Poetry, Community, and Reading the Body

Poetry can be a gateway to empathy, a space of shared vulnerability. It can help audiences navigate the difficult and uncomfortable by offering a creative entry point for engagement. Race and gender differences can be difficult to bring up at the dinner table, not to mention across the segregated social circles that have become the norm for most Americans. Yet, these intercultural conversations are a critical bridge to a new story of co-citizenship.

Comfort and privilege are blinders that make it difficult for people to understand the ways othered bodies are interpreted in the American social landscape. Susan Sontag in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, posits, “Wherever people feel safe…they will be indifferent.” When we leave the nests of comfort and venture into shared public space, we must confront the very things we are used to looking away from and are almost always unprepared. What happens when a young professional who has always lived in upper middle class privilege now needs to venture into the margins – will he or she know what questions to ask? What assumptions or biases might one carry? What are the blind spots?


Cultural Silences and the Body

As the daughter of a physician, I grew up among whispers, overhearing the stories of those who sought my father’s medical advice in secret. Many of them struggled with health conditions that were considered taboo within the Asian community: mental illness, domestic violence, and sexual health issues, to name a few. Going to the cops or the hospital was not an option due to the fear of losing face. Most of the time, their secrets receded back into the darkness, never mentioned again, never reported.

Aching_webRecently, my mother returned to the Philippines to mourn the passing of my auntie Ah-Ching. My father suspected that Auntie had developed schizophrenia in young adulthood. But his western style medicine was often at odds with my superstitious Chinese grandmother who preferred to believe Ah-Ching was possessed by spiritos. Weaving such folklore to shroud mental illness was one way to avoid dishonor, but also led to years without diagnosis or proper treatment. Grandmother was also of the generation that believed “having daughters is a waste,” which often undermined the health-seeking habits of women in my family.

At the Open Embodiments Conference at the University of Arizona, I joined a poetry panel to discuss cultural silences of the body. To engage in a broader discussion with the community, so I also invited health policy expert, Dr. Howard Eng, from the University’s Center for Rural Health, to talk about his field work within these silences and how they correlate with health disparities among local ethnic communities in the Tucson area, ranging from US-Mexico border populations, to the Asian American communities and Native American tribal nations around the county. Bringing together voices from different disciplines, we explored how poetry and public health collaborations could ease communities out of silence. What new prototypes of poetic practice can we envision to disrupt indifference towards othered bodies?


The Empathy Gap
At a dinner party years ago, someone once told me, “It must be nice being a person of color because of all those scholarships. We don’t get scholarships just for being white.” I was stunned, unable to find the words to respond. As the only minority present, I felt my need to be accepted by remaining silent, battling my need to push back against the way the struggle of communities of color are so often diminished, if not erased altogether. That moment illustrated for me the wide empathy gap that comes with reading others with the lens of one’s own privilege, while conveniently forgetting the large body of U.S. laws written against colored people that have shaped many disparities in today’s communities. Since then I have been questioning my role as a culture-maker: How can poetry evoke substantive dialogue that bridges the empathy gap and stimulate possessive investment in the struggles of others?

The gap of empathetic understanding between racial groups is reinforced by self-segregation in social circles. According to journalist Robert Jones, statistics show that the social networks of white Americans are extremely homogenous, at least 91% white with 1% being African-American, 1% Asian, 1% Hispanic, 1% mixed race, and 1% other. “In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence.” [1] In other words, white Americans do not have to interact with the Other if they don’t want to, unlike minorities who work and live among majority culture by default.

This becomes even more interesting when juxtaposed with another statistic. In a recent survey on American publishing, the makeup of the people who select and disseminate our literature is eerily similar: 89% of publishing employees identify as white, with the breakdown of minorities at 3% Asian, 3% Hispanic, and 1% African-American.[2]

What does this mean then about the stories that are told about people of color? How does our invisibility in social circles and as voices in literature affect how we are perceived, which up until now has been authored primarily by a white, heterosexual, male lens? It means we are in danger of reading others and being read through a single story. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie describes in “The Danger of the Single Story” about the time when she arrived at college and how her roommate was shocked that she could speak English at all despite the fact that English is Nigeria’s official language. When asking about her tribal music, the roommate was disappointed when she produced her CD of Mariah Carey. The roommate also didn’t think Adichie knew how to use a stove. Adichie states:

“She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

“I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

This is why the dissemination of diverse voices by independent publishers and small presses is critical, not just for literature’s sake, but to changing the discourse on how othered bodies are read. The blood, sweat, and tears of literary activists as well as the organizations that seek to cultivate these voices (Cave Canem, Kundiman, CantoMundo, Lambda Literary Foundation, to name a few) have been catalysts in challenging stereotypes that are perpetuated by the single stories that dominate our culture, which tend to be the stories that dominant culture is comfortable with: The black man as a threat and therefore must be subdued; the Asian woman as exotic and therefore must be submissive; the non-gender-conforming person as deviant and therefore must be exorcised. By being able to tell complex and wide-ranging stories from many points of view, poetry affords us space for visibility, broadening the possibilities of who we can be in the collective imagination.


