Monday, September 21, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Monica Ong

Monica Ong [image © 2020 by Maler Photography] is the author of Silent Anatomies (2015), selected by Joy Harjo as winner of the Kore Press First Book Award in poetry. A Kundiman poetry fellow and MFA graduate in Digital Media at the Rhode Island School of Design, Ong has been awarded residencies most recently at the Studios at MassMoCA, Millay Colony, and Yaddo. You can find her work featured in Petrichor: A Journal of Image+Text, Redivider, ctrl+v, Waxwing Magazine, and anthologized in Poesia Visual 5. Based in Connecticut, she currently serves as the User Experience Designer at the Yale Digital Humanities Lab.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different? Silent Anatomies (2015), selected by Joy Harjo as winner of the Kore Press First Book Award in poetry, was a debut collection that came from a series of art installations I’d been making for several years. It was really rewarding to open up my creative practice to both visual and literary audiences. I also got to meet writers interested in multi-modal practices and experimentation. I learned that while genre is a tool to place and market work to specific audiences, it does not have to restrict how we shape our practice. My recent work is even more playful and experimental, but still remains deeply informed by the beautiful intensity of science and the power struggles that ensue in the stories of astronomy. While the first book focused on the microcosm of the body and personal lineage, I’ve shifted to considering cosmic bodies and stories we might leave for the future.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction? I came to poetry through painting, as poetry is the closest literary form to painting. While I was in art school studying Digital Media at RISD, I had the immense fortune of encountering the poet Wendy S. Walters who happened to be my seminar professor at the time. She gave me permission to embrace the poet in me who just happened to have a visual and multi-modal practice, and not get too caught up in what certain disciplines are supposed to look like. Embracing hybridity allowed me to consider my art installations that followed as potentially being a book, which is how Silent Anatomies came to be.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?  I often create a series of work towards small periodic exhibitions. This allows me to focus on a set of ideas and to work iteratively with attention to time and finding interesting forms for these ideas. It allows me to try a set of poems as a series of small objects, letterpress broadsides, or immersive audio. (See By now, I have a sense of how long it takes to complete certain types of work so I try to keep 2 projects moving simultaneously. My recent constellation poems for letterpress have required massive amounts of time to draw, design, write, do pre-press preparation, and oversee production for. One broadside took me over a year to complete because I also had to raise the money to afford printing it in gold and silver foil. So sometimes in order to stay sane, I work on smaller poetry pieces in between production phases to keep a sense of play and possibility in my writing.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning? (See #3)

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings? I try to think of readings a opportunities to bring communities together across culture and discipline. When Silent Anatomies came out, I enjoyed doing panels with writers AND medical humanities folks, as well as doctors who work on culture competence in health care. I did readings in academic libraries, but also in local Chinese and Latino cultural centers, at public health classes, and in art galleries. My book used poetry as a vehicle to create dialogue about cultural silences that make it socially difficult for communities to address taboo subjects like mental health and domestic violence. Likewise in my new work, I hope the astronomy-inspired collection will be welcomed not only in literary but also science and visual art venues as well. I'd love to participate in readings where I can amplify non-western star stories and women in science, while also conversing with other astronomers and other scientists. Generally, I am an introverted person, but as long as I make enough time between events to recharge, I do enjoy being able to connect with readers and fellow creatives alike.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are? I make work with a few questions in mind: What hidden stories need to be told?  What new narratives or paradigms can I model? What is the creative risk I am taking? What am I contributing to the conversation that can create value for those I’m in dialogue with?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be? For Silent Anatomies, I really saw poetry as one way to create a safe space to generate dialogue in local communities about cultural silences and to address stigma and trauma. I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me after a reading and tell me their web of family secrets woven around illness, and how literature made it ok to finally talk about these issues. When it comes to cultural gaps of understanding in community healthcare, poetry is one compass and resource that I also think healthcare workers can turn to in order to better understand and familiarize themselves with communities they want to reach out to but maybe have little exposure to. If the publishing industry is willing to invest more money and resources in amplifying voices that don’t get to be heard, I think there is an opportunity to bring people closer to each other. But I say this with the huge grain of salt that literature is just a starting point and in no way a substitute for cultivating a substantive relationships with people across boundaries. To me great writing creates empathy in both the writer and the reader, which I see as a currency of hope.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? (I don’t usually work with one so I don’t have a useful answer for this question.)

