and with a sense of adventure and most of all joy.
I'm truly thankful for the quiet, safe, and welcoming environment that Millay created for us. My heart is full and I'm ready to return home.
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?
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.
It has been an incredibly dynamic year since Silent Anatomies was published last spring (2015) and with all that's happening, I thought I'd check in with all you dear readers with a little update. I love lists so what better way to give you the juicy bits?
- So the big news is that I began my new job as the User Experience Designer at the Yale Digital Humanities Lab (DHLab). I can't tell you how exhilarating it is in one post but let's just say that being able to engage in design thinking within an experimental space that seeks to collaborate on ways to use new technology to create compelling discovery experiences of Yale's vast archives of human culture and history is quite remarkable. Digital Humanities is an emerging field and for those of you who are passionate about technology and humanities, it is a space with a lot of opportunities for innovation, especially if your creativity is embedded in a spirit of adventure.
- Kore Press recently changed distributors to SPD (Small Press Distributors) and this January 2016 my book was noted on their Bestseller List at number 11.
- I made a foray into digital publishing and designed a viewbook app for the Yale School of Music this past fall. It was an opportunity to explore the storytelling possibilities, not to mention the digital chemistry of text and image on mobile devices.
- I started swimming this year. It's been an informative lesson in self-care. Exercising in the quiet crash of water has become a kind of physical meditation for me, a practice of swimming my life towards uncharted territories.
- As a writer I've been on a mini-hiatus with all this commotion going on. But I see that as being productive as well. A practice of emptiness to whet the creative appetite.
- Consolidating research and parenting into the same activities has comprised of watching lots of astronomy shows, going on dinosaur fossil outings, and planning visits to our state planetariums in the near future. It feels like planting seeds, not only for my son's curiosity but for my inner poet as well. It's a kind of resistance to this binary idea that women are either careerists or mothers, this idea that we can't be creative while child-rearing, a way of shifting from "either or" to esho-funi, which is a Japanese Buddhist term for the "oneness" of the self and environment.
- I'm considering working on a digital edition of Silent Anatomies and will post updates when available.
- As the weather warms and the rhythm shifts once again, I look forward to doing a residency at the Millay Colony to embark on some new work.
- I'm diving into the world of Data Visualization and all its splendor. Here is a cool TED Talk that touches on some aspects of it.
- I've enjoyed Skyping in to the many classrooms around the country that have been reading Silent Anatomies and always find myself so impressed and refreshed by the thoughtful conversations that I get to have with such enthusiastic students. So I just want to thank my fellow poet faculty and their classes for that honor.
- Yes, there will be more readings and exhibitions, all of which are in the works.
All in all, each day has been filled to the brim with appreciation. Thank you so much for your support and interest in my creative experiments. There is much much more in store and I look forward to sharing it with you as things unfold.
The singular Jane Wong offers her distinct eye as she carefully unpacks the poems in Silent Anatomies in this review for Warscapes. A gorgeous excerpt:
The most impactful poems in Silent Anatmonies are the poems written on medicine bottles, with “directions” on the labels. Here, home remedies are rooted in value systems. These faux labels consider cultural conceptions of health, particularly gender value systems. In “Fortune Babies,” Ong writes: “Does not guarantee protection from bearing daughters. Consult your fortune teller if you suspect your pregnancy may be at risk.” In other medicine bottle poems, Ong offers dictionary entries on the label – interrogating linguistic colonialism. Such poems recall Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping With the Dictionary (2002). For instance, one bottle features an image of an older woman, followed by the words “withstood,” “withy” “witless,” “witling,” and “witness.” These words highlight our gender and age expectations – that we see older women as passive and “witless.” Ong exposes such shameful stereotypes throughout. Moreover, through these dictionary labels, she underscores the hierarchy of the English language, highlighting the “prescriptivism” of language as a silencing tool.
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."
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!
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!
Recently, I did an interview with Kristin Maffei on Late Night Library about Silent Anatomies. She had very thoughtful questions and was incredibly fun to speak with. Hope you enjoy the episode!
Listen to Late Night Library →
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:
- 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.
- Of the 15 books, designate 3 that you recommend to co-participants. (After you've read them, of course).
- Of the 15 books, 3 of the books must be from recommendations by other participants.
- Post your 15 book list somewhere with a link so that co-participants can link you on their webpages, tumblr pages, or blogs.
- Hold yourself accountable by posting commentary about a book you've just read. Commentary can also take the form of something creative or artistic.
- The Challenge Ends August 31st. Have fun.
Monica's Summer Reading List
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.
"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."