Design Empathy
Transformative dialogue is cultivated through interactions that afford shared vulnerability: as in face-to-face exchanges rather than debating behind the anonymity of computer screens or under the flare of protest signs. We need to talk with each other, not at each other. And yet, how is this possible when our daily social circles rarely intersect? How do you reach those who mean well but are so fearfully uncomfortable at even broaching the topics? How can we learn to empathize with others whose life experiences are so far from our own, imagine their challenges, and ache with the same pain for the storms they have weathered?

In the professional design field where I work, the term design empathy is one of the touchstones of good user experience design. It’s this idea that if you want to design an interface or system that is useful, the main rule is to never design it around yourself (the designer), but to observe people in their daily contexts as part of the design process. Through the observation and interview process, one can develop personas from which to model new designs. The design team at Ideo warns that “people who cannot temporarily let go of their role or status or set aside their own expertise or opinion will fail to empathize with others who have conflicting thoughts, experiences, or mental models.”[3] The success of a system’s design depends on the efforts made to put one’s self in the user’s shoes, to flip the gaze.

With this in mind, I think about how difficult it was for my friend to find a therapist in Connecticut who could understand her depression within the context of the cultural pressures that weighed on her as an Indian woman. How does one navigate a health system when English is not one’s first language? Who is this health system designed for and how can we expand the personas that need to be considered in its design?



In my conversations with Dr. Eng, he emphasized that public health needs to find new ways of reaching populations, noting how poetry can provide a safe, non-threatening platform to begin the conversation and raise awareness about a range of health topics. Most importantly, poetry can stimulate action. I had already begun seeking out non-traditional venues for my readings: the local Chinese school, Asian art galleries, and local community centers, as places to talk about cultural silences, which have been positively received. There are natural overlaps between diverse literary communities and the audiences that health organizations who service marginalized populations are trying very hard to reach. How might poetry readings be another channel to raise awareness about community health screenings or bi-lingual medical services? As I plan future poetry readings, I seek to partner more closely with local organizations and give them an opportunity to talk about resources they offer as health advocates with a stake in these communities.

Recommended reading lists of books and anthologies by diverse authors writing about silenced bodies can be an invaluable resource for those who are teaching cultural competence to students in the healthcare field, or to share with patients and families struggling to discuss certain health issues. By noting which authors are available for readings or have the capability of Skyping into classrooms, poets can also have further opportunities to engage with broader audiences as well. Perhaps creative writing and medical humanities departments can partner on readings that bring more cultural consciousness to young professionals who will not only be servicing diverse populations, but who will also be shaping health policies of the future. As I prepare to write a classroom guide for my poetry collection, I am consulting with a medical anthropologist on how to tailor a lesson plan for classrooms like his, where he is seeking to supplement scientific facts and figures with creative exercises and multi-cultural perspectives that also connect with students on an emotional and visceral level.

American revolutionary Grace Lee Boggs says: “Art can help us to envision the new cultural images we need to grow our souls.”[4] Her advice has been to not linger too long in protest, but focus on prototyping new patterns of discourse, new spaces for interaction outside our disciplines, our tribes, our comfort zones, new stories of what it means to be American, and more importantly what it means to be human. It is in these conversations that cross over where we can collectively discover the solutions we are desperately seeking.

[1] “Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson.” Robert P. Jones, The Atlantic, 8/21/14.

[2] “Publishing’s Holding Pattern: 2014 Salary Survey.” Jim Miliot, Publisher’s Weekly, 9/19/14.

[3] “Empathy on the Edge: Scaling and Sustaining a Human-Centered Approach in the Evolving Practice of Design.” By Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard, IDEO.

[4] The Next American Revolution. Grace Lee Boggs. p.36.


Monica OngMonica Ong is the author of Silent Anatomies (2015), selected by Joy Harjo as winner of the Kore Press First Book Award in poetry. An MFA graduate in Digital Media at the Rhode Island School of Design and Kundiman poetry fellow, her work has been published in journals including the  Drunken Boat,   Glassworks MagazineTidal Basin Review , and the  Seneca Review. She is a poet, artist, and designer living in Connecticut.