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? I recently took a writing workshop with Rick Barot, whose writing is stunning and his kind intellectual generosity even more so. He encouraged me to make writing experiments without leaning on my usual strategies, even purposely avoiding them, as an exercise in seeing what one can come up with when one hand is tied behind one’s back. Embracing discomfort to see what reserves of ingenuity lie in such constraints is really valuable and something it’s good to be reminded of so that I can come back to my beginner’s spirit, which is more adventurous.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin? I live in pandemic blur so, so I do planning on Mondays to prioritize time among my full-time job, my writing, and overseeing my kid’s camp and activities, as well as participating in creative and local communities. I make lots of lists but I’m also practicing self-acceptance when things go to mush because there’s no point in beating ourselves up when society is so up-ended as it is right now. To me it’s more about consistently taking small steps. I use The Most Dangerous Writing App to generate free writing several times a week and then when I’m composing a visual text, I print and put all the texts in front of me and pull the best fragments out of them to make the final piece. This gives me the flexibility to spread out little steps across time and not overwhelm myself. It’s also important to give oneself permission to say NO when needed in order to protect my time, and also to not romanticize what a writer’s life “should” look like because it’s so unique for each person. If writing is happening in the parking lot, the bathtub, or on the phone in the grocery line, then let’s create value from where we’re at.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? I watch modern dance because of the way choreographers take the syntax of movement to create brand new visual and visceral compositions that bewilder and astound me. Particularly, when this is brought together with cinematography, it allows reminds me to bring tactility and images together with syntactical strategy to make something that is intentional yet can also be improvisational and primal. Films like Pina on Pina Bausch and the newer film Cunningham about Merce Cunningham really delight me.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home? The scent of sampaguitas, which is the tagalog word for jasmine flowers, which is the national flower of the Philippines. My mother grew these at home and she gave me one when I moved into my own so that we can keep our grandmother with us.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art? Books helped me to develop an ear for what resonates with me lyrically, but I am very much a maker with a visual art training, who leverages quite heavily from science, information design, and typography. Sonic arts and installations with found objects also figure into the way I strategize about constructing immersive poetry installations. For example, when I was writing about medicine, I made poems with x-ray light boxes and medicine bottles. Now that I’m creating work based on the aesthetics of astronomy, I’ve been collaborating with letterpress studios to make constellation poems, as well as building poems as light boxes in the spirit of Joseph Cornell and Betye Saar with found vintage objects.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? I look up to creatives who practice experimental and hybrid approaches that surprise me yet also lyrically invite readers somewhere deeply personal. They are often writers whose lives are also informed by an artistic practice such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Cecilia Vicuña, Douglas Kearney, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Etel Adnan, Diana Khoi Nguyen. Poets like Rick Barot, Victoria Chang, Ada Limón, and Mary Ruefle inspire me just as much with particular attention to the magic of syntax, literary form and image.

I was an art school kid so the work of artists and designers who intersect with text have had an unquestionable impact in my making: Xu Bing, Shirin Neshat, Maya Lin, Betye Saar, Janet Cardiff, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer for sure. At the same time, I’ve been a graphic designer for two decades and nowadays spending more time in data visualization and data science spaces, so information design plays a big role in honing my sensibilities around the functional and aesthetic relationship between text and image. In terms of information design, often turn to books by Edward Tufte, Manuel Lima, Giorgia Lupi, and Stefanie Posavec.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? I want to make poetry that is more experiential and interactive. During the pandemic, I’ve been making more audio poems to explore poetry’s immersive possibilities. At some point, I’d like to design an interactive book that can exist on multiple platforms.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer? I love being both a writer and visual designer. But if I were to try another occupation, I’d definitely love to be a modern dancer.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? I grew up creatively but with my parents’ pragmatism. I knew design and writing was quite portable and frankly, I wasn’t athletic enough to be a dancer.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? I’m currently reading All Heathens by Marianne Chan ( and just finished watching Ad Astra as sci-fi movies are the only films my family and I can actually agree on watching together while we’re all at home.

19 - What are you currently working on? My current work explores the intersection of poetry and astronomy, considering the sky and its histories from the female gaze. I’ve been remixing vintage astronomy diagrams with prose poems, making letterpress broadsides based on non-western constellations, and also delighting about women in science. You can see some of these experiments here:

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

No comments: