The Written Image: Monica Ong—Rewriting the Sky

From the May/June 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When Monica Ong composes a poem, she thinks not only about language, but about how readers might encounter that language beyond the page. A designer by trade and training—she has an MFA in digital media—the Connecticut-based “visual poet” marries verse with specially crafted objects that are as much a part of her poetics as word choice and syntactical arrangement. For Ong, to write poetry means to also “design engaging experiences of poetry,” she says. Her first book, Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2015), stemmed from art installations in which Ong interrogated institutional discourses of the body by altering X-rays, anatomical drawings, and other medical paraphernalia to contain poetry; Silent Anatomies includes images of these visual poems that had originally been objects on display. “My creative practice has always been rooted in a studio practice, but it is also very much deeply engaged with challenging and subverting narratives through lyrical experimentation,” she says.

Lunar Volvelle (2021). (Credit: Monica Ong)

In her recent work, which she has dubbed her Planetaria series, Ong explores astronomy, imagining “rewriting the sky from a female perspective.” A medieval tool for tracking the heavens, for example, was the basis for Ong’s Lunar Volvelle (2021), pictured above. In a volvelle, paper circles are layered on top of one another and fastened in the center with pointers that the user can spin to understand the movement of the sun or moon. In Lunar Volvelle, Ong put her paternal grandmother’s face where an image of the moon might have been and words that speak to femininity, ancestry, and power in place of astronomical data. The language in Lunar Volvelle may be read in different ways, forming multiple poems. “I want to invite people to think of poetry as stargazing,” Ong says. “When you look at stars you make the connections that feel natural to you.” Lunar Volvelle will be on view May 21 to September 3 at Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, with other work from Planetaria, which was also exhibited last year at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. “The gallery space affords one way to open up new possibilities of reading,” Ong says.